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Legal eagles take off to put care before the cash
THERE is a lot of warmth and laughter in the offices of the solicitors’ firm run by Mandi Wilson and Sue Kessler.
It is this grounded approach which has led them to launch an unusual venture that is more about helping people than making money.
Both women enjoyed successful careers in different fields before deciding to retrain in the legal profession.
Now the pair have launched their own company, which only takes on legal aid work and deals specifically in the emotive world of care proceedings.
Having a good sense of humour to get through tough times are surely personality traits that will stand them in good stead.
Mandi, 50, says: “Sue keeps us laughing even when it has been a particularly harrowing day.
“If we have been in court and we come back and have a bit of a cry, we have to find a way to pick ourselves up, so there is a bit of funeral parlour humour going on.
“Our job is to think about what is best for the child. We will do all we can to help these parents. A lot of them are very young and keep their children, but sometimes there is that realisation from them they are not capable of doing that and that can be very hard.
“Often they are very brave and our role is very much that of pastoral care as well.
“That is why it has never been, and could never be, about making money.
“We have clients ringing us up all the time and we could never turn them down and not speak to them, but we don’t get any more than just the amount we are able to claim back from legal aid.”
As well as only dealing with legal aid cases, they also differ in making house visits or holding meetings on neutral ground.
Sue says: “We have tried to avoid having a stuffy, dusty office, but many of the young people we represent feel more comfortable in their own homes or meeting somewhere neutral, so we will do that.
“We are down to earth and approachable and we will do all we can to help them.”
Born and raised in Tendring, Mandi is the mother of two grown-up daughters.
Having worked as a building society manager for a number of years it was while involved with Colchester Housing Forum in the Nineties she began to think about how she could help people finding themselves in dire situations.
She says: “I was coming at it from the point of view of lender repossession and I came to feel I wanted to be working on the side of people having difficulties. That’s when I decided to have a career change.”
With the support of husband, Steve Moffatt, Mandi began a law degree at Essex University, quickly becoming involved with its children’s centre on a voluntary basis.
Having earned her degree, she did not immediately study for the LPC, which would mean she could practice law. Instead she started working for Government department the Legal Services Commission.
She had already met Sue, who was also volunteering at the children’s centre.
Brought up on Colchester’s Greenstead estate, Sue says she always had an interest in the law.
She says: “As a youngster I had suffered crimes and seen a lot of my friends and family suffer crime. I had a strong sense of fairness from when I was very small.
“Growing up on Greenstead I would see children come and go, taken into care and sometimes not come back.I think I always wanted to help parents who were trying to do the right thing and keep their children.”.
She said being attacked by some older boys when she was aged eight had a massive effect on her – but made her realise she was not going to be a victim.
She says: “I have used it to propel me forward and to fight bad things. I think it was when my passion for righting wrongs began to kick in.”
Before re-training, Sue worked with severely abused children.
She says: “I reached a point where I was 35, I had started a new relationship and I wanted to be able to fight for people in a better-equipped manner. My new partner was very supportive and said, ‘Why don’t you become a lawyer’?
“He thought I had the right sense of fairness and so I applied to Essex University to do a law degree.
“I was still working full-time and also volunteering at the children’s centre, where I met Mandi.”
Both women say there is often a cycle of children being taken into care.
Sue says: “We see it on many occasions where children have been in care, have babies without being given the necessary parenting skills and then the cycle begins again and their children are then taken from them.
“I think we both want to try and help break that cycle. To help give these parents the confidence and support to get them back on track so we are working with other agencies like Ormiston Children’s Centres and Sure Start to help build up their skills.”
Realising their individual strengths, they teamed up to launch Wilson Kessler Dan (WKD) at Severalls Business Park.
Mandi says: “We don’t know of any other firms that do this, although there are some sole practitioners working from home, who are doing this.
“It is a risk, but we believe it is one worth taking.”