Ayesha Vardag: “When they divorce, men will say, ‘You don’t deserve any of this’”

The NS Interview.

As a divorce lawyer, do you ever feel you’re working behind the scenes of a soap opera?

Divorce law is played out within the theatre of intensely personal lives. Sometimes the way that people behave is terrible, cruel and ridiculous. But mostly it’s the very real issue of being a human being trying to make things work in a society where it’s very difficult for people to manage to be together.

Was that lacking when you worked in the City?

That was what I missed, exactly. I moved from international and commercial law into divorce law as the consequence of going through my own divorce and was then hired by my divorce lawyer. It is a different level of fulfilment. You often take people from despairing states and go with them through the process of becoming themselves again, becoming more than they believed they could be – particularly if you have women who’ve been very disenfranchised.

Did you change after your divorce?

I had to leave the very set, high-powered career I had as a project finance lawyer at Linklaters in order to put my ex-husband’s career first, because he was made a partner and I wasn’t allowed to remain married to a partner in the firm. I’m a very different person from what I would have been had I followed that track. I would have forced myself to conform more, because that’s what was required.

How does gender play out in divorce cases?

Often when they divorce, the men will say, “You don’t deserve any of this. I made this.” In our law there is an understanding that marriage is a partnership and what you build up between you is to be shared equally. It doesn’t matter who is the breadwinner or the homemaker.

Marriage is defined as “between a man and a woman”. Should it be “between two people”?

There have always been two forms of marriage: civil and religious. When the Civil Partnership Act was introduced [2004], the intention behind it was to enable gay marriage, but nobody quite wanted to call it gay marriage because that was a bridge too far for the conservative elements. It’s a shame they weren’t able to go the whole hog. I profoundly feel that marriage is a union between two people and the sexual element of marriage is potentially irrelevant.

If you could change any law, what would it be?

I’ve got two. I’m sure there are important anti-terror, civil rights laws that I should be thinking about but what occurs to me, as a family lawyer, is no-fault divorce. People should be able to say, “We don’t want to be married any more.” Nobody should have to hurl blame and go through this artificial construct of one party criticising the other in order to get a divorce. It’s not in the spirit of a modern society. There should also be enforcement of the requirement on both parents to spend time with their children unless they are in some way harmful to them.

Because children are so often involved, should family law be less aggressive?

I think divorce lawyers should be kinder, fairer, more compassionate. Too few take that responsibility seriously. Many equate being a competent and effective lawyer with being a nasty, aggressive lawyer and that corrupts our system. It’s hugely damaging for families.

Are prenuptials cynical or pragmatic?

There is a real possibility that one’s marriage may not last for ever, given that over 40 per cent don’t. It’s not cynical to try to provide for that. It’s unromantic, in a way – weddings are atten­ded by bridesmaids, not lawyers, as one of my colleagues put it!

You once worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Why?

I came to the IAEA because I’d done a research project at the International Court of Justice on nuclear energy. The conclusion I had reached was that it was so hazardous that it couldn’t be contemplated.

What one thing would improve your lifestyle?

To have to work only half as much and spend that extra time with my family.

Does having your own legal practice affect your work/home-life balance?

You have more control over your time. But running the business, keeping the cases coming in, winning the cases – the pressure that puts on me keeps me awake at night.

Is there anything you’d rather forget?

My life, like so many people’s, has been full of personal and professional heartbreak. But the great thing about the human spirit is we’re geared up to forget the painful things in life.

Was there a plan?

There were many plans and none of them was to do what I’ve done. But stronger than that were themes, such as wanting to pursue international work, wanting a mix of the intellectual and the personal and caring strongly about families. That, and a desire for autonomy.

Are we all doomed?

I’m profoundly optimistic. I screen out the voice of doom whenever it emerges.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special