Marilyn Stowe was called “one of the most formidable and sought-after divorce lawyers in the UK” by one newspaper; in legal circles, she was known as ‘The Barracuda’. Expensive divorces weren’t her only legal interest; she also took on and helped win the case of Sally Clark, a solicitor wrongly convicted of murdering two of her baby sons. She was Chief Assessor and Chief Examiner of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel for seven years.
That was then. Earlier this year, Stowe sold her chain of 10 law practices for an undisclosed but without doubt, multi-million figure. Now aged 60, Stowe says she hasn’t had time to think about what happens next. “My thoughts range from philanthropic, to business to commenting. I like being a businesswoman. I’ve enjoyed the business side of this journey in a way as much as I have enjoyed being a lawyer.”
Stowe was known for fighting all the way to get what she wanted for her clients, hence the “barracuda” nickname. But the woman I meet in her rural office is much softer, reflective and warm.
She tells me about the two defining moments of her life. The first was a horrendous attack outside her office in Leeds in 2003. “There were three men in balaclavas with iron bars. One of them shouted; ‘Kick her head in.’”
“They robbed me but I was very calm, I co-operated. When he was shouting ‘kick her head in’ I said to him, not realising I was lying on the floor. ‘There’s absolutely no need for you to do that. Here, take my ring, take my handbag, because there are things in there that you would want, like money.’ All I could think of was my son Ben growing up without a mum. I fought but in a calm way. I said to myself: ‘No, this is not going to happen.’ ”
Her screams were heard by someone in a nearby office and the thieves ran off. Today, looking back, she acknowledges her response wasn’t natural.
“I went back to work the next day. The impact on me was post traumatic stress, no question about it. But, on the surface, nobody knew. If I heard anyone coming up behind me, I froze.”
After her attack, she moved her office to nearby Harrogate, setting the foundations for the legal chain she has just sold: “That was a revelation,” she says “It started me on the path of ‘if it can work in Leeds, it can work in Harrogate, and it could work anywhere.’”
It was around the same time that Stowe became involved in the Sally Clark case. Clark had just lost an appeal against her conviction for murdering her sons. “I was in Jerusalem for Ben’s barmitzvah, and she came into my mind. I thought, here I am at the kotel and she’s in the nick. I’m a lawyer, she’s a lawyer and a woman, it didn’t add up. When I got home I wrote to Sally’s husband: ‘Can I help?’ And then I did.”
The case became one of Britain’s’ biggest miscarriages of justice. Stowe distrusted a statistic given in evidence by paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, that there was a one in 73m chance of both children dying of natural causes.
Using the forensic skills built up by tracking down hidden assets in divorce cases, Stowe unearthed key medical evidence that showed one of the babies had died of natural causes. Not only was Clark freed on appeal but the way in which medical evidence was gathered and presented changed as a result.
Ten years on, she had 10 offices from Harrogate down to Tunbridge Wells. Life was good and, as she says, she was ‘coasting along.’ Then came her second turning point.
“I lost my parents 12 days apart. My mother, Essie, was extremely ill for a few years with diabetes and that was terrible. My father Arnold, getting ill with pancreatic cancer was straight out of the left field. He sent me a text about two or three days before he was diagnosed saying: ‘Never forget how proud I am of you’. It was strange, because my father never ever told you what he was thinking.
“When we finally got up after shiva, I was washed out. But, again, I couldn’t show anything, I couldn’t speak to anyone, I had a job to do, the firm and so on. I did think at that time of giving up completely, I was so low.”
Her parents’ deaths inspired her to write and publish her third book Divorce & Splitting Up, Advice From A Top Lawyer a best-seller in the self-help market. “It was a thank-you to my parents. I wrote it for people who can’t afford a lawyer and I gave all the proceeds to the Children’s Society.”
She embarked on various other philanthropic projects honouring her parents, donating money for the restoration of Oakwood Clock in Leeds and setting up the Arnie & Essie Helpline with Leeds Jewish Welfare Board which offers support to the lonely and isolated.
She had always been a “daddy’s girl”. Her father ran a wholesale company, Morris & Lewis and, as a girl, she would spend lunchtimes in his office, listening to him making deals.
“My brother and sister and I had a very traditional Jewish upbringing. All my friends were Jewish.
I was a very active member of JYS (Jewish Youth Voluntary Service). A group of us used to do things like doing peoples’ gardens, meals on wheels that sort of thing.”
Her parents were keen for her to study law and she was the only girl in her year leaving Leeds Girls High School to take that option. She studied in Leeds, spent a year teaching in France and then joined the renowned firm of Zermansky’s
Stowe has been married for 35 years to lawyer, Grahame Stowe, a definite meeting of minds.
“I’d seen him around.” She recalls: “I saw him in court when I first qualified. I spoke to him at the Citizens Advice Bureau — a hive of romance! — where my mum worked as a volunteer and I went along to give free legal advice.
“Grahame, who had set up his own firm, had gone the same night. We got talking. He asked why I was there, I said, ‘I’ve got nothing else to do.’ And that was it. We got engaged 35 days later.
“He has a great sense of humour, he’s very dry, he can always make me laugh. The secret of a marriage is you love the other one more than you love yourself. Providing that’s reciprocated, it works.”
Their son Benjamin is also a lawyer and works for the family firm in London, joining at around the time his mother left. He’s married to Tara, who works in banking. Stowe speaks very warmly of her daughter-in-law, completely undisturbed by a long-standing professional rivalry in the family.
“Tara’s late grandfather, Michael Lawrence was my biggest adversary in Leeds. In every a big divorce case, I could guarantee he was on the other side.
“It was a bit Romeo & Juliet-ish when they got together! She’s very bright. No surprise that Benjamin married someone who has a strong character!”
Meanwhile, Stowe considers her future. “The law can kill you — there’s too much stress, especially at the bar. I’m learning that it is quite a pleasure to relax, do nothing, and have no stress.
I don’t think this will last, I don’t think I will just do nothing. I would like to get involved in something.”