When family matters get complicated, Samantha Gershon at Withers helps deal with them, writes John Cremer
As a partner specialising in the area of family law, Samantha Gershon must be ready to deal with anything and everything.
While there is no typical day in her role with leading law firm Withers, she may well be handling cases involving complex financial arrangements, the guardianship of minors, a spouse addicted to alcohol or drugs, litigation for control of assets, or the details of a pre-nuptial agreement.
“I deal with the whole spectrum of cases,” she says. “That can mean putting safeguards in place to protect children or getting agreement on the rights of a mother and father if their relationship breaks down. But we also act for a lot of high-net-worth families who want to protect their assets for future generations. That can involve complicated company structures, trusts, assets in overseas jurisdictions, and dealing with third-party interests which belong to a family member, not a spouse.”
Sometimes, the toughest part is managing clients’ expectations, particularly if they are in the business world, and the emotions which inevitably come into play. The key there is to explain the remedies available and provide a strong support system. More generally, it is important to push through private adjudication in financial matters relating to family law and do more to hear the “voice of the child”.
“Overall, I enjoy all these things and love the law,” says Gershon, the firm’s risk and compliance partner who is also building up a commercial litigation department. “It is changing, so you are always learning and growing and, with my background, nothing fazes me.”
She grew up in Harrow, on the outskirts of London, where her father was a structural engineer, who later became a lay magistrate, and her mother was an administrator in the social services
Aged just seven, her ambition was to be a forensic pathologist. As a bit of a bookworm, she had read a story where such a character helped to solve crimes and became hooked on the idea but realised she’d have to qualify as a doctor first. By the time of A-levels, that looked a bit of a tall order, so instead she considered joining the police, until a family friend high up in the force advised her to get a degree first.
Unsure what to study, she decided the better option was to start earning and, therefore, applied for a number of civil service type jobs. With offers on hand, the choice came down to a late evening drive around London with her parents to consider which building, judged from the outside, looked the best place to work.
The winner was the Mayor’s and City of London Court, where she soon became immersed in the workings of the court system and the administration of justice.
“The chief clerk took me under his wing and I caught on pretty quickly,” Gershon says. “I realised that maybe I was destined to go into the law.”
Rather than going to university, though, she took the alternative route towards qualification. That meant studying part-time, taking day-release and evening classes — and some correspondence courses — at various colleges around London, while working as a legal executive with a law firm to gain practical experience.
“I took the long way round, qualifying as a solicitor in 1996 after almost 10 years, but it was meant to be,” she says. “The legal executive route is tough, but I was earning money and I didn’t fail an exam. I just kept going and always thought I would get there. I was determined to become a solicitor and a partner.”
While still training, she spent time in company and commercial law, but hated it. She then switched to litigation and advocacy which at first was “horrendous”. In fact, on one occasion, representing her firm in a case at Bow Court, she got a judgement for just one pound a week and was scared to go back to the office.
However, she also worked for a firm doing human rights type cases, which at times meant suing the police for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. And, by a turn of events, that later led to a position as an in-house lawyer with the Metropolitan Police. The work there was 70 per cent litigation, 30 per cent advisory, and involved learning about the use of “reasonable force” in a riot and, one day a month, manning the hotline to answer whatever queries came in.
“It was very interesting work, and all the trials I had were jury trials,” Gershon says. “I would do the interlocutory applications and consider how the jury would look at the evidence. I also had to interview officers and decide how they would come across in the courtroom. That experience helps now with family law. I learned useful investigative skills and to look at things in a different light. For example, in a recent case I spotted forgeries: the boxes on a document were ticked in the wrong way. It was my background in the police and the resulting suspicious mind that gave me the tip-off.”
In 2001, Gershon moved to Hong Kong for family reasons and took a career break, during which her second and third children were born. She got back to work by accident, when a contact asked her to help out the construction litigation team at JSM for six months. Having stayed for two and a half years, it made sense to study for the exams to re-qualify in Hong Kong, and that led to six years at Robertsons doing commercial litigation before moving on to Withers in 2014 to specialise in family law.
“I always try to get better at what I do and to remember where I started,” says Gershon, who is an accomplished violin and viola player and would like, once again, to be part of an orchestra. “It took me a long time to become a solicitor, but I worked hard and got there.”