Fiona Shackleton: ‘Divorce is either quick torture or slow torture’

John Gapper
November 6, 2020, Financial Times

The lawyer for royals and the ultra-rich on the pandemic boom in break-ups — and why she still believes in marriage

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on many businesses, and for the cities where they operate. But for one activity in which London specialises — negotiating divorces for the rich and powerful — it has benefits. Demand is brisk for elite divorce lawyers, led by Fiona Shackleton, who has guided a long list of royalty, celebrities and the wealthy through marital break-ups.

“People have been bottled up with someone they cannot get away from, trying to homeschool their children, both trying to work. It is absolutely combustible, so yes, I’ve had a number of calls,” she says. “One man called me [on Zoom] from the back of his car with his seatbelt on, saying ‘I just can’t take it any more . . . This is the only place I can talk without being overheard.’ ”

The defining moment in Baroness Shackleton’s career came when she represented Prince Charles in his 1996 divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales, which projected her to the top of a small circle of divorce solicitors who cater to the wealthy, and charge between £700 and £1,200 an hour. She is personal solicitor to Prince William and Prince Harry (she is not involved in Meghan Markle’s breach of privacy lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday).

Shackleton has been photographed alongside many celebrity clients in the past three decades. The best-known tabloid incident came when Heather Mills, former wife of her client Sir Paul McCartney, angrily tipped a pitcher of water over Shackleton’s head in 2008, and she emerged from the court with wet hair. But she has rarely been interviewed during her pioneering career, preferring to retain her mystique.

Today, with a stern warning that she will not breach any client confidences, she has relented. She arrives in a scarlet raincoat at Estiatorio Milos, a Greek fish restaurant at the foot of Regent Street that until recently thronged with the city’s political and financial elite. The flash of colour is typical of one whose wardrobe was once dissected in the Daily Mail under the headline “Dressed to kill: how divorce lawyer to the stars . . . uses eccentric (and pricey) outfits as weapons.”

Despite her tenacity in winning multimillion divorce settlements (or limiting them for wealthier partners), she has been married for 35 years and is an evangelist for the benefits of matrimony. She often tells clients to remain together, she says later. “People can get quite cross when I say, ‘Have you been to therapy, have you thought of fixing this marriage? What’s the price of being able to read your children a bedtime story when you want?’ ”

It is clear on arrival that Shackleton is adept at getting her way. I had mentioned the need for quiet and I am shown to a corner table around which a ring of tables has been left empty. Shackleton soon joins me. She is a plain talker with a brisk manner, softened by blue-green eyes. A large heart-shaped brooch is pinned to her houndstooth dress.

Shackleton picked Milos, the UK outpost of a Montreal restaurant opened in 1979 by Costas Spiliadis, because of her fondness for Clio Georgiadis, the restaurant director. “I like the food and, more importantly, I wanted to support her because she has become a working mother, quite late on in her children’s development, and it’s tough.” She also thought of Le Caprice nearby, “but that’s shut now,” she adds sadly (the restaurant’s owner, Richard Caring, plans to reopen elsewhere).

We pick from the set menu: Greek salad with olives and feta cheese for her, followed by grilled organic salmon; salmon tartare and grilled sea bream with broccoli for me, plus fried potatoes. She orders sparkling water, and I neglect to suggest wine, a mistake we never remedy. Hand wipes sit on our linen napkins, the blue packets matching the menu, and we sanitise.

Shackleton mentions her 60th birthday dinner (shared with her elder daughter’s 28th) at Milos four years ago, and offers a forthright analogy: “Women are like leaseholds, we’re depreciating assets, and men are like freeholds and appreciate. But I don’t think there’s a point in lying about your age or moving skin around. It gets ridiculous when you’re a grandmother.” Her first grandchild was born in April.

Surely there are some benefits for women in seniority, I suggest. “There are pros and cons. There aren’t many pros,” she emphasises drily. She concedes one, after 40 years in practice: “The more years go by, the more you can predict. You see a pattern and what the next move will be. Like a game of tennis, you know where the ball will drop.”

