Jennifer Goldstein blazed a trail as a lawyer on Tyneside 20 years ago. She is at the top of her game but still puts family first, discovers Sam Wood.
COULD a career spent cleaning up the financial mess created by destroyed marriages damage someone’s faith in the institution? Maybe, but not in the case of Jennifer Goldstein.
Happily married herself, to Mark, also a lawyer, for Northumberland Council, and with three children, Sam, Ben and Katherine, all still at school, Jenny, is positive about the joys of marriage and family life. “Family is the most important thing,” she states.
After forging a career in the law, the 46-year-old is now partner in family law at solicitors firm Samuel Phillips and she frequently works to ensure that businesses can remain intact after a divorce.
Although brought up and schooled in Ipswich, Jenny’s heart has always rested in the North-East. Her family were from the area and many holidays were spent on Tynemouth beach. Her parents moved down to East Anglia when her pharmacist father opened a shop in the town. Apparently when her mother first arrived from the bright lights of Newcastle she stood at the train station and cried her eyes out. And Jenny understands how she felt.
She returned home when it was time to start university, spending five years at Newcastle University, first studying history and then completing a two-year law conversion course. Although her first job was with a Suffolk law firm she moved back to the North-East at the first opportunity, to a firm in Northumberland. And she has never left since.
“It’s just so vibrant. I have never wanted to move down to London for work, people are just so much friendlier up here, everyone will talk to you,” she says. “And the scenery is amazing, the air is clean and there’s lots of things to do. Why would I not want to be here?,
“When I first got to university I had no idea what I wanted to do, I just knew I didn’t want to do any job where the Government would be my employer, so that ruled out teaching.”
It was her father who suggested becoming a lawyer. “I thought it sounded like a good idea, although I had no real idea what it entailed, no one in the family had gone into law before. I just thought all lawyers spent all day in court arguing, which sounded good to me so I headed down the litigation route to start with.”
It emerges that the practice of law has undergone a massive transformation in the years since Jenny started her career. When she got her second job practising law at a firm in Northumberland in 1987 she was the only female lawyer in 13 firms in the area. That has all changed now, with 52% of all newly qualified trainees being women. There are also far more trainees than jobs for them.
“If I was starting out now I don’t think I would be a lawyer. About 15,000 people qualify each year and there are only 5,000 places for trainees in the entire country, so anyone who gets a place has done remarkably well, it is so competitive.”
Despite being a female pioneer in a traditionally male dominated environment, she says she has never experienced any kind of prejudice because of her sex, nor reached any kind of ‘glass ceiling’.
But she does concede that this could have something to do with her self-confident, combative attitude.
“I don’t allow myself to be bullied,” she says. “If anyone does try to bully me I fight back. I believe that if you are not prepared to stand up for yourself then you won’t be able to stand up for the people you represent. I have never really had a confidence problem.
“But I do know of other women who feel they have been held back because of their sex, I have been very lucky with the places I have worked and my attitude, I suppose.”
That combative nature extends to her approach to having children. For her first two children she only took 12 weeks’ maternity leave, and even less for the third child. “I was working right up to the point where I gave birth. I’m a little ashamed of that, to be honest,” she says. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, I was exhausted by the end.
“All the firms I have worked at have been very progressive. There are lots of people here at Samuel Phillips who have had children and they understand the needs of parents. If there is ever a problem with one of them I can leave the office to sort it out.”
When she first started practising Jenny would be called upon to work on whatever cases came through the door. There was no specialisation then and the cases ranged from medical negligence cases to criminal offences.
But gradually Jenny began to specialise and built up a reputation as a family lawyer and that work eventually took up all her time. She says of Samuel Phillips, “People now come to us because of our reputation. We don’t have to advertise, word of mouth gets us enough clients and mainly clients of the sort we want to work with.
“If someone comes in and starts shouting about taking their other half to the cleaners, I will have a quiet word them to explain the reality of the situation. We have to be fair, the settlement has to be right for both parties as far as possible.”
Jenny’s work now involves making sure her clients get a fair financial deal out of any business interests from the marriage. But her main concern is in making sure any business survives the divorce. She works a lot with farmers, which can be particularly complicated if the farm has passed through generations of one family and individuals feel this should continue. Jenny says it is usually possible to save a business when a marriage has failed. It’s all about partnership, working together.
She explains: “When a relationship breaks down why carry the destruction right through to every area of your lives? As I have said to clients recently in an agricultural business, you are still jointly parenting the children, you are committed to doing that, can we extend that level of communication to the business? And they have done it.
“The classic example of this type of situation is when one party to the marriage is providing the majority of the capital and income to the family unit via a business interest, whether it be as a director of a company, a partnership or sole trader. How do you protect that from financial claims from the other spouse within divorce proceedings that would potentially put the business in financial jeopardy?
“The situation is often compounded – there may be a history of involvement in the business by the other spouse, there may be current involvement in the business, they could be a director, they can be an employee.
“The divorce lawyer must adopt a commercial approach, the lawyer needs to know about the business, what it does, how it operates, the history of the business, everything. The business accountant will be seen as partisan but can be a really good source of information and you can cut through the issues very quickly by meeting up with the business accountant and fully understanding the position the business is in.
“The arguments usually centre around how much money can be raised by way of settlement or whether the business can be in some way split in two without financial detriment. The latter is not an easy option. I have cases where we have managed to sustain the jointly run business beyond the divorce.”
According to Jenny nervous banks can be a problem too, almost driving firms out of business at the mention of divorce.
“We have to think about what is going to be presented to the bank to prevent them from undoing arrangements that are vital to the movement of money through the business.
“A classic example is your factoring arrangement with the bank for the purposes of running an employment agency. If the bank stop that, the agency cannot function. I was involved in a situation where a spouse went to the bank before even the other spouse knew anything about the situation and the employment agency nearly collapsed but we were quickly able to retrieve the situation by insisting upon joint meetings with lawyers, clients and the bank and working out an agreement on a temporary basis. As soon as the other spouse realised the outcome of their actions they were more than ready to co-operate.”
Jenny is not always complimentary about the business of law, but does insist it has got better over the years.
“It has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Lawyers have a bad reputation and when I first started the level of service clients received was poor. But the Law Society has worked hard and we now listen to clients much more and let them know exactly what is going on through each stage of the process. The culture of law has changed for the better, and its a very rewarding business to be in.”