The Big Interview: Legal boss Maurece Hutchinson talks to Margaret Canning about her love for personal injury practice and her time chambermaiding for David Bowie
'While I loved doing criminal law, now I feel I can really help people and make a tangible difference’
From the age of three, Maurece Hutchinson knew exactly what she wanted out of a career as she watched a 1970s daytime TV drama about the criminal law system.
Now she's the managing director at JMK Solicitors in Belfast and Newry, Northern Ireland's biggest legal practice to specialise in personal injury law.
The firm employs around 60 people, including 23 solicitors, and majors in acting for claimants in road traffic accident cases.
But Maurece is keen to grow its clinical negligence side, and has a special interest in cases of children suffering injuries after being starved of oxygen at birth.
Maurece is the mother of two children, Natasha (12) and 10-year-old Nathan. She is married to Paul, and the family lives in Banbridge.
Looking back on her early interest in law, she says: "I remember sitting under the ironing board when I was about three while my mother was doing the ironing. Crown Court was on TV and I remember being just fascinated by it."
Fast-forward 13 years, and as a pupil at Omagh Academy, Maurece's resolve to pursue law strengthened the more people tried to put her off it. "They would say it was too hard to get into and I would never get the results you needed, and that I wouldn't do well because I didn't have any connections in the profession. And neither of my parents had gone to university," she says.
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Her parents Olive and Maurice "didn't really have any money but they were really invested in us".
"They used to live in Ballymoney where they had a coffee shop called The Pop In. They had lots of famous people coming into it, like Joey Dunlop and Seamus Heaney," she says.
Later, the family moved and had a sweet shop in Castledawson, Co Londonderry. A spirit of competition grew between her and her older sister Amanda and younger brother Clyde. Amanda now owns a whiskey business in Yorkshire while Clyde is a businessman with a background in science, including a PhD in biochemistry.
Maurece applied herself relentlessly at school and got three As at A-Level, and studied law at Queen's University, Belfast.
But before her A-Level results came, "I told myself I'm going to London and I'm not coming back unless I get really good grades". Maurece got a job chambermaiding in St James's Club, an exclusive venue with accommodation.
There, she followed in her parents' footsteps by having a few celebrity encounters.
"David Bowie was staying in the club by himself during one of his tours. I was tidying his suite and I was absolutely starving at the time. His breakfast was still sitting out and hadn't been touched so I tucked into it. But he came back into the room and I was tucking into his Danish pastry."
But the rock star was extremely pleasant and gave Maurece complimentary tickets for his tour.
David Coverdale of Whitesnake also stayed there and was lovely, she adds. But dealing with celebrities of such magnitude didn't necessarily improve her self-confidence.
"I am a very shy person and I have fought against shyness all my life. I'm a horrendous worrier and always have to remind myself everything will pass."
But Maurece says she won't let any of her worries get the better of her. "I'm not a confident public speaker so I have done a public speaking course. I hate flying so I will get on a plane all the time," she says. After entering the Institute of Professional Legal Studies in Belfast, she started an apprenticeship with law firm Wilson Nesbitt in the city. It now focuses on conveyancing and family law but in the early 1990s while Maurece was training, it still had an active criminal law practice.
In a throwback to her old viewing habits, she loved criminal law. "I used to love going up to Crumlin Road Courthouse to represent people in court, and I remember getting the underground tunnel between the gaol and the courthouse, and really just loving it."
But as time went on, criminal law was becoming less attractive. Maurece feared for the future of young clients who could potentially be caught in a spiral of criminal activity. Personal injury, in contrast, offered the hope of a better outcome for clients who'd suffered a loss. "I suppose I feel that with personal injury you are at least helping people," she says.
"I loved the personal injury side as I was very interested in anatomy and medicine and loved understanding that area of work. I might have gone into medicine but I couldn't stand the gore.
"And with personal injury, I have really loved helping people and feeling like I was making a tangible difference."
Where a case results in a satisfactory settlement for a client against a party who has caused them an injury, "people are so much happier at the end of the process", says Maurece.
"It's an area where you can really make things better."
She's still haunted by some of the horrific injuries suffered by clients in road traffic accidents.
"There was the lady who survived a terrible accident when she was pinned to a car. Another male client was given a 5% chance of survival and in fact the police thought it was a fatal road accident when they found him.
"He had suffered a catastrophic brain injury but all he wanted from a settlement was to have enough to leave and live a new life in Spain."
Maurece joined JMK Solicitors in 2005. It's owned by Jonathan McKeown - also the owner of accident management firm Crash Services, which he bought over from his father Michael McKeown.
JMK has been ranked the top personal injury firm in Northern Ireland for the fourth year in a row after figures from the Compensation Recovery Unit showed it had handled 1,420 separate personal injury cases in 2017.
Maurece is keen to develop its clinical negligence side, and has extensive experience in representing parents whose children have suffered brain injury at birth, leaving them needing constant care.
The sums awarded to parents where hospitals admit liability can be significant, but she adds: "Nearly all the money goes to provide care but very little goes to the injury itself. Often liability may not be admitted until the last minute and for the lawyers that is a breakthrough, but for parents it's finally the realisation that they could have had a healthy child without the negligence."
Maurece is regional coordinator for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. Research by the firm led to the discovery that insurance companies had settled with around 1,800 children who suffered car accidents over six years, without them having legal representation.
Maurece has lobbied for the practice to be outlawed, leading Lord Justice Gillen to give it prominence in the Review of Civil and Family Justice in October 2016. "I really am like the terrier on your sofa when it comes to matters like that", she adds.