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Shanika Varga-Haynes | Stowe Family Law

  • The University of Law (2013-2014), LPC
  • Keele University (2009-2012), LLB Law
  • Senior Associate at Stowe Family Law 
  • Solicitor at Stowe Family Law (2016 - 2020)
  • Trainee Solicitor at Stowe Family Law (2014-2016)
  • Legal Secretary at Makin Dixon Solicitors (2014)
  • Student Ambassador at The University of Law (2013-2014)
  • Conveyancing Assistant at Barbara Jacobs & Co (2012-2013)


Shanika is a qualified solicitor specialising in aspects of divorce, finance and private children work. After completing her Legal Practice Course in 2014 she worked as a legal secretary before getting a training contract at the UK’s leading family law firm, Stowe Family Law. Now working in their Wetherby office, Shanika is one of thousands of lawyers across the UK who graduated with an LPC from The University of Law. We sat down with her to find out what she thinks it takes to make a successful lawyer.

My role is extremely varied and no day is the same. Clients might come to me for initial advice right at the start of a matter seeking help in considering their options, or they could come to me halfway through a case. Some matters progress to litigation and final hearings whilst others require only a few letters, not to mention everything in between, from mediation to solicitor-led negotiation.

Due to legal aid cuts we’re seeing a much higher number of litigants in person. This is making it more common for clients to come to us at a later stage in their case, which involves getting up to speed with what’s happened so far then helping them to overcome those last hurdles.

After my LPC I decided to apply for paralegal and legal secretary positions while sending out training contract applications. I secured a legal secretary position with a local legal aid firm which was a way in to the industry, and I knew I could progress within the firm. By easing in with a legal secretary position, I could learn how things were done at the firm without the pressure of having to fee earn. This experience really helped later on when I undertook a trial period at Stowe. The majority of the tasks I had to complete on the trial were second nature to me by then.

I think the proudest moment of my career so far was seeing my first case through from start to finish. It included several court hearings, which I dealt with myself. And securing the positive outcome that my client had hoped for made the sleepless nights worth it. It’s not always possible to achieve the outcome a client wants, so expectations often need to be managed, but when it is possible there’s no feeling like it.

What’s really motivated me is the inherent desire to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been given. I was adopted from Sri Lanka when I was a baby and I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to not take what I’ve got for granted. It’s always at the back of my mind that I could have lived a very different life. I’ve also always felt a need to try and give back because of the chances I’ve been given. I want to make sure that I pay it forward by having a career that allows me to help people every day. That’s what really inspires me to keep going.

I’ve learned that legal knowledge will only get you so far in family law. I think that to really succeed as a family law solicitor you need to have excellent people skills. It requires a real personal touch; after all, we’re dealing with people’s lives rather than carrying out commercial transactions. We could be helping someone transition into a completely new life, whether that’s through a divorce, as a single parent or forming a new family. Stowe Family Law certainly prides itself in giving excellent client care, so being patient and understanding goes a long way.

I left The University of Law with a CV that was 100 times stronger than when I started. The support I received from the Careers team was second to none, from helping with my CV to talking through what kind of firm I wanted to apply to. The Careers team is an asset that should definitely be utilised as much as possible; I really think that if it wasn’t for their guidance I wouldn’t have gotten my training contract. I was encouraged to do as much pro bono work as I could, I signed up as a student ambassador and tried to attend as many events as possible. To think that I managed fit all that into nine months; it wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for ULaw presenting so many opportunities to its students.

2020 Update

Following a tough year in 2018, I wanted to broaden my horizons. I have always enjoyed trying new things but I had spent the first few years of my career just trying to survive and mastering being the best solicitor I possibly could be. I didn’t feel I could take anything else on, as I wanted my focus to be on my clients and knowing family law inside out. After my difficult period, I realised I had a platform that I wasn’t using properly. I could be both a great solicitor (still a work in progress) and I could have a voice in the Leeds legal sector and help shape its evolution. Leeds is one of the largest legal communities outside of London; its growing presence in the legal sector is something I am extremely proud of.

Family solicitors often have to refer clients to other solicitors for expert advice, so we have connections everywhere. Through colleagues at Stowe, I was introduced to the President of the Leeds Law Society; we met for coffee to talk about what the role as director of the society would entail, to make sure I was the right fit and understood the commitment. I attended a board meeting to get a feel of how everything worked and a few months later became a director. I have made some great friends and have been involved in really exciting projects, including liaising with the judiciary, the courts and family solicitors in Leeds to try and ensure that we are all working cohesively and effectively. I am also part of our new Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which has some great events underway.

It will be a year in August since I joined the board and I have loved every minute of it.

