Making a clean break
Former associate Samantha Woodham draws on the skills, self-confidence and humility she found while working at Freshfields in her creation of a new model for divorce.
Cambridge graduate Samantha recalls with a laugh that her decision to join the firm was at least in part because ‘Freshfields had really cool coffee machines’.
Her two years’ training took in seats in corporate, real estate, litigation and employment. ‘It was such a brilliant start for me – not enough people realise you can go from a high-profile law firm to doing anything you want. I converted to the Bar but you can go in-house, or you can go into industry, away from law. Once you are a qualified Freshfields solicitor, you have that inner confidence (and back-up plan!)’
Samantha made friends she remains in touch with, and she singles out Caroline Stroud as a ‘shining light’ from her three months sharing a room in employment. ‘Caroline had a really big impact on me. She showed me how you can still be super compassionate and supportive as a senior leader, as well as being a family person.’
Samantha then decided to become a barrister (easier given her qualification as a solicitor) and work in family law. ‘I just picked the top five family law chambers. Some couldn't get their heads round coming from corporate law, but a couple of them did, realising that big divorce cases have lots of corporate issues.’
Samantha started out working in all areas of family law: financial arrangements and arrangements for children, but also public law cases (where children can be taken into care) and child abduction. For the last 12 years she has specialised purely in the legal consequences of divorce, representing mostly professional or high-net-worth wives or husbands in respect of both financial and child arrangements.
‘I was always representing just one side and involved relatively late on. In the last five years, the courts have become increasingly overrun with longer and longer waiting times for hearings. I think general public dissatisfaction with the divorce process is obvious.’
She began having clients come in at very early stages – before litigation was on the radar –with the aim of securing the best outcome whilst avoiding court if possible, sometimes with the use of arbitration or mediation. This strategic, early intervention was effective, although it was a conversation with a friend about five years ago that offered the inspiration for a new approach to divorce.
‘A friend came to me wanting to talk about problems in her marriage. I said “no” because I was friends with both of them. I offered the names of some brilliant solicitors but she asked if I could talk to her and her husband together. I had no idea if I could. The Bar Council confirmed that this type of consultation is ethical and that a barrister can be instructed by a separating couple to offer joint, impartial advice.’
A new model
Having experienced the drawbacks of adversarial litigation and seen the potential for a new system, Samantha set up The Divorce Surgery with Harry Gates, another family law barrister, at their chambers 4 Paper Buildings (in the Inner Temple, a stone’s throw away from our London office). The Divorce Surgery is founded on the principle that, with equal access to top quality, impartial legal advice, couples will be empowered to resolve their differences quickly, fairly and with the least conflict.
The Divorce Surgery’s novel corporate structure had to be regulated through the Bar Standards Board, which took about a year. The Divorce Surgery can now use any barrister from any part of the country. ‘We are impartial so just try and choose the barrister that fits the couple best – somebody that both they and we have confidence in. Depending on the issues, we also pair couples with QCs. Because we offer a streamlined, fixed price service, we can secure the best expertise for a fraction of the cost of traditional litigation’
The Divorce Surgery is gaining recognition, not only in the press, but also within the industry, having won innovation accolades at the 2019 Legal Week Awards and the 2019 Lawyer Awards. It was also ranked among the top 50 most innovative law firms by the 2019 FT Innovative Lawyer Awards Europe.
How transformative could this new model be? There are moves towards a process called ‘One Couple, One Lawyer’, Samantha says, pointing out that in the Netherlands, France and Italy the default is for divorcing couples to see one impartial lawyer together, and only if they then cannot reach agreement to instruct separate lawyers.
Unfortunately UK solicitors’ conflict rules currently preclude such an approach by solicitors here, although there have already been efforts to change the system. ‘The difficulty is that this would cut across all different areas of law and so it has huge ramifications,’ says Samantha. ‘It’s not straightforward.’
Should the rules change and solicitors be permitted to advise multiple parties, what skills are needed for such a sensitive conflict resolution role? ‘You need empathy but also clear and honed expertise. That is what clients are paying for,’ Samantha says.
‘We are seeing huge demand which is fantastic and proves what we believed to be the case: most separating couples do not want a conflict-ridden path to legal advice; they just want to achieve a result which is fair to each of them. For couples who are open and transparent about their assets (which is the vast majority) we offer a way to get the highest level of expertise with the least conflict: 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce: as a society we need to do it better.’
More information on Samantha Woodham’s Divorce Surgery can be found at thedivorcesurgery.co.uk, including online systems that allow you to start the process anywhere, any time. The Divorce Surgery is dedicated to improving access to justice, so 1 per cent of profits are donated to charitable causes with this aim.