The break-up business

The break-up business

Entrepreneur Ayesha Vardag has been dubbed the ‘diva of divorce’ after dealing with some of the most expensive, and controversial, marriage splits in the world. She tells Liz Hands about her Northumberland roots, her Brexit vote and why she has brought her firm north.

She’s widely acknowledged as the best of the best, the person you want in your corner if you’re unfortunate enough to go through a divorce. But, her expertise doesn’t come cheap. Ayesha Vardag is unashamedly there only for those with plenty of money.

Family law firm Vardags is for High Net Worth (HNW) individuals, those with assets of more than £1m or an annual income greater than £150,000. Clients have built up a fortune with their spouse during their marriage, married someone who already had substantial wealth or have a child with someone of HNW.

Ayesha’s practice was put on the map after a landmark divorce case in the Supreme Court in 2010 which changed the law on prenuptial agreements. She has acted for and against heirs and heiresses, entrepreneurs, international footballers, celebrities and royalty. Her clients include the wife of a Qatari prince, the Marchioness of Northampton, for whom she won £17m, and former Miss Malaysia, Pauline Chai, who successfully fought to bring her £440m divorce case from Laura Ashley chairman Khoo Kay Peng to London. Still ongoing,
it may turn out to be the biggest divorce payout of all time.

So with London regarded as the divorce capital of the world, why is Ayesha turning her attention north? After launching in Manchester, Vardags has announced a new base on Newcastle’s Grey Street.

“There are plenty of people with money to spend, both in the city and the surrounding countryside,” says Ayesha. “On a visit to the office, my colleague counted four cars each worth more than £100,000 on Grey Street alone. There’s the potential for great business for our firm, bringing world-class quality to our HNW clients’ doorsteps.”

The Brexit vote also played a part in her decision. “Newcastle and the rest of the North East has been sorely neglected in terms of inward investment and I wanted to do something about that,” she says, explaining she feels personally committed because of strong Northumberland family connections.

“I voted for Brexit not because I don’t absolutely love Europe. I want openness and free trade and I feel very European. I speak many European languages and I have a house in Italy. I support free trade and the free movement of workers.

“But I’m profoundly against the EU political project for economic and political reasons. In Brussels, I learned the nitty-gritty of what the EU does, according to its own rules, to its member countries, especially the prohibition on providing state aid to support your own industries when they are in hard times. The idea is if your steel industry goes bust because of some medium-term difficulty, it doesn’t matter because all your workers can get on their bikes and move to Germany.

“I was devastated when the Brexit campaign seemed to melt down upon victory, with a collapse of leadership and a descent into racism and division. It started to look like a horrible disaster and I regretted my vote. But then Theresa May took the reins and spoke up for investing in our regions, helping struggling, hard-working families in the neglected parts of our great country and I felt there was still much to fight for, in an independent Britain.”

Ayesha believes her firm, and all British companies, have a responsibility to invest in Britain. “Not just,” she says, “in places that have already arrived, but in places, like Newcastle which are bursting with talent and potential and need companies to believe in them and bring work, jobs and opportunities.” In Newcastle, Vardags will be hiring an initial team of eight to 12, to grow to 40.

It’s perhaps unsurprising Ayesha is open to northern opportunities when you consider her heritage. She describes her family as farmers, agricultural businessmen, teachers and classicists. Ayesha’s great-grandparents moved from Edinburgh to Alnwick, where her great-grandfather was a corn merchant. Her grandmother, a wartime nurse, stayed at home as her grandfather was at sea as part of the Royal Navy escort. Ayesha’s mother was born in Bailiffgate, Alnwick, and went to Duchess’s Girls Grammar School before the family moved to Alnmouth. Her mother worked in Newcastle for the Sun Alliance Insurance company before moving south. “She was a member of the Young Farmers’ club and would go to dances with a shovel in the boot of the car to dig herself out of snow drifts,” says Ayesha.

“When she was 22, she went to Oxford after breaking off her engagement to a young farmer, and met my father, a Pashtun nobleman studying at Magdalen College, there on secondment from the Pakistan government. After a whirlwind romance, he married her and took her to Lahore. It all fell apart within months and she returned to her family in Northumberland, to give birth to me.”

