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Piranha Or Pussycat

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday July 30, 1993

LINDSAY SIMPSON

CAROL Foreman's voice at the end of the telephone is a mite defensive. "I am really just a divorce lawyer," she confesses in a rush in response to a request for an interview. "I am a really nice sort of a person," she says. "I'm not the person that my image portrays. I am not a barracuda and a piranha. In my personal life I am just a pussycat."

Foreman has been described as Sydney's high-society lawyer, "Australia's equivalent of LA Law's glamorous Grace van Owen: attractive, gutsy and successful in a male-dominated field".

Among her former clients are the artist Brett Whiteley, Carol Willesee (the former wife of Mike Willesee), Diane Millstead (Barry Humphries' former wife)and Harry M. Miller.

In the high-flying lucrative days of the '80s when family law was booming, Foreman's face - as the first family law partner at Clayton Utz, one of Sydney's more prominent legal firms - was everywhere: from "woman makes good in man's field" articles in women's glossies to business weeklies where she dispensed advice for husbands on how to protect their assets from avaricious wives.

But the tide has turned. Divorce does not seem to be the booming business it was in the '80s, or, at least a few of the larger firms, such as Clayton Utz, which had rushed to embrace it, are now phasing it out.

And Foreman, who now practises alone, is caught in her own personal vortex. This Monday, she confronts one of the nastiest hurdles in her 18-year career in family law. The Legal Profession Disciplinary Tribunal will begin an inquiry into her conduct during a 1989 divorce case (see box) in which the wife, whom she represented, was reportedly charged $500,000 in legal fees out of a property settlement in the sum of $579,000. The Law Society is seeking an order that she be removed from the roll of NSW solicitors.

It is almost two years since Justice Moss in the Family Court first referred the matter to the Commonwealth and State Attorneys-General and the NSW Law Society. A spokeswoman from the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) told the Herald that last May the DPP had found: "No evidence is disclosed of any offence."

It is understood that Clayton Utz also filed a complaint about her conduct to the Law Society. The acting managing partner of the firm, Glen Eggleton, told the Herald: "We would rather not be interviewed or comment in relation to Carol Foreman."

Despite the closeness of the proceedings, some days after deliberating the Herald's request, she agreed to be interviewed, arriving 10 minutes late and ever so slightly flustered at her chambers in Macquarie Street.

The offices are predominantly navy and maroon - plain and a little sparse compared with the marbled foyers of her competitors. A colour photograph of the ships on Sydney Harbour during the Bicentenary is one of the few prints on the wall. The biscuits served with the instant coffee are of the no-frills variety.

No longer is opulence in the legal fraternity a salable commodity. Nowadays it pays not to remind your client that you can afford such luxury.

Richard Ackland, the editor of the law magazine Justinian and the watchdog of our legal set, when asked for his opinion of Foreman, commented: "It was part of the culture that she was riding - this age of the '80s. It (the Family Court) had developed into such a high-powered industry.

"This culture that evolved in the Family Court was fired by hugely aggressive, overcharging and adversarial solicitors. The original concept of the Family Law Act was to minimise this."

Foreman sits at the head of the boardroom table. She is well-groomed and petite. Her fair hair is pulled back in a bun, and she is dressed in a smart jacket, skirt and silk blouse.

She shies away from most personal questions, saying nothing may be printed about her two children.

Despite being on her own turf, she seems uneasy and insists that Kim Garling, the former president of the NSW Law Society, be present.

So where did her "piranha" reputation come from?

"I think it's just efficiency," she says. "They say these derogatory things about you ... lawyers who are incompetent don't like being shown to be incompetent."

It illustrates the extent of her influence among the legal profession that few solicitors will speak on the record about Foreman. Some admit they are even too intimidated to say something nice.

Foreman hotly disputes the assertion that she overcharges, although she will not quote her precise hourly rate.

She says she is on call for many clients 24 hours a day. To illustrate the point, she describes how, recently, after seeing a client who had driven from the country one Saturday night she cooked him "a classic French omelet".

