Partner Spotlight: Family Matters

Ian McDowell
13 May 2021

Spencer West family lawyer Richard Gilbert talks about his pro bono work with families in Hertfordshire, and how this work is inspired by his own family’s broad and compelling story of migration and identity.

Richard, you’re a lawyer specialising in family work, and in your spare time you’re also an expert on East London’s Jewish history and heritage. Is there a connection between these two things?

I’ve often said that when you’re a family lawyer, it helps to be interested in people. That’s true for all lawyers, but I think it’s especially true when you’re dealing with what is, in some ways, the most intimate aspect of the law. Family law brings powerful issues to the surface, and these must be dealt with sensitively and sympathetically. It’s important to be precise in all matters of the law, but this precision should be empathetically communicated. Imagine, for example, drafting a will for a family in highly unusual circumstances – my Interest with individual, family and social history helps me when I deal with these cases. It’s a shame when professionals don’t appear to care about what people are going through. It’s got to be about more than the bottom line.

What made you interested in the heritage and stories of people from the Jewish community?

My own family story has so many different dimensions. My great grandparents came to the UK for a better life, and they would have assumed that their children and grandchildren would achieve that. Their education taught them to be both proudly British, and proudly Jewish, and this was a real positive. One of my grandfathers served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Second World War and was at the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office after it got hit. He spent two days trying to bring the blaze under control. You grew up with those stories, with wanting to contribute, as he did, to the wider society. His experience of war service helped members of my family feel that they were truly part of something bigger than their own community. Those stories became a source of pride. I volunteer as a school governor, and I’ve been an officer of our local synagogue for some time now, having volunteered in various capacities for over 20 years. I feel it’s important for everyone to contribute to the wider community.

If family is something you’re even more tuned into, does this help in your legal work?

I think it probably does help in terms of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and being able to imagine and anticipate potential complexities that may not at first be apparent. It’s also about being aware of different cultures. I acted for a Roman Catholic man who had some technical marriage issues, and I was fortunate to be able to speak with a Catholic colleague about it, and educate myself about that tradition. I was really interested in learning more, as well as the similarities to, and differences from, my own tradition. The same goes for Muslim clients, and the learning I’ve done over the years about Muslim beliefs and traditions as they affect the family helps me to be sensitive in our discussions. There are fascinating variations in practice within all communities, and that adds to the interest. The different ways people make sworn statements can vary, and to be aware of that diversity means you are more likely to be able to satisfy the requirements of the law.

Tell us more about some of the pro bono work that you do.

For some time now I’ve assisted pro bono at the Hertfordshire Law Clinic at the University of Hertfordshire, offering free legal advice clinics. I do this around once a month, sometimes for two different clients. The clinic gets in touch in advance so I can advise the clients on how to prepare for, and get the most out of, the free session. The clinics are observed by law students, so they have an educational function as well. The students take notes recording what is said in the advice session, and I then make comments and correct these as necessary. It’s an opportunity to give the students an experience of law “in action” so to speak, as opposed to just learning from books. It’s something I really enjoy. Sometimes you can really make a difference with just a simple piece of advice, for example how to serve divorce papers in the most legally efficient way. It’s quite a simple thing to get right, but the difference in practical terms between doing it right and doing it wrong can be huge, and can lead to unforeseen expense for the client if not done properly.

Richard, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.