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June 9, 2020updated 24 Jun 2020 5:13pm

2020 Spear’s Family Law Index

By Arun Kakar

A new edition of the Spear’s Family Law Index is published online today

In one respect, the 2020 Family Law Index (published below) is no different from its predecessors. The ‘Queen Bees’ – Fiona Shackleton of Payne Hicks Beach, Helen Ward of Stewarts, Frances Hughes of Hughes Fowler Carruthers, Diana Parker of Withers and Sandra Davis of Mishcon de Reya – rose to the top of the profession in the Eighties and Nineties and have remained there ever since. They remain firmly in the top flight of our index, too.

But given that we are living through a pandemic, some things are very different. Last month, Spear’s gathered a panel of top family lawyers to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the world of divorce via webinar. We heard how video hearings had been introduced, and how clients and their solicitors were having to make difficult decisions about whether to delay proceedings or press ahead.

Several members of the panel said they expected a deluge of divorces to be precipitated by the time already unhappy couples would have to spend locked in together during the pandemic. ‘If your relationship is already stressy, it’s probably not going to survive this,’ said Frances Hughes, founding partner of Hughes Fowler Carruthers. Her lockdown recommendation for tetchy couples? Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story on Netflix: ‘Anyone on the verge of a divorce’ should see it.

In fact, coronavirus might even yield – or constitute – a ‘Barder event’, when ‘something so dramatic occurs that invalidates the assumptions a financial order was instructed upon divorce’. Now, that could be dramatic.

There is some change in the index, as well. Spear’s congratulates Jane Keir and Emma Hatley, who both enter our top flight of family lawyers. Keir, the first female senior partner at Kingsley Napley, moves up after securing a difficult win for a wife who sacrificed her career for her family: compensation of £400,000, on top of an equal split on assets worth nearly £10 million. Hatley, meanwhile, returns to the top flight after a run of big-money and high-profile cases that has been difficult to ignore. ‘There hasn’t really been a lull over the past two and a half years,’ she tells us.

Along with these new entrants and the Queen Bees, our top tier features many names known to Spear’s readers. Stewarts’ Stephen Foster, Mark Harper from Hughes Fowler Carruthers, Claire Gordon from Farrer & Co and Harbottle & Lewis’s Catherine Bedford – tipped by a peer as a future Queen Bee – are among those to retain their places.

There are plenty of other familiar faces in the index. Catherine Thomas, a former managing partner at Vardags, returns to our list after moving to cover complex jurisdictional battles at Dawson Cornwell. Alex Carruthers of Hughes Fowler Carruthers and Charlotte Bradley of Kingsley Napley return after strong showing over the past 12 months. ‘All clients, at the beginning, really want a good strategy that doesn’t just focus on one aspect,’ says Bradley, who heads up the boutique’s divorce and family team.

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Indeed, flexibility and diversity in approach are themes reflected across the index. Clients often want to take affairs ‘back into their own hands’, notes Mills & Reeve’s Suzanne Kingston – an indiction, perhaps, of how attitudes to divorce and family affairs are changing more broadly.

There’s been a notable rise in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), particularly private financial dispute resolution (FDR), which has been described as ‘Bupa justice’. Despite the pejorative-sounding tag, it is increasingly being viewed as a solid solution for HNW clients wanting a swift resolution away from the complexities and frustrations of the clogged family courts.

And while lockdown might have us all adapting to remote working, social media had already emerged as an alternative method for lawyers to connect with clients. Pioneering this trend is Spear’s rising star Laura Naser of Penningtons Manches Cooper, who uses her @thefamilylawyer Instagram account to interact with prospective and current clients. ‘People might not immediately think to use Instagram for family law, but I am breaking down barriers and reaching people,’ says Naser, who took part in the Spear’s divorce webinar and has recent published a book.

Raising the bar

This year, we also feature a selection of barristers, to reflect their importance for HNW clients seeking a favourable resolution in court. Picks include Charles Geekie QC, who won the LexisNexis Family Law QC of the Year award in 2019; the rock ’n’ roll Lucy Stone QC, who has a ‘thank you’ plaque from the Rolling Stones; Lewis Marks QC (peers joke that they wouldn’t be surprised if he could ‘walk on water’); Deborah Eaton QC, who’s a ‘brilliant strategist and plan executioner’, according to a colleague; and Jonathan Southgate QC, who was crowned ‘Family and Children Silk of the Year 2020’ by the Legal 500.

