When the smiling stops, the lawyers move in

And when the lawyers move in, things get nasty, expensive and potentially very public. Jim White on the elite group of solicitors known as the 'Magic Circle' who are facing up to their biggest challenge yet: celebrity clients
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In This Life, Amy Jenkins's new BBC2 series about the bare flesh and foul mouths of junior lawyers, one of the characters, setting off on his pre-determined career path, emits a cri de coeur: "Do I really want to be a solicitor?"

Clearly, he had never been invited to the owner's enclosure to watch any of Ray Tooth's horses (called things like Law Commission, Perjury and Party Cited) race. Nor can he have enjoyed a bottle of Margaux from Richard Sax's cellar, or been to one of Fiona Shackleton's grand (some might say grandiose) dinner parties, or measured the weight of Helen Ward's monthly pay cheque. If he had, there would be no doubt in his mind: he'd want to be a solicitor.

Or at least he'd want to be a solicitor like Tooth, Sax, Shackleton and Ward. They are members of an elite dozen or so mega-earners engaged at the top end of the biggest growth area in the profession: divorce - or, to give it its official euphemism, "family law". They are known, by themselves and their peers, as the "Magic Circle", a term that, over the past couple of years since it was first coined, has become increasingly less ironic.

With a third of all marriages now finding their way into the briefs of lawyers, theirs is the growth business of the Nineties. Few divorces are contested these days (fewer than 100 a year end up court, and most of those are settled on the steps). But almost all, however willing the erstwhile partners are to go their separate ways, involve argument over the money - an area of law known, in terminology perhaps more appropriate to a postcard in a Baker Street phone box, as "ancillary relief". And where there is money to be argued over, there is money to be made.

There is something else, however, about the Magic Circle that has added lustre to its members' images and turned them - although they earn less than their colleagues in commercial law - into the sexiest members of a profession generally regarded as about as sexy as a bucket of cockroaches: their clients. They have been, thanks to the celebrity of the people they represent, shoved into a media profile that some have embraced willingly, others reluctantly, but which none could have expected. In the past 12 months, tabloid newspapers have run items about the ugly and dumpy past lives of top-flight solicitors as if they were pop stars, and on the front page of one it was recently alleged that one senior divorce lawyer went to the opera at the invitation of a client and then charged the time spent there to the client's account (you've either got, or you haven't got, style). And all this because the Prince and Princess of Wales are splitting up.

The point about divorce lawyers is that they have to know about everything - sex, money, arguments over soft furnishings - in order to fight the case to the maximum benefit of their client. Since they must be privy to the whole truth, the specialist has to develop the skills of the Harley Street therapist in order to encourage their clients to spill the beans. They may be abrasive, aggressive or simply bloody-minded when in competition with the other side, but in the privacy of the office his, and increasingly her, people-management skills have to be tip-top.

When selecting a lawyer, those most able to afford the services of the elite will undertake what is known within the Magic Circle as a Beauty Parade. Paying the standard charge, about pounds 250 an hour, the potential client will interview three or four lawyers to see who takes his or her fancy. The charm offensive will be switched to maximum, but the client will have to choose carefully. The relationship will often be as close as the one they had with their spouse. And in some notorious cases, closer. These are, after all, fragile emotional times.

Thus, to be a fly on a divorce lawyer's wall is the stuff of tabloid editors' dreams. The tales told there, of Sting and Lloyd Webber, of the Earl of Waldegrave and the Aga Khan, would keep the presses churning for months, particularly as the press is denied the right to report ancillary relief cases when they are heard in court. Fortunately for their clients, members of the Magic Circle only got where they are today through the exercise of total discretion. Douglas Alexiou, for instance, adviser to Sarah Brightman during her divorce proceedings (and a director of Tottenham Hotspur FC in his spare time) boasts that he "doesn't even tell the wife" what his celebrity clients have to say. "Discretion is my strongest suit," he adds, which is saying something from a man dressed entirely in Savile Row.

The trouble is, if the lawyers are discreet, there is no guarantee that their clients will be. Julia Carling, Paula Yates and the grandmother of them all, the Princess of Wales, have, this year, chosen to conduct their separations not behind the sealed doors of their solicitors' offices but on their own favoured battleground: the front pages of the tabloids.

"I don't know what their solicitors are thinking," said one prominent family law practitioner, "but I guess they are tearing their hair out. The Princess of Wales has been shedding advisers like autumn leaves, and you can understand why."

Generally, members of the Magic Circle like to be in complete control of their clients: they will tell them how to behave, whether they can spend money or if they can move in with their new boyfriend (obviously not). The development of this new type of client, determined to act as their own maverick spin-doctor, has issued lawyers with a new challenge. Mishcon de Reya, for instance, the Princess of Wales's favoured firm, has developed a strategy to cope with it. First introduced to Diana by Lord Goodman to act over the Daily Mirror's use of pictures taken of her in her gym, the firm (where she is known as Mrs Wilson in order to retain anonymity) is rumoured to have put two senior partners on her case. Sandra Davis, a highly respected Magic Circle member, is supposed to be looking after the intricacies of the settlement, while Anthony Julius, not a divorce lawyer at all but an entertainments specialist, is handling the pricklier area of press relations and the Princess's moods.

Meanwhile, at Farrar and Co, Fiona Shackleton, the Prince of Wales's solicitor, prefers a more old-fashioned approach. Indeed, she recently wrote to the other side explaining there would be no settlement if the press continued to be involved; a letter the contents of which, once out of the lawyers' hands, became known to certain reporters.

The problem with involving the press has been most starkly demonstrated by the Paula Yates/Bob Geldof case. Yates used her position as a columnist on the Sun to reveal that she was financially challenged, a device which back-fired when the Daily Mirror, for its own reasons of competition, ran several unsolicited pro-Geldof items.

"Once you let the press in," said our Magic Circle source, "you lose the direction of the case."

It is a temptation, however. Particularly as the model leaking over from America is of the celebrity divorce lawyer, as famous as their client, the hot-shot hero guaranteed to get you a million. Or 20. There are undoubtedly potential British versions of Alan Dershowitz and Marvin Mitchelson lurking within the Magic Circle. The mental resolve required to steel yourself not to over-identify with a poor wife married for 28 years who has suddenly been traded in for a bimbo is enormous. Consequently, to make it to the top, to become a member of the circle, requires flair, personality and mental agility on the part of divorce lawyers which makes them about as far removed from the humble property-exchanging drone as Eric Cantona is from the left back of Dunstable Town.

"I was amazed when I was with her," says a former client of Fiona Shackleton. "I thought she was incredible, very organised, very on the ball, one of the most impressive people I have met. Frankly, you didn't have to be Einstein to work my case out, but she was very, very sharp. Rather alarmingly, my present wife says that if anything goes wrong between us, it's the first call she's going to make."

If you wanted a chat-show host, he added, you couldn't do better. But then what would be the point of interviewing some idiot plugging their new book when you could get the full story from the Prince of Wales in the privacy of your own office? It is a privilege that some family lawyers seem to regard as more worthwhile than the money to be earned in other branches of the law. "We're impoverished pedlars of filth," said one. "Which is why we get on so well with the press."