Asked about Brett Whiteley, she recalls that he hated coming into her office as it gave him "vertigo". He preferred her, she says, to come to his"stude" (Surry Hills studio).

"At one stage he was sitting up on this cruddy bedroom on this unmade bed watching this video of him half-spaced painting Alchemy. You have to do that with clients. Matey - he always called me mate."

Asked whether she was the lawyer he was referring to when he complained bitterly about what lawyers charge, Foreman admits he did complain that "it was costing a lot of money" but that was because of the drawn-out nature of the work she was doing for him.

However, one Sydney art dealer, who has had some dealings with Whiteley, told the Herald he remembered being in the room when Foreman rang once and Whiteley hurled abuse at her.

The Herald has been unable to establish if other clients have complained about her to the Law Society.

When talking of her family, it is a late aunt of whom Foreman speaks in the warmest terms. Her aunt and uncle ran a general store in West Wyalong and it was their influence, she says, which led to her becoming "a high achiever".

She describes her relationship with her mother as "quite good". Her father, a master butcher, died when she was at university. Her parents "struggled" to put her through SCEGGS, Redlands. She has one brother, Keith, who lives on the North Coast, whom she hardly sees.

Foreman has seen many changes in family law since she started practising in it exclusively from 1975.

"It was a lot tackier in those days," she says. "We had to allege cruelty, adultery or desertion and there was a separation ground which was five years when you didn't have to prove any fault.

"I had a flair for family law, possibly because I was understanding, passionate and quite meticulous with my drafting of documents. I think because I've been a sports person I have got a keen tactical attitude."

Foreman says of her divorce from Jeremy Bingham (a former Lord Mayor of Sydney) in 1986: "We didn't stoop to any litigation ... we just agreed."

Bingham concurs: "We are still very good friends."

Bingham's only comment on the downside of living with Foreman was that she was "very competitive and very determined ... It can be very tiring living with that."

Despite the amicable separation from Bingham and her apparently close current relationship with the solicitor Rupert Rosenblum, Foreman did not, it seems, have such a straightforward parting from Alan Cole, her former de facto, although they are reportedly now friends.

Cole is understood to have lodged a statement of claim at the Supreme Court against Foreman seeking compensation which included a share of the profits in relation to property transactions. This included a property in which they lived together on the North Shore where Cole alleged that he had contributed to the renovation of the home. It was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.

As for the current allegations, Foreman is convinced she has been singled out partly because she is "a high-profile woman".

"I've never looked upon myself as a female lawyer," she says. "I've always thought I was just a lawyer, but it seems that being a woman in this situation exacerbated the problem."

Many of the allegations cannot be discussed in detail because anything which might identify the participants is not allowed to be reported. And there is the secrecy problem. Both the Law Society and the tribunal refused the Herald's request to make public what is contained in the seven-page complaints against her, despite the fact that it will be an open hearing. A spokesman for the tribunal refused to name those who will sit on it.

As to the dispute over the existence of a cost agreement, Foreman is adamant that she gave one to the wife concerned. She says it was standard practice and that this cost agreement was seen by a former secretary and three accountants, and was drawn to the attention of a former partner at Clayton Utz.

As to the cost, according to Foreman, she was one of 12 solicitors who worked on the case which, she says, was in court for a total of 57 days. She says the matter traversed several courts, including the Family Court and the commercial division of the Supreme Court between December 12 and July 13.

FOREMAN says she has always encouraged her clients to settle and to avoid thrashing a dispute out in court. She says it is misleading to imply that the wife received only $579,000. "It was one of those matters where both parties had access to unlimited funds," she says. "She got $579,000 in cash. She already had a house; she had a car. She had $1,000 a week maintenance."

Foreman says part of the reason for the woman getting substantially less than she expected was because of the drop in property prices leading to the matrimonial home being sold for much less than its original valuation.

She also states that the rates at which she charged her clients were decided by Clayton Utz, not by her.

Foreman also points to the fact that Peter Twigg, the solicitor employed by the wife who disputed the Clayton Utz costs, was himself the subject of a court action over a disputed costs agreement. (The Family Court held last September that an agreement between Twigg's firm and a client was unenforceable.)

