When Nicky Hunter handed in her notice after spending 10 years at a Newcastle firm of solicitors it must have been a heart-in-the-mouth moment, but being given the chance to set up a regional division of a national player was too good to pass upon.
The accomplished divorce and family law specialist had been approached by Ayesha Vardags, the so-called “Diva of Divorce” – almost certainly the UK’s most expensive and best known divorce lawyer – to set up a regional office for her eponymous law firm.
Tynemouth-born Ayesha, a frequent guest on breakfast TV shows, has acted in some of the world’s most complex and high profile divorce cases, involving millionaires and billionaires, celebrities, sporting stars and royalty.
And while London is fast becoming the divorce capital of the world, where ex-wives expect more generous settlements, Ayesha is keen to establish a broader presence through regional offices.
So when Ayesha made it clear she wanted local talent and didn’t want to send London lawyers North to launch the Newcastle office, Nicky and fellow co-director Susanne Shah both jumped at the chance to open the new office, Vardags’ fifth, within the newly refurbished Earl Grey House on Newcastle’s Grey Street.
Just a few months after setting up inside the building, the pair are already accepting clients and taking enquiries, while also networking at every opportunity to get out the message that they are open for business.
It marks a landmark a move for Nicky, who only discovered an aptitude for the law, family law in particular, after spending some time travelling around the US, far from her North East roots – and those roots are embedded in the region’s history too.
Nicky was born in Stamfordham, Northumberland, into the Hunter family which first started the famous ship-building business Swan Hunter.
The firm had been founded by her great, great grandfather Sir George Burton Hunter in 1880, and remained a family firm until nationalisation in 1977, her late father being the last member of the Hunter family to work in the company.
She said: “I remember going to take a friend to one of the launches – they were such great spectacles. Now of course the only place you can see that history is by going to Tyne and Wear Archives.
“It’s one of the things that firmly roots me in the North East, it was something to be so proud of.”
Nicky went to local schools until she was 16 when she went to boarding school in Hertfordshire to complete her A levels.
A degree in history at Oxford University followed but after that she was unsure of what career path to follow, but she certainly she didn’t want to follow the typical Milk Round route which saw so many Oxbridge graduates go into City jobs.
Enthralled by all things historic, Nicky had thoroughly enjoyed spending three years devouring the subject and initially explored options to get involved in documentaries, but time spent in America with a university housemate then piqued her interest in the law.
After spending two years travelling backwards and forwards to America, she became hooked on a court case which had gripped the nation.
She said: “It was there that the seeds of becoming a lawyer were developed. There was a terrible case of a poor mother who had been driven to drowning her kids. What she had done was terrible, but friends who I had thought were pretty liberal were saying ‘we should fry her’.
“I became very aware of the death penalty in America which just stood out, as it still does, as a hideous thing still going on in the Western world.
“What was so terrible about the case was that she had faked a hijacking and it was a huge news. She would undoubtedly have been convicted – but it was the reaction of people that made me wake up. Even that woman, who had done this terrible thing, had a story- all human beings cry out to be understood differently. Everyone’s story can be put into context.
“That’s was the trigger that made me start to look into the law. I looked into studying in the States but it was hugely expensive.
“It was like a twitch of a thread – I knew I would always come home at some point so I came home to study law.”
Returning to the North East, Nicky took a post-graduate conversion course in law at Northumbria University, a two-year course she passed in 2001 after which she went into a training contract at the now closed Gateshead firm Swinburne & Jackson.
Initially working legal aid courses, a role came up within family law after the partner, looking after that section, took maternity leave.
Ending up picking up and running with the family law case load proved very rewarding for Nicky, even though the cases she was dealing with were often emotional.
“I loved it. What family law covers is a huge range of family problems. People often think it just covers divorce, and what happens to children in parental separation, but it’s also about care proceedings and public law work, acting for parents who most times were going to lose their children into the care system.
“That was a real eye-opener and tough stuff to take home with you. Until I came to Vardags I’ve always done that side of things because I think it’s such important work.
“It’s very emotional – you can see that these parents have got un uphill struggle ahead to keep families together, but they have the right for the fight to be made on their behalf to do that, to show they can care for their children.
“It’s about them knowing they have someone on their side, articulating and explaining what they might not be able to do themselves.
“You are dealing with people in the midst of really difficult times in their lives, and what we hear is difficult. You have to be very particular in looking after people starting out in this job, that it doesn’t become overwhelming, because family and emotional issues can be.”
