A VISIT to a secret part of North Yorkshire has cast a spell on solicitor Karen James.
The head of conveyancing at Huddersfield law firm Ramsdens Solicitors visited tourist attraction The Forbidden Corner with 13-year-old son Toby and was inspired by what she saw.
The Forbidden Corner is a unique labyrinth of tunnels, chambers, temples, follies and statues set in a four-acre garden in the heart of Tupgill Park, near Middleham.
“You walk around the gardens and come across all sorts of treasures from a glass pyramid to 40ft giants,” says Karen.
“We’ve decided to create our own Forbidden Corner in the garden at home. So now I’m working on making a bigger-than-life-size witch out of chicken wire and papier mache! I’m not really a ‘crafty’ person, but we’ve just been enthused by the visit. I’ll have to waterproof it somehow when it’s finished so it can stand in the garden.”
Karen’s Fixby home backs onto Huddersfield Golf Club, so quite what the members will make of a fearsome witch staring at them as they try to sink that winning putt is anyone’s guess!
Karen joined Ramsdens 20 years ago and has seen the Huddersfield-based law firm grow in that time – not least in her own department specialising in residential conveyancing.
She says: “I always knew from about the age of seven that I wanted to be a lawyer. I think I was influenced by my father being a senior police officer. I had visions of wearing a wig and gown, going to court and puling out a last-minute witness to win the case! The reality of private practice is very different. It’s not nearly so glamorous.”
Karen was born in Middlesbrough and later lived in Northallerton before coming to Huddersfield University to study law in the 1980s. She trained with Parker Bird before joining Ramsdens in 1991.
“At that time, there were 33 staff in total, all at Ramsden Street – and one conveyancing solicitor,” she says. “Now there are 40 in my team and the firm has eight offices in Huddersfield, Edgerton, Holmfirth, Slaithwaite, Elland, Mirfield, Dewsbury and Halifax. It has changed beyond recognition.
“As head of department, I am based at Ramsden Street. While it would be nice to get out and about a bit more, there’s an awful lot of work I can do from my desktop. I can view any file in any office.
“Managing a growing team has brought different challenges, but we have adapted our working methods to accommodate that growth while technology is making it easier to manage and supervise what goes on electronically.”
Technology has also influenced clients’ expectations. “You have to provide the service people want,” says Karen. “Clients expect instant communications. Other organisations have moved with us as well. The Land Registry, for instance, now provides copies of title deeds within seconds. When I started, searches would take 13 weeks! Now people can complete a transaction with us entirely online.”
Despite the slump in the property sector, Karen says her department is busy and has even been recruiting. “It’s not because the property market is doing any better,” she says. “The market is fairly stagnant. But the number of people offering conveyancing services has got smaller, so those still doing it are getting a bigger share.
“Land Registry statistics show that the number of firms of solicitors submitting Land Registry applications has halved since 2008.
“It is all down to service Our clients come back to us time and time again, which suggests we are doing something right. They recommend us to others. The best source of new business is through recommendation.
“We have a large client base and we are working around the country – and overseas.
“I have a lot of overseas clients, including ones in Singapore and Hong Kong, who are buying up property in central London.
“We have taken our services to where the market is moving. We have a number of chains of estate agents in Surrey, for example, who send us work.”
Karen says: “We have been very fortunate to survive the recession – which happened almost overnight. The trick was to respond quickly to the new market conditions.”
Karen says the market now needs the kick-start traditionally provided by first-time buyers, but admits: “They are finding it hard to get mortgage finance. Their deposits are coming from third parties – such as mums and dads or grandparents.
“One of the biggest problems is that lenders – who have rightly tightened their lending criteria – are getting more stringent about who they will act on their behalf.”
Although she is head of department, Karen says she remains a “hands-on” leader – even at the height of the market.
“If you are not hands-on, you lose track of what the job is all about,” says Karen “It means you are also better able to see what could be done to improve the service you offer.”
Karen says she “lives to work” but weekends find her driving the “mum’s taxi”. She says: “Weekends are structured around Toby’s sporting activities. He plays rugby for his school and Huddersfield Rugby Union Club at Lockwood Park in the winter. In the summer, it’s cricket.”
Beach holidays are definitely out – in favour of something more adventurous. “We’ve trekked through the jungles of Borneo and been on a road trip down the west coast of America,” says Karen. “We even got stuck in Hawaii when our plane was twice forced to return to the airport. If you’re going to get stuck anywhere, Hawaii’s as good a place as any!”
Meanwhile, Karen doesn’t hanker after the drama of the courtroom.
“We’re lucky in residential conveyancing because we get an end result that people want,” she says. “It’s not particularly contentious. We aren’t fighting for a divorce or half a house or someone’s liberty. Our clients are grateful at the end of the job and that’s very rewarding.”