Sue Andrews is a Partner at the Buckinghamshire law firm BP Collins, with more than 30 years’ experience under her belt. She heads up the Family Law team and is passionate about putting families first. Widely respected for her professional but friendly approach, Sue has handled high-profile divorces for celebrities, sports stars and top business people, providing advice on complex financial arrangements within often acrimonious divorce cases. Sue is known for her passion for fashion, travel and the Arts, and it was a real pleasure to meet this inspiring woman for a coffee at Pinewood Studios – where we enjoyed a hearty chat about women in the law arena, psychology and the importance of wacky shoes!
Great to meet you Sue! Tell me, did you aspire to be a lawyer from an early age?
I did. There were no lawyers in my family, but I remember watching a programme called The Main Chance – a TV drama centred around a solicitor. I remember being inspired by this character and thinking that his work looked fascinating – being able to delve into people’s problems and then to sort them out. Back then, there was not the same career advice that is available now, and who knows I might have ended up in fashion if I was looking around 15 years later than when I started out! But I love my job, it’s a ‘people job’ – and if you are enthusiastic about your work it really doesn’t feel like work anyway. I enjoy getting to know my clients, getting drawn into their problems, helping to put the pieces back together and then seeing that, further down the line, everything has worked out for the best. You really get to know people well – in fact, one of my best friends is an ex-client.
How important do you feel it is to choose a career path early on?
For my generation it was very important; these days many kids don’t seem to have a clue about what they would like to do – maybe there are simply too many choices now? These days, there are so many more paths available, and switching careers is commonplace. Back then, you knew you had to rely on yourself, plus I was the oldest of five siblings so I was quite driven anyway. I did law at university, which set me on my career path and gave me a sense of purpose.
Is law still a male-dominated profession?
No! Well, let me qualify that – at the Bar it is quite male-dominated; there are a lot more male barristers, probably because it is a real challenge for women to juggle having kids with being a barrister. Solicitors are much more in control of their time, so not surprisingly there are more female solicitors. At our last Partners’ Meeting for example, there were six men and nine women. This situation has changed dramatically since I started with BP Collins in 1988 – as the only female lawyer! These days, the majority of family lawyers are women.
And has being female made a difference to the type of cases you have taken on?
I would say not, as all my cases are family-related – and actually a lot of male clients want a female lawyer, maybe because it’s easier to open up to them? We currently have seven lawyers in our Family Team, and part of my job is to allocate each case to a lawyer, which is where psychology comes into play – I make a decision based on the best personality fit, as well as their capacity and experience, and I enjoy matching our clients to the right lawyers.
Your clients remark on your passion for winning – how important is that passion to succeed?
The key thing is, it’s winning for THEM, not for me. For example, when you’re acting for a woman who has lost all her confidence, has had children and been out of work for a while, she may think she is not entitled to anything in her divorce settlement – to get a great result for her, so that she can have good life moving forward, that is a great feeling and very rewarding. It’s not really about winners and losers – it’s about getting a FAIR outcome, especially where kids are involved. The couple going through a divorce must have contact throughout the process, and there’s no point having a war – it’s important to understand their psychology, so that you can devise a strategy to get the right outcome for all parties. Children often feel torn between their parents, hearing their conversations and also picking up on what isn’t said between them – and we encourage our clients to talk positively about each other as parents, which helps towards a more amicable resolution for the kids as well as the adults.
Do you ever become emotionally involved in a case or with a client – and if so, does that help or hinder you?
If you get emotionally involved, it hinders you. It’s about caring, but in a detached way. To get emotionally involved wouldn’t be doing the client any favours. You hear some appalling things within divorce cases, but you try not to get too involved, even when you have a friendly relationship with the client. You never let friendship affect the case. It’s quite easy to be objective actually; you learn to be detached, but still identify with them.
