Long Reads

What divorce lawyers really think about love

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Lizzie Pook
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As new legal drama The Split hits our screens, Stylist asks four divorce lawyers what it’s like when life’s one long break-up

How much would you pay someone to guide you through the most emotionally gruelling time in your life? £2,000 an hour sound reasonable? That’s how much London’s most powerful divorce lawyers can command for their sought-after services – many guiding ultra-high-net-worth clients through bitter, drawn-out cases. But the breakdown of a marriage or relationship is something that can happen to any of us – 42% of marriages currently end in divorce, according to the latest statistics – so you never know when you might need to rope in the experts.

Research from last October shows the number of divorces in England and Wales saw a notable increase for the first time since 2009 (the rates being highest for women in their 30s and men aged 45 to 49). And with the average cost of a divorce hovering around the eye-watering £70,000 mark (including legal fees and the loss of shared assets), it pays to pick the right person to fight your corner.

Shining a light on this fierce and lucrative industry is new BBC drama The Split, which starts 24 April. Written by Abi Morgan (The Hour, Suffragette), it follows a family of formidable female divorce lawyers navigating modern marriage and the impact of dissolutions on those involved (it’s also really rather entertaining).

So, is this life of law really as dramatic and glossy as we see on our TV screens? Stylist gathered together some of London’s most prestigious divorce lawyers – who do battle on behalf of their wealthy, high-profile clients on a daily basis – to talk litigation, their lives on-screen and what, in their opinion, really makes a relationship last.

Why do most people get divorced these days?

Sital Fontenelle: There is no straightforward answer, but you will normally get someone having an adulterous relationship, usually with someone from work, because that is the only arena in their life in which their spouse isn’t present. Actually, though, when you delve deeper and get into the history of it, there will have been issues for a long time – whether there is coercive and controlling behaviour, resentment because one party is the breadwinner and the other had to give up their career, or there’s a strain because they have tried IVF and it hasn’t worked. A marriage or relationship doesn’t simply end because one partner goes outs and cheats. There is always something at the core of it.

Connie Atkinson: Addiction is playing more of a part, too. Not necessarily to alcohol or drugs – although addiction to prescription drugs is coming up more – but also gambling, sex and love addiction.

Philippa Dolan: I’ve had lots of cases recently where women have said, “We’re getting divorced because I’ve fallen out of love,” and it is usually the woman who says that. It’s not always someone having an affair. It can just be, “Do you know what? I’ve had enough.” People are braver. Part of it, of course, is that women are far more financially independent these days.

Lucy Gould: They are OK just being by themselves.

SF: Yes. Even though fewer people are getting married and more people are just cohabiting, silver divorces (between those over 65) are increasing. Mainly because of women having more choices and financial independence but also because we’re living longer. I recently dealt with the divorce of a man in his 90s. He was still going out and about, he went to bridge club, he was very sociable. He said, “I’ve got 10 good years left”, and he’s still going, so why not?

Is social media having a big impact on divorce?  

CA: Oh yes. You can see what’s going on all the time. Messages [on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook] often feature in evidence.

SF: I had a client the other day who’d been tracking her husband on the Find My iPhone app and realised he hadn’t been where he said he’d been. But social media also gives people a skewed perception of what the ‘perfect’ life looks like. People look at others and it seems like they have the ideal marriage – they’ve got two children, they’ve both got amazing careers, and they look great because the filters on Instagram are so good. Anyone would look at it and think, ‘Oh, my life’s a bit boring’. It has a huge impact in terms of the strain it puts on relationships.

CA: Also, I often tell clients they need to take more care with social media. I remind them, “You are now under the spotlight of litigation. Everything you write, say or text could potentially be relevant or used against you.” I often tell them to draft posts, leave it for a bit then go back to it and think, ‘What would Connie say?’ 

Some high-profile divorce lawyers have nicknames such as ‘The Diva’ (Ayesha Vardag of Vardags) or ‘Jaws’ (Raymond Tooth of Sears Tooth). Is having a ‘rep’ something you strive for? Is it good to be seen as a ball-buster, or is it better to be sensitive and soft? 

PD: I don’t think soft is ever good, but when it comes to being a ball-buster, there are some clients who want that approach and there are a lot who don’t.

LG: I don’t think you can fake it either. You are who you are. Some clients come to it and think they want someone to absolutely fight, and then you get into it and they think, ‘Actually, no, I can’t do this.’ The goal is to settle things as quickly and as amicably as possible. But sometimes there are issues – like difficult lawyers on the other side – and we just can’t.

SF: If the gloves have to come off, they come off, but there’s very little point in being a rottweiler the entire time. Because ultimately, you’re just giving your client more ammunition to hate the other side and the other side’s solicitor. Costs escalate and you’re never going to settle. You’ve got to be careful about point scoring.

PD: Oh yes, I often remind myself that the more I’m enjoying writing a letter [to the opposing lawyer], the more I probably shouldn’t be writing it. The minute your ego comes into it, you’re in trouble.

How important is your personal appearance?

