There are new entrants to both the Top Ten and the Top Recommended categories in this year’s Spear’s Family Law Index, writes Matthew Hardeman
Revered and feared in equal measure, the 2017 Spear’s Family Law Index comprises the 50 individuals who sit at the apex of the field. These are the lawyers who undertake the biggest cases around, working with global UHNWs and HNWs, from Hollywood A-listers and Arab billionaires to nobility, City nobility and blue-chip entrepreneurs.
Their services don’t come cheap (the whole process can be life-altering, after all), but the rising demand — not to mention the increasing complexity of the law in which they operate — has spawned the ‘ludicrous’ growth in the volume of family lawyers, says Joe Vaitilingam, one of the six all-new entrants in this year’s top 50. ‘This is why you’ve got 50 top divorce lawyers in your list,’ he notes. ‘When I first started doing this there’d be barely 50 divorce lawyers at the annual conference for divorce lawyers — now there are 500.’
Vaitilingam isn’t wrong — not if the record number of nominations that Spear’s received is anything to go by. As a result it was only appropriate to expand the list to include 50 lawyers this year, including a sprinkling of barristers and rising stars.
The 2017 top ten boasts the one-woman legal battlegroup that is Baroness Shackleton from Payne Hicks Beach. As one industry insider remarks of the lawyer, who notably acted in divorces on behalf of the Prince of Wales and Sir Paul McCartney, she is ‘not only top ten, but in the top two’.
Shackleton’s long-time rival and Spear’s Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Lady Helen Ward of Stewarts Law (described by legendary QC Lewis Marks as ‘the best lawyer in London’) also features, having kept her usual raft of UHNW bombshells out of the press. Many of her cases see her going up against Diana Parker of Withers, who’s described by a peer as ‘a highly sophisticated individual who never lets her ego get in the way of a settlement’.
Ward is just the tip of the Stewarts spear: she’s joined in our top ten by managing partner Stephen Foster, who’s credited with leading the firm’s phalanx of top-tier lawyers to the front of the pack with esteemed partners such as Emma Hatley (also in our top ten), Debbie Chism and Toby Atkinson in tow. As a firm, few come close.
Mishcon de Reya family head Sandra Davis is back in the top ten, having acted in two of 2016’s most widely reported cases, Estrada v Juffali and Thakkar v Thakkar, while big-ticket litigation specialist Frances Hughes maintains her top-ten place after another heavy-hitting year at the family courts, acting in some of the country’s biggest cases, including opposite Davis in the Estrada case.
Current Spear’s Family Lawyer of the Year and immediate past president of the IAFL William Longrigg busts his way into the top ten, too, after a stellar spell at the helm of family law’s most important network — a tenure that has only increased his expertise and contact book. Fellow stalwart William Massey at Farrer also secures a place, winning over plaudits and clients alike with his eminent experience and bedside manner. The top ten is completed by Catherine Bedford, now setting up a new family law team at Harbottle & Lewis, known for its work with the Royal Family under esteemed senior partner Gerrard Tyrrell.
Chiming a different note, that totem of family litigation Sears Tooth regains its place in 2017 in our Top Recommended list, represented by head honcho Ray Tooth and partner Susan Apthorp. The firm’s bare-knuckle approach might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying senior partner Tooth’s reputation (one eminent QC told us he would choose Tooth for his battle-hardened, cigar-chewing approach).
In the 60 or so in-depth interviews conducted by the Spear’s Research Unit during the preparation of this year’s index, Britain’s top family lawyers have dissected the trends making waves in their field, from the long-awaited demise of lifetime maintenance awards (commonly referred to as the ‘meal ticket for life’), though the impact of Mills v Mills remains to be understood. In cases such as Wright v Wright, the courts have tended to opt for term maintenance awards, meaning that financially weaker parties can’t expect the eye-watering division of assets that marked out rulings in the past.
Judges, it seems, are falling out of favour with lawyers (even investing in the wisdom of a £700-an-hour solicitor guarantees nothing when you can always come up against the wrong judge). Certainly, alternatives such as arbitration continue to grow — particularly among UHNWs who demand privacy, and confidence in their judge.
Aside from Brexit and its impact on London’s position as the divorce capital of the world (see right), uncertainty surrounds the UK’s continuing commitment to the Brussels II EU legislation that forms the backbone of ‘forum-shopping’ jurisdiction races within the union. And, of course, family law remains a highly dramatic and competitive area, where personality takes centre stage and there are no holds barred.
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