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International Women’s Day 2024: An interview with Peggy Ray

In: General NewsGoodman Ray News

The theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is #InspireInclusion. In this interview, Peggy reflects on how family law has become more inclusive since she and Judith Goodman established Goodman Ray in 1985. Peggy considers what it means to #InspireInclusion, reflects on the highlights of her career in family law, and offers advice to young people embarking on a legal career today.

Q: What led you to a legal career?

I’m a child of the 60s and 70s and there were very active social justice movements around that time. There were demonstrations about Vietnam, we had the Kent State killings and Watergate. There were lots of things going on which we thought, as a younger generation, we could do something about. There was a real feeling of agency and a desire to effect change.

In a legal context, my first degree had been a History of Art degree. My first job was as a Town Planner. In the evening I was working in the Citizens Advice Bureau with a lawyer, helping with legal problems. I loved the problem-solving approach. That inspired me to move from Town Planning (which I actually found quite frustrating!) and to study for a post-graduate law degree and start working in the law.

Q: Who / what inspired you as a young lawyer?

There were lots of very significant legal things going on when I was young, like Roe v Wade[1] for example. I am historically an American citizen, so I’ve always had an eye on what’s been going on in the USA. We had Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Supreme Court, and of course we had Brenda Hale here in the UK. These are people who have always been very inspiring to me.

I’ve always been passionate about the rights of children. I think that children are entitled to a trouble-free childhood, and to grow up and play without pressure, as far as possible. I’m also very passionate about everybody having access to legal services, whoever they are.

When I came to England, I saw that there were lots of skilled lawyers in central London that provided excellent service to those who could pay, but the same quality of advice did not seem available to others. I was much more interested in the legal aid side of things. I am really committed to the idea that everyone is entitled to the best legal service, regardless of whether they can pay or not. If you are having your children removed by the state, for example, you need a really good lawyer to navigate that process. I was very impressed and committed to the legal aid system. It’s not quite now what it was then, and it’s incredibly frustrating that it’s such an impoverished service now with the cuts and rates of pay being so off the mark from a commercial point of view.

I also feel strongly that the rule of law is a fundamental tenet of a fair and just society. It’s important that governments and authorities are held to account and that people are treated fairly in the judicial and legal system, and I wanted to be part of that.

[1] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

Q: What was it like for you and Judith Goodman to establish your own practice as two women in the 1980s?

It was very, very difficult. We knew we needed a compelling business plan. We did a lot of research and put together a very cautious plan of how many clients we thought we would get, even the exact quantities of paper and pens we thought we would need!

We then met with a number of banks who repeatedly turned us down. One manager asked what our husbands thought about our plan; another asked us where the man in the project was. Of course, there wasn’t one and we didn’t need one.

Eventually, we found a young bank manager at Barclays who was prepared to give it a go. We got started and went on to exceed our conservative predictions. It was just Judith, me, our secretary and three clients – the first all-female firm in London!

Q: Did you receive any advice early in your career which has stuck with you?

I’m not sure there was any particular advice as such that I recall getting, but I would say that my family values have really stuck with me throughout my career. I grew up in a family which valued social responsibility and was almost prejudiced against the commercial world and business. I was taught that my highest duty and responsibility as a citizen was to help others and to work in a way to make things fair, and that really stuck with me growing up.

Q: What has been the most impactful reform for women that you have seen across your career in family law?

This is a really interesting question. Over my career, I feel the increasingly multidisciplinary approach to family law has had an enormous impact. In my early years, this was reflected by a series of conferences called the Dartington Conferences which I was involved in. I was also part of an interdisciplinary committee led by the President of the Family Division, Sir Matthew Thorpe. Those committees and that approach were entirely new within the world of family law. They raised family law from being a “princess” area where it was felt only women practiced to being a significant and important area of law.

In the early days, the law was a male domain. We weren’t allowed to wear trousers in court, and we couldn’t have our hair loose. Things have really moved on. I don’t think there was particular reform as such, it has been more of a gradual recognition of the serious and widespread impact of family law. Once that was recognised and it opened up into the judiciary and more senior positions, we saw people taking issues like domestic abuse more seriously. It was significant when coercive control became an offence. All this recognition reflected the increased significance given to the experiences of women in society.

