Two leading Highgate lawyers celebrate 15th anniversary

IN 1996 two female lawyers with young children chose to leave behind their high-flying West End legal careers to set up their own firm in Hampstead.

This January, Sharon Bennett and Ruth Bross celebrated their successful family law practice’s 15th year in north London.

They have seen their firm Bross Bennett, which has since moved to Highgate, grow from just three partners to employing a staff of 10 lawyers and assistants.

But it is not only their practice which has progressed during this time.

With the rise of pre-nuptual agreements, fathers’ rights groups and the ‘superwoman’ phenomenon, the world of familial legal disputes has seen some major changes.

“During the time we have been working there has been a radical difference in the way courts approach the way we work with children,” says Ms Bennett.

“When I first started doing this work it was absolutely axiomatic that fathers would not be able to see their children during the week.

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“Now it would be frowned upon if a mother was not willing to offer midweek access to a child because the court will say that a child should have a good and healthy relationship with their father.

“Whilst the judges won’t admit it, I suspect that Fathers for Justice have had some impact on that.”

With regards to the much-talked about fashion for pre-nups, the pair admit they have witnessed a marked growth in this area, but say such agreements are still largely the preserve of the rich.

A prime example is the case of German heiress Katrin Radmacher, who recently stopped her French husband laying claim to a big chunk of her �100million fortune.

“Couples who don’t have anything don’t care about pre-nups, so you are talking generally about one party being much wealthier that the other,” said Ms Bross.

It is this financial upper hand which often motivates one person to push for the signing of a monetary contract to protect their wealth, she continued.

“Which is pretty distasteful if you think about it,” Ms Bennett added.

The pair agree that pre-nups have their uses, but say that in many cases they are about a more powerful partner pressurising a weaker partner into doing something they may not wish to do.

Ms Bross thinks this same principle applies to the less talked about post-nups, which allow one member of a couple to ringfence their assets after getting married.

Another development which Ms Bennett says has had an impact on their work is the ascendance of so-called ‘superwomen’ such as Nicola Horlick.

“This is when a career woman who’s gone out, earned the money, supported the man and been primarily maintaining the family and looking after the kids, has a husband, who actually wasn’t a house husband and didn’t really do anything of any much value for anybody but wants half of the assets,” she said.

Bross Bennett came about when Ruth and a heavily pregnant Sharon met by chance at a charity event.

The two discovered they were both looking to set out on their own after years of working for central London firms and agreed it made sense to combine their efforts.

They joined forces to look for offices to share in north London, where they both lived.

After finding a base in Hampstead, the two lawyers quickly established themselves as partners and Bross Bennett was born.

“My babies were two months old,” Ms Bross recalls. “We had to juggle childcare, work, clients and premises – it was quite a challenge.”

Ms Bennett continued: “We rarely advertised but we just seemed to attract people. Slowly but surely the practice built up.”

Dealing with cases ranging from adoption, custody battles and divorce proceedings, both women put their success down to the way they care for all the clients needs rather than just giving out legal advice.

They also give practical tips on how to handle mortgage payments while a couple are divorcing, for instance.

And they are not averse to helping out clients on the emotional side as well.

“We try to advise them on how not to wind each other up and try to help them to re-focus on the children and not become embittered in a costly and damaging legal action,” said Ms Bross.

This support sometimes even extends to intercepting the angry emails their clients want to send to their soon-to-be-ex other halves in a fit of pique.

“We try to take away the heat and help them see what is important,” Ms Bross said.

Despite all the changes they have witnessed in their professional life, the one advance they would like to see happen is yet to come about.

“If there’s one point that family lawyers could hammer home to the general population, it would be that co-habitees’ rights are not enshrined and they don’t have access to a law that would support them at the present time,” said Ms Bennett.

“So there is an injustice there. The law is about protecting the economically weak and it has singularly failed to protect co-habitees when they’re breaking up. It’s for political reasons because it’s seen to be undermining marriage and not considered to be acceptable – and it’s outrageous.”

Ms Bross explains that if one partner in an unmarried couple – and typically this is the woman – does not have their name or has not contributed to the property they share, they can only claim support for housing and living costs through their children.

And any financial assistance from the other partner only lasts while the children are under 18.

Relating the experience of some of her clients who have found themselves in this situation, Ms Bross says: “If you’ve been with your partner your whole life – you could meet at the age of 18 and be together until you are 50 – have looked after them and helped them in their career, entertained their clients, looked after their ageing parents, fed their dogs, been a wife in everything but name, perhaps even gone out to work and stopped working in order to help them.

“Then at 50 they get sick or the partner goes off with someone, a younger model, they have to find a job or go on benefits – it is terrible.”

So how do they cope with merry-go-round of emotional turmoil that is family law?

“We have got each other – we are a team,” says Ms Bross. “We share the burden of having to make difficult decisions. And we don’t watch scary movies.”