Western Mail, 10th September 2010
As a child, Melanie Hamer loved to watch Crown Court on a black and white TV with her grandparents, now she runs her own law firm. WM’s Emily Woodrow talks to the divorce lawyer about achieving “more than she imagined possible”
Growing up in Aberdare, Melanie Hamer had a very happy childhood.
Her parents, dad John, a painter, and mum Audrey, who worked for the local council, didn’t have a huge amount of money, but what they did have they spent on her and her younger sister Deborah rather than material things for themselves.
“This meant when the ice cream van came round on a Sunday we were allowed something, whereas our friends weren’t”, says Melanie.
She lived in a typical terraced Valleys house surrounded by her friends, but as her mother worked, she spent her school holidays with her grandparents, which is where her dreams of becoming a lawyer began.
The 45-year-old says: “We used to watch Crown Court together on a black and white television and I was fascinated by it, so by the age of 13 I’d decided that was what I wanted to do, despite coming from a very working class background and having no lawyers in my family.
“I worked very hard in school. I wasn’t the perfect pupil, and talking too much often resulted in me having to sit at the front with the teacher, but I always got good grades when it really mattered.
“When I applied to university to do law, someone suggested I was aiming too high. I don’t think they realised I would rise to the challenge, but I was determined that this was what I wanted to do.
“I’m a great believer of covering every angle, and as I wasn’t wholly convinced I’d get the grades for university, I’d managed to get myself a job in Lloyds bank in Merthyr Tydfil as a back-up.
“I was due to start work on the Monday, but when I got my results on the Thursday before, I had to call them and say I wouldn’t need the job.
“I think my mum wanted me to take the job so I could stay at home, but I know she was proud of me for going to university.
“She wasn’t the sort of mum who would say so, but when she died of cancer in 2002, I had to go through her papers looking for a will and I came across every press cutting there’d ever been about me and my professional life – that spoke volumes to me.
“My dad however is incredibly verbal about his pride and will tell anyone he speaks to at any given opportunity what I now do for a living, sometimes to my embarrassment.”
She adds: “Choosing where to study was hard.
“All my friends were going to Swansea and that was where I wanted to go as I’d holidayed there during my childhood and loved the idyllic lifestyle it offered, but they didn’t do law so I couldn’t go.
“I initially wanted to go to Southampton and Aberystwyth was only my fourth choice, but when I went to visit I fell in love with it.
“I went to Aberystwyth knowing no-one and having never lived away from home before and that was daunting, but in hindsight it was good, because I had no choice but to make friends very quickly.”
Melanie’s years at university were some of the best of her life. Having come from an all girls’ school, she enjoyed being able to have boys who were just friends and she grew close to a number of Irish students who she claims had “an incredible sense of humour and a great knowledge of how to party”.
From there, she went to Guildford Law School, which she confesses was a complete culture shock.
“The majority of other students there had come from Oxford or Cambridge, and they were nowhere near as friendly as the ones I was used to”, she admits.
“They had great difficulty understanding my accent and a number of them were quite condescending saying they didn’t even know there was a university in Aberystwyth.
“It was only when I started coming top of the class that they’d invite me to parties.
“It was almost like I had to prove myself before they would accept me.”
Melanie then returned to Cardiff to start a training contract with Phillips and Buck, now Eversheds, and Daryl, the man who was to become her husband whom she’d met at University, went with her.
She had previously managed to get an interview at a London firm, despite careers advisors telling her it was difficult to get work there, but she chose not to go, as she knew that wasn’t where she wanted to be.
“I just wanted to prove them wrong”, she adds. “I’m like that. Whenever someone tells me something is difficult, I go the extra mile to achieve it.”
She claims it was much easier to get law jobs back then as less people went to University or did their Law Society finals, so there was much less competition – unlike today when she receives 500 applications for one training position.
“It was the Thatcher years so everyone worked very hard”, says Melanie, who now lives in Pentyrch, Cardiff.
“I remember feeling lucky if I got home by 7.30pm in time to watch EastEnders.
“I was on a starting salary of about £6,500 a year, which seemed like a fortune compared to the £1.50 per hour that I’d earned working at a hotel during university.”
While working in the law department there, she dreamt of opening the first niche family law practice in Wales, and that dream became a reality when Eversheds decided they wanted to concentrate on their commercial side.
As a result, Melanie and the rest of the family department co-founded their own firm, Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice.
The mother-of-two says: “From being in a commercial practice I’d seen what needed to be done to be successful, but I didn’t realise quite how much time and effort goes into running your own business.
“It’s hard work, but I can safely say the benefits by far outweigh the burdens.