She has had many inquiries lately, and compares the pandemic to the peak seasons for divorce: after summer holidays and Christmas. “When you’re socially distanced, you’re topping and tailing the day. On holiday, you’re all banged up together. Ditto at Christmas. You’re hermetically sealed, there’s a lot of eating and drinking, then comes the New Year’s resolution — bin the missus.”

One woman arrived at her office one Christmas to say she was going shopping. “She said, ‘You are going to do a divorce petition and I’m going to put it in a cracker. When we go to our in-laws for Christmas, I am going to pull it with my husband and make sure he gets it.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to be a party to it and it’s never going to work.’”

Our starters have come, but Georgiadis, having been alerted to the FT’s presence by Shackleton, is not content with serving only a modest lunch. Our waiter arrives with a gift of the special — a Jenga tower of fried courgette and aubergine, with kefalograviera cheese and tzatziki.

“You need to destroy the tower,” he explains.

“Oh, my goodness, thank you. That is very naughty, but nice,” Shackleton says.

Shackleton met her husband Ian while studying law at Exeter University, but their friendship deepened 11 years later when she visited Hong Kong, where he was serving in the army. “While he was out, the amah [housekeeper] told me, ‘You no trust him, he is naughty man. You number-three girl.’ I said, ‘I know the last two. Which one do you think is best?’ She said ‘Not you, you very untidy.’”

Her description of her marriage is affectionate but also coolly rational. “It works because we do enough apart and together, and he is a very good and decent person. I had the benefit of having done divorce law for quite a long time before I got married, so I could see who turns up in filing cabinets. Bottom line is, kind means everything.”

We have assailed the tower, but food keeps on piling up: our waiter brings us a free serving of yellowtail sashimi. My tartare is delicate, and when I ask about her salad, she summarises crisply: “It is absolutely delicious, extremely fresh tomatoes, very good olive oil, but I’ve never seen quite so much food on one table. We’ll have to pace ourselves.”

Shackleton funded a research project at Exeter University into educating children on relationships and on how to choose a partner after her father, a barrister and adviser to the Bank of England, died abruptly of a stroke. “I thought, what happens if you’re a child of five, you’re not with your father and you worry about your mother? You don’t have a childhood.”

If divorce is inevitable, she says she advises people to reach a settlement rather than fight in court. “A new client came to see me this morning and his case is really fascinating — there are a lot of judicial decisions we could test. I said, ‘You’re a successful businessman. You don’t want to spend time with me, trying to save a few millions. Give it to your wife and move on.’ I like to get people out of my office as quickly as possible.”

She does not need to “fee grind”, but her professional life was not always easy. She got a third-class degree at Exeter, thanks to dyslexia.

“I was absolutely hopeless at exams . . . My brain is different to other people’s. I see things that they don’t see, and don’t see things they do.”

After training at Herbert Smith, the City law firm, she spent several months as a chef before returning to law and later working for Farrer & Co, a firm that has acted for the royal family and royal estates. It was not a happy experience.

She was picked on at the firm, she recalls. “Women were bullied, and being a Jew, I was bullied. To be told, ‘We only got this client because we don’t employ a Jew in conveyancing, or ‘You’re not going to get equity because it’s better to have two children’ . . . I was bringing in much more work than anyone but I would leave at 5.30pm to put my daughters to bed. They terrorised me into thinking I wasn’t very good.”

(Farrer later responded: “The firm is saddened by Fiona’s comments. They do not reflect the firm of 20 years ago, nor do they bear any relation to the firm of today. Fiona was an equity partner and her departure had nothing whatsoever to do with her gender or her faith.”)

In 2001, Shackleton moved to Payne Hicks Beach, where she still practises.

Our main courses have come and we toy with them — both fish are tempting but our appetites are wilting. We turn to London’s allure as a divorce forum. English courts incline towards dividing any assets acquired during the marriage equally, although they take account of prenuptial agreements and in exceptional circumstances can consider “special contributions” made by a wealthier partner. If an oligarch’s wife is a UK resident, giving her the right to file for divorce here, it may be tempting.

