Eulogy: Maria Pittordis

Read by CEO Peter Jackson at Maria’s funeral held on Friday 27 October 2017. This is also available to read in Greek

‘We will quite rightly hear lots today of Maria Katsaros as a proud and protective mother, a loving husband, a loyal and caring daughter and as a simply wonderful and determined, formidable human being who loved life and lived it to the full. But for Maria Pittordis, her roles as a lawyer, a partner in Hill Dickinson and, above all, as a defender and supporter of her clients all played such a large part in her life that Takis felt that her illustrious career had to be marked today.

Maria the lawyer

As Maria’s boss for the last 11 years it is my privilege and honour to pay homage to a unique woman; a lawyer with a diverse set of skills; supreme technical abilities but combined with a problem-solving mind-set and an appreciation of what her clients needed and how she could get it for them. It would be impossible for me to celebrate Maria’s stunning career fully in the short time I have available, but please let me try.

As a lawyer Maria was irrepressible; a force of nature, a whirlwind, a tornado. It is perhaps timely to think of her as Hurricane Maria, although in the case of Mrs Pittordis, this was as a constructive force for good. As one friend and former colleague put it, Maria was a crazy mix of Queen Boadicea and Florence Nightingale, Stella Rimington and Dawn French, Agatha Christie and Sara Cox. Personally, I might have been very careful to include Dawn French if Maria was here and I might have included Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman.

Born in 1962 at King’s College Hospital in London, Maria was the daughter of Pantelis and Joanna who had come to England from Cyprus in 1960. Maria was the first-born and was followed by brother, Stelios and sister, Jenny. Maria went to Haggerston Girls Comprehensive School in Bethnal Green in the East End of London and was the first pupil from the school to attain ten O levels and four A levels and one of the first pupils to go to university.

However, and as many of you will know, Maria only became a lawyer by accident and it was never her intended career. At school Maria wanted to be a teacher of young children, a primary school teacher. In pursuit of this aim at A level she chose to do economics, biology and English Literature on the basis that she would then go on to do a degree in English. However, early on in her first year of sixth form, as we used to call it in our day, Maria decided she didn’t like economics and that the teacher was awful and so she switched courses and took an A level in law and decided she loved it. Law was the subject for her. She went on to complete a law degree at Queen Mary’s College at the University of London but even at the early stages of university maintained that she would not become a practising lawyer. Lawyers were boring, she thought. But in her second year at university - having not applied for articles at City law firms like most of her contemporaries - she began to take part in mooting competitions and decided she had found her forte. I think she probably worked out that as a practising lawyer she could have a damned good argument and get paid for it, even on the rare occasion when she might be wrong. I do not know who that economics teacher was but all of us here have an awful lot to thank him for.

Maria then qualified as a barrister in 1985 and joined Chambers at 12, King’s Bench Walk. She often related how in her first year at the Bar she earned £10k – not a bad sum for a first year in those days – by picking up cases in the County Court that other more senior barristers would not take.

Maria then joined Hill Dickinson & Co. in 1987. She only intended to come to the firm for two years to gain experience of working in a solicitor’s office. She didn’t actually know when she applied for the job that Hill Dickinson was a firm that specialised in shipping. At that time the firm wanted to develop more personal injury work for ship-owners and Maria got the job because she had conducted claimant personal injury work at the Bar. However, on joining Hill Dickinson Maria found that she loved the strategic elements of working in a solicitors’ office; an affection for strategy that followed her throughout her career.

She also often related the story of her first day at Hill Dickinson when she turned up at Irongate House with what she described as her Dallas hair do and a vivid green suit and one of the senior partners asked whose secretary she was. ’Not yours’, was Maria’s reply. That attitude didn’t last long and Maria qualified as a solicitor in 1989, quickly being promoted to associate in 1990 and becoming a partner in Hill Taylor Dickinson in 1992. A rapid rise through the ranks made easy because of her quality and her success.

In 2005, Maria became chairman of HTD, the last chairman in fact as Hill Dickinson and Hill Taylor Dickinson then merged. And it gave me great pleasure when in her capacity as chairman she signed the merger agreement bringing Hill Dickinson and Hill Taylor Dickinson back together again in November 2006. Later that year Maria and I then shared the stage at the Lloyd’s Building to speak at the combined firm’s merger party.

Maria’s rise continued in the merged firm and she became Leader of our marine, trade & energy business in 2008, a position she then held for nine years. It was a position she held with pride and despite what some of her marine partners might have thought from time to time she was fiercely protective of her people; she saw herself as their leader, once describing them as her 100 other husbands.

Maria was ubiquitous in the marine, transport and travel sectors and during the course of her career picked up a number of awards being recognised by the industry as a major influencer within the marine sector: perhaps the most prestigious were when she was named as one of the top five marine casualty lawyers in the world by Lloyd’s List in 2012 and her success in being named Personal Injury Lawyer of the Year in 2016 and 2017, by two different organisations.

But the timeline and the simple history could not by themselves do anything to capture the essence of Maria the lawyer. It cannot do justice to the passion, the dynamism, the boundless energy that she brought to her practice, to the tenacity with which she would fight for her client or to the humanity and common sense and practicality with which she approached any problem. Maria always said that a client didn’t want a 20 page report telling him what the law was; he wanted to know what he should do to solve the issue, the problem. And that is what Maria thrived on; finding solutions for her clients.

And not only did she thrive, but she loved every minute of it. I heard her interviewed on a radio programme in Cyprus during the summer and Maria was asked which parts she found most difficult in being a marine lawyer. She answered that she honestly couldn’t say that there was any part of her job that she didn’t love and hadn’t enjoyed; this being 30 years after she had joined Hill Dickinson to get two years’ experience in a solicitors’ practice.

And in those 30 years at Hill Dickinson Maria ran some of the biggest and most high profile cases to occupy the minds of those in the marine sector. Just two years into her career she was assigned to one of the largest maritime casualties ever to take place in UK internal waters when the Thames cruiser “MARCHIONESS” sank after colliding with the dredger the “BOWBELLE”, with many fatalities. In fairness, it was probably the job in which Maria made her name as the case ran for 13 years before concluding. She then worked on the grounding of the “QE 2” in 1992, the “ACHILLE LAURO” and latterly on the sinking of the “COSTA CONCORDIA” in 2012. 

And in 2015 Maria became the first solicitor to successfully defend a UK class action brought on behalf of 43 claimants for an alleged norovirus outbreak on a cruise liner, a case which saw Maria being universally acknowledged as an industry leader on gastric illness claims and regularly being invited to comment in the national and trade media. Her work in the travel sector led to her advising on inquests arising from terrorist attacks in Tunisia.

Over the last two weeks I am sure that, like me, you have all been reminiscing on your favourite Maria anecdotes; there are so many. I have so many. But perhaps I should relate one told by a former Hill Dickinson lawyer who has shared it with us in recent days. Some years ago an urgent call came in from a P&I Club for someone from Hill Dickinson to get to Tilbury to attend a vessel. A wire on a ship’s derrick had snapped, causing a container to swing across the decks, striking several crewmen. There were injuries, there were fatalities. It was a job for Maria Pittordis but Maria was in court and the hearing was likely to last all day. The young lawyer was despatched to Tilbury to hold the fort. He did his best and afternoon became evening and he feared that Maria might not have got the messages left for her or, perhaps sensibly, gone home. And then Maria arrived, or rather stormed in, resplendent in court dress and high heels, turning the heads of all of the crew and investigators as she took over and in her inimitable way immediately began dictating orders and instructions to all and sundry. She insisted on seeing exactly where the casualties had occurred and thought nothing of ascending ladders and crawling over hatch covers despite her less than suitable attire. The junior returned to the vessel the following day when Maria was more efficiently attired although even then her Adidas trainers were colourful, her tracksuit pure designer and she outshone everyone on board the vessel. Typical Maria; she would never shirk a challenge and she would always look her best, whatever the circumstances.

Maria as a partner

Internally as a partner Maria was a joy to work with if not at times a little frustrating – possibly even infuriating, but I’ll come back to that. She had vision and was passionate and ambitious for what she saw as our firm. And it is important to stress that word “our”. Whilst Maria recognised and cherished the fact that she was a leader, a role model and a rainmaker, she also realised that however she might be perceived as Superwoman, she couldn’t do everything herself and that to succeed she needed to work with others and obtain the benefit of different skill sets and attitudes. Maria built a strong team around her and was truly adored by her team members. She was also the most generous of rainmakers, generating introductions for other partners and lawyers to her loyal clients. But heaven help you if you let her and her client down. You didn’t get a second chance and she didn’t suffer fools gladly or at all!

But as I say, Maria could also be massively frustrating. When she decided she was right on a particular issue or didn’t want to do something the rest of us did then, boy, was it difficult to change her mind! And if she felt she had been slighted then, wow, the sparks could fly. Or even worse, she would play the silent card and let’s be frank, when Maria went quiet there was always a storm brewing! But it never lasted long and she always came round, seeking compromise and harmony. Whilst she could be forthright and firm she was never more or longer so than was absolutely necessary to make her point. Internal strife was not her choice and she much preferred displaying her warm geniality, impish humour and her trademark resonant, sometimes raucous laughter.

Partnership and working with people she both trusted and respected, and who trusted and respected her, really mattered to Maria. And she loved Hill Dickinson and remained loyal despite numerous offers to go elsewhere. Every few months or so she would come to me and tell me the head-hunters had been on the phone again, tempting her with offers to join this firm or that firm with promises and flattery. Maria would always meet the agents – “I want to know what that lot is up to!” she would always tell me. But she never left; Hill Dickinson and her partners were her second family, her 100 other husbands, and leaving them would have broken her heart.

Not long ago I was asked to make the opening address at a gender diversity seminar at Hill Dickinson, the attendees being a large number of senior women from across the whole of Hill Dickinson’s business.

In my presentation I identified Maria as being a role model for women in leadership roles. Now there were two issues with this. First, I hadn’t told Maria because I knew that if I had she wouldn’t have approved. Maria certainly saw herself as a role model but she didn’t restrict her view to being a role model just for women. To Maria it didn’t matter what sex, what gender you were, the only issue was whether you were good at your job and if you were that was good enough for Maria.

The second issue was that it was questioned whether Maria was in fact a role model for aspiring senior women. All those aspirants might see was a driven, focussed woman who appeared to work all the hours God sends and never took any time for her-self. But those of us who knew Maria better and were closer to her also knew that she did have a life outside work and it was a wonderful life and that life was her family, her husband Takis and her three boys, Dino, Yiannis and Pantelis, together with their extended family. That is what truly mattered to her and many of you will have heard her say that all her achievements were made for her family; without family it all mattered for nothing. Her most cherished role in life was as a wife and mother. And many will also have heard her say as I have that for all her achievements in her professional career the greatest achievements in her life were her three boys. Takis and the boys were her number one supporters and without their love and support she knew, she recognised that she could never have achieved so much.

Those of you who were her digital friends on Facebook will know that you were more likely to see posts about cooking, the latest family party or holiday or the legendary Katsaros cats as you were to see something on a work related topic.

 So I had no hesitation in naming Maria as a role model. Maria was truly a role model not only for women in business but for all of us.

