19 July 1999
Not many of us would like one of the country's top restaurateurs to describe us as manipulative, but Erica Shelton takes it as a compliment.
Then again, Sir Terence Conran was blaming Rooks Rider's head of family law - who is taking her entire team to Charles Russell (The Lawyer, 12 July) - for hiking his divorce settlement from £50,000 a year to a total of £10.5m.
The Conran judgment was a milestone - not just because it remains the biggest UK divorce settlement, but because it redefined the grounds on which the courts assess a wife's contribution to a marriage.
This set a precedent for taking into account a wife's non-financial contribution to a marriage.
The precedent only applies at the very top end of the matrimonial market, says Shelton, but the Conran case significantly increased her share of these high-value divorces. "I was much busier," she confirms.
"Most of my work comes from recommendations from previous clients. At the level I'm doing matrimonial law, people don't just walk in off the street."
Does this mean there is a whole network of disgruntled wives who recommend divorce lawyers? "Yes," Shelton replies simply. "There are definitely ladies that lunch, and they know who the good matrimonial solicitors are."
Shelton only decided to concentrate exclusively on family law four years ago, before which she divided her time between family and commercial litigation.
But her commercial background has stood her in good stead.
"A lot of the work we do is on the financial side, and if you can understand what companies do and company accounts it helps.
"I have done a lot of trust litigation in the past, and with a lot of high-level cases the money is tied up in trusts. If you know the right questions to ask it can make a big difference to the case."
She cites cases where a husband says he has no money, but he has an offshore trust that has paid out to him in the past. "But at the time of the divorce, of course the trustees will say 'Oh no, we're not going to hand any over to him'."
Her clients are not all women, but male clients tend not to have the benefit of a social network, instead asking their accountant, banker or a barrister acquaintance, says Shelton. "Often they will ask the company lawyer, and we get a lot of recommendations from lawyers at the top 10 City firms that don't themselves do matrimonial law."
As someone who makes her living from marital breakdown, Shelton believes these City firms should change their own working practices.
She points to the story in last week's The Lawyer that reported City firms snubbing Cherie Booth's Opportunity Now campaign for firms to adopt a more family-friendly culture.
This would mean changing the long-hours culture of the male-dominated City firms.
"There are a lot of very able women I see who are dropping out because they don't feel they can spend enough time with their families because of their job, and I don't see why that should be. I don't think clients expect you to be available at two in the morning, because they are asleep at that time."
She adds that male partners are retiring early "because they want to have a life".
But surely the investment banks, notorious for working staff to exhaustion, do demand this. "They do at the moment because that's the culture, but why can't we change the culture?"
Another development at the top City firms has been that many have got rid of private client practices such as Shelton's. "I don't know if they regret it or not, but I think it's difficult to offer full service if you don't offer private client," she says.
She adds that private client lawyers can introduce their clients to the firm and that over the last four years her new firm has reversed its ratios from 70:30 in favour of private client over corporate without reducing its private client work.
That may be so, but it seems unlikely that the Conran group will be rushing to put Charles Russell on its legal panel following Shelton's appointment.
Head of family law