A spell at Kidd & Spoor followed, working in offices in Newcastle and North Shields, before she joined David Gray solicitors on West Road, Newcastle, soon after having two sons.
She worked for the firm for almost 10 years, right up until joining Vardags, working a mixed bag of case law while also developing her finance practise expertise.
April 2013 brought in sweeping changes to legal aid, when the Government removed access to legal aid for most private law cases – these were cases in which, for example, the wife of a millionaire businessman would no longer have access to funding to be represented. It took all scope of private law children and finance cases out of legal aid, unless domestic violence was involved.
Nicky said: “It was just cost-cutting. To this day it has created huge unfairness. There are a lot of people who can’t access legal advice unless they pay for it. What we would do, however. is what we called ‘unbundling’, helping where you can.
“The Government’s hope was that everyone would go to mediation. Mediation has its place but there are certain people it wouldn’t work for.”
Over time, and by adapting to changes in the law, Nicky has become an expert in cases involving complex financial issues arising on separation following marriage, civil partnerships and unmarried relationships.
The 45-year-old, a member of the Law Society’s children panel, is also particularly experienced in cohabitation cases involving property and trusts and she regularly advises on financial applications for children of unmarried parents, while also advising on disputes about the living arrangements for children.
Her work led to her being recognised as a leader in her field in both the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners – and it also put her on Ayesha Vardags’ radar.
They approached her last year, at a time when she was comfortable in her career at David Gray.
“I was very happy and settled at David Gray, working with good colleagues and hadn’t really been thinking about a move,” she said.
“But this was so different. This was a London firm coming here – a national player setting up here in the region, and I obviously knew Vardags. I was curious.
“It also came at a pivotal time for me. My dad, Adrian Hunter, died suddenly last year.
“He was the last member of the Hunter family to work at the Swan Hunter shipyards, having seen the firm go through four generations.
“He was 72 still working, and was diagnosed with cancer and dead within three weeks. He didn’t even have time to sort his affairs and we didn’t have time to process it. He went from being in hospital not feeling well, to the funeral.
“The move to Vardags was one of those things that felt serendipitous. I was almost questioning ‘life’ at that time, and this felt like a challenge I should take up.
“I met Kathy Thomas the MD, heard of the vision for Vardags and it was exciting.
“I almost didn’t want to say this because I know it sounds corny but I did almost hear my dad say ‘go for it’, that it was time for me to step up.”
Nicky left her last job on December 30 last year and walked into the brand new Vardags office on Grey Street on January 3rd, her task not only to launch the office with co-director Susanne but also to oversee all the details needed to physcially create the office, including its decoration, furnishings and fit-out, all of which has been picked out by their boss Ayesha.
The plush offices have rooms all named after local landmarks in a nod to its location, and they are designed to have the feel of a luxury home – perfect for the target audience: Higher Net Worth (HNW) earners.
Vardags offers a ‘bespoke’ family law service for HNWs across the region, who have any family law need – it’s a niche market, but there certainly is a market in the North East, says Nicky.
In London people of assets of £1.5m to £2m are on their books, but here in the North East their target client has assets of around £500,000 to £600,000 plus income of more than £150,000 a year.
Getting to that clientele is currently involving lots of networking events to build links, including lots of meetings with investment managers and pension specialists who can help to create those links.
“There are only a couple of other firms which are exclusively family law firms – we are only one of three in the region, said Nicky, who now lives in Wylam, Northumberland.
“Part of our role is to get the name out there – we’re going out meeting people, telling people what Vardags do. It’s a name known in family law circles – and there were people from here going to London who wanted the best in family law.
“This firm has potential to be big business here because people can come to us rather than go down south.
“It’s going really well so far – we’re working with clients here and some from outside of the area who are abroad, thanks to Skype.
“We deal with legal unravelling of assets, ultimately dealing in fairness for clients in court, but we also do the planning side – so we see people when everything is great, when divorce is hopefully never going to happen, when they are drawing up pre-nups and cohabitation agreements at the start of their relationship.”
People are squeamish about pre-nups, says Nicky, but she believes they actually make life much easier in the long run – and with 40% of marriages ending in divorce pre-nups should be high on the Wedding to-do list just as much as booking the chocolate fountain and photographer is Vardags’ belief.
After all, it’s thanks to Vardags’ founder Ayesha that pre-nups actually are now worth the paper they are printed on.
