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The Ray Tooth and Ayesha Vardag debacle proves there really is such a thing as bad publicity

Tooth, a 73-year-old veteran of divorce law, accused his former protégée Vardag of trying to pinch celebrity clients from him, and set about him in astonishing fashion.

Supreme Court.
The UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square, London. Photograph: Getty Images.

There is something quite pathetic about the squabble between divorce lawyers Ray Tooth and Ayesha Vardag. Tooth, a 73 year old veteran of divorce law whose clients include Sadie Frost and Irina Abramovich, accused Vardag, Chairman of family law firm Vardags, of trying to pinch celebrity clients from him by buying Google Ad Words several months ago.

The dispute has now reached a settlement: Vardag has agreed to pay £5,000 with £38,000 costs, although it admits no fault or liability. But neither individual should perceive themselves as a winner in this debacle: it has shown both highly successful lawyers squabbling over the wreckage of super-rich and high profile marriages, apparently just as concerned about their own fame as their clients’ divorces. As such, it will only serve to confirm what many people already think of lawyers – especially divorce lawyers – and proves that there really is such a thing as bad publicity.

That the small world of London matrimonial law is also a very bitchy one is not news. When Spear’s ran its Family Law Index in April 2013, profiling the leading 20 divorce lawyers, The Times gave it full-page coverage under the headline “Divorce Lawyers Take Off Their Gloves As They Rate Rivals”. I was a journalist at Spear’s at the time and worked on that Index – and the comments we received from these lawyers about their peers (all of which were given anonymously) were astonishing: “A monster with a personality disorder” and “a thug in lawyer’s clothing” were two of my favourites.

Tooth – who gave Vardag her first family law job – has set about his former protégée with characteristic vigour, arguing that she was “biting the hand that had fed her” in buying Ad Words. A few months ago, a sponsored Google advert, now taken down, appeared when people searched for Sears Tooth; it lead people to Vardag’s website, where the following text appeared under Tooth’s firm’s logo:

Sharing elements of Ray Tooth’s flamboyant and forceful style, Ayesha Vardag has been described by senior members of the profession as the modern successor to the family law ‘crown’, which Tooth wore through the eighties and nineties.

Tooth claims that this blurb (of which the above is just an extract) tried to portray him as a spent force, and that clients were better off with flashy Vardags than with the more traditional, old-school Sears Tooth. Vardag claims she didn’t know about the wording of the ad – a “defence” which, if true, is pretty appalling, especially given the hard-hitting marketing and PR strategies she is known for.

Tooth has won a hollow victory here. Under The Times’ online coverage of the Vardag-Tooth battle a reader bluntly states: “Who gives a toss about the shenanigans of these overpaid and unpleasant people?” I don’t think Tooth or Vardag are necessarily overpaid, and I have no idea what sort of people they are – but I do think they shouldn’t need to resort to tactics like this to gain either clients or publicity. They certainly shouldn’t be just as concerned – as this rather grubby dispute has shown them to be – with their own public image as they are to do a good job for the divorcing couples they represent.