Meet Victoria Clarke, a family law solicitor who understands crypto - a vital skill set in divorce disclosure - and find out why friends were not allowed to sleep in her spare room and why she still gets carded when she buys alcohol.
There is a picture of Victoria Clarke in the attic, covered in a faded sheet where her image ages unseen. In the real world, this successful 30-year-old solicitor still gets carded when she tries to buy alcohol. I peered at the image on her WhatsApp profile as we began this interview and I had to ask if I was speaking with a grownup and not a teenager by mistake.
It was indeed Victoria Clarke and we continued to have an interesting interview about her tenacity and determination to study law, her work in family law practice, and how her knowledge about cryptocurrency makes her the ideal sleuth in crypto asset detection for disclosure in divorce cases.
Victoria moved around a lot as a child. Her father worked for an international pharmaceutical company and they moved from the UK to Spain, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. She had to change schools and friends on a regular basis. “It made me confident,” she remembers. “Not shy but confident otherwise I would not have made any friends.”
She returned to the UK permanently when she was seven years old and she knew she wanted to study law, even at that early age. Victoria also interned as a teenager with a number of legal firms where she viewed the working life of barristers and solicitors. Although confident still, the life of a barrister did not appeal to her, rather she preferred the desk work of the solicitor.
“Give me a problem to solve and that makes me happy. Working on legal cases is like working on a puzzle; each piece of knowledge may be used to find a solution and uncover the whole picture.”
However, while waiting for her A-level results, Victoria was concerned her grades might not be good enough to study law at her chosen university.
The UK system allows students to have offers from two universities, one often requesting high grades and another backup choice requesting lower grades. If a student doesn’t get the grades they need for either option, UK universities and colleges use a system to fill any places they still have on their courses, called Clearing. However, in most cases, a student can only apply for a space through Clearing once you have your results.
“I was pretty certain that my results would not gain me my first choice so I knew there was a very strong possibility I would have to attend my second choice university. This I did not want to do as I felt the final degree would not be worthwhile, and so I thought it would be more effective to go through the Clearing process but in a slightly different way.”
So on the day before the results were released, Victoria began speaking with Clearing Departments at various universities to get an idea of what might be available in their history departments and what grades they would accept to fill a Clearing place on their course. On the morning her results were due out, she was already on the telephone at 8:30 am with the head of the History Department of Southampton University. “We’ll take you,” he said and she was officially accepted onto a three-year history degree without knowing what A Levels she had got.
“History was amazing,” Victoria remembers. “The choices of courses were phenomenal. I got to study the history of medicine, the history of romantic literature, the history of homophobia. In fact, my dissertation was on the myth of all Ancient Greek men being gay.”
There was even an option to study the history of curry and, while Victoria and her friends did not opt for this course, they loved the idea of eating their way through Curry Houses of Southampton for study.
In addition to offering innovative history courses, Southampton has a large Jewish community and history. Having lived in Germany, Jewish studies were of interest to Victoria.
“I was aware, even as a child, of the concentration camps and it had made a big impression on me. We visited one camp while living there and the small things really haunted me – the piles of wedding rings, shoes and luggage. The scratches on the oven walls where the Jews were killed.”
I, too, visited Auschwitz Birkenau camps last year with my choir, the Island of Ireland Peace Choir, and the same feelings and emotions resonated with me. “How can there be Holocaust deniers?” We both shook our heads in bewilderment. Victoria described to me how the History Department often received anti-Semitic correspondence to this day. “Horrible,” she shuddered.
With her primary degree successfully under her belt, Victoria now set her sights on studying law. She applied for and was successful in getting a place on a conversion course which took one year, followed swiftly by the Legal Practitioners' Course, which is the bridge between academic study and training in a law firm. After that, she needed to obtain a training contract so that she could matriculate into a full solicitor. These training contracts are very hard to obtain, often with thousands of applicants going for a handful of places.
Victoria temped across a number of different law firms in the Surrey area in the UK before finally getting the treasured training contract. During this time she had worked in a number of legal areas, from tort to conveyancing, but when she worked in family law she knew she had found her passion.
“I discovered that I could make a difference in family law. Compare that to commercial litigation. When you do a good job in that sector, no one really gives you praise. It is expected that you should be competent and good at your job. There is no real reward.
“But compare that with family law where the work I do can make a huge difference to my client and their family. Watching someone flourish - now that is very powerful.”
However, it is not all plain sailing, as family law cases can be complex, troubled and tricky.
“There are times when my clients cannot get any sense out of their ex-partners. There is no conversation or any form of agreement. Then I generally advise my clients to use the courts, use the process and let the law work.
