var _gaq = _gaq || []; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-41362908-1']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']); (function() { var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true; ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://' : 'http://') + 'stats.g.doubleclick.net/dc.js'; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s); })();
Home / Latest News / Melanie Hamer’s journey from coalminers’ grand-daughter to one of Wales’ leading divorce lawyers

Melanie Hamer’s journey from coalminers’ grand-daughter to one of Wales’ leading divorce lawyers

One of Wales’ leading divorce  lawyers who regularly looks  into the affairs of the rich and  famous was born and brought  up in Aberdare to a working  class background.

Melanie Hamer’s grandfathers  were both coalminers whose  families had moved to the area,  and her parents both worked  for the local authority, her father as a painter and decorator  and her mother as a punch  operator.

Now the senior director of  Wendy Hopkins Family Law  Practice, she was the first in her  family to go to university.

“I was always very ambitious,  very focussed on my school  work, and knew from the age  of 13 that I wanted to be a  lawyer. I used to watch Crown  Court on the TV at my grandparents’ and I used to love it,”  she said.

“Coming from a humble background I never knew whether I  would make it, so I hedged my  bets before my A-level results  were out and had a job in  Lloyds Bank in Merthyr just in  case.”

She went to Aberystwyth University to study law, and fell in  love with the place.

“Even though I’ve travelled  now to lots of places I still  think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  When you’re up on the hillside  and you’re looking out over the  bay and the sun is shining, it’s  just glorious.”

She met her husband in the first  year, although they did not  marry until the mid 1990s.

After graduating from Aberystwyth Ms Hamer went to law  college in Guildford, which she  found a shock to the system.

“I’d lived in Wales all my life  and I was used to the friendliness and openness of the  Welsh culture, and I was mixing in Guildford with lots of  people from far wealthier  backgrounds. They were  lovely people but it took longer  for them to accept me and for  me to get to know them properly,” she said.

Then she came to Cardiff to do  her articles, getting a training  contract with Phillips and  Buck, now Eversheds. The  firm took on 10 articled clerks  who started at the same time  each year, so Ms Hamer found  a “readymade band of  friends”.

It was the height of the Thatcher era, and for the 10 young  lawyers long days and hard  work was the accepted norm.

“I used to think it was an early  night if I got home in time to  watch Coronation Street or  Eastenders. We worked hard  but we played hard as well so it  was good fun,” Ms Hamer  said.

Phillips and Buck in the 1980s  was a forward-thinking firm  with a number of senior female  equity partners on the board. “I  didn’t feel I was treated any  differently as a woman than my  male counterparts were,” Ms  Hamer said.

She left in the mid-1990s to  help up set Wendy Hopkins  Family Law Practice because  Eversheds was becoming more  focussed on commercial and  corporate law, and family law  no longer fitted in with their  business model.

Ms Hamer found specialising  in family law a tough decision.  “I liked all the different departments I did, company,  commercial property, employment and family,” she said.

“The partners wanted me to do  the company and commercial  work but I thought, I’m going  be working an awfully long  time and it’s got to be  something I really love.”

With family law, she added,   “you get a bit of everything.  When you’re doing divorces  involving businesses, a lot of  what you’ve learnt in company  and commerce can come into  it.”

The new practice was set up in  1996, when Ms Hamer was 30.  “When you’re young you’re  quite brave and I approached it  on the basis that, I’ll give it  three years and if it doesn’t  work I can always get a job  somewhere else,” she said.

“Eversheds gave us the whole  family law department so we  weren’t starting completely  from scratch, we had a client  base ready for us.”

There were two equity partners  and four other staff at the beginning. As the first niche family law firm in Wales it had a  unique proposition and it took  off quickly.

Since the1990s other niche  firms specialising in other  areas such as employment law  have sprouted up. “A lot of  lawyers began to realise that  the days of the high street practice where you’re a jack of all  trades and master of none have  gone,” Ms Hamer said.

Divorce is the major part of  what the firm does, although it  also has wills and probate department, which services our  divorce clients, and it also does  children work when parents  can’t agree about arrangements regarding their children.

The firm’s senior partner –  or  since incorporation last month  its senior director – Ms Hamer  spends half her day doing client work while the other half  might be spent dealing with  business matters, running the  firm and raising its profile.

“The more senior you become  the more difficult the divorces  you deal with,” she said.

“Most of my divorces are dealing with the financial aspects  of high net worth clients, and  that’s what I really enjoy, trying to find ways forward for the  clients. A lot of my divorce  clients are business owners so  all the Eversheds training  really helps.”

She is also a founder of South  Wales Ladies Business Club,  and one of a growing number  of female directors of Cardiff  Business Club.

“We now have three businesswomen who are directors of  Cardiff Business Club and the  idea is that we are trying to  encourage more business  women and younger people to  come along,” she said.

