19 September 2012
by Katy Dowell
Manches' star family partner Helen Ward has quit the firm for rival Stewarts Law.
The move has sent shockwaves through the family sector with one leading divorce lawyer calling it the biggest move since Fiona Shackleton quit Farrer & Co in 2000 for Payne Hicks Beach.
"It's been expected for some time," the partner said, adding: "It's big news. The top divorce lawyers just don't move."
Ward joins Stewarts with two senior associates, two associates and two support staff. She sealed her place as a world leader in family law in 2007 after she successfully secured the largest ever court divorce settlement for Beverley Charman, the ex-wife of insurance millionaire John Charman. The Court of Appeal said Beverley Charman, represented by Ward, was entitled to £64m (24 May 2007).
She also represented film director Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna, who was represented by Shackleton ( 17 October 2008) and Formula One tycoon Bernie Eccleston, in his divorce from Slavica Ecclestone (21 January 2009).
The news comes just months after Manches chief executive Judit Petho announced she was quitting less than two years after joining the firm (5 July 2012). Petho was appointed to revive falling profitability at Manches, telling The Lawyer shortly after her arrival: "Manches hasn't lived up to its full potential for a long time. If you don't have strong leadership and you don't push people, you lose track of where you're going" (28 November 2011).
Petho's appointment came after the firm lost several partners to rival firms. Including Ward, five Manches partners have now departed for Stewarts Law. Family partner Debbie Chism, who worked as part of Ward's team at Manches, joined Stewarts in 2009 (30 March 2009). Chism was followed by litigation head Clive Zietman and partner Andrew Shaw the following month (13 April 2009 ) and they were joined a year later by commercial litigator Keith Thomas (31 May 2010).
Manches said it was committed to family law but did not comment on who would succeed Ward in the lead partner role. At the end of the latest financial year the firm's family and private client practice contributed the largest proportion of the firm's £30.2m turnover at £11.7m, or 38.7 per cent.
According to market commentators the obvious successor would be partner James Stewart. One partner said: "Don't underestimate James. He has a good following and is a strong rainmaker for Manches."
Stewarts Law family chief Stephen Foster launched the firm's practice in 2006 after joining from Lester Aldridge. He told The Lawyer in 2009, after the hire of Chism and former Withers partner Emma Hatley, that the aim was to develop a top tier family group.
He said: "There's room at the top for a new player. If [Manches and Withers] are the Oxford and Cambridge of divorce, we want to be the new world equivalent - Harvard."
Today (19 September) Foster said: "The evolution of the divorce department reflects the development of the firm itself. We have gone from being a £5m firm six years ago to turning over £35m at the last year end and aiming for £40m this year."
He continued: "Stewarts had never done a divorce six years ago. Our aim then was to become a leading practice. We got close to it two years ago and with Helen's fantastic reputation and the team she is bringing across, it all makes the perfect fit for us."
In a statement Manches said: "Helen Ward is leaving Manches in November. Helen has made a significant contribution to our firm and our family department in particular, since she joined 18 years ago. We would like to thank Helen for all she has contributed and we wish her every happiness for the future.
"Our family department has for many years been top ranked for family law in the directories. This year we are delighted that four members of the family law department have been short-listed for individual awards in the prestigious Family Law awards, the winners of which will be announced in October.
"Manches is one of the UK's leading law firms, with 44 partners and offices in London, Oxford and Reading. Four solicitors will be leaving with Helen."
The team includes:
Helen Ward - partner at Manches joining as partner at Stewarts
Catrin Readshaw - senior associate at Manches, joining as associate
Charlotte Cuevas - senior associate at Manches, joining as solicitor
Jenny Duggan - associate at Manches, joining as solicitor
Clare Surenyi - paralegal at Manches, joining as solicitor
Faith Parsons - secretary at Manches, joining as team administrator
Michelle Walker - secretary at Manches, joining as word processing operative
Nicola Saunders - paralegal at Manches, joining as paralegal