Catherine Smith is a BLB Partner and oversees BLB’s Swindon office. She is also a leading family lawyer specialising in a range of family law including matters relating to children, relationship breakdown, finances and domestic abuse. In today’s Q&A we find out a little about Catherine, the career route she’s taken and what she enjoys most about her job.
Tell us a bit about your career background. Have you always been a lawyer?
Catherine Smith: I started my career as a diagnostic radiographer, and did my first degree in Cardiff. I worked as a radiographer in Cardiff for three years after I qualified, and then spent a year travelling and working in Australia. The Australian healthcare system is quite different and, while I was there, I realised that I didn’t want to spend the next 40 years in that role. I should add that I’m a huge supporter of the NHS and think it’s an amazing organisation. Having worked for the NHS, I feel I’m very aware of the particular stresses and challenges that NHS staff, and public sector staff generally, experience.
So why the change into law?
CS: Whilst I was in Australia, I looked at what sort of other things interested me, keeping a note of what I was reading on news websites or in the papers, and a lot of it seemed to point towards an interest in law, so I applied for a conversion course. These courses allow you to ‘convert’ an undergraduate degree in another subject to the equivalent of a law degree. I came back to the UK to study while continuing to work as a radiographer. At one point I was studying at university and had four jobs on top of that. To say it was hard work would be an understatement.
Were you able to work as a solicitor at that point?
CS: Not quite. I then did the LPC (Legal Practice Course) which is a course that everyone who wants to be a solicitor has to do, and then secured a training contract in a firm in Bournemouth. I was very lucky that my training contract enabled me to work with a very highly regarded and experienced family lawyer, who also worked as a Judge. I spent a year at that firm after I qualified, but decided that I wanted to come back to the South West. I have worked for a couple of other firms but have now been with BLB for three years.
Why did you choose to come to BLB?
CS: It’s a company with a really good name, it’s very well thought of and has a very good reputation. I particularly enjoy working in our Swindon office with some wonderful and talented people and really like the fact that it is a forward thinking firm, and that it treats staff and clients extremely well.
What do you specialise in now?
CS: I do the whole range of family law – divorce, the financial consequences of a divorce or relationship breakdown and any issues involving children, such as who they live with or how they divide their time. I also deal with domestic violence injunctions, and agreements before couples move in together or get married. I am particularly interested in relocation issues whether within this country or internationally. This is one of the few areas of family law where there is usually no compromise and that can be very difficult. It requires a lot of work to ensure that the actions being taken truly are in the best interests of the child in question, and do not derive from some sort of other motivation.
It must be difficult when you don’t agree with what your client is asking for?
CS: Sometimes it’s a balancing act. We do our very best for our clients, to get the best outcome as they see it, but there can also be an element of encouraging people to take a step back and to ask themselves why they want something, and whether it truly is for the best.
What would you say are the biggest challenges you face on a day to day basis?
CS: Every case is different and presents different challenges. The fact that anything and everything can be looked up online is a blessing and curse. I’ve had clients present me with documents they have drafted that are based off templates from American or Australian law, which of course have no relevance to the laws in this country. There is no quality checking facility on the internet, particularly in internet forums and the information can be confusing and sometimes entirely wrong.
What struggles do you often face with clients?
CS: I’ve worked with so many amazing people, but it can be difficult battling misconceptions. It can be quite tricky explaining the clients that what they have read in the newspaper or seen on the TV is not actually true. One common example is when clients insist they are a ‘common law’ spouse, and that this gives them rights. Some people do not want to accept that there is no such thing! I’ve sometimes been asked for a ‘quickie divorce’. Again, there is no such thing, despite the stories in the newspapers about celebrities – they are simply referring to the decree nisi hearing. The system does not have special procedures for celebrities, I promise you! It’s standard stuff that’s being portrayed in the media as something that it’s not.
How do you deal with those situations?
CS: Going back and trying to unpick those sorts of misconceptions can actually be quite difficult, but the first step is to understand when those misconceptions have arisen as it is quite common for the client not to realise that they have misunderstood and therefore not to tell their lawyer. The most important thing is to maintain good communication and explain in plain English so that clients understand the procedures correctly and can tell me if they had a different understanding of something.
You like to represent your clients yourself in court. Is that unusual?
CS: Court work is a real marmite thing. Some people enjoy doing it and some avoid it. I think it’s important to go to Court as it helps me to get to know the Judges and what approaches they take to certain types of case. I think it helps me to understand what the Judges are actually looking for when I prepare a case and my clients like the continuity of having the same person represent them throughout. I’m lucky because I’ve had enough court experience over the years to understand exactly what the procedures are and the mechanics of how things work. Here in Swindon we’re very fortunate to have some excellent family law judges.
You enjoy that side of the job, though?
CS: Yes, and I think it adds to what I do. For example, if a client is going to court and I know that we’ve got a particular judge, I understand what their approach will be. I know if they are likely to talk directly to the client or prefer the advocates to speak. I know if they are likely to be formal and stern, and I can warn the clients if that’s the case, or if they’re more easy going and try to be more accessible. They all have their own little quirks. If you don’t go to court and don’t meet them then you don’t know, and that makes preparing your clients more difficult. It’s also a change for me that breaks the week up!
What have been the biggest successes of your career?
CS: The most satisfaction I get is when a client comes away from a dispute that’s gone on for some time and they are genuinely happy with the outcome. When I first see clients, they are going through one of the most difficult episodes in their lives. Many of them don’t see a future because of the change in their circumstances and the perception of the lack of control over their lives. They’re so in the eye of the storm that they can’t see their way out of it, and can’t imagine life eventually moving on. One of the things that is most satisfying about my job is looking back when I get to the end of a case and remembering how things were at the beginning. It’s human nature – people rebuild, they form new friendships, they will have new routines with the children, they might have met somebody else, but the future is now positive. If I’ve been any part of helping them rebuild their lives then I consider that to be a massive success.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
CS: People say to me that being a family lawyer must be difficult and it must be stressful and, absolutely, it really is. But when it goes right and you get a good result for a client and that person is happy – genuinely happy – there is no better feeling. The times when you know you’ve worked hard, it’s been stressful and you’ve had difficult conversations, but what you’ve ended up with is a genuinely good result it makes the rest of it worthwhile.
To speak to Catherine in the strictest confidence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01793 615011.
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