During a quarter of a century of guiding Taylor and Emmet’s clients through the emotional minefield that can mark the end of a relationship, Michaela Heathcote has seen a river of tears.
On her desk, photographs of her teenage autistic son have pride of place - but a box of tissues stands right beside them. “People come to see me at a point in their lives when they are in absolute crisis - and I become a part of it,” she says.
“I try to make them feel listened to and to realise it is very normal to cry while they tell me their story,” says Michaela, who qualified in 1991 and became a partner at the firm eight years later.
She became the Arundel Gate firm’s head of family law two years ago and says the pain, anger and grief she has witnessed has not diminished over the years. But the ways of helping clients to deal with the legalities of their break-up have changed immensely. Now lawyers battle hard to stop conflict and help clients move forward with their lives.
“In the Nineties it was still very Kramer Vs Kramer. Break-ups easily became fraught because one person was pitted against the other by the court process,” says Michaela. “But lawyers and the government had become aware of the increasing damage being done to families and wanted to find alternatives.
“Now we help people resolve differences without a flurry of legal letters - and without ever going near a court. Our tools are mediation and collaboration. And it works; two-thirds of cases that go through mediation - a series of meetings between the couple and an independent, third party, trained mediator - resolve their difficulties without going to court,” says Michaela.
Collaboration gives couples joint meetings with their respective solicitors. A document commits everybody to find solutions to their disagreements and avoid court.
She says: “I have been a trained collaboration lawyer for nine years and it is a highlight of my career. It’s a very positive way of dealing with a very negative situation. No-one is pitted against the other and so many emotions get aired and dealt with.
“My last case ended up so amicably that after the agreement had been signed off the couple, the other lawyer and myself sat down, opened a bottle of champagne and talked for an hour about life.”
During Michaela’s 25 years at Taylor & Emmet she’s also seen a growing trend for living-together and pre-marital agreements - what the U.S. call pre-nups. They are not yet legally binding in the UK, though courts do take them into account and the Government is currently reviewing the situation. Michaela attributes their surge in popularity to social trends.
“It is down to the increasing age at which people get married. Usually, they have amassed assets and wealth and want to safeguard it,” she says.
“Second marriages are much more common too and many want to preserve assets from their first marriage for themselves, or for their children. These agreements may not seem very romantic but they are all about trying to prevent problems should the relationship hit future problems.”
Michaela, 48, has a secret weapon in the battle against acrimony - her own life experience. “After many happy years, my marriage ended in 2009 and I was a single parents for several years,” she reveals. “I have no doubt my empathy to clients really increased. Hand on heart I could stand there and say: I know what you are going through. And my son’s autism has taught me the importance of accepting people for who they are - that we are all individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses.”