The decision to cast a spotlight on the best barristers in the business comes at a time when the wider profession faces an uncertain commercial future. While barristers are crucial for securing results for clients, their chambers are essentially collections of self-employed people and so not set up to weather the type of economic headwinds we seem set to face. Spear’s wishes them well in these difficult times.

Ten years on since we launched the family index, while much has changed, some things remain the same. When we asked lawyers who they would instruct for their own – hypothetical – divorce, the name Fiona Shackleton was said more than any other. As Edwin Smith reports in his profile, the ‘Steel Magnolia’ is still at the top of her game, 24 years after representing Prince Charles in his divorce from Diana. 

Congratulations to all the individuals and firms included in the list below.

2020 Spear’s Family Law Index

Top Flight Family Lawyers

Catherine Bedford, Harbottle & Lewis
Debbie Chism, Stewarts
Sandra Davis, Mishcon de Reya
Miranda Fisher, Charles Russell Speechlys
Stephen Foster, Stewarts
Claire Gordon, Farrer & Co
Mark Harper, Hughes Fowler Carruthers
Emma Hatley, Stewarts
Frances Hughes, Hughes Fowler Carruthers
Davina Katz, Katz Partners
Jane Keir, Kingsley Napley
Julian Lipson, Withers
Diana Parker, Withers
Fiona Shackleton, Payne Hicks Beach
Helen Ward, Stewarts

Top Recommended Family Lawyers

Tom Amlot, Alexiou Fisher Philipps
Susan Apthorp, Keystone Law
Camilla Baldwin, Camilla Baldwin
Zoe Bloom, Keystone Law
Charlotte Bradley, Kingsley Napley
Emily Brand, Boodle Hatfield
Peter Burgess, Burgess Mee
Alex Carruthers, Hughes Fowler Carruthers
Rebecca Cockcroft, Payne Hicks Beach
Joanne Edwards, Forsters
James Ferguson, Boodle Hatfield
James Freeman, Charles Russell Speechlys
Michael Gouriet, Withers
Charmaine Hast, Wedlake Bell
Elizabeth Hicks, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
David Hodson, International Family Law Group
Henry Hood, Hunters
Deborah Jeff, Seddons
Rachael Kelsey, SKO
Carly Kinch, Stewarts
Suzanne Kingston, Mills & Reeve
Renato Labi, Hughes Fowler Carruthers
Jeremy Levison, Levison Meltzer Pigott
William Longrigg, Charles Russell Speechlys
William Massey, Farrer & Co
Jane McDonagh, Simons Muirhead & Burton
Philip McGuirk, Payne Hicks Beach
Simon Pigott, Levison Meltzer Pigott
Maggie Rae, Newton Kearns
Fiona Read, Russell-Cooke
Rosie Schumm, Forsters
James Stewart, Penningtons Manches Cooper
Catherine Thomas, Dawson Cornwell
Suzanne Todd, Withers
Raymond Tooth, Sears Tooth
Joe Vaitliingam, Vaitilingam Kay
Ayesha Vardag, Vardags
Nicholas Westley, Harbottle & Lewis
Bradley Williams, Family Law in Partnership
Anna Worwood, Penningtons Manches Cooper

Rising Stars

Laura Naser, Penningtons Manches Cooper
Ben Parry-Smith, Payne Hicks Beach
Frederick Tatham, Farrer & Co

Selected Barristers

Deborah Eaton, 1 King’s Bench Walk
Charles Geekie, 1 Garden Court
Lewis Marks, Queen Elizabeth Building
Jonathan Southgate, 29 Bedford Row
Lucy Stone, Queen Elizabeth Building

The Spear’s rankings are drawn up on the basis of peer nominations, telephone and face-to-face interviews with dozens of leading lawyers, data supplied by law firms, as well as information gathered by the Spear’s editorial and research teams.

To receive relevant research updates from Spear’s – and thereby give you and your firm the best chance of being included in future Spear’s indices – please register here.

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Read more

Fiona Shackleton: Britain’s most feared divorce lawyer

Spear’s Briefing: Divorce in the time of coronavirus

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