“But it is not easy. People often say that the adversarial nature of family law in the UK is bad and that mediation should be the preferred course and, of course if mediation works then that is super, but sometimes the reason a marriage breaks down is because one partner dominates the other and if they chose mediation it can just result in the dominant partner forcing their agenda on the weaker partner.
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“If that happens, then when my client returns with the so-called deal, it is totally unfair and we have to go to court to get the fair result but, at this stage, my client has already spent a lot of money on the mediation course which has not worked at all.
“At the very start of any consultation, I ask my client, who knows their partner much better than me, if mediation will work. If it is unlikely to work, then we don’t waste time there.”
I am nodding again in agreement – this time as I have been on the pointy end of a divorce case. I am adamant that mediation is far superior to adversarial clashes but I too know in my heart of hearts that mediation would not have worked in my divorce. Whether I was the dominant one or compliant, I shall leave the reader to decide for themselves. Answers on a postcard please.
Working in this demanding yet rewarding area is not straightforward. Early on, Victoria learnt two things: The first was not to bring work home. However horrible the divorce, it stayed in the office. The second thing was to make judgement calls. Often times, cases were like simmering volcanoes, where an ill-judged letter or move could ignite the whole divorce and set it back several months.
One example Victoria gives is of an angry client responding to a niggling situation. “He rang me late in the afternoon and demanded I write a letter rebutting some action. I asked him to sleep on it and we would talk again in the morning. When we did speak he had calmed down and I was glad as I knew such a letter – while technically in the right – would have only inflamed an already incendiary situation.
“If I was just interested in money, I would have written and sent the letter, but I wanted the client to flourish. To be able to start again with dignity.
“It’s like that puzzle I spoke of before – each divorce is a puzzle to be solved. And,” here Victoria laughs, “if I can negotiate a deal where neither party is particularly happy, then I know I have achieved the fairest result possible for all.”
So where did blockchain and Bitcoin get into the picture? Victoria’s partner is a techie. Back in 2011 when Silk Road was about to be busted and everything about Bitcoin was nefarious and on the dark web, he discovered mining.
“He was happy to mine Bitcoin, it was the cleanest option and one that he felt happy doing. So he turned our spare room into the mining farm. For three years he mined solidly, upgrading his cards as he needed.
“It was funny whenever any of our friends would come and stay as we’d fight over turning off the machines as it was too hot and too loud for anyone to sleep next to them.”
By 2016, the cost of mining Bitcoin proved too expensive and, instead, Victoria and her partner rented out the machines to other companies to mine altcoins.
But the early experience and exposure to Bitcoin did two things for Victoria. Firstly, it got her interested in ICOs. Not many, just a couple including the London Blockchain Exchange in which they both invested. “We saw the community grow from just 250 people to now more than 25,000. That is exciting and continues to hold our interest.” The second was the possibility of cryptocurrency assets as part of a divorce settlement.
This manifested itself during the last year as one of her clients was divorcing from a director of an ICO.
“Had I not been cognisant of cryptocurrency and ICOs I might have fallen into the trap of thinking he had millions stashed away. Instead, I used my own knowledge and that of my friends in this space to look closely and expertly at the project. This allowed my client and I to make reasonable assertations as to the real value of the assets and hence the fair division of same.
“Had I not known about cryptocurrencies I might have bounced either way by ignoring them or over-pricing them. Either way would have resulted in an unfair result for my client.”
Victoria has developed an awareness of digital assets. “If I am reviewing financial statements and see transfers of fiat to Coinbase or another exchange, then I know we need to dig a little deeper. Likewise, I have been given a snapshot of a wallet’s balance as proof of money but not the historic transactions. This I also need to know.”
As these issues became more prominent, Victoria asked the rest of her large law firm if anyone else had any experiences or ideas. “It was like watching tumbleweed – no one was there.”
So Victoria wrote a blog, a basic explainer of Bitcoin and blockchain, and this ran in a regional legal circular. The response was much better and now she has a network of professionals who can assist her and her clients in this nascent area.
“I now have access to professionals who can analyse a crypto or blockchain business and provide a report on the value of the asset. Or report on the value of an ICO or know how to read a crypto wallet “
The concept of smart contracts and the immutability of blockchain will also be valuable in cases of dispute in the future. “Smart contracts will become an integral part of putting agreements in place and not only will people not be able to argue about the original terms and dispute details, they will also not be able to ‘lose’ emails and other documents that may be pertinent to the contract – they’ll all be there to view forever.”
And as for that erring partner, they had better make sure they disclose all their assets or there will be a crypto divorce lawyer after them.
For more information, please visit Victoria's website and blog at www.stowefamilylaw.co.uk