Loving The Split? Meet celebrity divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag

The Split is back for its third and final series, once again immersing viewers into the fast-paced, high-pressure world of divorce law.

One person who knows all there is to know about high-net-worth divorce is Ayesha Vardag, one of the UK’s top divorce lawyers. Her firm, Vardags, is the go-to place for celebrities, billionaires and royalty – not entirely unlike the fictional firms portrayed in The Split, then.

One of Ayesha’s biggest achievements was winning a landmark Supreme Court case that resulted in pre-nupital agreements becoming enforceable in England and Wales. She also campaigned for the introduction of the ‘no fault’ divorce, which has just come into force in England and Wales.

Ayesha Vardag
Stefan Gifthaler

We chatted to Ayesha to find out more about the reality of working in family law, plus her advice for anyone going through a divorce.

What drew you to a career in divorce law?

It was my personal experience of divorce. Originally I worked in commercial and financial law, but when my own marriage broke down, I hired a divorce lawyer, then worked closely with him on my case. After the divorce was over, he offered me a job. Divorce law is exciting- you have to balance tough advice with supporting people in a sensitive, delicate situation. It’s a great mix between being very logical as a lawyer, and on the other hand, being very creative intellectually, and telling a story that’s compelling, so that you can present your client in the best possible way to the judge.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?

There’s a real sense that you’re making a difference to someone’s life. You can see the results of what you’re doing; clients are moving to better homes, or [in the case of domestic violence] not getting beaten up anymore. Sometimes you have people who have been completely deprived of any autonomy or independence, and suddenly they are in a position to start making their own decisions and living their own lives. It’s just so satisfying to see that. It’s a privilege.

How does dealing with high-profile divorces differ to a more ‘average’ split?

Certain clients are very interesting to the press, which is a real point of anxiety for them. In that case we work side-by-side with our media and privacy department on a joint approach, giving them as much protection as we can.

There are practical things too. If we want to avoid too much attention, we’ll take one of the lesser-used entrances to the court, so they’re not taking the regular beaten track. Often people don’t want to come into the office at all, and you need to go meet them in their homes. Actually, I really like that because you have much more of a sense of the person if you meet them where they live.

However, other clients have felt unheard for long time, and want to tell their story. That is quite often the case; you have someone who’s been very disenfranchised, and hasn’t had a voice. Enabling them to tell the truth about their life can be very important to them.

You were the first person to get a pre-nup upheld in the – how did it feel when you won?

It was incredibly exciting. I poured my heart, soul and whole life into that case. I felt like I’d been able to do something that changed the law to make it better. I felt right – that people ought to be able to agree things for themselves, rather than the state imposing decisions on them. The client also felt really vindicated.

Is the world of divorce law as competitive and combative as it appears in The Split?

People can be unnecessarily rude and a bit childish – that was a surprise for me, having come from the world of commercial law, where you wouldn’t dream of behaving like that. Of course, you have to be tough. You have to win. But being rude or petty has no place, especially in family law where you need to handle things respectfully.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

No one can ever win 100% of the time. Sometimes you get part of what a client wants, but not all of it. When I don’t get my clients absolutely everything they want, that is very hard, but you have to keep going on the basis that you believe you’re doing better than anyone else would have.

What do you think are the kind of most common misconceptions about your job?

The idea that we’re in it for the money. You can make a perfectly decent living in family law, but if you want to make big bucks, you go to the City. People go into family law because they care about families – the human element is fulfilling, because you’re helping people.

For anyone going through a divorce, what’s your main advice to stop it turning nasty?

Don’t play out your pain and your anger through the court. If you want to tell your former partner what’s upsetting you, try to find a civilized way to do that. Do whatever you can to heal yourself, for example, through therapeutic channels, but don’t try to vent through the courts, because it won’t help you.

You campaigned for ‘no fault’ divorce, which has just been introduced in the UK. What do you think the ramifications of this will be?

I hope this is the beginning of a golden new era. The whole antiquated idea that somebody has to be at fault in order for a marriage to end comes from Victorian assumptions, when divorce was seen as very immoral and shameful. In society now, it is recognized that perfectly decent and civilized people grow apart from each other, and there’s no reason that it was anyone’s fault.

Under the previous system, you had to start off by assigning fault, which puts the other party on the defensive. It turns a situation from one that could be amicable into one that’s hostile. This is also very bad for the children – ‘Oh it’s daddy’s fault, oh it’s mummy’s fault’ – that has no place. It makes the process of getting over the divorce, rebuilding potential friendships and co-parenting that much harder, because you’ve got this very dark mark between you.

What are the most common mistakes people make when it comes to their children during a divorce?

In the most extreme form, it’s trying to use the children as a weapon against each other. Then there is the situation where one parent will bad mouth the other parent, trying to win the loyalty and affection of the kids. It can be very tempting, but you have to get over that and put the child first. The damage that that sort of denigration of the other parent can have in it can be very serious.

As a mum of five, do you have any thoughts on maintaining a successful career while also meeting the demands of parenting?

At first, it was sort of survival for me, but over time my career has been a very good thing for my family. That’s not to say it’s been easy – I go to school plays but not every single match and school run, I’ve done parent evenings on speakerphone. However, my kids have drive and ambition – they’ve watched me and I’ve been very fortunate in achieving a huge number of the goals that I’ve set.