Miriam Foster is a family law barrister at 29 Bedford Row Chambers in London. She represents clients in both financial cases, children related cases, public law cases and those with a jurisdictional element.
After attending Marlborough College and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Miriam moved to America to work in politics. Her first position was as a press secretary to Senator Hilary Clinton of New York, shortly followed by a stint on the Obama For America election campaign. She was called to the Bar in 2011.
Tessa Packard [TP]: In one sentence, how would you sum up the landscape of justice in the UK today?
Miriam Foster [MF]: We have an impressive heritage of being the world-leader when it comes to the quality of our justice system, although that is, perhaps, unsurprisingly under strain as a result of deep impactful cuts to legal aid.
[TP]: Why did you choose to specialise in family law? What do you love the most about this area of the law, and by contrast, what do you find the most frustrating?
[MF]: Family law because, frankly, I thought it was substantially more interesting and engaging than any other area. I love the variety – I am with different clients nearly every day, and everyone’s cases (just like everyone’s family) are different and have their own dynamics, so it really is never dull.
I find it frustrating when, despite all our best efforts, I feel like my client has got a raw deal. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it can be pretty painful.
[TP:] In your opinion, what makes a barrister brilliant?
[MF]: That’s a tough call. I think different clients want different types of barrister. Some want a rotweiler, some want someone empathetic. Some like slick. I know I am not the perfect fit for everyone! But there’s not doubting that sometimes you see a brilliant barrister delivering through their smooth advocacy – and really persuading the judge to change their mind. That’s a skill.
[TP]: What are the most common mistakes barristers make when first starting out?
[MF]: Well I made a ton! I think it’s tough because it’s a gig that really rewards experience. There’s no substitution for hours on your feet delivering, so starting out is hard. I guess my most common mistake, and I see it sometimes in more junior opponents, is to think that you have to be really aggressive and assertive to be good. You don’t – charm goes a long way.
[TP]: In your profession, who or what should you never underestimate? And again, who (or what) do you feel has too much influence or power in the current judicial system?
[MF]: The judge! And the judge’s clerk / usher. Do not underestimate them.
Like most fields, money can have more influence that it should. Judge’s work hard to always ensure that the playing field is fair, but it really does often make a difference to be able to afford good quality legal advice. I know I would say that, but even before you get anywhere near a court – to be able to talk to a specialist and pay for their advice – is a privilege in these days where there is very little legal aid available for family cases.
[TP]: What matters more: intention or outcome? Interpret as you wish!
[MF]: Well, I’m certain that my client’s would say outcome! In this job, outcome is crucial.
[TP]: In your opinion, what is the greatest problem facing the British legal or judicial system in 2020? What would you like to see improve?
[MF]: I’ve already touched on this, but the system needs proper resources to ensure that justice, and access to advice, is available to everyone who needs it. I really do believe it is a fundamental human right and a strong, independent, fair legal system is the bedrock of healthy democracy. It’s being squeezed at the moment, at the very least, that is making it slow and inefficient.
[TP]: If you wave a magic wand and change three things in the world, what would they be?
[MF]: Jeez, they are pretty trite but, right now:
I’d like to see the international community make more meaningful commitments to fight climate change.
I’d like a different US president (and quite a few other changes in heads of state).
I’d like to see a resurgence in the power and respect for international institutions.
[TP]: Who has been of most influence to you? And what do you hope to leave behind as your own legacy?
[MF]: My father. Not only is he very cool and good company, but he’s stubbornly avoided attempting to influence our decisions or to shape our lives as he thought best. His mantra has always been: “It’s your life, do what you think is best”. It was very freeing growing up (if sometimes a little infuriating) and showed a confidence in is that has helped me make decisions with conviction. He has just led by example – incredibly hard working, looking after those who are vulnerable and in need, seeing work as a vocation rather than a job, and teaching me to take greatest pleasure in a really good meal and bottle of wine!
I would like to hope that I am way too young to be thinking about a legacy!
[TP]: What do you consider to be the most important, landmark case of the last decade in family law and why?
[MF]: Well I would probably say Wyatt v Vince because I appeared in it. It’s important because the Supreme Court, essentially, ruled that despite the fact that the couple had been divorced for nearly 20 years, Ms Wyatt could proceed with a claim for financial remedy. As the couple had not sought the dismissal of each other’s claims at the time of the divorce in 1992, technically Ms Wyatt’s claims against her ex-husband remained open.
I think Radmacher v Granatino is almost equally important because it gave a lot more weight to the power of pre-nuptial agreements.
[TP]: If the British abolished law courts, lawyers, barristers and all associated institutions, what do think the country would look like five years on?
[MF]: Chaotic to say the least, and almost unimaginably diminished.
[TP]: How has what you do shaped you as a human being?
[MF]: I honestly don’t know. I think it’s probably made me more impatient, and it’s shaped some wrinkles. But it’s also shown me that having a job that you mostly enjoy, and that you feel has value, is very good for the soul. Without it I would be very restless.
[TP]: What has been your hardest career lesson to date, and what one piece of advice would you give to any budding barrister?
[MF]: That there’s a limit to what you can do to influence the outcome of a case – the facts are usually pretty powerful, however hard you try.
[TP]: If you could design a bespoke court wig of your dreams, what would it look like?
[MF]: Ha! Spoiler alert: In the civil division we rarely wear our wigs… I mostly keep mine for dates.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? City
Favourite city? Beirut
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Michelle Obama
If you could time travel to any era it would be…? 1920’s
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Toughest question of all – there are too many to choose from. I had a pretty special one with you TP eating pizza, drinking chianti and laughing in Italy with a group of beloved friends.
The one essential you can’t leave home without? An old New York Times magazine – for those elusive moments when I have spare time to catch up
Pet hate? People prodding you with their elbows on the tube. Keep your arms on your side of the seat rest!
Biggest extravagance? I just bought a Scandinavian navy velvet mid-century arm chair for my flat. That was definitely an extravagance.
Favourite book? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I also just read Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall and am a bit of an evangelist for that right now.
What would your gravestone read? She was a feeder.
FIND OUT MORE