“I remember when I was at  Phillips and Buck going along  to Cardiff Business Club and  being the only woman there.  But I went to a lunch for the  German ambassador this  spring and there were more  women than men at the table,  so we’re getting there.”

Wendy Hopkins Family Law  Practice has continued to grow  organically, achieving a  turnover of £2m and employing 14 lawyers.

“In the last five years the  amount of work from outside  Cardiff has grown. We tend to  get a lot of work now from  clients from all parts of the UK  and overseas who we never  even meet,” she said.

“I’ve had a lot of cases in  London courts against London  lawyers, and the clients like the  fact that our hourly rates are  probably a third of the London  lawyers, and the same partner  runs with the case from start to  finish.”

In recent years the firm has  counted a number of professional footballers among its  clients, including some from  the Premier League.

“That’s developed from contacts I’ve made in the football  industry, which is interesting  because six or seven years ago  I’d never been to a football  match, being from Aberdare  which is very rugby focussed,”  she said.

“Now I’m a massive Cardiff  City fan and I go to all their  home games.”

She attributes the number of  cases from overseas clients  from the fact that, if you’re a  woman, the courts in England  and Wales are “the most generous in the world” when it  comes to a divorce settlement.

“There are sometimes commercially savvy wives who  will come and live here for a  period and then issue a divorce  here,” she said.

Besides divorces the firm also  handles cohabitee disputes,  which she describes as “a complete nightmare” for the clients.

“The law which deals with cohabitee disputes is completely  unsatisfactory and not as precise as it could be. It’s very  time consuming and laborious  and expensive,” she said.

Returning to divorces, she  thinks the system should be  made less acrimonious.

“We have a duty to explore  with our clients the most amicable, straightforward way of  resolving cases, rather than the  traditional route of just issuing  proceedings and fighting it out  in court,” she said.

“Any new client that walks  through these doors will be  told about the availability of  mediation and collaborative  law and how that can help  them.”

She added: “It’s just too easy to  write nasty letters to other divorce lawyers, I’ll pick up the  phone and speak to the lawyer  who’s acting for the husband  or wife and we’ll have a  half-hour phone call and we’ll  achieve a lot more in that one  half-hour phone call than endless letters back and forth.”

The firm was incorporated in  May, a move that Ms Hamer  says will open up new areas for  it and make it more commercial.

But she is less content with  other changes to legal services  in recent years.

“It’s hugely sad what’s  happened to Legal Aid,” she  said.

“Coming from a working class  background I’ve  come from an  area where most of the people  would have been eligible for  Legal Aid and I was always  really committed to the Legal  Aid system.”

The progressive whittling  down of the Legal Aid system  led the practice to stop doing  Legal Aid work last summer   for commercial reasons.

“It got to the stage where emotionally you felt you wanted to  do Legal Aid work because  maybe that was your background and your culture, but  commercially you had to make  the very tough decision that  you couldn’t do it anymore,”  Ms Hamer said.

“A lot of people don’t realise  that their access to lawyers has  been cut off. They’re going to  be representing themselves in  court, and that’s going to be  hugely stressful for the clients.”

The opening up of legal services to businesses other than  traditional law firms may  provide a partial solution, with  people who don’t get Legal  Aid but can’t afford a lawyer  opting for online services.

But Ms Hamer believes there’s  still a place for law firms such  as Wendy Hopkins Family  Law Practice.

“I’d like to think that niche  firms like us will survive and  thrive because there’s a lot to  be said, especially in divorce  cases, for the personal contact  as opposed to filling out forms  online,” she said.

“Now that you can have  non-lawyers involved in law  firms that’s going to change  the dynamics, but I think that’s  a good thing because we’re  trained as lawyers, not as finance directors or HR directors,” she added.

Ms Hamer, who lives in  Pentyrch near Cardiff, is married and has two school-age  children. With both her and her  husband working full time,  balancing work and family life  is difficult but tends to work  “unless there’s a crisis”, she  says.

“Then it resurrects all the guilt  you feel as a working mother  when you try to be all things to  all people and you can’t. You  have to be extremely organised  to make it work,” she said.

She run two or three times a  week, not in the gym but always outdoors in the fresh air.

Cases can be upsetting, she  says, but she’s good at switching off. “I have to be because as  soon as I get home I hit the  ground running with homework and supper and bath time.  You’ve got to leave your work  behind because all of a sudden  you’re Mum,” she said.

Now 47, she is expecting to  work another 12 years or so  before retiring.

“You have to realise that you  won’t always be the right person to lead the law firm. There  has to be a limited shelf life for  any business leader and there  should be people coming along  behind you with fresh ideas,”  she said.

“I’m very happy for that to  happen when the time comes,  but at the moment I still think  I’ve got a lot to give and I feel  I’m in my prime as a business  woman.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check Also

Just why does parking make so many people so damn angry?

Between  Brexit chaos and a black hole the size of three million planet Earths you’d …