How Ayesha Vardag married the City with divorce

Family law was always seen as a bit pedestrian by those in the legal profession. That was until Ayesha Vardag decided to take it upmarket.


Ayesha Vardag, Vardags

By her late 20s, Ayesha Vardag had it all. A rising legal star with magic circle' law firm Linklaters, Vardag, now 45, had her sights set on becoming a partner. But that all changed when she got a divorce. A corporate lawyer herself, she hired a "leading Mayfair" divorce specialist to guide her through the process. In "true Erin Brockovich style", she ended up being offered a job by the firm, and quickly learned all about family law.

After a year, Vardag switched to lecturing, to allow her to look after her new baby. But the move had given her an idea for a new business: a small boutique legal firm specialising in high-net-worth divorces. "Typically family law was seen as a bit high street' not as exciting or important as other areas. But in the last ten years, divorces have become increasingly complex and international as people use financial structures to shield their assets." Vardag's plan was to combine her training in the cut-throat world of financial law with her own experience of divorce and the sensitivity needed to handle such cases.

Based out of her north London home, Vardag only expected to service a few clients, but word spread fast among her contacts. Within months she was taking on staff to help her cope. After a year, she bought prestigious offices overlooking the Royal Courts of Justice. "The growth was phenomenal, far more rapid than I had expected."

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As the firm grew, Vardag tried to ensure it remained distinct from her rivals. She headhunted financial experts to help her lawyers to understand the increasingly complex webs of shell companies and tax structures being used in high-profile divorces. She also hired and retrained ex-City lawyers. "Our cases were widely reported [which] persuaded lawyers that it was an exciting area."

One key case was Radmacher v Granatino in 2010. Katrin Radmacher, a German paper heiress, had signed a pre-nuptial agreement with ex-husband Nicolas Granatino. After their UK divorce, Granatino argued that the German pre-nuptial shouldn't apply, as such agreements aren't recognised in British law. "I think the response of a traditional family lawyer would be OK then, we can't do that'," says Vardag. "But we applied more of a City approach of how can we get this solved?'" The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, before Vardag won a victory for Radmacher that led to British law being changed.

Another trend that helped Vardag was that of super-rich international couples increasingly choosing to settle divorces in Britain. "We have a fairer system here that looks for a 50-50 share... that attracts a lot of people." As a result of these trends, and her legal successes, the firm now employs almost 50 staff across three offices, while revenues hit £5m in the last 12 months. Yet growth brings its own challenges.

"As we get larger, I've been trying to find ways to make it scalable and step back from managing everything." In 2010, Vardag changed the firm's name from Ayesha Vardag to Vardags, to "help build a brand that is about more than just me". She's also hired two co-directors to help manage expansion. "Right now, the market is very fragmented. Over the next five years we'll be looking to expand as it consolidates." With several other high-profile cases on her books including the divorce of former Miss Malaysia, Pauline Chai she looks likely to succeed.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.