Law: Parker is a perfect partner

She may be idiosyncratic, but she's one of the best family lawyers there is

RIDING AS a pillion passenger behind a Vietnamese boy on a Vespa in Hanoi is how this prospective senior partner of a 200-year-old City law firm relaxed recently, after an international conference, with a fellow leading family lawyer on another, behind bike boy number two.

That senior partner to be is 40-year-old Diana Parker, who is currently head of law firm Withers' family law practice. She hit the headlines when she was elected to be the youngest, and the first, female senior partner of a City law firm, with effect from 1 January 1999.

Ms Parker was elected to the post on an election platform of, "How dare she? How dare we?", and beat two more traditional male candidates. She admits to being surprised by the amount of news coverage which her upcoming position has attracted, but is already adept at dealing with the press, having been press officer for the Solicitors' Family Law Association. She has also lectured and written on her area of practice.

It is the firm's policy not to name their clients - which include such high profile persons as the Duchess of York - but she stresses that "the client list runs the whole gamut, as well as those who might feature in Nigel Dempster's column".

And, although Withers' reputation has generally been seen as acting for the "green welly brigade", Ms Parker points out that "that was the case 50 years ago, but it's certainly not that way now".

It is already in the public domain that the firm's clients on the commercial side also include Benetton, Vivienne Westwood, the Duke of Marlborough, and other members of the Churchill family. The firm is in the Top 60 in gross fee income (of almost pounds 20m), and the Top 30 in terms of profitability.

But the route to head one of the bastions of the legal establishment has been a combination of the expected and the unexpected. Diana Parker was born and grew up in Newcastle, and chose to study law because, "lawyers are unimaginative and I never thought of anything else". She remembers being given a gift by her surveyor father before he died, before she was nine years old, a book called The Young Man's Guide to the Law, and also reading fictional works - such as "trashy books by Henry Cecil, like Brothers in Law, and I thought that would be quite a jolly way of spending your time".

She went on to gain a double first in law at Churchill College, Cambridge, and was first on her M.Phil criminology course.

After her time at university, she says: "I saw myself working for the then National Council for Civil Liberties, as a Harriet Harman or Patricia Hewitt, and as being right-on and radical, and the thought then of being a solicitor filled me with horror. But I applied to a number of firms as a safety net."

The firms included three "serious firms", including City law firms Coward Chance (now Clifford Chance) and Withers, as well as to a couple of "the two man and a dog" firms. She stresses that "it was not a negative decision to come to Withers". In fact, she came to the interview from "chilly Cambridge in December in quite a defiant mood", wearing an ancient musquash fur coat and huge Jackie Onassis style glasses. "Basically, I was saying 'okay, wow me'. And, much to my chagrin, I did feel that I had been wowed by them."

Although she was offered a place at all the firms she applied to, the reason she opted for Withers was that "the firm were prepared to take me as I presented myself, and that has been the case throughout my time at the firm".

She liked the idea that the interviewers were quite young, quite zany, knew about the outside world, and operated on different levels, which contrasted with the parlour of a waiting room with over-stuffed armchairs, whereas she felt the other firms had been concerned to present one consistent image.

Image-wise personally, during her articles, she says that she often wore clothes bought in jumble sales: "And I'm still quite keen on buying clothes second-hand, but I tend to buy them designer second-hand now. Nobody ever spoke to me about my clothes, but I used to sport a CND badge on my wallet, and that caused a little frisson with the partner I was sitting with, who was in the Territorial Army."

She says that the firm was, and is, broad-shouldered enough to have people from all political sympathies. As for what happened to the CND badge: "I dare say I've still got it somewhere." - possibly in preparation for a return, at some time in the future, to her radical roots.

The choice to go into family law was in many ways a continuation of what had interested her in her Master's. "Family law is at the cusp, covering law, psychology, sociology and politics, and you're also at a very central point in the client's life.

"It is the opportunity to operate at different layers. What also appeals in family law is the opportunity to cut deals, negotiate and create consensus, not only with the other side but also with your own client, to manage their expectations, which can be very rewarding."

Ms Parker was made a partner of the firm in 1987, and became head of the family law practice in 1990, when she became used to leading from the middle, heading a department which had more experienced colleagues, as well as encouraging the younger lawyers.

Speaking to other family lawyers from other firms, who are usually acting for the other spouse against Ms Parker, one says that although one client has said to one of his partners that they found her quite controlled, that has never been his experience - on the contrary, he has found her pleasant but tough.

Another family lawyer and friend, described her as "ruthlessly efficient, and intimidatingly clever, but if I ever needed a divorce lawyer, she is my first choice".

Another family lawyer said that when Ms Parker was involved in a case with one of the other leaders in the field, Helen Ward of Manches & Co, he heard one of the barristers describe the correspondence between them as "the battle of the head girls".

From next year, this head girl's new five-year role as senior partner will mean that she will have to cut down on her legal work to a certain extent. But she adds that: "It is only by being at the coalface that you have the sense of a common purpose with the partners and staff.

"Being senior partner of 50 partners, and an office of over 250 staff, will mean steering the firm and ensuring that neither the private client strengths nor the commercial practice overshadow each other, drawing those strands together and projecting the right image.

"The focus will also be on the private client world of the future - whether it is old money or new money, there is inevitably an interplay with the commercial world.

"The motto is, not too literally, "maximum effect for minimum effort" - for the firm's success, and for that to be recognised."

Her own efforts will be focused on a slightly more ambassadorial role, and as to whether a repeat of behaviour such as riding pillion in Hanoi will have to be curtailed, Ms Parker's response is: "Toy Boy One was extremely bright, and I had this fantasy that in 20 or 40 years' time, I would arrive at Hanoi Airport and be met by a red carpet and his ministerial car.

"Oddly enough, he has since started working for the Foreign Minister there." Perhaps the first new client which Withers' new senior partner will introduce to the firm will be Vietnam.

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