I practice all areas of family law. Most of my cases are divorces, child issues and domestic abuse. Family law is one of the most personal areas of law, so I am involved in the most intimate parts of my client’s lives. I have to balance giving professional advice and providing emotional support to people. It’s natural that sometimes I draw on my own experience when providing that emotional support. As I grew more confident in my practice, I realised there were parts of my personal life that could be applied more at work.

Stowe Family Law hasn’t always taken on adoption cases, I broached the subject with our senior partner and my managing partner and was given their support to research whether this was something we could offer. I felt my personal experience could help people with their journey. That is not to say I understand exactly how my clients going through this journey feel; everyone’s experience is different. However, having been adopted, I can empathise with how important it is because my life would be entirely different if it weren’t for my adoption. I have first-hand experience in what is at stake. I have also had many discussions throughout my life with my parents about what support they would have liked during the process. Times have moved on but the adoption process isn’t any easier for potential adoptees. I try to apply that experience to my cases.

My husband was in the army for a significant part of our relationship. We went to school together, he joined at sixteen and we have been together since we were eighteen. He stayed in the army until we got married at the age of twenty-five. I am not so naïve as to say I understand every military families’ experience, but I do have more of an understanding than most. The language used and the lifestyle are completely unique. For most it is hard to understand that the norm is spending months away from each other with little notice, moving every few years, living at opposite ends of the country, not owning a house because you live in military housing and knowing that making plans ahead can be futile.

Divorce and separation are difficult enough without having to explain your lifestyle. My clients from a military background find it comforting and reassuring when I use the same terminology as them, and I understand the nuances of being part of a military family. All of the above presents an entirely different set of issues when a family is separating, the asset base is different and figuring out how the children are going to spend quality time with each parent can be harder. However, it is slightly easier when you have first-hand experience.

I don’t think I have one standout challenging case. I have had cases which are challenging emotionally, such as domestic abuse cases or advising on whether an adoption application is likely to succeed. I have others which are difficult because of the law involved such as tracing hidden assets, dealing with assets overseas, having two competing jurisdictions, deciding whether a child should move to another country with one parent, which can involve considering both the risks associated with that country and how the child with maintaining their relationship with the parent remaining in England.

The nature of this job is difficult; the only time it is relatively straightforward is where two parties agree and just want their agreement formalising. Still, even then there can be issues in making sure that agreement reflects their wishes but protects your client and is legally sound.

I try to write articles regularly on topics that interest me or that I feel are important. I have been contributing to the Stowe Family Law blog since I was a trainee. I have written pieces that have been published in books, magazines and online. Stowe has a significant output of legal commentary, so adding my voice to the legal community has been something I have done from the outset.

When COVID-19 first hit, I had a multitude of concerns personally and professionally. Like most lawyers, I can’t switch the work part of my brain off. My husband jokes that I see everything through the eyes of a solicitor now. After the initial panic about the health of my loved ones, I started thinking about the impact this could have on my work. I knew there were going to be more issues with parents seeing their children. I then thought about the increase in divorces resulting from so many people being locked down together. But then my stomach sank. I have a few clients I worry about due to their abusive relationships. I then thought of all the people still in their abusive relationships and how lockdown is going to amplify their experience. Abusive relationships come in many forms; they can involve children or sibling or housemates as well as romantic partners.

I wanted to put something out on our website as soon as possible, I can protect the people who seek my help, but there would be a lot of people out there who were still in abusive relationships. Those people should have easy access to the information they need. I contacted some of the domestic abuse charities in Leeds to check what support they were offering, I quickly put something together for our website, and Marie Claire picked it up. I think this was partly due to the firm’s voice in the legal sector but also how quickly we made sure the advice was available to those who might need it.

I have touched on how COVID-19 has impacted my particular area of law above. The impact generally has been more far-reaching than I think any of us expected. If I wanted to work from home before I would have to plan meticulously and would nearly break my back carrying a suitcase crammed with files home on the train. I didn’t envisage spending most of the year working from my kitchen table with the office chair I grabbed before the world shut down. I didn’t think I would participate in court hearings wearing a blouse, jacket and pyjama bottoms either. But now it’s the norm, I am entirely paperless and all my meetings are done either by telephone or video conference. Court cases are being heard virtually and commuting into the office every day is a thing of the past, which I can’t say I miss.

However, I have found it challenging to separate work from home. I don’t have the relief of walking through the front door and work being somewhere different entirely. I am reminded on my job whenever I walk through my dining room to my kitchen, and I have found clients needs have changed. I believe email and mobile phones are great but they have made communication too effective sometimes. Communication is quicker now, which can result in more pressure to turn things around. Clients are understandably worried about the current climate and the impact on them, and with some of them not currently working, they have more time to respond. I have found that I have had to put a more concerted effort into maintaining boundaries. I don’t have to commute home for an hour, so the temptation is to work that extra hour, but that can often put unnecessary pressure on me and create unrealistic expectations moving forward. COVID-19 has forced me to re-evaluate my work life balance.

