Interview with Top UK Divorce Solicitor Ayesha Vardag Chat with Divorce Saloon: Just call her the "Diva"

Introducing Ayesha Vardag, the Divorce Diva of London…and Chairman of leading family law firm – Vardags…
Ayesha Vardag is as formidable as she is feared in London’s Divorce and Family Law bar. She is routinely described as “hard-hitting” “tough” and “driven.” One of the top, most sought after divorce solicitors in UK, Ms Vardag put up her shingle in 2005 in a room in her townhouse only to succeed at building a highly regarded multi-million dollar pound practice less than a decade on.

What I have learned is that setting up a business is about four things: having a strong vision, possessing incredible drive and determination to push it through, finding the right people and inspiring them, and not being afraid to take a big leap in the dark.

Ayesha Vardag, Money Maker Magazine

But don’t be fooled into thinking she is so one-dimensional. Ayesha is also a hopeless romantic to wit:  A girly girl, she is a bit of a fashion maven – the Anna Wintour of divorce  court, if you will – with a penchant for designer suits, expensive pearls and well coiffed hair.
Divorce Saloon had the honor of speaking with Ms Vardag about divorce in UK. The following are her answers to our “toughest” questions:

You – your firm, Vardags –  were singlehandedly responsible for prenups being enforceable under UK law. Talk to us about the Radmacher victory. How did you pull that off?

I felt that the zeitgeist was changing, not least because the perception of women as ‘so desperate for marriage they shouldn’t be held to their bargains’ was falling away. I approached the case on the basis that the law didn’t have to remain static – it could and should change for a changing society. I got deeply into the law on the subject, developed a vision and pitched it strongly.  I made unconventional decisions like going up to the Court of Appeal with a junior barrister not a QC, because that junior, Richard Todd (now a top family law silk with whom we’ve won many more victories), just really got it.  Then I fought like hell, worked days and nights for three years and left no stone unturned until we won definitively in the Supreme Court. 

Were other lawyers admiring or a little bit envious of this massive haul you enjoyed with Radmacher?

I think most of all they were shocked – a lot of the old guard had told me I was a fool to think I could change the law on prenups. Inevitably there’s some envy but that’s the price of any success.

How did you get the reputation of being the “Diva” of the Divorce Capital of the world?

Easy Living magazine gave me that nickname in a feature piece and it caught on. A diva is traditionally a grand opera star – Maria Callas was the most famous diva. I accept that I’m quite a flamboyant character, as well as very demanding of excellence, and I used to sing opera and still go to the opera all the time, so I absolutely love the title.

What are the risks associated with drafting prenups in light of the Radmacher decision?

You need to make sure what you’re setting up is fair – you can’t leave anyone destitute or in real need at the end.  There can be grey areas around that and you have to advise your clients to keep re-evaluating if their circumstances change. But if you do it properly you can expect the agreement you made to be binding and get you out of the misery, mess, cost and uncertainty of the court system to stick to a plan you made yourselves. In a climate in which divorce can work like a 50 per cent tax on your total wealth, having a prenup is what gives some people the peace of mind to get married – otherwise they just wouldn’t tie the knot.

Talk to us about the procedure for clients retaining divorce counsel in UK. Is a retainer agreement mandatory? Can a solicitor recuse themselves if they are not getting paid by client as agreed? What limitations if any are imposed on solicitors talking to the press about their divorce clients and cases?

You always have a contract with terms and conditions which form the basis of your professional relationship with the client. Yes, if you’re not getting paid you can stop acting and apply to come off the court record. 

Regarding press, firstly, you’re completely driven by your client and what they want. Most of my cases never see the light of day because we keep them completely under wraps. But big or interesting cases are increasingly heard in open court or with media presence, so if you have those sorts of clients you need to know how to talk to the press on your client’s behalf. There is confidential information, which you get from the other side in the proceedings, and unless that comes out to the public domain via court you can’t reveal that. Equally, you mustn’t argue an ongoing case through the media in a way which could influence the judges. 

Can a lawyer accept a contingency fee?

Conditional fee agreements are common in general litigation but not permitted in family law. It makes sense in children cases but no sense at all in money cases. We’d love to be able to say to family law clients, yes, we’ll take on this risky, high stakes money case to try to get you what you’re entitled to despite the difficulties and we think we can win it – and we accept that if we do you’ll pay us a big chunk of what we get for you, but if we don’t we’ll lose out. Clients always want us to do that and we’re not allowed. There’s an ancient rule against lawyers being invested in the outcome of the case which still applies to family law. It’s insane. It would be very good for clients to have lawyers more invested in the outcome of the case. It would make them a lot more accountable. 

Are there any rules in UK about charging excessive fees? What is an excessive fee for a divorce solicitor in UK? What is the maximum fee you have seen?

If a client thinks you have overcharged they can ask your bills to be assessed by an independent body. Of course, the rate you agree with your client is a matter of private contract and it’s market-driven.

The important thing is to be proportionate to the case. If you’re fighting over hundreds of millions, spending a million on the lawyers who are going to get you your share is a good return on investment. The costs for divorce lawyers are a lot less than for international corporate demergers which is what big divorces are most similar to.   

At £650-750 per hour, I think I’m the most expensive divorce lawyer in London. That’s because I get results.

