Woman On Fire: Catherine Thomas

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Catherine Thomas, 34, is widely regarded as one of the top divorce lawyers in the UK and the Managing Director of London’s leading family law firm, Vardags. As a child, she was always told that ‘people like her’ would never make it to Oxford University and that her dream of attending there was foolish. The Rosie On Fire team visited her at Vardags’ stunning penthouse offices to find out how she proved everyone wrong.

 


What do you do?

I am the managing director of the law firm Vardags, which includes five offices; London, Cambridge, Manchester, Newcastle and Winchester. I split my time between representing clients in complex, high net worth divorces and running the business itself.
 

How did you get there?

I trained at an “old school” Lincoln’s Inn firm. I was there for training and made Partner when I was 26. While I was there, I met a well-known divorce lawyer, Ayesha Vardag.

I used to have to go to a lot of networking events completely on my own, which can be quite difficult, walking into a room full of strangers and talking to people. So what I did was, when another lawyer had done a really interesting case, I would send them a message on LinkedIn saying, ‘I would love to talk to you about it sometime.’ Then when I went to the networking event I could say, ‘Oh I messaged you’ and then I would get warmly welcomed into a conversation, which is a lot easier.

When Ayesha won the Radmacher case which changed the law on prenups, I sent her a message. She replied saying, ‘Do you want to go for drinks?’ We hit it off immediately, and after we spent the evening chatting she offered me a job. I accepted, and the rest is history. I walked into work the next day and handed in my notice!

 

What is your most famous case?

One of the highest profile cases I have worked on was for Michelle Young. Her husband, Scot Young was actually claiming to be bankrupt at the time. We showed the courts that in fact, he had £40 million.

My client Michelle was eventually awarded £20 million after one of the most complex trials in family law.
 

Besides work, what is your proudest achievement?

When I was 17, I decided that I wanted to go to Oxford University. My teachers laughed in my face. They told me it was a stupid idea and a waste of an application. I went to a state school in Wales and apparently “people like me” didn’t go to Oxford.  My A-level teacher mocked me relentlessly in front of the entire class and said I would embarrass myself.

In truth, their reaction was a gift. I knew I had to prove them wrong and I did. I got into Oxford and achieved an MA in jurisprudence.

In truth, their reaction was a gift. I knew I had to prove them wrong and I did. I got into Oxford and achieved an MA in jurisprudence.

Being listed in Management Today’s 35 Under 35 in 2014 was also one of my proudest moments – because of the calibre of people I was on that list with. Some of those women had achieved some incredible things very quickly, and I think it was nice being a part of that!

 

Any failures?

Certainly a lot of challenges. As a firm we are growing very quickly and finding the right quality of people while growing to meet client demand at the same time is always a challenge. But we just invest a huge amount of time in recruiting people and meeting people, and we have a really rigorous recruitment process, so it works really well.

 

When did you decide to be a lawyer?

I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer when I was ten years old, which is really unimaginative. We were in the final year of primary school, and we had a school debate, which I took very seriously indeed. It was something to do with whether you should build on a local bowling green. I remember that I really, really, got into it and did a lot of preparation, and thought to myself, “this was really interesting”.

Afterwards, one of my teachers said, “You should think about being a lawyer.” Perhaps I’m not very creative, because I just said, “OK,” and it started there. I’ve always enjoyed debating.
 

Any advice for smashing the glass ceiling?

Staying true to yourself is the most important thing. You will be found out pretty quickly if you’re trying to be a different version of yourself because you think that is what other people want. Recognise your own strengths and use them to your advantage.

Don’t feel that you have to be masculine just because you are working around men. If you are a particularly maternal woman, you should be maternal in the workplace, and that will work for you.

Don’t feel that you have to be masculine just because you are working around men. If you are a particularly maternal woman, you should be maternal in the workplace, and that will work for you.

And if anyone tells you not to pursue your dream, ignore them immediately.

 

Why did you choose your kimonos?

My work tends to leak into the weekends when there is a lot going on, but I try to keep Saturday entirely free and just work on Sunday if possible. I often find this to be the best time to work specifically on the management side of things.

 

What do you do to relax?

I live in Hoxton, which is next to Shoreditch in East London.  In my spare time I enjoy walking my two whippets, Alfie and Rose – very skinny, but very fast! They are like cats, they sprint a few time a day for about 20 minutes and then sleep for about 18  hours, so the perfect two dogs.

I like to drive fast cars and recently took one down to France on a road trip.
 

What do you wear for work?

I dress very smartly for work. Usually pencil skirts and jackets, or when I’m in court, suits. What I wear most of at work has to be dark suits and lots of spikey heels! Prada or Jimmy Choo. With my suits I tend to mix it up quite a bit, some high street things, and some higher-end pieces. I’ll usually combine them.

In my spare time, I’m a lot more casual. I wear a lot more jeans, jumpers and trainers. When you are dressed up all day for work, you quite fancy dressing down!

 

Why did you choose the kimonos?

I spent a lot of time looking at the kimonos, all of them, and they are all beautiful. My favourite designs are Ophelia, Edyn, and Sakura Pink, Baby.

I like bright colours generally – I tend to have really bright things – and I liked how bright the designs are. The kimonos are such feminine pieces, with their shapes and their materials. I really leant towards the more feminine prints. I guess because I’m always in dark suits for work.

 

Catherine Thomas is the Managing Director of Vardags in the UK.

Photographs by Jehan Hamze

 

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