This situation has pushed a lot of firms into changing the way they work rapidly, it hasn’t been entirely smooth but I believe those of us in the legal sector have shown great resilience in continuing to provide excellent service to those who need it under difficult circumstances. The system isn’t perfect; the progression of cases has been delayed significantly due to backlogs with the court or cases requiring face to face hearings, which simply aren’t possible right now. However, I believe there have also been a lot of positive steps forward for working parents, those with disabilities or people who want to spend less time commuting and more time at home with their families.

My job isn’t a business transaction; it’s personal. While there always needs to be a degree of separation, I always try to maintain a level of compassion and humanity when I am dealing with my clients.

Separating difficult cases from how I feel when I am at work is not hard, I have a job to do and I have advice to give, even when it’s not what my clients want to hear. When I take a new client on, I make it very clear that my job is to protect them and that sometimes involves me being the bad guy and letting them know if I think they have made, or are about to make a mistake. I make that clear from the outset. I do what I need to do in the office; I have a good support network of friends who I can turn to if I need advice on how to handle a case or just to have a moan to. The difficult part is leaving it at work.

I have already mentioned I had a difficult time in 2018, I had some really challenging cases and circumstances. At that point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a solicitor anymore. I didn’t make any rash decisions and attended counselling. This counselling has helped me so much in my career.

Mental health in the profession is being talked about more, but there is still some way to go. There needs to be more support for solicitors at all levels. I now realise the importance of really keeping an eye on my mental health, I know what triggers me, I know when I need a break and I know when enough is enough. I didn’t always have that insight into myself, and it took me getting to a point where I was really struggling to realise what works for me and what doesn’t.

I am a very firm believer in the fact I cannot help others if I don’t help myself. The way I try to get the best outcome for my clients is to make sure I am at my best, which means I look after myself both physically and mentally.

Last August was the proudest time in my career. I had come out of a tough period of my life, I had just become a director of the Leeds Law Society, and I successfully launched a networking group I had set up with one of my best friends at work and another great friend of mine at Parklane Plowden Chambers. The networking group has taken a backseat this year due to Covid-19 but the aim continues to be encouraging junior family lawyers to socialise with each other and build a support system. We provide training presented by barristers and judges on topics chosen by the group, and we give junior lawyers in Leeds a safe space to ask questions they might not want to ask the people they work with and get to know their peers from other firms. The training and events are free of charge so those at smaller firms can join without worrying they have to convince their employer to pay for events. It puts us all on a more level playing field. We are the future of the Leeds legal sector so we may as well grow together.

There are a few things I’ve learnt recently that I wish I had been told:

  • Make sure you have support at home and at work. Having people you can turn to at work that understands the job is so important. There will be tough days and they are made so much easier if you have people around you to support you. This job isn’t one that is easily left at the door when you leave work, so having someone to talk to at home is imperative.
  • Learn your boundaries. I used to worry about saying no and how it would reflect on me. But we all have our limits, saying no when you need to maintain your own health is the best thing you can do for yourself and your clients. If you have a difficult client that is starting to impact you negatively, it’s ok to pass them on to someone else. You have to do what is best for you.
  • Keep a check on your mental health. This job is hard; it’s important you look after yourself. Know your triggers and identify the behaviours you exhibit when you are struggling. Make sure other people know what to look out for and what you need, and most importantly give yourself a break.
  • Try to enjoy your journey. I spent so long terrified of making a mistake and just telling myself to get through my training contract that I forgot to take a moment to look at how far I had come. There is so much pressure to get a contract, then to qualify and then to be promoted that it’s easy to overlook just being proud of yourself.
  • It’s personal – every year, thousands of students graduate law school, every training contract has countless applicants and what separates each student academically is minute. By the end of the application process at Stowe, it was between another girl and me. We each did three days working at the firm to help them decide. When I asked my training principal at the time, he said it came down to who fit in at the firm more. We were both as capable as the other from a work point of view, but I slotted into the office with more ease. Your personality is what makes you stand out and it’s what makes you a good/bad fit for a firm. Making sure you have the right fit is essential when applying for a training contract, you’re going to spend two years there, so make sure it’s a place you enjoy being.
  • It’s ok not to know what you want to do – I finished my LLB without a training contract lined up. I didn’t know which area I wanted to practice until I completed the LPC. I had a good idea of what I didn’t want to do which helped with narrowing things down, but it wasn’t until I started the family module in the second term of my LPC that the penny dropped. Quite a large majority of my class had training contracts and I often felt behind as most contracts are offered two years in advance. However, I ended up starting mine a few months after I finished the LPC and qualified at the same time as a lot of the people I was envious of. Things will always work out eventually.

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