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April 25, 2013 3:57 pm
The meeting room at Camilla Baldwin’s eponymous law firm in Mayfair, home of high-end jewellers and hedge funds, is a bit like the reception of a Harley Street doctor’s. The furnishing is beige sofas, scatter cushions and designer posies of white roses and lilac. A Penhaligon’s candle flickers, emitting a warm figgy fragrance.
The homely touches are designed to put clients at ease – though she draws the line at clients’ dogs: “I always worry they’ll pee on the curtains.”
Ms Baldwin, a divorce lawyer, is very much aiming for the image of a private consultant. Rather than advertising she prefers to get business through discreet recommendations from satisfied wealthy clients – hedge fund managers, MPs and aristocrats. Sometimes she finds work at her 10-year-old son’s rugby matches – a fellow mum might sidle up to her, asking for help.
Inevitably clients weep. A box of tissues is on hand. “They all cry in here,” says Ms Baldwin matter-of-factly. “A lot of men don’t talk to anyone. At all. So it’s cathartic to talk to someone.” Even if that person is a divorce lawyer. “Men visibly relax here. It’s important it doesn’t look like a boardroom. Men don’t want to discuss the failure of their marriage in a boardroom. Women don’t mind wherever.”
How does she stop clients from crying? “I tell them how expensive I am.”
Times are good for a niche firm specialising in family law in the city that has a reputation as the divorce capital of the world. Ms Baldwin charges £450 an hour (a typical divorce will cost £30,000 but can be much more). Undoubtedly, she says, some unhappy couples have stayed together in the recession because they are unable to afford separation. “Very rich people always get divorced because they can afford to.”
London’s status derives from a landmark case in 2000, White v White, which heralded a 50 per cent split in assets between the breadwinner and the homemaker, deemed generous to wives. Among high-profile cases settled in London was that of Heather Mills who secured £24.3m when she split from Sir Paul McCartney in 2008.
Male homemakers are treated very differently from their female counterparts, she says – they tend to be awarded maintenance for a fixed period rather than life. The favourable financial settlements for women have created a very “extraordinary thing in England”, she says, of a small group of “middle-class, middle-aged women who won’t work because it affects their maintenance arrangements. It’s extraordinary that the law discourages women in their 40s from working.”
● In 2008, Madonna and Guy Ritchie reached a quick divorce settlement. It was reported that the film director received a total of about $50m (£34m) in assets from his higher-earning ex-wife.
● In 2010, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on prenuptial agreements. The UK’s highest court decided to uphold an agreement signed by Katrin Radmacher, a German heiress, which was being challenged by Nicolas Granatino, a former JPMorgan investment banker.
● That same year the court reinforced London’s reputation as “divorce capital of the world” after finding in favour of a Nigerian woman living in London who disputed the settlement she was awarded by a Nigerian court. It was ruled Sikirat Agbaje had not received an adequate settlement from her barrister husband when the couple divorced in Lagos in 2003, after 38 years of marriage.
She set up her firm in 2005, starting with a laptop in her sitting room, so that she could fit her work around having two young children, after she found the hours at Withers law firm inflexible.
During a meeting in one of her first cases as an independent, she was horrified to find her son’s vomit in her hair. “I felt like I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Despite this, business grew rapidly, and within two years she had set up offices in Mayfair. She believes one reason for the growth was that she benefited from her relative youth and was perceived as more energetic than some of her well-known competitors.
All 15 members of the firm are women. “It’s not intentionally women-only. Men don’t really want to do family law,” she says. She has recruited a male solicitor who is yet to join.
A typical client tends to be in their 40s. Men, she says, tend to have a “massive crisis” when they approach 50 – having spent their 20s “doing career” and then a family in their 30s, they reflect on their marriage, thinking: “I’ve been with this person for 20 years, do I like them any more, do I know them?”
For women, she says, it is usually when the eldest child leaves home. “They think: ‘God, who am I married to? They’re really boring’.”
Russian men tend to look after the mothers of their children, English couples always go to court, according to the lawyer.
Ms Baldwin, who has a touch of the jolly hockey sticks about her, admits to being “Sloaney” and “uncool” as a history student at the all-girls college of Newnham, Cambridge. She is a mixture of plain-speaking and Jilly Cooper-esque hyperbole, referring to clients variously as a “nightmare” or “absolutely lovely”.
However, she is fiercely pragmatic about marriage. “I’m far more reluctant to get divorced than I would be if I had a normal job.” (The 47-year-old has been married since 1997 – to a widower who had two young boys.) “Most of the things my clients complain about, I think ‘Charlie’s done that’. He ignores me when he’s watching television. It’s quite boring being married.”
Warmth infuses her plain-speaking attitude when it comes to her family life. A good divorce lawyer, she believes, requires empathy and briskness. “I say to people, ‘Your house is going to be sold, don’t waste £50,000 fighting about it, your house is going to be sold’. People don’t want to hear it. It’s completely unpalatable.”
The toll of listening to people’s break-up stories can be heavy, she admits. “It’s like a conveyor belt of upset people. Sometimes I get to the end of the day and I’ve got battle fatigue.”
She likens clients to teenagers. “They are very self-absorbed. When you’re in [the process of divorce], it’s very difficult to see your way out of it.”
One client in the grip of misery texted her 80 times a day when she was holidaying in Spain. Another threatened suicide. Another was shot outside the divorce courts.
When friends call to discuss their own marital problems she confesses she is tempted to put the phone down.
So many of her clients live a gilded lifestyle, she frequently has to bite her tongue listening to their demands. “In their world they need a nanny, they need a housekeeper.”
Others cannot comprehend surviving on £7,000 a month or buying a house for £1.5m.
One wife, who had had an affair with the gamekeeper, declared: “I want you to know that if I don’t get a title out of this I’m not bringing up my six children.”
The worst clients, however, are often the wives of self-made men. “They have come from nothing and don’t like to be reminded of that. They feel vulnerable.”
She always advises couples to avoid courts but for many it is part of the separation process. “They need to litigate because they can’t let go.”
She also counsels clients not to air their problems in the press. “Divorce is a very painful and personal thing. It’s incredibly private. Most people who divorce feel they have failed.”
The appeal of the work is that “it’s a human thing. I would find it difficult to deal with tax law. People come to you in a terrible mess. They leave happier.
“They are in limbo and have got stuck. I help them get unstuck.”
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