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As part of the 100-year anniversary since women were first admitted as solicitors, Tilly Rubens met with Madeleine Heggs, whose successful legal and judicial career spanning over 50 years, shows how far women solicitors have come.
Madeleine Heggs arrives immaculately turned out, on a cold and wet November day, in a sharp suit defying her 92 years. She was born in 1929 to the sound of Bow Bells, only a year after all women had been given the vote. Madeleine’s father was Italian and with a Swiss-French mother, she was brought up speaking three languages with her two brothers.
It was a comfortable home in London, but her early years were blighted by ill-health. “I was in bed for a year with whooping cough and pneumonia and then in a wheelchair for a year,” she recalls when she was five. This was at a time when such conditions were often life-threatening but with great stoicism, Madeleine made a full recovery and started school which she loved.
However, two years later, in 1939, Madeleine’s world was turned upside down with the start of the Second World War. Like many London children, Madeleine was evacuated, and was sent with her brothers to Blandford Forum in Dorset. It was difficult being away from her family although she enjoyed certain freedoms denied a city child such as “jumping around Stonehenge on a Sunday afternoon”.
Tragically her father was killed less than a year later, leaving the family in a desperate financial situation. Madeleine’s mother had never worked although, very unusually for the time, had studied for a degree in Lausanne. As a single mother, she “taught classics and took in lodgers” to support the family and Madeleine’s school granted her a bursary so she could complete her education.
It was a school where high academic standards were expected and achieved, however, at that time opportunities even for well-educated young women were extremely restricted. An early sign of Madeleine’s independence and determination was her decision to continue education at degree level and pursue a profession. Initially, Madeleine was interested in medicine but, not coming from a medical family, and at a time when there was still a lot of prejudice against women becoming doctors, she chose instead to embark on a legal career, as her older brother was already studying law.
She attended law school at Lancaster Gate but as the only girl in her year, found the experience “very lonely as you need other girls to go out with”. However, she was successful in passing the law exams first time and gaining articles which was no mean feat, when at the time, less than 2% of women were solicitors. She also met her future husband at law school, and they married in March 1953.
Her husband got a bursary to study at Yale and they left London for the States to embark on a new adventure with “all their belongings packed in just two suitcases”. Madeleine managed to get work in the US as a legal researcher while her husband studied and after living for a time there, the couple returned to London where Madeleine qualified as a solicitor in 1955.
She worked for a year in Central London doing conveyancing work as the only qualified woman solicitor in the firm. “There was enormous prejudice towards women lawyers” she says and an assumption that women would not return to work if they had children. After Madeleine’s first son was born in March 1957, she took the very bold and financially risky decision to set up on her own and worked from her home in Ealing. Madeleine says that it was finances and the practicalities of looking after her son that persuaded her to do so.
Four years later, Madeleine had her daughter and then her younger son. She looked after all three children while working full-time with some help from her mother. Work came her way on the recommendation of some local banks and also from parents at her children’s school “While waiting at the school gates, the parents would come and find me to seek legal advice. I think I must have acted for half the parents at the school over time!”
Over the next twenty years, Madeleine built up a successful practice dealing with residential and commercial conveyancing and probate. She enjoyed the work, but it was hard juggling a full-time career with childcare and says: “If I’d had the money to go to cocktail parties, I would have done!” Her life changed dramatically, in 1975, when out of the blue she received an “official looking” letter asking if she would become chairman of the local National Insurance Tribunal.
She jumped at the chance and heard appeals involving sickness and employment benefits. Initially Madeleine combined running her own practice with sitting locally in Ealing but when required to sit more often in Central London, her overall workload became too much and quite stressful. Some of the cases were also high profile including 350 of the printers who were made redundant when Rupert Murdoch moved production for his News International from Fleet Street to a new plant in Wapping.
In 1981, her legal career took a further upward trajectory, when she was appointed as a Social Security Commissioner – they heard appeals on questions of law from the first-tier social security tribunals. As the first woman and first practising solicitor ever to be appointed as a Commissioner, this was momentous and a very exciting time for Madeleine. “We had the newspaper people out in the garden when I was appointed!” she recalls.
Madeleine says the other commissioners, all male QCs or benchers, were very kind and real old-fashioned gents to her as a suburban female solicitor. “They would hold the door open for me and then take me out for lunch.” Madeleine remained the only female commissioner for 16 years and found the work very interesting.
She does not feel she treated cases any differently because she was a woman but occasionally did bring a different perspective to her male colleagues. For example, one case involved a widow with two children who had got into significant debt and needed to repay a substantial amount of benefits which she had wrongly claimed. On appeal, Madeleine decided that not all the relevant facts had been taken into consideration and held that the widow should pay back a lesser amount than owed due to mitigating circumstances. The Poverty Action Group welcomed the decision.
She worked full-time for 21 years as a Commissioner until she retired aged 73. Madeleine says she loved the work as she was interested in people and enjoyed the intricacies of social security and employment law. “It was very well organised, intellectually stimulating and you got all the papers beforehand. It was lovely,” she recalls.
She still misses the buzz, company and intellectual stimulation of law since she retired but loves the excitement of living in London. She ensures she gets out whatever the weather and meets someone for lunch every day and then makes a date to meet them in six weeks, so there is always something to look forward to.
Since Madeleine first qualified almost seventy years ago, the world of law for women has changed dramatically with women now making up more than half of new entrants to the solicitor’s profession and greater numbers of women solicitors than ever sitting as judges. As I walk away from our interview, it is clear that Madeleine’s sheer determination and willingness to take on new challenges should be a real inspiration and encouragement to the younger generation of women solicitors as they forge ahead with their careers in this centenary year.
Legal Consultant at Russell-Cooke LLP