David Hodson is a highly experienced family law dispute resolution specialist who took his Law Society Finals at our Guildford Campus in 1976. In 2007 he co-founded The International Family Law Group LLP, the world's first law firm specifically dedicated to serving international families and their children, and families with international and foreign assets.
I would like to say I chose to study law because of something about a lifelong commitment to the law, but that would be complete nonsense. I had a youth club leader who was a lawyer in Southampton and I remember him suggesting I should consider a law degree. I was very interested in politics and social sciences. I felt Leicester University had the right combination. I covered family law because it was part of the social sciences area in which I was most interested. Leicester was also one of the first universities to cover what was then EEC law, now probably international law, and I found it very interesting..
Throughout my entire three years, the one element on which I was certain was that I wasn’t going to become a lawyer. As the end of the third year approached, it was panic stations. Still not sure what I wanted to do, I went off to ULaw in Guildford. I started my two year training course in Southampton, stayed on a couple of years, went to Birmingham for a year and then came down to a law firm in Gray’s Inn, London. It should have been a big break but it was a disaster. I hated it and it lasted three years until I left without having another job to go to. I knew that I wanted to do a job which could help others, and I was particularly anxious to help the poor and underprivileged. It was whilst I was temping at a law centre that I obtained my big break, an opportunity to work with one of the leading family lawyers in the country, perhaps the world. She and I got on very well and she inspired me to further my career. I then made very fast progress to partnership at a large City firm, becoming head of Department, moving the department to another firm and then progressively setting up with other radical new family law firms.
The partner whom I joined in the major city law firm, which was my big break, was an inspiration to me. Much older, with a very different life experience but we worked well together. She showed me a wider vision of what can be done in family law work to help the clients beyond the purely legal. She gave an incredible level of service to the clients, which I have endeavoured to follow. Particularly she inspired me with the international elements of the work with which I’d had no previous experience. Through her I learnt about this work, the opportunities available and how to deal with the distinctive needs of these clients. I’d like to think she would be proud of what I have accomplished. I still think of her and what she would do in a particular circumstance, even though she died a number of years ago. She was incredible and inspirational.
I am currently one of the two senior partners and founding partners of The International Family Law Group, which we set up 10 years ago as a distinctive firm serving international families and their children. I have a number of my own cases but I supervise many of the lawyers in the practice. I sit as a part-time family court judge and I’ve done so for over 22 years. I undertake mediation and arbitration. I’m also an Australian solicitor and about 25% of my work is Anglo Australian.
I gained my current position through founding the practice but going back over the years, my big break was at a time when a City law firm was desperate for assistance. Because I was law temping, having ended my previous job without another one to go to, I could start quickly, so I got the job and thereafter made sure it was mine. After about six years the whole department moved to another City firm and I oversaw the process. A few years later I left and set up an innovative and radical practice with four other lawyers, combining for the first time law, mediation and counselling. When it came to an end after eight years, I moved to Sydney to work for a a leading Australian family lawyer.
The proudest moment of my career so far has to be obtaining the OBE from the Queen at Windsor Castle for services to international family law. My wife, my father and my best friend were with me, I’m sad my mother had died, as she would have been really thrilled. I have had other proud moments in my career too though: When I qualified as an Australian solicitor and barrister after a crash course in Australia. A number of really good outcomes for clients. Very many years ago when I was appointed a partner at a major City law firm. Being able to influence family law and practice through working with committees and professional organisations. I’ve been very fortunate.
A normal day for me starts early. I receive a lot of work from Australia and Southeast Asia and I check my emails at about 6:30 AM. I’m very conscious of the time zone issue and sometimes I have to go back quickly on a few matters before they leave the office. There is no typical day and I think many solicitors would say that. Mostly I am in the office, dealing with emails and writing emails. I supervise partners and solicitors in the office, leading to a steady flow of people coming in and asking questions. If I do have a client meeting, most of my clients are abroad and it is by Skype. Of late afternoon it would be normal to have a committee meeting or a networking meeting of some form. Again this is an essential part of developing as a practitioner, both as a young lawyer starting out and as a senior lawyer.