Garling queries if Foreman has been victimised: "What is so astonishing about this case is: why is Carol Foreman, the person, being accused? Where you have large firms, whom do you accuse of overcharging - one partner, each of the partners, the whole partnership? Where does the blame lie?"

Asked if she has ever done anything wrong in terms of altering documents, Foreman replies: "Well, there is one element in the complaint which I will be admitting that I had done ..." although she will not comment further.

Despite Foreman's playing down her tough reputation, some of her behaviour serves to illustrate what an aggressive litigator she can be.

For instance, in the costs dispute proceedings between the wife and Clayton Utz, Foreman swore an affidavit which spent 30 out of 53 pages detailing allegations against another solicitor, Mark Symonds, the son of Cedric Symonds, also a solicitor and a close friend of Foreman's.

Mark Symonds was originally employed as the couple's solicitor and the court was told that later he developed a close relationship with the wife. Foreman alleged, in her affidavit, that Symonds photocopied documents belonging to the husband and gave her information which would go against the husband in the divorce proceedings.

Justice Moss said the assertions made by her, if found to be true, amounted to "a serious breach of one of the principal features of the solicitor-client relationship, the confidentiality of the communications".

Later Justice Moss commented: "If there were an ulterior motive in swearing the material, one would be compelled to assume that it was to deter (the wife)from prosecuting the proceedings further, by making it plain that to do so might destroy Mr Symonds professionally."

During our interview, Foreman was liberal with acrimonious comments about those she obviously dislikes.

She is scathing about her relationship with Clayton Utz, which she says, as far back as July 1990, wanted to "close family law down" because it was not making enough money. She said she was put under "unbelievable pressure" to make sure bills were paid within 30 days and this included ringing the clients at home herself.

She admits her mistake was to take up the challenge from the firm to be competitive. "From the beginning of 1991 to by the end of September, on the computer figures I had outperformed every single partner in the whole firm as to amount billed, days to collect, fees and hours worked," she says.

"I couldn't have gone on because I was literally killing myself just to prove they were wrong. I self-destructed myself. What I should have done, in hindsight, I should have built my figures up and then I should have gone to a better firm with this incredible practice and people would have crawled over broken glass (to employ me)."

Foreman says her decision to set up her own business (she admits she was sacked) was because "then, if I didn't want to charge a client, or if I wanted to charge a different rate or carry a client, then I could do so - it was my own decision".

The split was far from congenial.

As to her future, Foreman is circumspect. She agrees it is "tantalising" to look at opting out of family law.

"I think law's too narrow," she says. "Do I want to continue and do this for another 20 years? I mean, there'll be another (problem like this) no matter how careful you are in the kind of work that I'm doing, and I sort of think, well, really, do I need that?"

As for future clients, Foreman says she will avoid anybody who gives her a"funny feeling in the stomach", particularly the sort of client who becomes dependent on her. "If a client now brings me flowers before a hearing - that's the kiss of death," she says.

THE 1989 CASE

September 1989: A woman consults Foreman, then working at Clayton Utz, about her deteriorating marriage.

July 1990: The woman receives a property settlement of $579,499 and later receives a bill for her legal costs from Clayton Utz of more than $500,000.

February 1991: The wife consults Peter Twigg, a different solicitor, and commences proceedings against Clayton Utz over the costs of the divorce case, asserting that no costs agreement ever existed.

October 1991: Four days into the hearing the wife wins the right to be reimbursed the difference between what she paid to Clayton Utz and the family law scale fees as well as having her costs of the current proceedings paid.

October 1991: Foreman leaves Clayton Utz.

August 6, 1992: The Law Society files a seven-page complaint to the Legal Profession Disciplinary Tribunal following a six-month investigation into Foreman's conduct, seeking an order that she be removed from the roll of NSW solicitors.

The complaints include: "Misleading the Family Court, abusing the process of that court, propounding false documents, gross overcharging and improperly receiving and using facts and documents."

© 1993 Sydney Morning Herald

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