Ayesha won a landmark case in 2010 protecting the £100m fortune of German heiress Katrin Radmacher from her ex-husband Nicolas Granatino, as per their pre-nuptial. Katrin’s husband argued in court that the pre-nuptial agreement was unfair but the judges disagreed, and divorce law history was changed forever.
And those agreements can and should go into minute details.
Nicky said: “It’s not all about the disaster of when it falls apart – it’s about the planning. Pets have come into many a dispute that I’ve been involved in – even horses. The law sees them as assets and looks at their worth. And in a number of cases it has come down to ‘what happens to the dogs?’.”
From a standing start, the plan is to grow the now resplendently decorated office from its current three employees to 10, and there’s scope to expand further into the building too.
And while it’s early days yet, both Susanne and Nicky are thoroughly enjoying working together to put the foundations of Vardags in place.
Nicky added: “I’m loving it. It was a big move. A lot of people were skeptical but I haven’t had any doubts that it wasn’t going to take off in the way that it has.
“We’re getting it up and running and getting lots of support from London. It’s been great – it’s a blank canvas.”
Nicky Hunter’s Q&A
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Artisam in Corbridge
Who or what makes you laugh?
My kids again, I have two boys aged ten and twelve and they most certainly have their moments.
What’s your favourite book?
Pride and Prejudice. It’s been described as ‘literary comfort food’ and is one of the few books I can re-read without it getting old.
What was the last album you bought?
Ed Sheeran, Divide
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
A historical documentary maker
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? And the worst?
The best advice is probably to never allow the fear of failing to stop you from trying. And I can’t think of any really bad advice I’ve been given – I think that you need to take on board all the advice you get – but ultimately trust your own instincts.
What’s your poison?
A cold french white
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times and The Guardian (usually on my ipad!)
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I can’t remember the amount but it would have been for my first ever school holiday job – potting plants in a local Garden centre. I can’t remember now but I think we were paid by the pot!
How do you keep fit?
Long walks in the country and the occasional boot camp.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Finishing other people’s sentences.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
My children’s football boots! Or books… I spend far too much on Amazon.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
This is difficult to choose. Following on from my favourite book, I’d probably say one of the historical characters I most admire is Jane Austen. To have been published as a female writer within her own lifetime, and to have created characters and stories which people can still relate to and enjoy today, over two hundred years later, shows what a rare talent she had.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Barack and Michelle Obama, James Corden and Clive Stafford Smith
There isn’t such a thing as a typical day, which is one of the great things about this job. Our office hours are from 9.00 a.m. – 6.00pm but depending on what needs to be done I may have an earlier start such as for a breakfast meeting or seminar or a later finish if for example a client can only be free to meet after 6.00pm or if there is a deadline to meet. If I have a court hearing in the morning I will usually go straight to court to meet with my client before the hearing.
Most days however start with me arriving at the office at about 8.45 am. I make a cup of coffee first thing and have a brief catch up with my paralegal / assistant and then am at my desk by 9am when I will usually spend about an hour reading, deleting and replying to emails.
Ideally, I will have any client meetings, which might be face-to-face in the office, by telephone or Skype, scheduled from 10am onwards and these can typically last from anywhere between half an hour to two hours. Some days I can have meetings almost back to back, and some days my diary is relatively clear, which is when I will get on with ‘desk-work’.
Each day I have a ‘To-do’ list of work to do for my clients’ cases, which might be writing letters, drafting documents such as agreements, financial statements, reading statements and financial documents of the other party, or preparing a brief to counsel.
This is a very document-heavy job and there is always a lot of information to analyse and present.
Throughout the day there will also be various telephone calls from clients or other solicitors to take.
I don’t have a fixed lunch time, but will usually have lunch at around 1pm. Based where we are at the top of Grey Street, I try and go out for a short walk and get some lunch out of the office but some days it’s just a quick salad or sandwich at my desk, and sometimes it doesn’t happen until much later in the afternoon.
The job isn’t entirely office-based. Some days there will be court hearings to attend either in Newcastle or in the surrounding courts and this can typically take up most of the morning or afternoon.
If we are working with a barrister on a client’s case, and have a meeting or conference scheduled to discuss the client’s case, this will usually take place in the barrister’s chambers at about 4.30pm after the end of the court day.
I usually leave shortly after 6.00pm to catch the train home and have supper with my children.