PD: There is one particular firm, who are very well-known, who must always wear red. They all enter buildings at the same time and the women must have blow-dries. It’s compulsory. It’s a big marketing thing for them because this is a competitive industry. But for me, meeting clients is more about chemistry, whether you’re going to represent them well and whether you like them. It’s very personal.

SF: Usually, you’ll know within an hour of meeting someone if it’s going to work or not. They can rely on you very emotionally. I’ve got a lady in her 60s who’s getting divorced and she has never been on her own. She said she chose me because I remind her of her daughter. On the converse, I once had a client who took one look at me and said, “Oh god, you remind me of the woman my husband just left me for!”

CA: Some clients ‘beauty parade’ you. So they’ll go to three or more different firms and have a first meeting with you to see who they like best. Sometimes it’s tactical, too. They will book meetings in with the five best lawyers in London, just so their ex-partner can’t.

Do people specifically ask for a female divorce lawyer?

PD: Yes, but it makes me wary…

SF: I had a male client once and the allegations made by the wife concerned things like rape. She claimed he was a narcissist and

a bully. We were discussing what barrister to get and I suggested a male QC [senior barrister] who’d done well on a similar case. He said, “No, no, no – I want a female.” His aim was to be there with a team of female lawyers on his side, to say, “This is not what he’s like”, and to soften his image. I can see why, in a way, but judges are used to it and don’t get influenced. 

Has being in this industry had an impact on how you view relationships or marriage? 

SF: I was divorced then remarried. I’ve learnt that the two things that are really important in a relationship are time – spending time together just me and him – and letting the little things go. My husband does many things that annoy me, but you have to let them slide.

LG: I’m single. My job hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, put anyone off but being in this industry does make me more realistic. Because you see what makes relationships disintegrate so often, it just makes me more respectful of the other point of view.

CA: I’m married now, but my parents separated when they were quite young, so I never really thought relationships were forever. It was interesting when I was talking to Abi [Morgan; Atkinson is a legal consultant for The Split] the other day who was saying, “Some people say that marriages are fantastic but finite.”

PD: I’m definitely more tolerant in letting things go. I also married one of my divorce clients…

LG: There’s a story!

PD: It’s my second marriage and I represented myself in my previous divorce case – I wouldn’t have coped well with someone else doing it. But my husband is always telling me I interrogate people about their personal lives, because I’m used to doing it at work. He says I ask intrusive questions. I’m just used to being direct. I mean, how often in other jobs would you start a conversation with, “So, how much do you earn?”

Can you look at a relationship and pinpoint why it works?

CA: I think so. I met with a psychotherapist the other day and she was telling us how we can manage anger. She said if someone comes at you, a client or someone from the other side, who is really furious, you should just say, “Gosh, you’re really angry. It seems like you’re really upset by that.” It’s these skills in diffusing tension calmly that I’ve seen in successful relationships. 

What’s it like seeing your job represented on screen? Is it realistic? 

PD: No, usually not.

SF: I love it because I’m very passionate about what I do. One of the reasons I wanted to become a lawyer was because of a show called LA Law, so whenever I think about [these TV shows] I imagine a younger girl looking at it and thinking, ‘I want to do that’. On the other side of the coin, it isn’t always realistic. But I guess that’s the same with any hospital drama – it just isn’t as glamorous. 

It’s hard work – long, unsociable hours – and because we deal with emotions it’s hard to switch off, even if you’ve got years of experience, because clients want to speak to you all the time. Sometimes you’re their only comfort blanket and there are so many forms of communication nowadays – Whatsapp, email, text. They can easily find your mobile number or tweet you. They know when you’ve been on LinkedIn or when you haven’t. It’s intense.

CA: While working on The Split I was incredibly impressed with how Abi and Claire [Batty], the script editor, wanted it to have a real feel. There are things they haven’t included because it’s a TV show running over six hours and they just can’t, but they cared so much about understanding what we did, our relationships with our clients and the issues we face. There hasn’t been a programme about divorce lawyers in London before and it’s focusing on the mega-rich, so it’s not going to be everyday people, but there’s so much of it that’s absolutely right.

PD: It’s a rich seam certainly. I worked on Doctor Foster and what I quickly realised was that my advice was so dull, because I kept saying, “No, you can’t do that. That’s way too dramatic.”

What advice would you give to someone about to go through a divorce? 

PD: I’ve had a lot of divorces where both parties are fine; they’re at the start of the rest of their lives.

CA: It can be terrifying. You see another side of a person who you thought you knew really well. You are also facing a life you never thought you would have, but you do come to terms with it.

LG: Even the people who never recover, it’s a cliché but time makes things better. Life does move on.

PD: Often, somebody comes in heartbroken at the beginning and can’t see a future. But as it goes on, if their husband or wife has behaved appallingly, they kind of fall out of love with them. By the end, they’re saying, “Thank God I’m divorced.” It can’t be too quick, you need that pain. A bit of pain can be good.

The Split starts on BBC One on Tuesday 24 April at 9pm

Photography: Mark Harrison

Other images: BBC