And if Maria knew how to work (and she was relentlessly hard working) then she certainly also knew how to play. Whatever the occasion and wherever we were, Maria was always the first to suggest a trip to the nightclub. She might not always have been the first to arrive at the dinner but she was always the last to leave, always asking where we were going to next. And yet whatever time she finished (and frequently she knocked off a few emails before bed) the next morning she would appear without fail at the appointed hour looking resplendent and rested and raring to go. Her energy was phenomenal and her appetite for life in general and fun, whatever the occasion, were unrivalled.

Travelling with Maria was always an occasion. She always managed to get an upgrade if one was available. And any trip through an airport had to include a stop at duty free; not to buy anything for her but to get sweets and cakes for the people in the office we were visiting or presents for clients and friends. Frequently her visits to management meetings in Liverpool saw her arriving armed with cakes and biscuits from a shop she had discovered close to Lime Street Station.

Maria with clients

But if Maria loved being a lawyer and was passionate about her role as a partner in Hill Dickinson then the part of the job that really drove her on, really turned her on, was dealing with her clients. I have heard her say that she loved the marine world so much because it was full of so many wonderful people, many of whom she considered to be close friends. And consequently clients always came first and last, regardless of whatever else might have been required of her as a partner. Whether it was a management meeting, a board meeting, an AGM; it didn’t matter. And woe-betide me if I insisted she had to attend; if a client had a problem the client came first. And just in case any of you who had worked with Maria hadn’t worked it out for yourselves, she adored you. Solving your problems was what she was born to do. 

And it is quite clear that the adoration was mutual and that many of you had a relationship with Maria that went well beyond the professional and had become true and pure friendship in your eyes. In some cases friendships that had survived a professional lifetime.

How do I know that? Well, let me say this. When I pass I would like to think there might be a ripple or two in certain quarters and a few people might shed a tear and bemoan my absence. And I am sure we all feel the same. Allow me tell you that I would be surprised, amazed if anyone in this church could provoke the phenomenal outpouring of sympathy, grief, respect and emotion that Maria’s passing has brought about. We have had hundreds of messages of support from, literally, all over the world. And not just from clients but also from other firms of solicitors, opponents, barristers, marine surveyors from all walks and branches of the transport sector. 

We will produce a book for the family of all the messages we have received but let me refer to one view that I received from a client that won’t be in any such collection because it was volunteered to me whilst Maria was still with us. This was from the general counsel of a major organisation in the marine sector, a business which Maria had looked after at Hill Dickinson for many years and he said to me that he works with many law firms, including some in the Magic Circle, the elite firms, but Maria was simply the best client relationship partner and manager he had in any of his law firms or had ever known. He went to Maria when he simply didn’t know where else to go and she always delivered, without fail. Another client commented that Maria was so special because she was the best at what she did, the best shipping lawyer in the world.

But there is an irony in that comment in that Maria would always say she was not a shipping lawyer. Now we all know that such is nonsense but Maria’s observation was canny. She would never want to be pigeon holed and knew full well that to be the best and stay as the best needed her to continue to differentiate herself and diversify. Maria was the mistress of diversification, morphing into a transport and travel lawyer as her clients demanded and equally at home advising on matters relating to employment, data protection and the UK government on the likely effects of Brexit in the shipping world. What Maria might not have realised or admitted to is that what differentiated Maria was Maria herself. 

But I will end as I began. Maria was truly a force of nature, a phenomenon, a law unto herself, irrepressible and irreplaceable. I have the privilege today not only of representing my colleagues and Maria’s friends from Hill Dickinson but also those many hundreds of clients and friends whose paths crossed with Maria over many years and who thought so highly of her. And on their behalf, on your behalf can I say to Takis and the boys, thank you. Thank you for giving Maria the love and support she needed to enable her to do what she did so well for so many. You all made many sacrifices to enable Maria to get to the top of her profession and for that we are all eternally grateful.

Takis, boys, I hope I have got across a little of the love and affection held for Maria by all those with whom she worked and that I have conveyed to you that you have so, so much to be so, so proud of.

Maria Pittordis, June 1962- October 2017, may you rest in peace.'