Profile of Vivien Symons

PUBLISHED January 5, 2012

I met Vivien in her home in a beautiful village outside Bath. From her sitting room, we could see stunning views of the hills and fields overlooking the handsome town. When she opened the door, I was immediately impressed by what a pretty lady this 93-year-old is:
she may be only seven years away from her century but she looks as if she is still more than seven years away from reaching retirement: Vivien looks remarkably well.

Tough start

Because she entered the profession so many years ago, I had expected Vivien?s story to be that of the privileged and well-educated rich. I was wrong: her life has been one of struggle ? from the age of four. She was born in 1918 to wealthy parents in Ealing; but, with the stock-market crash of 1921, her father lost his fortune: Vivien?s earliest memory is of being told to be quiet as she and her sister hid while the front door was pounded by the bailiffs.

Her father was unemployed ? and the family was poor. And poor for no good reason: Vivien?s mother was a teacher but was unable to return to work because she was married. She would only be given a teaching job if she became separated from her husband. After struggling for a while, and for the sake of his family, Vivien?s father walked out of their home ? simply to allow his wife to earn a living.

Vivien was a clever girl and won a scholarship to the grammar school. But, in the 1920s, 84% of children left school at 14 and, when she was just 15 years old, with her sister having already gone out to work, Vivien herself took the decision to skip school one day: ?I wasn?t planning anything brilliant. I just walked along the Great West Road and called in at the factories. I got a job as a messenger girl at Pyrene Fire Extinguishers.? She was earning eleven shillings a week.

In a short time, borrowing her sister?s books on the subject, Vivien had learned shorthand and typing and was promoted. It is a credit to an adventurous spirit that, at 17 years old, Vivien took her secretarial skills to a solicitor?s firm in Liverpool Street. She was working for the litigation clerk.

Practical law

As in many parts of Vivien?s story, the contrast with today?s world is stark: she had not been in this job for long when the litigation clerk suddenly left. Her boss was in panic: a hundred moneylending cases needed to be dealt with. ?I can deal with those,? says Vivien, ?I?ve been doing it already, haven?t I?? Four years later, she was still dealing with them.

If she is an attractive 93-year-old, one can only imagine how pretty Vivien was at 21. So pretty that her employer could not behave himself. One day, he came up from behind her and launched a sexual attack. Vivien turned round, slapped him in the face and walked out of the job. No tribunal, no shame for the predatory male in those days: it was the innocent woman who paid the price. 

Not that Vivien let it destroy her. After a short spell in Brighton and soon to be married to her long-term boyfriend, she began working for Taylor Woodrow, as secretary to their chief engineer.

The war

But by now, as Vivien?s generation put it, ?the war was on?. London was blitzed, Vivien?s mother was evacuated to Cornwall with her school, the young husband was called up, and solicitors? offices were getting very short of staff. 

Vivien?s sister, Norah, was working as a secretary for Maurice Rubin, a solicitor in Manchester. Conscription was in full swing and the firm?s litigation managing clerk was on the point of joining the forces. Norah suggested that Vivien should join the staff. She did so willingly and, within months, became an integral part of Maurice Rubin and Co. ?I knew what you did, how you took statements, briefed people,? she says. ?Obviously, my law was limited but you learn law a lot as you?re doing it ? you learn how to look it up.?

She got very good at looking it up: one evening, she was accompanying counsel Henry Burton on their return from an appointment with a judge in chambers. ?When do you qualify?? asked Burton. ?I?m not articled.? ?Ridiculous!? said Burton, ?I shall talk to Maurice at once.?

Top table

Maurice Ruben encouraged Vivien to take her ?preliminary? exam (which involved swatting up on school subjects and learning Latin for the first time) and then settle down to five years of articles. Norah decided that she too would become a solicitor. In those days, articled clerks were not usually paid but the two girls were so valuable to the Manchester firm that they were kept on at full salary.

Vivien makes all this sound easy. But she was studying by correspondence course, attending lectures at Manchester University and making up work in the evenings: it must have seemed long and hard.

When the five years were over, in 1948, Vivien sat her final exams in Euston town hall; her main memory of this event is that she wrote her paper beneath a large notice, in place for the benefit of the many Yanks still in London: ?No jitterbugging allowed!?

The sisters both passed and, at the ensuing Law Society reception, as the only lady solicitors, were invited to sit at the top table.

The war was over, Vivien?s husband was demobbed and she began life as an assistant solicitor with Oswald Hanson and Smith in West Kensington. Within a year, she was once more called upon in an emergency: the sudden death of Leslie Smith meant that the firm had no advocate to go into the local courts: Vivien took the plunge.

She prosecuted shoplifters on behalf of Marks & Spencers, and found herself working flat out in Marylebone, Marlborough Street, West London and Bow Street. ?First of all, I didn?t know where my voice was coming from ? but I was shot into court ? it?s the best thing really.?

She did well: one year later, she was invited to become a partner. 


Her competence was such that Claude Hornby, founder member of the Association, spotted her and proposed her for membership. This was a matter of kudos in those early days: ?You?d only be proposed for it if you were a reasonable advocate.? And so, as the only lady member of this prestigious society, Vivien had the world at her feet. Except, of course, she was female. Marrying for the second time in 1951, she became pregnant. ?Nowadays you get time off to have children. But then the only way was to give up my partnership.

Now, that?s a terrible thing to become a partner and then have to give it up. I had to give up my partnership and stay home.?

Mid-Surrey president Four years later, she was back in court. With the advent of her two children, the family moved to Cheam. One day, with her son at school and her daughter wheeled in her pram by granny, Vivien went into Sutton for a tour of the solicitors? offices.

?That?s me. Just like the beginning and my job at Pyrene: I just called round.? At WH Matthews & Co, her second port of call, they needed an advocate. She seized the chance. ?I did whatever litigation there was, defending mostly but licensing as well, at Sutton court, Wallington, Croyden, and often up to town, to Bow Street. I remember going to Sutton magistrates? court and speaking too quickly and they would say, ?Slow down, Mrs Symons, slow down!? And then I?d go up to Bow Street and speak in the same way: ?Mrs Symons, we haven?t got all day!? ? 

Eventually a partner with the firm, she became the president of mid-Surrey Law Society. Vivien was about to round off her career with a year of consultancy when her son, Michael, qualified as a solicitor. Unable to set up on his own during his first three years of practice, mother rode to the rescue. Symons solicitors set up in Croydon in 1980 and Vivien worked
there for the next seven years. 


As might be expected, in retirement, Vivien has not been idle, continuing her passions for music and golf ? with the occasional foray back into the legal world. In 2004, she gave a scintillating talk to an LCCSA working dinner and, in 2007, outraged by the injustice being visited on a friend by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, she fought and won an appeal, securing ?13,000 in compensation. 

Looking back on the 93 years of her life, Vivien says she would happily do it all over again. She insists that, despite the difficulties visited upon her ? when her father had to leave home, when she was the victim of sexual harrassment and when she had to leave her first partnership to have children ? she has never been subject to discrimination: ?I never met any prejudice at all. I?ve had no problems at all.

Never. I think men and women are different and they work well together.?

In today?s parlance: a positive mental attitude.