By all appearances, the judicial system in Britain has remained relatively unchanged for 200 years. Stuffy looking barristers in dark robes and powdered wigs pontificating in dark paneled rooms, it is a system steeped in tradition and dominated by men. Ayesha Vardag, president of Vardags law firm, is working to change that. One of only a handful of family lawyers to be named ‘Lawyer of the Week’ by the United Kingdom’s “The Times” newspaper, sexism in the law was one of the reasons Vardag decided to go into business for herself.
“I was forced to leave a job at another top firm when my then-husband was made partner. Their policy was that you couldn’t have a regular solicitor married to a partner. It was the same all over. I was told variously, ‘Children? You didn’t put them on your CV!’ and ‘Though you’ve worked tirelessly and made no concession to having children, I just don’t see how you can possibly make a career as a lawyer and a single mother.’ So I went and did my own thing and did far better than any of them!”
The Diva of Divorce
Started on a shoestring budget in the spare room of her London home, Vardags has grown to include a team of more than 50 people, many of them lawyers at the top of their profession, specializing in high-net-worth, complex and international divorce cases. Vardag has even been called “Britain’s top divorce lawyer” after winning a Supreme Court case that changed Britain’s laws on prenuptial agreements. With this kind of success behind her, she has found her gender can be an advantage.
“Women often want a female divorce lawyer because their marriages made them suspicious of men. Men often want a female divorce lawyer, firstly, because they feel they’ll know how their wives think and help play them at their own game, secondly they believe it makes them look more sympathetic to the court. If you’ve got someone standing up saying, ‘She doesn’t need that much,’ or, ‘She ought to get a job,’ – it sounds better coming from an independent woman.”
At a time when British women are still making nearly 20 percent less than their male counterparts, Vardags is working to build a team of independent women.
“My firm’s success has given me an opportunity to create a workplace free of glass ceilings. I wanted to build an organization based on true meritocracy, where the issues traditionally faced by women weren’t a feature. One of the ways I’ve approached this is to introduce a parenting policy, allowing primary caregivers to return to work in gradual stages after a baby is born. We pay for their children to go to the nursery of their choice, and they’re actively encouraged to have children if they want to, without fearing their career will suffer by being ‘Mummy-tracked’.”
Three Tips for Entrepreneurial Mothers
When her business was in its infant stages, Vardag had three children of her own, the youngest just 6-months-old. Often she found herself tidying up the children’s toys before meetings and hiding the baby gates. So what advice does she have for busy mothers starting their own businesses?
- Think big. “You have to think big, much bigger than you can easily imagine and do the work to back it up. If you’re determined and committed you’re highly likely to succeed. In my assistant Mary-Jane’s first week I had a new client coming in. I said, ‘I usually answer the door, perhaps now you’re here it would look better if you let him in?’ She paused to consider and then told me kindly, ‘Yes, I think that’s what they’d do in a real law firm.’ Now we’re the 46th fastest growing company in the United Kingdom, clients are greeted with a glass of champagne in mahogany paneled offices overlooking St. Paul’s and we are still joking about when we’ll be a real law firm.”
- Learn how to be an effective delegator. “When your name’s on the door people ask for you and if you’re not careful, you can run yourself ragged. The damage is two-fold: you can’t do your job properly and you limit the growth of your business by failing to grow those around you. I’ve adopted a tangible policy of promoting those around me, developing their independent public profiles, working with them on cases until they establish their own exceptional expertise and fostering a culture of knowledge-sharing so we can provide the highest level of service.”
- Seize your space. “If someone’s pushing past what you have to say, or being dismissive, you have to seize your space. Start doing so politely, but if they don’t listen, take the gloves off. Raise your voice, bang the table; stand up if you have to. Don’t be afraid to say, no. When you’re trying to get something done, being liked or approved of is far less important than being effective.”