There’s a scene in the first episode of BBC1 drama The Split, in which a man tells his wife he wants to break up. The couple are sitting around a glassy conference table in the flashy offices of legal firm Noble & Hale, and the wife (played by Meera Syal) is so taken aback, she knocks over a cup of coffee. The coffee ends up all over the expensive, dry-clean-only clothes of the expensive divorce lawyer, Hannah Stern (played by Nicola Walker).
I’m watching the episode in the company of Sandra Davis, a real-life divorce lawyer, who’s worked for more than 30 years at Mishcon de Reya, one of the UK’s leading law firms. Have hot drinks ever been spilled over her? “I had a sugar bowl thrown at me once,” she says matter-of-factly. In The Split, Hannah rushes to the ladies’ toilet after the coffee incident and mops herself with a wet wipe.
By contrast, Davis remained resolutely unflustered when crockery shattered and sugar cubes tumbled onto the floor. “I said, ‘I think we should take a break.’” Davis recalls, with perfect sang-froid. “The thing is, it’s not about me. To be able to function in this area of the law, you have to be calm. You have to disengage your own baggage, if you have any.”
As head of Mishcon’s family law division, Davis has negotiated the break-ups of several high-profile and high-net-worth individuals. She represented Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles, supermodel Jerry Hall in her split from Mick Jagger, footballer Thierry Henry, and fashion tycoon Tamara Mellon, co-founder of Jimmy Choo. And those are only the ones we know about – Davis is frustratingly discreet. She won’t even confirm her hourly rates, but doesn’t dispute it’s somewhere north of £600.
The gender make-up of the drama is a reflection of the real-life world of divorce law, which is overwhelmingly female. In a survey of the legal profession conducted by Spear’s magazine last year, seven out of the top ten family lawyers were female (Davis, naturally, made the cut). “I think that in this field, you not only need to be competent at the law, you need to have softer skills,” says Davis, who nurtured childhood ambitions to be a lawyer after watching too much Perry Mason on television. “You need to have empathy. You need to appreciate and understand human dynamics.”
Ever since the landmark case of two farmers in 2000 (known in judicial circles as White v White), London has become the divorce capital of the world. The case set a precedent for splitting assets equally between breadwinner and homemaker, meaning “economically weaker spouses” (usually wives) of high-net-worth individuals flock to Britain for their decree nisi. Does Davis believe people sometimes marry purely for money? There’s a slight twitch of the lips. “There are always those for whom marriage is an investment.”
Divorces involving foreign nationals account for one sixth of cases before the UK courts – an estimated 17,000 of the approximately 107,000 divorces in the UK each year. As a result, Davis’s caseload – just like Hannah’s in The Split – often consists of complex tax negotiations across several international time zones. It also means the stakes are high – not just financially but also emotionally.
She has many anecdotes pertaining to the righteous fury of her clients, from the time priceless bottles of a feckless husband’s vintage wine collection were poured down the loo by an angry wife, to another spouse whose immediate response to learning her partner wanted a divorce was “to rush off to her husband’s employers and make a scene, bad-mouthing him, sending emails, all that sort of stuff. There are examples of behaviour that, in a reasoned set of circumstances, people would not descend to if they weren’t emotionally off-kilter.”
Davis says that in any divorce case where children are involved, she asks for a picture of them in order to remind herself that their wellbeing should be placed firmly at the centre of proceedings.
“I really feel that children are the most important part of the process,” she says. The best divorces are those in which “both parties recognise they have to re-frame the relationship… While the couple’s relationship may have been damaged, they’re still parents to their children. “I feel passionately about what I do. I don’t get a personal sense of satisfaction from other people’s misery. It’s the challenge to make something negative into something the client feels is copable with in the end. I get a sense of satisfaction from navigating that turbulence.”
But she’s careful to tell her clients that she isn’t a therapist. “I can give a practical solution, but I’m an expensive shoulder to cry on… We always recommend that, alongside the divorce process, our clients talk to a therapist. First of all, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. Secondly, it stops people reacting immediately and inflaming the situation.”
Davis freely admits that the only way she was able to balance the demands of her career and her two sons (now aged 28 and 26) was by having a full-time nanny who didn’t take a single sick day in 15 years. She also points out that, as depicted in the drama, female lawyers often walk to work in flat shoes and change into high heels in their office: “I have ten pairs of heels under my desk.”
The lawyers on television are immaculately dressed. How does Davis feel about clothes? “I like clothes and, of course, I think about what I wear. I dress for me, but I’m not the story. So if I go to court, I dress appropriately to blend into the background. The client is at the forefront. I would say that I like to show a little bit of personality. My style is classic with a twist.” Today, she’s wearing a well-cut dark blue suit that might or might not be Chanel (she refuses to discuss labels: “I’m an eclectic shopper”) and a black leather handbag that is definitely Diane von Furstenberg (I recognise the logo).
Davis herself has been married for almost 30 years, although she refuses to disclose her own age and says that simply because she’s an expert on divorce does not make her an expert on how to stay hitched. Still, her one piece of advice is “honest and open communication… I think marriage is something you have to work at every day.” That, and to get a pre-nuptial agreement. She says she’ll insist on one for her own sons if they ever tie the knot. “Absolutely. No question. It avoids grief further down the line – and cost! You wouldn’t employ a builder for an extensive renovation without a contract. This [marriage] is the most important contract of your lives.”
It must be wildly intimidating for her sons’ girlfriends the first time they meet Davis, I say. “I like to think I’m not intimidating. I try not to speak in legalese at work or outside the office. Most of my job is to ask questions and then listen to find a point of connection and then work on that, rather than reminding someone of who I am and what I do.” And as the credits roll on The Split, Davis is keen to make it clear that her job is “not about your own ego. You don’t bring yourself into the negotiation.” Preferably, you leave the sugar bowls outside too.