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Perspectives: Ayesha Vardag

‘People need to be physically near each other and feel each other’s chemistry – otherwise everything is just cold and dry and boring’ – Ayesha Vardag on changing the law, how WFH trashed intellectual collaboration and why sex, love and money make family law endlessly interesting

What made you decide to become a lawyer and, once you’d made that decision, why did you choose family law?

I wanted to be an actress, a journalist or a novelist, not a lawyer at all. I got interested in law spending time with my lawyer aunt in New York during my gap year, but still went to Cambridge to read English Lit. But I found that more of a crash course than an exploration, and felt that I might as well switch to the intellectual attractions of law. After a term I realised that studying law is terribly dull, it was the last thing I wanted as a career and I didn’t apply for any law jobs. I went straight to the BBC when I graduated. But then a scholarship that I’d forgotten I’d even applied for came through to study for a masters in European law in the French-speaking university in Brussels. I remember at the time my boyfriend told me: ‘Just because you get an opportunity it doesn’t mean you have to take it.’ But the BBC was supportive and I wanted the voyage of discovery offered by this exciting international frolic.

I had an incredible year in Brussels mostly clubbing, dancing on tables and falling in and out of love, and when I came back to England I was just looking, in rather a shallow way, for the job most likely to get me abroad again; hence Linklaters, at which I trained and worked in London and Moscow in the nineties. So I came to a career in the law by wanting to live abroad, which may come from some deep identity challenges within me (a whole other story) rather than through liking law especially.

I came to family law through my own divorce in 1999 – after I’d done some homework on my own case, my divorce lawyer, Raymond Tooth, hired me to work for him at Sears Tooth. I found family law was more interesting than any other law I’d done, and combined all the things I loved – people’s stories, things that really mattered to them – sex, love, children, home, money, their future, their past… they needed someone to understand them, speak for them, write for them and fight for them. Someone to take them from ground zero and despair back into a positive future. I have a very low boredom threshold and family law is the only area of law, for me, that is endlessly interesting and fulfilling, hence having my own firm now for almost two decades.

What have been your top three career highlights ?

Obviously Radmacher v Granatino [2010] was incredible – I fought day and night for three years to change the law in favour of my client, to make prenuptial agreements work, when law said they were against public policy and bad for women, and the rest of the profession was saying I was deluded. I went deep into the historic case law to show the way was open to this change; I set out a shift in the zeitgeist in an era of gender equality, and I laid out the ways in which the existing approach was paternalistic and patronising to women, as well as out of step with rest of the world and contrary to individual autonomy. I did press, I did interviews – I felt what I needed was to create a fresh perspective on an area that everyone thought was done and dusted. And I was so proud that I was able to achieve that, with eight out of nine judges in the Supreme Court agreeing, and an historic win for my client. More than just making prenups work, the case has become the benchmark for the principle of autonomy versus state control in marriage.

On a human level, though, my happiest career moment was when we won Y v A Healthcare NHS Trust [2018]. A husband was in the course of fertility treatment with his wife to give their child a sibling when he was fatally injured in a road accident. The paperwork required by law to get his sperm for posthumous conception wasn’t there, though everyone believed it was what he would have wanted. Working with the brilliant Michael Mylonas KC, we came up with the plan that the Court of Protection could sign it for him. We were able to give that widow and her child the opportunity to have the second child from her husband that they had so wanted. That sense that we had been involved in the creation of a life, and in a family’s future at such a profound level – that meant more to me than anything.

Another highlight was Chai v Peng [2017], in which we won the biggest-ever court award of its time for the former Miss Malaysia, Pauline Chai. If the case had gone forward in Malaysia, as the husband contested it should, she would have got nothing at all. One of the reasons the Malaysian court said it had jurisdiction is that a wife is not allowed by law to have a domicile that is different from her husband’s, which obviously riled me. We had to fight so hard to show that Mrs Chai had made her home in England, with her Alpacas and a shoe collection that ended up in evidence. At one point we had the whole firm, from receptionists to partners, going through thousands of emails into the small hours with pizza deliveries at dawn to prove that a housekeeper was lying about Madame not sending her many emails about the English house. The affidavit we produced was cited in the judgment as probative and we won. I’m proud that I run a firm where everyone cares enough to pull together and get results like that.

What has been your biggest professional challenge and what did you learn from it?

Covid was hell. Not because the clients stopped coming, but because it trashed our community. The market insecurity, not knowing whether work would keep coming in; it all meant that as a prudent organisation we had to ‘trim the fat’of excess cost in the business, while the atrocious WFH phenomenon broke what had been such a fun, deeply bonded, mutually supportive community. People stopped learning from each other, in what had always been a hugely collaborative, apprenticeship culture. People languishing at home with no-one to bounce stress off or laugh with were dropping like flies with mental health issues. Work was there but people weren’t doing it and we were heading for oblivion.

I took the very hard decision to say no, this is not who we are. We’re an elite firm and we want the best people; people who are committed to their work and their community and want the fast lane, the best work and will go the extra mile for it. And only those people. So we need to get back into the office and work as a community again. It was very tough, as I lost people who had got used to working from home – people that I valued. But then I gained brilliant, dynamic people who shared my vision and my work ethic. And thank God it has all now come together, with our community happy and laughing and thinking and debating all day together; the juniors supervised, the seniors supported, one great, bonded community again the way it used to be. It was worth it, and one of the upsides was it got me personally full-on back into the day-to-day frontline client work, which has been really great, both for the firm and for me personally, but God I never want to go through anything like Covid again.

What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in your market since you’ve started practising and has it made it better or worse?

WFH trashed intellectual collaboration in our field and the mental health of our practitioners – praise the Lord it is dying a death now and will, I hope, end up consigned to history like the social isolation after Spanish flu. People need to be physically near each other, hear each other’s voices, feel each other’s chemistry. Otherwise everything is just cold and dry and boring.

What advice would you give to those who want to get to where you have?

Know your stuff, then make your own decisions, and don’t let anyone discourage you. Fortune favours the brave.

What do you think is the most important change that needs to happen in family law in the UK?

We need to codify the principles so we’re not dependent on case law, which varies so much from judge to judge that evaluation for settlement purposes is like a turn at roulette – presently it all depends which judge you get allocated to.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing your clients right now?

We work with the ultra-high-net-worth community and for them, the biggest risk would be a government that messes with the ‘res non dom’ flat tax scheme which would make them all move to Dubai.

And finally – what was your favourite childhood book and why?

The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield – I was obsessed with Greek mythology; indeed with all ancient religions – Egyptian, Norse, Chinese. Or The Horse and His Boy from the Narnia series – it had horses, obviously, and also a feisty Arabian princess with whom I secretly identified. I was an only child and I read a lot. Books were my friends. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly about the value of a living community now that I’m in a position to create one.