“And my job also makes me realise how lucky I am to have my husband Daryl and my two children, Sam, 11, and Katie, six.
In my early days of divorce work, I heard some awful stories, and I remember saying to Daryl, “You would never do x, y and z would you?” and needing reassurance.
“But after a while I got to the stage where I realised in my job I was only seeing sad relationships, and for every one of those there were two that were happy.
“I think we’ve both changed a lot since then, but thankfully in the same direction.
“We both always liked children, but we decided we wanted to have all the far flung holidays and enjoy each other first before committing to them.
“When I had Sam, my mum was still alive, so I knew I could always rely on her for childcare, but she died of breast cancer in 2002, aged 65.”
“I threw myself into work as it gave me something to concentrate on other than the catastrophe going on around me – I think it was actually my saving grace.
“It took my mind off reality, and it was wonderful to be able to pick up files and do my job.
“I knew if I sat at home, I would just be in my bed crying, and that would be a waste of my time and against what my mother would’ve wanted.”
She adds: “Sam was just three when it happened so I’m not sure he really grasped what was going on.”
“He had an incredible bond with his gran, and I remember him being really upset one day when we had to leave her in hospital overnight.”
“He was crying saying, “I want gran”, and I was just thinking, “I want my mum”.
“My dad’s never got over it, and I don’t think he ever will.”
Talking about her children, Melanie admits her daughter Katie is very determined like her and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
“She will keep on and on until she gets what she wants – she’s definitely a little clone of me.
“She’s a real tomboy though, and unlike me she wants to be a builder when she grows up.
“Sam is more like Daryl and a lot of the endearing qualities that attracted me to Daryl are reflected in my son.
“He has his sights set on being an astronaut or Formula One driver, but really I think he just wants a job that will make him enough money to buy a fast car.
“If either of them wanted to follow in my footsteps, I wouldn’t discourage them, as it’s a fascinating, rewarding career and I absolutely love it, but it is tough, and Sam often sees me having to work in the evenings. I just want them to be happy.
“I’m completely over the top and full of praise for them. I tell them every single day at least 10 times how much I love them and how wonderful they are and they reciprocate.
“Every night before bed, Katie and I say to each other, “I love you up to the moon, up to the stars, up to Jupiter, up to Mars and back again”.”
Melanie admits that through hard work, determination and surrounding herself with the right sort of people she has achieved far more than she ever imagined possible.
Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice is the largest niche family law firm in Wales and is top ranked in the independent legal research publications, Chambers and Partners and Legal 500.
On the difference between men and women in divorce proceedings, Melanie says: “I act for an equal number of men and women, but more women issue divorce proceedings than men.
“I think often it’s because women like to take control of the situation and they like to be seen as the ones doing the divorcing.
“It’s definitely easier to get a divorce these days, as there’s not that stigma attached to it, but as far as the emotions and sadness of a marriage breakdown go, they’re the same as they ever were.
“I think that most women in divorce settlements get a really good deal.
“Courts in this country seem to be the most favourable in the world when it comes to divorce settlements for women.
“A lot of women I have acted for who could issue in various countries abroad chose to issue in England and Wales because they know they will get a better deal here.
“The important thing is that a family lawyer does their best to try and take the bitterness out of the divorce for clients and remain objective.”
As well as establishing her business, Melanie is also one of the founders of the South Wales Ladies Business Club, which now has nearly 700 women on their database.
She says: “There was a gap in the market for it.
“When I was a junior lawyer, I went to a number of business clubs which I found were very male dominated and I remember feeling quite intimidated and scared.”
Melanie’s plans for the future include continuing to push herself and grow the firm.
She admits she’s never been one to rest on her laurels and likes to learn at least one new thing every single day.
But alongside all the hard work, she does like to chill out now and again and give herself some much-needed ‘me’ time.
She adds: “I’m a firm believer that a healthy body equals a healthy mind so I try to go running or swimming at least twice a week.
“It’s a way of dealing with the stresses of my job, and I find life much easier to deal with after I’ve exercised.
“Juggling a business and a family is hard. You have to be incredibly organised and make lists just to get everything done.
“I always say if I was stranded on a desert island all I’d need is a pencil and paper so I could make lists – and even then I’d probably make lists of lists – so it’s nice to be able to get away from it all and black it all out, even if just for half an hour or so of exercise.”
“Besides, due to the nature of my job I spend most of my day inside so it’s nice to get outdoors and enjoy the countryside.
“My perfect day would be a run before breakfast, and then a day down the beach with my family, possibly even with a latte thrown in for good measure.”