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

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.

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war