Madeleine Heggs: “I wouldn’t like to be in practice now”

Published 26th March 2018
In conversation with First 100 Years, Madeleine Heggs, who set up her own legal practice over 60 years ago, has discussed how she juggled the work/life balance, and why she thinks it’s harder than ever for young lawyers today.

Brought up by a single mother during the war after her father was killed, Madeleine went to a school which “knew nothing about careers”, and girls were expected to become a secretary, or if you were very bright, a teacher. She was the first from her school to ever study law, after her father’s old solicitor offered her articles. The only girl at her law school, an experience which she describes as “lonely”, Madeleine later worked for Bedford Lowe. Initially she was told they didn’t employ women in that capacity, but she replied “It’s about time you did then”, and so was taken on. “They were very sweet to me” she says, “but I found out my salary was exactly half of what the other man had got… I would never have got a partnership there.”

After living for a time in the US for her husband’s job, Madeleine qualified as a solicitor in 1954, and set up her own practice at her home in Ealing when she was expecting her first child in 1957. Over the next 24 years, she built up a successful practice dealing with residential and commercial conveyancing, probate, civil litigation and family law. Working from home, she was able to take her children to and from school, seeing clients at night to make up time. And did her husband help with the kids? “He belonged to that generation where men don’t help” she explains, “he liked his wife going to work, but that didn’t mean that he had to join in the housework, it’s a generational thing.”

In 1975, Madeleine got a letter asking if she’d act as Chairman of National Insurance tribunals, which changed the direction of her career. Later she became a Commissioner.

“I was appointed in November 1981, and it wasn’t until December 1979 that solicitors were entitled even to act as Commissioners, and there had never been a woman. They were all QCs or Benchers and I was a suburban solicitor… the only woman and practising solicitor amongst 14 men.”

Are things better for women now than they were? Madeleine believes that they may not be. “I look at my grandchildren and they have enormous pressures”, she says. “You have to do your exams first and then you’ve got to find a traineeship – it’s not easy and it’s very expensive and competitive.” Women are also having to work “colossal hours, which is hard if you’ve got a family.” Madeleine also criticises the lack of legal aid, saying while “a lot of people have rights, they can’t exercise them because they haven’t got the money for it.”

The full video interview with Madeleine Heggs will be released by First 100 Years soon.