Founded by experienced and specialist family law barristers Samantha Woodham and Harry Gates, The Divorce Surgery has won awards for Innovation at The FT, The Lawyer, Legal Week and the Family Law Awards, and has been widely recognised as a game-changer for the divorce industry.
How did The Divorce Surgery come to be? We speak to Samantha and Harry about the journey so far, and their ambitions for The Divorce Surgery in the future.
Tell us a little about yourselves?
Samantha: I’ve been a specialist family law barrister at 4 Paper Buildings, the largest family law set in the country, for 13 years. Prior to this I qualified as a corporate solicitor at a magic circle law firm. I have a young family and a golden retriever who we all spoil rotten, as well as a cat who tolerates us.
Harry: I have concentrated exclusively on family law for almost twenty years, all of them very happily spent with wonderful colleagues at 4 Paper Buildings. Home is the Wiltshire countryside where, like Sam, I also have a young family (and too many pets to mention – don’t ask).
When did you both come up with the idea for The Divorce Surgery?
Samantha: I can claim this one! It was my idea, which originated about 6 years ago when I was asked directly whether I could advise a separating couple together. I automatically assumed I could not, and that barristers would be subject to the same conflict rules which prevent solicitors advising couples together. However, once I explored this with the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board (our regulatory bodies) it became clear that this was not the case, and that barristers could be instructed by a couple to give joint, impartial advice. I spent a number of years mulling and researching the topic, and reading around to see what other jurisdictions were doing. It turns out that in many other European countries the default starting point is for separating couples to go to one impartial lawyer who advises them both. Only if they cannot agree, or there are complicating factors, do they go into separate legal camps. This made so much sense, and it seemed ridiculous that couples here were prevented from accessing the service. I knew straight away I couldn’t do it alone, and Harry came on board from inception: The Divorce Surgery was born!
Harry: What she said. Before becoming involved in The Divorce Surgery I tried to set up a divorce insurance business aimed at helping those unable suddenly to afford the costs of separation, but the idea became bogged down in complexity. I count myself as being very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time when Samantha was looking for help setting up The Divorce Surgery. I needed no convincing about the merits of the idea, although I confess to a few nerves about how the profession would react. But I needn’t have worried, it turns out.
What was the greatest challenge for you both in moving The Divorce Surgery from idea to reality?
Harry: on a practical level, setting up office facilities in the age of GDPR and with no relevant experience is not a task I would wish on my worst enemy. But the really crucial thing was to try to bring the family law world with us in accepting the concept of joint legal advice. Without the support of our many friends and colleagues amongst the legal profession and judiciary, we just wouldn‘t have got anywhere.
Samantha: We are barristers, not entrepreneurs. So there was a lot to learn in running a business (and we are still very much learning!). The major challenge, of course, is that we are trying to turn the current model on its head, and change the way Family Justice is delivered. That is a huge undertaking, and raising awareness amongst members of the public that this is an option which is available to them remains our greatest hurdle. But we have had unbelievable support from within the legal profession and the judiciary. I think also we have been lucky with our timing: it is widely recognised that Family Justice as a whole is at breaking point, and that court proceedings are damaging to the adults involved and their children, so there is huge appetite for a better way, without compromising the ability of the parties to get top level, focussed, legal advice.
The Divorce Surgery is authorised and regulated by the Bar Standards Board. Tell us a bit about why it was important for you to seek this sort of recognition?
Samantha: Regulation took about a year, and was a big undertaking. But, in my view, it is vital. Agreeing the division of your finances on divorce is probably the biggest surrender of assets you will make in your lifetime. Agreeing arrangements for your children is even more emotionally loaded and vital to get right. I know if I were making those decisions for my own family I would want advice from a barrister and organisation which were regulated, insured and viewed as the best in the industry. By giving couples that level of reassurance I think we give them the best opportunity to have confidence in the advice and reach a mutually agreeable solution. Because the sooner you can reach a settlement, the sooner you can move on and rebuild.
Harry: I agree, unsurprisingly. Given that we were introducing a brand-new dispute resolution tool, it was obviously vital to demonstrate its legitimacy as early as possible. Regulation is tough – but so it should be.
What makes The Divorce Surgery so unique?
Harry: I can’t do better than simply to repeat the phrase: ‘One Couple, One Lawyer’. It does what it says on the tin, and you can’t get it anywhere else. Full-stop.
Samantha: We are the only regulated organisation in the country which gives separating couples access to joint, impartial legal advice from a barrister. I am so proud of what we have achieved, and hope this becomes an increasing starting point for couples at the point of separation.
Samantha, earlier this year you gave an interview with BBC News on The Divorce Surgery. Tell us a little about the experience.
Samantha: It was actually quite fun! For some reason I woke up that morning and I wasn’t nervous at all, so I was able to enjoy it and take it all in. It was brilliant to have the platform to raise awareness of what we are doing, and I’m mighty relieved I didn’t mess it up!
Harry, tell us about some of the feedback you have had from clients who you have advised through The Divorce Surgery’s process?
Harry: It has been so interesting how little we have had to explain our concept to couples who are interested in using our service, even where other options such as mediation, arbitration and Private FDRs exist. Most people seem instinctively to understand the benefit of a non-adversarial approach – it sells itself.
We have seen The Divorce Surgery go from strength to strength in recent months. From being named in the Financial Times FT50 Most Innovative Law Firms in Europe, to your most recent win at the Family Law Awards for the Family Law Innovation of the Year Award 2019 – there has been a torrent of praise for the work you are both doing. What achievement are you most proud of this year?
Samantha: Gosh, that’s hard. It’s all been amazing- the endorsement from Sir James Munby was a big highlight for me, as well as the Family Law Award, as that came from our peers. But I guess the greatest achievement is that Harry and I have introduced a completely new form of family procedure, run a business, kept our private practices going and had a lot of fun with it. It’s amazing to work and achieve success with a friend.
Harry: We have had such a varied range of clients in 2019 – from the very well-heeled to those who simply can’t afford litigation. It is very pleasing to see how our process appeals to clients from across the wealth spectrum. Quite proud also to be considered one of the 50 Most Innovative Law Firms in Europe – that was rather startling!
Finally, what’s next for The Divorce Surgery?
Samantha: Continue to raise awareness amongst the public and lobby for change: far too many couples end up in court who shouldn’t be there, at great emotional and financial cost. Our goal is for every separating couple to know all their options for accessing legal advice and support on separation, so they can choose the type of divorce they want.
Harry: Conquering the world.