‘Steel Magnolia’ Litigator Tells of Sexism and Anti-Semitism at The Royals’ Firm

fiona shackleton lawyer
'Steel Magnolia' Litigator Tells of Sexism and Anti-Semitism at The Royals' Firm

A royal row over anti-Semitism and sexism has developed between one of the UK’s most prestigious law firms and one of its top women litigagors, one of LawFuel’s ’13 Most Feared Women Litigators,‘ the so-called ‘Steel Magnolia’, Baroness Fiona Shackleton.

Lady Shackleton has accused the Queen’s law firm, Farrer & Co of being a hotbed of anti-Semitism and sexism, according to reports.

She was a partner at Farrers, which has represented Prince Charles in his divorce from Princess Diana, as well as Prince Andrew when he separated from Sarah Ferguson.

She has since gone on to become a conspicuous success, winning multimillion pound settlements for a range of celebrity and ultra wealthy clients that have frequently seen her photographed with clients at court.

She says that she left Farrers after becoming the target of anti-Semitic prejudice resulting from her Jewishness.

‘Women were bullied and, being a Jew, I was bullied,’ she told the Daily Mail. ‘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 [you feel] 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.’ 

She has been with Payne Hicks Beach for 20 years. She has also been married for 35 years.

Her claims have resulted in denials from Farrers, which will be wary of being drawn into the same type of anti-Semitism row that has torn apart the Labour Party and led to the suspension of its former leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

‘The firm is saddened by Fiona’s comments,’ its spokesman says. 

‘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.’ 

Britain’s Only ‘Celebrity Lawyer’

Regarded as one of the country’s most famous lawyers, maybe the only so-called ‘celebrity lawyer’, Lady Shackleton has a fearless reputation.

As website RollonFriday lawyer and founder Matthew Rhodes noted: ‘We don’t venerate lawyers in this country like they do in the US. I think Fiona is the only celebrity lawyer we have.’

The moniker ‘Steel Magnolia’ sums up the combination of steely resolve and polish that characterise the famed divorce lawyer.

After leaving Farrer & Co, Lady Shackleton went on to become a partner at Payne Hicks Beach, where she acted for Sir Paul McCartney when he divorced Heather Mills. 

Even though the former model received £24.3million, she was so enraged by the outcome that she emptied a jug of water over Lady Shackleton’s head in court.

She has since gone on to represent an array of famed and wealthy clients, including advertising guru Martin Sorrell, physicist Stephen Hawkins as well as retaining the representation of several Royals, including their most unpopular, Prince Andrew.

Pandemic Boom

Her legal work has boomed with the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Financial Times report that she has fielded numerous divorce enquiries with the pandemic. 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.”

She told the FT about one woman who told her that 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.’ 

Dress for Success

Her colourful and stylish dresses and English voice have made her even more of an identity, despite early doubts about her likely career prospects.

Born in London and attended Benenden School, the alma mater of Princess Anne. She was told she wasn’t clever enough to become a doctor and instead she studied law at Exeter to study law.

University contemporaries have described a girl with an ‘incredibly upper-class accent and raucous voice’. The law department at Exeter – then known for its focus on the nitty-gritty of ‘black letter law’, according to Michael Frendo, who studied there around the same time – doesn’t seem to have suited her. She scraped through with a third-class degree. ‘I got most of the wildness out of my hair before I left,’ she has said. Today, she doesn’t drink.

‘None of us dreamed she’d make such a mark,’ said one contemporary who became a solicitor. ‘We predicted she would marry well and become a society hostess.’ said one profile on her success.

She achieved a great deal more than that. The ‘fearsome litigator’ and ‘celebrity lawyer’ are only labels. For her, she is very much Baroness Shackleton, the divorce lawyer par excellence.

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