Shackleton represented Tatiana Akhmedova, former wife of the Russian energy billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov, in the UK’s biggest divorce settlement in 2016 — Akhmedova was awarded £453m in court. She also acted this year for HRH Princess Haya, former wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, in a child custody case where he was found by the court to have been responsible for the abduction of two of his daughters from a previous marriage.

She cites the obstacles to moving to pick the best divorce venue. “If you try moving children without the agreement of a spouse or the courts, you may be done for abduction. I’ve been involved in a lot of abduction cases.”

“Princess Haya?” I venture.

“Princess Diana?” she asks, looking puzzled. I clarify.

“I was going to say, no suggestion that anyone abducted anyone else in that case,” she says. “But can I stop you right there? [Princess Haya] is a current case, so I can’t talk about it.”

I turn to the Akhmedova divorce instead and she regards me silently.

“That’s not current, is it?” I ask.

She nods, then softens a little. “If you look at that case, they had lived here for 20 years. It was not a case of [her] forum shopping, or putting a towel on the lounger and popping up in court a year later and saying, ‘Guess what, I’m divorcing you.’”

London’s strength is not the regime for splitting assets but the independence of its courts, she argues. “London is a good market because the courts are fair. You cannot buy a judge in England and people should be much more appreciative of them. Some take huge pay cuts to do public service in pretty ghastly conditions. It is not a lovely life.”

Still, she thinks judges have too much discretion, likening them to bouncers making visitors to a free club pay on leaving, depending on how much they danced. “I think people should know when they get into marriage what
they are contracting. You know the contract for a washing machine.”

She backed a bill proposed by Baroness Deech in 2017 to make the financial framework clearer.

I think people should know
when they get into marriage
what they are contracting.
You know the contract for a
washing machine

Is it hard constantly to deal with wealthy people who are used to giving orders, I ask. “It’s easier, because they can tell you to go away. You’re acting for someone who is used to being told he is wearing clothes even though he has nothing on. You say, ‘I am really sorry, this is how it is’ . . . They are [no longer] paying my mortgage or my school fees. If they tell me it is over, someone else will come along.”

But surely they must be reluctant to disclose their entire wealth?

“When you act for the rich and famous, you need to get them to reveal their hands pretty quickly so that we can get on to the next thing, which is sorting it all out. I tell them, ‘It is either quick torture or slow torture.’ They will be paying the wife’s lawyer to drag it out, so stick it on the table.”

I raise her royal clientele, expecting her to clam up again, but she replies after a pause: “You have not to forget their burdens. Most clients don’t have bodyguards round the clock, or know that if they put a foot wrong, it will end up everywhere. They can get another plumber, or another lawyer at the flick of a switch. You’re not in a tied cottage, so if you’re honest and not a toady, you can give good advice.”

The waiter comes for our unfinished plates. “You didn’t make much of an impression on your chips,” Shackleton notes. We try to refuse pudding but the waiter will not hear of it. “It’s on the set menu. Shall I make something, do you trust me?” he asks. “I always trust you, but small portions,” Shackleton replies. He returns with a large platter of karidopita (walnut cake) and baklava.

As we nibble, I ask whether she attaches as much importance to what she wears as the Mail claimed, or whether it is a sexist double standard.

“I love clothes,” she declares. “I like the theatre of costume and I spent quite a lot of my childhood being very fat, when nothing looked nice. So, wearing nice clothes, all bought in sales at good prices and made to fit in the personal shopping department of Selfridges, is a great bonus. It is like putting on your uniform, your battle kit.”

Over coffee, conversation turns to our families, and Shackleton reflects again on why she tells clients not to fight unnecessarily. “I say, ‘Look at it like this, do you hate your spouse more than you love your child?’ Children are children for quite a short time. Play a long game, be accommodating, love your child. It will be OK.”