Can a solicitor put a “no refund Policy” in his or her retainer agreement?

You can’t contract out of the client’s right to have your bills assessed for overcharging. 

Can a UK solicitor share fees with lawyers from other jurisdictions and if so under what conditions?

There are various complicated rules about fee sharing agreements. The bottom line is always full disclosure and transparency with the client.

 How do you manage work/life balance? What does a divorce diva solicitor do to unwind after eating the competition for lunch?

I love the opera, travelling and seeing the world, riding my horse with my daughter in the Hampshire countryside and hanging out watching movies with my partner and kids. I love spending time with them especially in our house in Southern Italy, which is an incredibly green and natural environment and offers a simpler way of life. I think my family are the most fun people in the world and they’re where I really get my happiness. 



Questions by Lawyer X

Adapted by Jeannie Goldstein


Ayesha Vardag has acted for and against heirs and heiresses, tycoons, international footballers/polo players, celebrities and royalty. Over the past year alone she has been noted as acting in almost all of the biggest cases running through the courts including acting for Li Quan in the international tiger charity case, the Marchioness of Northampton in her high-profile settlement, for Yasmin Prest in the High Court case which ran into the Supreme Court corporate veil victory of Petrodel v Prest, for Michelle Young, obtaining the suspended committal of Scott Young for non-disclosure, for Meshkah Tawfik – the wife of a Qatari prince, for Nivin el Gamal against Sheikh Ahmed of Dubai and for the former Miss Malaysia in a case reported to lead to potentially the biggest award in English family court history.
Vardags, which Ayesha founded as a sole practitioner in 2005, and of which she is chairman, has in 2013 won the Halsbury’s award for Law Firm of the Year, London, beating much longer established generalist firms. The firm now has more than 45 members and is the biggest family law presence in what is described as the “magic circle”. It has embraced the hard-core financial nature of the ultra-high-net-worth divorce market by hiring in a former McKinsey engagement manager to head up a forensic corporate/commercial team and a former head of trusts from another leading firm to inform those elements of its matrimonial cases.
Ayesha Vardag read law at Queens’ College, Cambridge, with a Duke of Edinburgh award for membership of the Inner Temple. She was a Cambridge Wiener Anspach scholar for a Masters in European Law at the Université Libre Brussels. She worked on expert research projects at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and at the UN (IAEA) Legal Division in Vienna and helped draft the nuclear energy Safety Convention. She qualified and worked initially as a finance solicitor at the global City law firm Linklaters (London, Moscow) and then at the New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges in London. She is dual-qualified as a barrister of the Inner Temple and did pupillage at leading professional negligence set 4 New Square. Her training in matrimonial law was as a mini-pupil to Nicholas Mostyn (then QC), then as one of two assistants to Raymond Tooth at Sears Tooth, who hired her away from the Bar after working with her on her own divorce. She has run the family law course at 5 star Law School Queen Mary’s, London. She set up her own specialist family/divorce law firm, Ayesha Vardag Solicitors, in 2005. The firm incorporated and became Vardags (and the only exclusively family law firm finalist for ‘The Lawyer’ award for ‘Niche Practice of the Year’), in 2010, by which point it had become the go-to firm for some of the weightiest divorce cases in the country. Ayesha’s background as a finance solicitor and barrister contribute to her negotiating skills and litigation savvy, while her personal experience of the divorce courts enables her to address her cases with empathy, compassion and common sense.
Publications: Ayesha regularly appears in the media as an expert on the leading cases and legal issues of the day, appearing not least on BBC News, CNN, the Today Programme and Newsnight and throughout the national and international press. She has published articles in Spears Wealth Management and the New York Huffington Post. Her views have been canvassed by the Law Commission. She is sought out as a lecturer, appearing recently at the Shelley Society at Eton, the White Paper conference, the inaugural session of the Law Society’s public debates, on “The End of Marriage As We Know It” and at the Marriage Foundation’s inaugural conference.
Professional Memberships: Law Society, Inner Temple, Family Law Bar Association.
Languages:  Fluent French and Italian, conversational Spanish and rusty Russian, Urdu and Portuguese.
Personal: Ayesha is a Shehzadi of the Pashtun Lodhi dynasty which ruled India before the Mughals.  She grew up with her English mother in an Anglo-Scottish home in Oxford as one of the children of New College where her mother worked, while being romanced with the stories of her father: barrister, politician, alumnus of Magdalen College and the youngest ever senator of Pakistan. Amnesty campaigned for her father when he was repeatedly imprisoned and mistreated for making pro-democracy speeches under martial law and he faced down three assassination orders under a previous regime. Ayesha’s grandfather was exiled by the British for pro-independence politics and her grandmother grew up in the old royal style, carried everywhere until her marriage by bearers in a palanquin, then became an exiled princess in a palace in the deserts of Saudi Arabia until her husband was recalled to become Mayor of Karachi.
Ayesha was named for the legendary heroine of the 19th century novels by anthropologist and explorer Rider Haggard, dubbed “She-who-must-be-obeyed”.  She is a member of the Oxford and Cambridge club and enjoys opera, travel, movies and dramas, four horses, a cat, two dogs and five combined children in family life in Winchester, Islington and Southern Italy.
Read more: