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Revealed: The leading family lawyers of 2018

Some of the finest legal minds of the age fought it out for another year in the changing landscape of matrimonial breakdown, and there are a few surprises, writes Chris Jackson

Family law can be a strange spectator’s sport, dominated by a series of formidable women and a man famous for smoking cigars. By and large, the Spear’s Research Unit found this to be the case again this year.

The ever-colourful Fiona Shackleton gave Spear’s a privileged insight into her stellar team; Lady Helen Ward remains among the very best (‘I doubt she gets out of bed for under £50 million,’ a peer tells us); and the superb head of Hughes Fowler Carruthers, Frances Hughes, optimistically calls her trade ‘the opposite of being an oncologist’. Sandra Davis, who fearlessly tells us ‘I don’t accept defeat’, and Withers stalwart Diana Parker, who ‘aims to get the best settlement without raping or pillaging’, complete the ranks of the queen bees.

Meanwhile, Ray Tooth – though not in our Top Ten this time – is still active on rarefied work (‘He obviously still loves it,’ an observer told us), alongside fellow Sears Tooth partner Susan Apthorp – even though he is not all that far off 80.

While family law can sometimes seem to move as glacially as an application through the Family Law Division, other stories are beginning to emerge – some are looking to the next generation. That includes reigning Spear’s Family Lawyer of the Year Emma Hatley and Charles Russell Speechlys’ Miranda Fisher, who was the runner-up at our awards and enters our Top Ten for the first time.

Catherine Bedford of Harbottle & Lewis is still going strong after her move from Lee & Thompson last year, and Withers’ Julian Lipson – a new arrival in our Top Ten – has a developing niche acting for Premier League footballers. Stephen Foster at Stewarts – the man who masterminded that firm’s ascent to greatness (‘just me and a paralegal on day one’ he recalls) – completes the Top Ten.

But in this world where £100 million-plus work is scarce, it’s a brave thing to strike out on your own as Joe Vaitilingam has done, lowering the cost for the client, Norwegian Airlines-style, at Vaitilingam Kay: no surprise, then, that a senior observer describes the firm as ‘the future’. Maggie Rae has also made an interesting move lending her considerable gravitas to new venture Newton Kearns. Spear’s will be observing how that goes with its usual diligence.

In such a Darwinian environment, it’s hard to break into our Index – and difficult also to retain one’s place. New arrivals this time around include Forsters’ Joanne Edwards, who has contributed to a 50 per cent increase in turnover at the Mayfair firm; Fiona Read of Russell-Cooke, who is regularly active in the £20 million range; committed advocate of arbitration Sam Longworth of Stewarts; Boodle Hatfield’s James Ferguson, who is described as ‘very wise, very astute’ by clients; and Jane McDonagh of Simons Muirhead & Burton, fresh from a win in a ‘huge’ material non-disclosure case.

But Spear’s is also restlessly curious, and this year the Index has branched out to reveal our top six family lawyers beyond London. These are: Caitlin Jenkins, who presides over Mills & Reeve’s family team in Cambridge; Bristol-based Sarah Hoskinson of Burges Salmon, whose star is ‘very much in the ascendancy’; Brigid Turner, a name partner at Turner Nicholson, who works in London, Northampton and Oxford; Irwin Mitchell’s Ros Bever, who is arguably the leading family lawyer in Manchester, with landmark Supreme Court cases to her name; Nicola Harries, the head of family at premier Guildford firm Stevens & Bolton; and Simon Thomas, who leads the family team at Exeter-based firm Michelmores.

All these lawyers – as well as our three top recommended barristers and rising stars – have an intellectual landscape of considerable richness to contend with. If one had thought the human heart’s essential constancy might lead to monotony in this area, one is mistaken.

Instead the complexity of human relationships keeps seeping into the caseload: in long marriages, there is a presumption of a 50:50 split, but the departure from this is still an open question; periods of cohabitation now look as though they can be ‘nuptialised’ by the courts; and there are fears voiced in some quarters that the popularity of arbitration will lead to the ‘privatisation’ of divorce (see right). Meanwhile, the advent of cryptocurrency might one day make it difficult to determine the asset pool.

Divorce, then, is a reflection of society. It’s not only the most empathetic area – ‘Family law is what really matters to you,’ as Stewarts’ Debbie Chism puts it – but is, in addition, a highly complex and evolving one. Brexit will not make that any easier, since it’s unclear what it might mean for courts when deciding forum. Further, the almost unanimous cry for ‘no-fault’ divorce has still not been met with meaningful legislation by a government concentrating on leaving the EU.

All of which makes these advisers worth their sometimes eye-popping fees. Each has seen it all, and will steer those involved, children included, towards the only destination that matters here – the new and mended life.

Chris Jackson is deputy editor and head of the Spear's Research Unit

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