We draw upon our own experience too of course – my own parents got divorced when I was 22, which must have had some bearing on my choice to specialise in Family Law. I remember talking it through with my father, and those conversations must have coloured my understanding of what people go through – an understanding which I can bring to my clients.
That makes me wonder about the impact of divorce upon grown-up kids in comparison to younger children – what are your thoughts?
It may actually be easier for younger children to deal with divorce in some cases – if it is all dealt with properly of course. Sometimes it is harder for young adults to process the fact that their parents have separated, as it throws up issues of identity, for example if a parent is dating a younger partner, the age of their own children. Plus there is the sadness of losing the family home as a base. Younger kids sometimes find it easier to adapt.
Is there one particular area of law that you enjoy more than the others?
Well, family law is its own discrete area of law – and I mainly deal with the breakdown in relationships, so I don’t really have a preferred area, I enjoy it all. ‘Enjoy’ is maybe the wrong word, given the nature of what I do – I’d say it is fulfilling, actually it’s a privilege that clients trust you with the most intimate aspects of their life. It feels great when you see someone come through the whole process with a positive outcome – to see the change in their physiology is incredible. I had one client recently, who had not smiled at all during the two-year process, and at the end of the case upon hearing the outcome, she burst into a huge smile – she immediately looked younger and lighter. That moment is their chance to be happy again. The fifth biggest regret of terminally ill patients in a recent hospice study was identified as not choosing to be happy enough – and in my line of work you see people actively making decisions to ensure they can be happy moving forward.
What would you say to law students today – or to your younger self starting out?
To students I’d advise carefully choosing the area of law that will be most fulfilling to them – and not to put their career before everything else. I was work-obsessed for many years – I enjoyed it, so it didn’t matter – but I would probably advise putting your family and loved ones first, and spending quality time with them. Law is very absorbing – there is always stuff to do, and you never get to the end of your task list, so you have to manage your time, and keep a work-life balance. I was a perfectionist – lawyers often want ‘perfect’ when ‘good’ will do – so make sure there are other things in your life that are equally important. No-one says at the end of their life that they wish they had worked longer hours! However, I’d also say it’s vital to love what you do – if you don’t, get out and do something else. A career in law HAS to be vocational.
Having worked for a long time in your role, do you feel your age and experience mean you now bring more to the table for your clients?
In some ways we become more confident as we get older, more confident in our abilities – and it makes you more tolerant and more giving. I lost my life partner 18 years ago, and I enjoy being able to help other people who are going through similar loss. You feel like a broken eggshell after a bereavement, like you are never going to be able to put yourself back together, but actually your life just becomes a different shape. Sometimes people avoid the subject and don’t know how to comfort someone who is grieving – but it is healthy to talk about it, as we all experience loss at some point, and talking makes it all easier to process. I am passionate about helping people with these issues, both in and out of my work – and I’m also very interested in research into lowering suicide rates. If I ever left my day job, I would go into that area, researching the subject or being a Samaritan. I actually want to get a ‘mental first aider’ at work – someone that employees can go to for confidential mental support, and not feel judged. Maybe all companies should have something like this in place…
Tell me more about your life outside of Law – what do you do for fun, and to relax?
Yoga is a big passion of mine – I’m looking forward to going on a yoga retreat in Morocco in September, and I often do full days of yoga practice. I also love shopping, visiting the V&A, theatre, ballet and gigs. I love to travel all over the place, and I’m particularly drawn to the Far East.
I can see you’re a lover of fashion! Do you feel able to express that within the working context, or is business dress still pretty conservative within the Law arena?
In the office I can express myself through my clothes – in court I still wear a corporate black suit; you do need to power-dress in some situations to project a professional image, but women have more freedom than men in what they wear, and we are fortunate that we can accessorise our business-wear with jewellery or a pair of wacky shoes! Outside of work, I don’t like people to be able to guess that I am a lawyer or pigeonhole me based on my clothes!
Sue can be contacted at B P Collins https://www.bpcollins.co.uk/