In this instalment of Realm Talks To…, Family specialist Lucy caught up with Shanika Varga-Haynes, Senior Associate at Stowe Family Law. During their chat, Shanika explains how she turns a bad day around, shares some advice that shaped her career and describes what sets Stowe Family Law apart.
At what age did you decide that the law was for you?
When I was at school teachers would always comment that I would make a good lawyer as I had an answer for everything. It appealed to me so for my Year 11 work experience I spent two weeks at a high street firm in the town I grew up in which gave me a real insight into the day-to-day life of a private practice solicitor. I then (some might say stupidly) decided to go in a completely different direction with my degree and applied to study International Relations and German which I absolutely hated and dropped out within 3 months. It was at that point that I decided to make law my focus. I worked for the rest of the academic year and at the same time reapplied to universities to do my LLB. I think deep down I always knew I would end up in the legal sector, I just went slightly off path for a year.
What makes Stowe Family Law different?
Stowe is different for so many reasons, as a firm we have been on quite the journey. I have been with Stowe for 7 years now and over that time we have gone from being owned by our founder with 10 offices across the company (and I could name every employee) to being purchased by a private equity firm, having 48 offices across the country and still expanding. Private equity investment by virtue of us being an Alternative Business Structure has given us greater flexibility and drive to achieve our growth plans that a more traditional equity partnership might be deterred from doing where there may be greater focus on individual partner profit shares. It has been a real privilege to be part of the firm’s journey over the past few years and see it go from strength to strength.
Part of Stowe’s journey has been refocussing to make clients and employees the centre of all decisions. We now have several teams dedicated to making the lawyers’ jobs easier, so we can focus on giving our client’s the best service we can, but also teams solely focused on the client experience.
As part of its promise to be a firm where everyone feels they belong, Stowe has really made an effort to regularly take the views of its employees. This is not just a tick box exercise where a questionnaire is sent out every few months asking how we are feeling. Genuine, meaningful ways have been put in place to make sure we feel heard, such as working groups where the executive team ask for our input on changes they are considering making, consulting us on the bonus scheme, IT or policy changes to supporting and encouraging us to set up groups about issues we are passionate about such as diversity, inclusion and belonging or sustainability.
Furthermore, Stowe is the largest family only law firm in the country, this means we have a huge breadth of experience across the firm and a real team spirit. When odd legal arguments or niche situations arise, there is always someone that has experienced the same or similar who is willing to pick up the phone and have a chat with you.
Overall, it’s the people who make Stowe different, or in my eyes, special.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I have ever received in the context of my career was that you can advocate for your client and still be pleasant and respectful to your opponents. A lawyer who I have had on the other side of my cases (who I would now consider a friend) recently commented that it didn’t matter how complicated our cases were, or how difficult our clients may be, she always knew she could pick the phone up and have a sensible and pleasant conversation with me. I think there is a misconception (that I was guilty of in the beginning) that to be a good lawyer you have to be aggressive, but that isn’t the case in family law, in fact, I would say the opposite is true. The aim of everyone involved should be to keep the temperature down and things amicable, particularly given most of our cases involve children indirectly or directly.
In life, I would say the best advice I have been given is not to be influenced by others’ perceptions of you, what other people think of you is none of your business. As a young, South Asian female I have experienced the best and worst in people, from people speaking to me slowly because they don’t expect me to be able to speak English to the nicer end of the spectrum where my opinion is valued or I am asked to mentor others. If I had let the expectations or treatment of others impact me, I am sure that I would not be where I am today. Self-belief and trust in your ability will take you a long way (something I admit I am still working on).
What’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is being able to guide clients through a difficult time and seeing them grow and come out on the other side. When many of my clients come to me, they are in a low place they never expected to find themselves, but by the end of their case or shortly after, most of them do not recognise the person they were 12 months ago and are ready to start their new lives in a better place than when we first met. Knowing that I can make a positive impact on someone’s life and guide them through a tricky process is something I will never take for granted.
When you’re having a bad day, what do you do to make yourself feel better?
My go-to for a particularly bad day is a moan to my husband quickly followed by a duvet, the sofa and reality tv. Much to my Regional Director’s dismay, I love rubbish tv. Give me a glass of wine and the Real Housewives of anywhere and I am happy!
I also find practising mindfulness really helps. Everyone is different but things that help me (depending on how much time I have) are taking 10 minutes out to focus on my breathing, readjusting my thinking and reminding myself that a bad moment doesn’t equal a bad day or cooking something new.
Where’s your favourite place to eat out?
I am quite spoilt in Yorkshire as we have so many great places to eat. However, my absolute favourite meal is tapas! We have a fantastic place in Harrogate that I love to go to and take as many friends as possible so we can justify ordering the whole menu!
About Shanika Varga-Haynes
Shanika Varga-Haynes is a Senior Associate at Stowe Family Law. She is experienced in all areas of family law and is particularly interested in domestic abuse and child law cases. Shanika is well respected in her field; she is the Vice President of the Leeds Law Society and won the ‘Rising Star of the Year’ at the Yorkshire Legal Awards in 2020.