Reading a number of reported decisions is one of the best ways of getting a grasp for the direction of the law. This understanding is of importance because most cases never fit into a specific pattern. We have to apply the principles from decided cases. It is undoubtedly important to be a good lawyer, but even more crucial in family law to be empathetic and sympathetic. All of this can be quite burdensomeand emotionally draining, and I regard it as essential that family lawyers do not operate on their own. Being around other family lawyers is beneficial so that we can cast off the burdens which clients pass on to us. Otherwise we are far more likely to suffer burnout and this doesn’t help us or them. It’s also important to get the bigger picture. Certainly we need to do a good job for our clients, but that job is often settling a case without incurring disproportionate costs and highly adversarial litigation. This is where there is a real difference within the family law profession. There are some lawyers who will do nothing other than aggressively litigate but it’s essential that we keep constantly focused on attempting to settle. It’s increasingly what clients want.
If a student wanted to work at the International Family Law Group I would recommend they do their homework. Find out what work we really do and don’t refer to other areas of work in the letter of application. Be realistic that most niche boutique practices can’t take trainees because they don’t have the range of work. It’s invariably better to have a good broad training and only towards qualification decide to specialise. Undertake vacation work to impress the law firm but also to decide what one doesn’t like
I enjoy meeting and talking to the students at ULaw, and understanding their concerns, hopes and aspirations. It’s highly motivating and encouraging for oneself. Also, being able to give back what one has received over the years. I’ve had incredible opportunities in my work, with the clients I have met and the lawyers with whom I’ve had dealings, I want to give this back to those starting out.
When working with international families, tolerance and understanding is primary. I happen to think the English legal system, as it operates in family law, has many good qualities. One meets laws and procedures in other countries which really do not help both genders, non-nationals or indeed anyone. I believe many countries are on a spectrum and they are developing their laws and we should not presume every country is at the same stage as us. The laws around the world are quite different but I detect an increasing trend towards similarity. The globe is a smaller place. Lawyers and judges from many countries are meeting frequently and we are working at what internationally we regard as fair financial settlements and what is in the best interests of children.
I chose to focus on international family law when setting up my firm as I had been working in this area for a number of years. It is highly specialist and not many lawyers are alert to the issues or know what to look out for. I enjoy global matters and take an interest in global politics and geography. I love travel. So a lot of my own interests came together. We were almost certainly the first firm anywhere in the world to set up distinctively for the needs and requirements of international families and their children.
In 2002 I had the idea of family arbitration. I was frustrated that there were cases in mediation which were not settling and the parties were then going to court even though they wanted an out-of-court settlement. I was certain there had to be an additional way of out-of-court settlements. At the time my assistant had a boyfriend who was a shipping lawyer conducting a major shipping arbitration case and through her I learned all about it. It occurred to me we could adapt arbitration for family law. It took some time but about 10 years later we launched and it has been fairly successful. It has now been extended from finance cases to children cases. In summer 2017, in Boston, and then in Fiji, I and a leading Australian lawyer launched an arbitration scheme for international cases. This will be highly valuable for international families to avoid expensive and complex litigation in more than one jurisdiction.
There will undoubtedly be the digitalisation of our work in family law in the future. Lawyers will either work closely with digital technology or be replaced by it. I think there will be fewer court hearings with many more cases dealt with on paper, which will be attractive to solicitors and will mean the advocacy bar diminishing. There will still be the need for specialist advice. I think lawyers will be increasingly in larger firms with probably less face-to-face interaction, so we will be more centralised. Then there is the question of how much artificial intelligence can be used to ascertain outcomes and this will be an important area. But even with all these changes, the personal approach and supportive work in helping clients come to their own solutions will be paramount.
My three tips for success are: (1) Hard work; there is no detracting from this and it separates those who are good from those who really succeed. (2) A genuine interest in people for those undertaking family law; yes the law is interesting but it’s nothing without the opportunity to assist people at really difficult times in their lives. (3) Remember where one came from and early motivations; I may now deal with big-money divorce work and complicated international cases but I came in to law to help the poor and disadvantaged. I look for opportunities to still do so wherever possible.
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