Vardag 02 Credit Oz Koca 3Her grandparents were living in Tynemouth as her grandfather was a naval officer at North Shields harbour. Ayesha was born in North Shields at Preston Hospital. Her mother and her grandmother left her grandfather and moved to Oxford when she was ten months old, packing Ayesha, their dog and what they could fit into their Ford. They only started to return when he died. Ayesha has vivid memories of family holidays in Northumberland.

At school in Oxford, she wrote essays about Dunstanburgh Castle and the Rumbling Churn at Howick, which her mother called ‘Gloopy’ because of the sound of swelling water. “My tiny family in Oxford were very much northerners in the south. My grandmother was constantly lamenting the lack of friendliness, of humour, of fun and warmth. Bringing me up on mince and tatties, haggis, skirlie and clapshot, it was as if they’d never made the journey south.”

Being an only child from an unconventional family gave Ayesha an endless fascination with families and how they work. While divorce lawyers come under fire from those who believe they are profiting from misery, Ayesha sees her job as helping people to be happy and secure, even when relationships break down.

“I’ve turned away clients who wanted to use the children as a pawn in the game, to get revenge on a husband and his new girlfriend or to pressure a wife into giving up financial claims. We have a responsibility to the families and children we assist, and a really good outcome means getting what your client wants without permanently trashing their relationship.”

Ayesha can empathise with women who fear losing what they’ve become accustomed to. When her family moved to Oxford, they left behind a Georgian home filled with antiques and art. Her mother worked day and night as a secretary. Lodging with two elderly ladies, Ayesha shared a room with her mother who eventually got a job in one of Oxford’s colleges and saved to buy a home.

The focus of her family was education. “Half the family were teachers and my mother pushed me to read advanced books and discussed things endlessly with me. I got the highest bursary to Oxford High School and was taught there were no limits to what I could achieve. Conversations ranged from becoming a paediatrician to being Secretary General of the United Nations.”

Ayesha went to Cambridge University, where she says the world opened up. Initially reading English Literature, she changed to law, completing a Masters in European Law in Brussels, taught and examined entirely in French. She did a project on nuclear energy law at the International Courts of Justice in the Hague, then worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency before qualifying at global financial law firm Linklaters.

She left under management rules when her then husband became a partner there, and re-qualified as a barrister. With two toddler boys, her marriage broke down and she hired a leading Mayfair divorce lawyer. After the divorce was over, he hired her. In 2005, with a new baby daughter, she set up Vardags in her spare room. Now Vardags has a 7,000sq ft office overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral, a team of 70 and offices across the country. Last year, Ayesha was voted Woman of the Year in the NatWest Everywoman awards for “changing the legal landscape”.

Ayesha herself is happily remarried and divorce rates are falling, no doubt because the number of couples marrying is falling. But is that bad news for Vardags? “Our incoming client rates have more than doubled relative to the same time last year,” says Ayesha, “so it seems not. Our turnover was over £7m last year and is projected to be over £10m this year. We’re listed on the Sunday Times/ Virgin Fast Track 100 as being among the top 50 fastest growing companies in the UK. For several years, we’ve had a more than 60% compound annual growth rate, and that is accelerating.

“We’re taking a bigger share of the divorce work there is. The industry is consolidating into fewer, higher quality firms and lots of the dross will fall away. That’s good for consumers as well as for the legal industry as a whole.”

Ayesha says current law is not fit for purpose. “In order to get a divorce without a painful two-year wait, you have to find fault with your partner. You have to sling mud at them in a catalogue of blame. It’s pointless, old-fashioned and barbaric. No political party has the guts to reform it because the opposition calls them the party that’s making divorce easy, so families suffer with rules from another age.

“A perfectly amicable split can turn very sour after one party is forced to list a bunch of unpleasantness about the other. Divorce should be based on one ground that one or both parties believe the marriage has irretrievably broken down. There should be no need to give details and no right to resist. When someone wants out, it’s going to happen and the only people that benefit from making it a difficult, painful and costly process are the lawyers.”

It isn’t only divorce law which Ayesha has her sights on. Her ambitions for Vardags are lofty: “To become indisputably the premier law firm for HNW individuals and their companies, for all our clients’ needs, not just family law, with our new departments in corporate, civil litigation, media law and crime. We’re going to dominate the entire HNW legal sector.”