I went to Australia in 2005 for a conference and the gender balance in family law over there was predominantly male. In the UK at the time, it was more 50/50. In my experience women bring a different perspective to the field of family law and for the way cases are dealt with. I would like to believe that we’re quite an advanced family law jurisdiction here in the UK, although there is always much more to do.

Q: What has been one of the highlights of your legal career?

There have been two. The first is setting up Goodman Ray as a principled, high-quality firm in 1985 and then sustaining it over the years. We are still going strong and I’m very proud of everyone who works here and maintains the high standards and strong reputation we have built. I’m also very proud that we still deliver a significant legal aid service. That really means a lot to me.

Secondly, I was chair of the Children Committee of the Solicitors Family Law Association (now known as Resolution) as the Children Act 1989[1] was going through the bill stages. We were heavily involved in responding to the consultation documents of every section of the Act. It’s an amazing piece of legislation which has stood the test of time, albeit with a few amendments. It was a very forward-looking piece of legislation and introduced the concepts of parental responsibility and the rights and crucially the responsibilities of parents for the first time. It also introduced the idea that parents don’t “own” their children and that the child’s voice is important and must be listened to. These were revolutionary concepts at the time. I am very proud to have been part of that legislation coming into effect.

[1] Children Act 1989

Q: The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #InspireInclusion. What does inspiring inclusion mean to you?

The profession used to be predominantly white middle-aged middle-class men. To me, inclusion is opening up legal services and the legal profession to the whole community. It is important that the legal profession is open to everyone, regardless of background. Inclusivity enhances the quality of decision-making, the quality of advice, and quality of the services we can provide as lawyers.

When Judith Goodman and I first set up Goodman Ray, we were committed to offering a service which wasn’t so scary to the general public. We had a glass front on our office so that people could look at us before coming in. The traditional firms were up a staircase and clients felt like they were entering another (and foreign) world. We felt it shouldn’t feel like this. The more that lawyers, the courts and judges reflect what we all have in common, the better the quality of the justice that will be delivered.

Sadly, I continue to read that in many parts of the justice system discrimination, misogyny and racism still prevail. There remains a need for all of us to be vigilant and call out these problems when we encounter them.

Q: What do you think are the greatest barriers to inclusion in the legal sector today?

Firstly, there isn’t just one legal sector. There are the big boys in the city, and then there’s the legal aid community. The barriers to inclusion are different in those two worlds.

In the legal aid community, the barriers are pay rates and funding for legal education, and the costly route to qualification. Those structural problems are potentially overwhelming for a lot of people who don’t have rich parents or can’t borrow money. Hybrid working has helped those trying to manage a family with a professional legal career, but there is still a way to go.

Q: What advice would you give to women embarking on a legal career today?

The first thing I always say when people ask me this is to think about the fact that your career will last decades. Think about spending that time doing something you enjoy and that makes you feel fulfilled. There might be better ways of making a fortune, but sometimes it’s better to follow your heart. For me, it was family law and children’s rights in particular.

I would also advise anyone embarking on a legal career today to remember that the rule of law is important and is increasingly under attack these days. We need to be mindful of what’s going on around us and pay attention. Local authorities used to be able to take an administrative step and assume parental rights over children. Now, they have to go to court and meet thresholds before they can intervene in family life. The Human Rights Act[1] is hugely significant to us as lawyers. I am proud of being a lawyer working in the field of children’s rights. It’s invaluable work and it’s a privilege to work in the field.

Across my career, I’ve learnt a lot about people and about families. No two families are alike. Family law can be humbling. If you ever feel like you know it all, you don’t. You will constantly be challenged.

Finally, because society is constantly developing, the law is constantly changing. This means your job will never be the same. The cases I dealt with in 1985 are entirely different to the cases I deal with now in 2024. It keeps you on your toes and you are constantly faced with fresh challenges, which means your work is never dull. I recommend the law as a career – it is important and satisfying work. You can make a real difference.

[1] Human Rights Act 1998

This interview was completed by Caroline Mirza, paralegal at Goodman Ray.