19 September 2012
by Freddy Barker
Today it was revealed that Helen Ward, one of the leading solicitors in UK family law, is moving from Manches to Stewarts Law. Freddy Barker analyses what it means for both firms.
Helen Ward, one of the leading solicitors in UK family law, is moving from Manches to Stewarts Law.
Ward will bring a tantalising new angle to the highly-commercial firm, not just through her reputation in representing everyone from Paloma Picasso to Bernie Ecclestone, but also through her approach.
Famously, she starts client meetings with an inquiry into whether divorce is the only option, and is well known for providing HNWs with emotional as well as legal support. 'The empathetic approach is not a question of liking or disliking clients,' she told Spear's for the Legal Index. 'It is more therapeutic; it is understanding who you are dealing with, which direction you feel they would better be able to cope with, and which path would better suit their position in life.'
Friendly as that sounds, Lady Ward backs it up with a ferocious litigating style and a deep loyalty to clients, as exemplified in 2007 when she secured the largest divorce settlement ever -- £48 million for the wife of John Charman, the 'king of the London insurance market'.
The case represented a landmark in the treatment of offshore trusts. Involving two reported Court of Appeal judgments and proceedings in Bermuda, it set a precedent whereby English Courts ignore the existence of complex structures in favour of making orders against HNWs personally.
Lady Ward's tenacity in shaping the new legislation exemplifies the edge that she will bring to Stewarts Law -- a firm whose arch achievement to date is representing Peter Andre as, surprisingly, it has had only reported case, Goldstone (2011) which dealt with offshore entities being pulled into UK proceedings.
The move marks a dramatic rebalancing in family law league tables. For a decade, Manches, Withers, HFC and PHB have battled it out in the most high profile cases but, after the retirement of Manches' chairman Jane Simpson last summer and the loss of Lady Ward this week, Manches' place has arguably been taken by Stewarts Law.
That's remarkable. Six years ago, the New Street Square operation was a personal injury specialist with a flair for high-end litigation, yet its ambitions were such that it bolted-on a fledgling family department at the very time that the only London market entrants were spin-offs from established practices.
What was most eye-catching was head of department Stephen Foster's desire to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible, illustrated by his capture of rising stars Debbie Chism from Manches and Emma Hatley from Withers.
Six years on and Stewarts Law is a top-tier practice with a £35 million turnover. In part, that's explicable by its conflict-free nature, which leaves it open to work with the big private client firms who don't have in-house family departments, think Taylor Wessing, Macfarlanes and Baker & McKenzie -- and in part it's due to its style with HNWs.
As Sam Longworth, the senior associate, explained to Spear's for the Legal Rising Stars Index, 'We stand out because we have a commercial and results-focussed approach. We look at clients' aims, not just the numbers on the page, and we put clients in a position where they can make informed decisions as soon as possible.'That's refreshing. When getting divorced, the same empty phrases echo through every meeting -- "The best place to issue is England, we'll get you a fifty-fifty order" -- few lawyers, bar Stewarts Law, appreciate that a lecture on matrimonial law not what HNWs want, and Lady Ward will associate with that.