Diana Holtham, head of construction at Berrymans Lace Mawer, is not prone to sentimentality.
Commenting on her retirement after 20 years at the firm, Holtham says: “I always intended to retire early to go and do something useful instead.”
Not that Holtham is writing off the last two decades, during which she has become known as a highly-rated lawyer in construction litigation.
But she says: “It’s a bit much to expect anyone to go on enjoying doing the same thing for 20 years. My advice to a young solicitor would be don’t assume that you’re going to go on enjoying it for ever.”
Her tone may seem dour but Holtham is being characteristically honest.
Julian Campbell, a clerk at One Paper Buildings, who has worked on a number of cases with Holtham, says: “She’s very sensible. It may seem like an odd comment but she is very straightforward – no underhand dealings.”
Holtham first started mulling over the prospect of leaving the firm three years ago, around the same time that Berrymans merged with Lace Mawer.
She hints that the timing of her decision was no accident. “It was part of a trend that law firms are getting much bigger.
“Personally, I’m happy in a small environment. The bigger a firm gets the more people you find you don’t know.
“So many people get used to the increase in income, they go on spending it and when they get a bit disenchanted they find it hard to get off the treadmill.”
She says that the merger benefited the personal injury (PI) division at the firm but questions whether it created synergies in other specialist divisions like, for example, professional indemnity and company and commercial.
“There is no education, just a job to be done. The advantages are very clear to see for PI, but less obvious for the rest of us. Also, the firm needs to think about the career structures and what is the career progression.”
Holtham says that when she first started at the firm she advised smaller groups of professional insurers.
However, her face darkens when she talks about the changes which have occurred in the insurance sector, stating that insurers increasingly emphasise competitive tendering.
“The insurance companies are looking for value for money but one suspects they are looking at the cheapest price. It is not the same thing,” she says.
“It’s not such a nice atmosphere as it used to be. But it’s probably just me being King Canute.”
Campbell says that he was not surprised to hear she was leaving Berrymans: “I don’t think she has been particularly happy there.”
Which is why Holtham says that on her departure she is contemplating turning away from the ever-increasingly cutthroat area of litigation to work as a volunteer environmental, housing or immigration lawyer.
These are the kind of areas Holtham hoped to practice when she began to study law at Exeter University. “I went to a local comprehensive. I’m not going to pretend I came from the gutter but I think the majority of lawyers come from the upper echelons of society.”
Holtham was Berrymans’ first female lawyer. “It was a bit of a shock to most people,” she says. “They used to apologise when they swore and were painfully concerned about offending me.”
She was also responsible for recruiting the firm’s first black lawyer, construction partner Michael Salau, who, she says, “will inherit a few of my clients”.
Salau, who has worked with Holtham through qualification to partnership, says: “She has a great sense of fairness.
“Many people are quite envious of her for taking that decision. It is something that will be applauded.”
He also says that she has not been one to seek the limelight, contrasting her style with that of the firm’s national senior partner Paul Taylor, who will temporarily run the construction practice until Holtham’s replacement is found.
He says: “They both take a very commercial approach, but Paul is much more high profile.”
Despite her voluntary aspirations, Holtham says she intends to take life at an easier pace, adding that she would like to spend more time on photography.
However, as we gaze around the room decorated with Holtham’s photos, I wonder whether this construction lawyer will let go of her profession as easily as she professes she will, as every photo is of a building.
Head of constuction
Berrymans Lace Mawer