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November 7, 2012updated 21 Feb 2019 9:31am

Manches Partner James Stewart on Helen Ward’s Shock Departure from the Firm

By Spear's

Helen Ward’s departure from Manches to Stewarts Law provides an opportunity rather than a setback, says partner and head of international wealth, James Stewart

WHEN HELEN WARD, the winner of the biggest divorce award in British legal history, left Manches for Stewarts Law last month, taking a team of eight with her, most commentators wasted no time at all in spelling out the implications (as they saw them) for Manches.

The family team was finished, they said. Pointing to other recent departures – including chairman Jane Simpson last summer and CEO Judit Pethro in July – they said Ward’s move was the final nail in the coffin.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to James Stewart, a partner in the family team and head of International Wealth. Instead, Ward’s departure provides an opportunity rather than a setback and was the right move, both for the star divorce lawyer and for Manches.

Stephen Foster on Helen Ward’s move to Manches

What does Helen Ward’s move to Stewarts Law mean?

‘In my view,’ says Stewart when we meet at Manches’ Aldwych offices on a crisp autumn morning just a week after Ward’s departure, ‘family law has too much of a focus on the veterans. We all love Ray Tooth, we all love Helen Ward and so forth. But there are family lawyers beyond the recognised veteran family lawyers.

‘I have a couple of brilliant friends in LA for example, and there the focus is on family lawyers of my generation – middle aged or early middle-aged, rather than the other end of the spectrum. I’m sure that’s increasingly going to be the way here. Clients, even elderly clients, are actually not averse to instructing lawyers of [younger generations]. Gone are the days when you have to wheel out somebody in a zimmerframe with grey hair.’ So much for that oft-cited phrase – used more often by veterans, it is true – that no one takes you seriously without a few grey hairs.

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A FOCUS ON upcoming legal talent is clearly increasingly the norm in the UK, with lawyers gaining profiles at much younger ages than in the past. Spear’s celebrated this growing trend last year with its Young Turks Awards – which Stewart says could not have existed even five years ago — and Manches is keen to do the same. It is for this reason, says Stewart, that Ward’s departure is not the catastrophe for Manches many are saying it is.

‘I always consider Helen as a good friend – she’s a really nice lady in so many respects. She’s absolutely charming,’ Stewart says. In fact, he says this many times throughout our interview. ‘But actually,’ he continues, ‘it’s the Rebecca Cockfrofts and Rebecca Carlyons we’ve been concentrating on rather than the Helen Wards.’

Pictured above: James Stewart is partner in the family at Manches and head of international wealth

The Rebeccas he draws attention to are two of the most in-demand young family lawyers in London. Stewart and I bump into Cockroft, a 2012 ‘Hot 100’ Lawyer carving out a formidable reputation in City divorces and money and children work, before we go into a meeting room to talk. ‘That was the first time in three weeks I’ve seen her,’ Stewart tells me as we sit down: ‘She became a partner two years ago, and she’s now achieved a position where she’s hardly ever obtainable.’

Carylon, a nominee in the Spear’s 2012 Young Turks Awards, is another young star of the London scene. ‘This week alone,’ says Stewart proudly, ‘she’s won two new clients.’

Young talent in the family team – and indeed across the firm as a whole – is giving Manches a new lease of life, he says: ‘During the height of the recession [we] had morale problems. Now there’s a massive degree of energy within the firm. That’s all do to with investing in up-and-coming partners.’

To continue the recruitment drive, Manches will announce the appointment of two new partners on 1 January 2013 – one in corporate, one in family. Can we expect the new recruits to come from the younger cohort, rather than the more established ranks? ‘Yes, absolutely,’ Stewart confirms emphatically. Stewart himself has been tipped by some as a likely successor to Ward.

THE IDEA OF Ward’s departure being liberating – rather than a death knell — for Manches is intriguing, and I ask Stewart what more opportunities it will throw up.

‘When you have quite a lot of big-hitters under one roof, you get conflict and other problems. In the last eighteen months, for example, I’ve been conflicted out of three large cases. A lot of cases in large departments are lost due to conflict. This just happens.’

Stephen Foster on Helen Ward’s move to Manches

What does Helen Ward’s move to Stewarts Law mean?

As a result, Manches has had to pass work onto other firms. Stewart is quick to point out that such jostling is a fact of life in any big law firm, but the subtext of his remarks seems to be that there might be rather less of it at Manches after Ward’s departure. Clearly, the opportunities he talks of have opened up at all levels of the family practice.

The Manches going into 2013, one senses, is invigorated and forward-looking, rather than floundering in the aftermath of the departure of a star.

‘The strawberry underneath the thistle grows fastest by night,’ Stewart concludes with a smile, using what is clearly one of his favourite analogies. ‘I think we have quite a few strawberries whose achievements have been obscured in the past. The challenge is to bring those out.’

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