WHEN Heather Mills tipped a carafe of water over the head of Fiona Shackleton, the lawyer's reaction was typical of a woman nicknamed the Steel Magnolia.
"She barely batted an eyelid. There was no shouting or screaming," said an insider who witnessed the astonishing incident in the High Court.
Instead Sir Paul McCartney's solicitor calmly requested a towel, dried herself down and listened intently as Mr Justice Bennett outlined why he planned to publish a legal judgment which – thanks to Shackleton's meticulous preparation – has effectively destroyed any last shred of Mills's reputation.
Such is Shackleton's confidence, she walked out of court, head held high and her hair dripping wet, past a dozen journalists waiting outside the private hearing who didn't even notice that her blonde bouffant had been transformed into a "just-stepped-out-of-the-shower" look. It was even remarked that Shackleton, 51, whose usual style appears anchored circa 1988, appeared younger and more fashionable after the drenching.
The soaking was spotted only by court sketch artist Priscilla Coleman, who noticed the damp hair then saw a towel in the empty court and put two and two together.
In chucking water over Shackleton, Mills was attempting to gain revenge for her brutal demolition during the divorce hearing. Instead, that one tip of the jug cemented Shackleton's position as the pre-eminent matrimonial lawyer of her generation.
The 1,000-an-hour fee she is said to have charged McCartney for her services, earning her law firm Payne Hicks Beach around 3 million in the process, looks like good business. Mills wanted 125 million from her estranged husband. She got 24.3 million, thanks to Shackleton's legal skills. Not bad for a woman who, when at Benenden public school in Kent, was considered academically unremarkable and "not exactly a shining star", and who scraped a law degree from Exeter University.
"People are quite snobby about her because she got a third-class degree," says Jo Edwards, a family law partner at rival firm Manches. "But divorcing husbands and wives underestimate her at their peril. She is a very, very intelligent woman."
Chambers, the legal directory that ranks lawyers according to the judgment of their peers, places her in the top tier. It calls her a "real star" with a "lively, no-nonsense manner", adding: "Her deftness in such high-profile cases (as McCartney] sustains a steady stream of such work that just can't be ignored."
So if you are rich and famous and need out of a marriage with your money intact – or out of a marriage with his money in your bank account – just dial Shackleton. Her success is, according to rivals, based on a heady mixture of experience, toughness and common sense.
What quite drove an overemotional Mills to pour water over her head is not clear – Mills accuses Shackleton of "calling me many, many names before meeting me when I was in a wheelchair" – but some have suggested she was never anything but courteous towards her client's estranged wife.
While Mills was making her over-the-top claims, Shackleton was careful not to exaggerate the ex-Beatle's case. According to insiders, she knew it would be better not to settle but let the case go to a full hearing, suspecting that Mills would "blow up" under cross-examination by Nicholas Mostyn QC, the fearsome barrister hired by Shackleton.
In his judgment, Justice Bennett found in McCartney's favour on almost every issue.
"It is unusual for a judge to come down quite so heavily in favour of one party," said Edwards. "The way I read the judgment, Sir Paul's team have not put a foot wrong. Throughout, one gets the impression, he and his team have played it straight down the middle. Whether it was Shackleton's strategy at the outset, but certainly by the end, they just let Mills implode in court at the final hurdle. It was very effective."
Mills, representing herself, never stood a chance against Shackleton, a superwoman with a multimillion-pound career, two daughters, a solid marriage and spectacular cookery skills to boot.
After graduating from Exeter, Fiona Charkham, as she then was – her father Jonathan was an adviser to the Bank of England and former Sheriff of the City of London – moved back to her parents' elegant house in London and, according to one report, "answered some primeval call to Sloane typecasting" and began training not as a lawyer but as a gourmet chef, cooking for boardroom lunches. A photograph from 1982 shows her relaxing in her parents' vast dining room, a set of pearls around her neck and a cigar hanging from her mouth.
In her mid-twenties, bored with haute cuisine, she resumed law and in 1984 took a job at Farrer & Co, perhaps the most prestigious of law firms whose clients include the Queen.
Her forte was matrimonial law, where commonsense and a strong nerve are every bit as useful as a grasp of legal intricacies. She once boasted of possessing a potent combination of "a rod of steel" through her back and "a lot of charm".
Within two years, Farrer's had made her a partner and she was conducting her first high-profile case, the divorce of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Advisers to the Royal family were so impressed with her performance that when Prince Charles was looking for a divorce lawyer, Shackleton was recommended by the late Lord Goodman. The Royal divorce catapulted her into the big league. While Charles was forced to pay his ex-wife 17 million – a fair sum in those days – Shackleton struck a hard bargain, forcing Diana to relinquish the title Her Royal Highness, a humiliating fate that also befell Sarah Ferguson. Unlike Mills, Diana bore her no ill-will, sending her flowers at the end of the case as thanks for "being so civilised".
By 2000, Shackleton was said to be unhappy at Farrer's. It was suggested that some at the staid firm were "jealous" of the famous, glamorous solicitor in their midst. She decamped to Payne Hicks Beach, taking many of her clients, including – and this caused a sensation – Prince Charles, though Farrer's continued to act for him on certain matters.
Within two years, Shackleton fell foul of Palace politics in the aftermath of the failed public prosecution of the butler Paul Burrell, falsely accused of the theft of some of Diana's possessions. When the case collapsed and with Prince Charles's reputation at stake over lurid allegations regarding his private life, Shackleton was being lined up as the scapegoat, a fate described as unfair by her friends.
Insiders suggest she had fallen out with Mark Bolland, Prince Charles's then deputy private secretary and media adviser.
One Clarence House source claims: "The whole Burrell affair is now forgotten. She is very much in with Prince Charles. She advises the boys. Remember, she is not a criminal lawyer but a family lawyer; she is back in the fold now and very much liked." As if to emphasise the point, she was made a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in the 2005 New Year's Honours. She is well known on the networking circuit, often at Royal parties and spotted with Prince Charles's private secretary Sir Michael Peat alongside. She has been known to boast of her husband Ian's roots – an ex-Army officer turned financial PR, he is descended from the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
On her mother's side, she is descended from the Salmons family which owned the J Lyons food empire, making Nigella Lawson her cousin.
Shackleton is proud of her marriage and would leave the office each night at 5:30pm to be home for supper with the children. Clients are given her mobile and told to phone her at home only if absolutely necessary.
She rarely gives interviews – Payne Hicks Beach has a blanket policy of not talking to the press – and she no longer needs to drum up business.
The Mills/McCartney divorce will go down in British legal history as the most acrimonious and probably costliest ever – legal and professional costs are reckoned at 10 million – but of all the parties, only Shackleton will walk away with her reputation not just intact but enhanced.
In a rare interview, she was once asked if she worked hard at her marriage. "You bet," she replied. "Divorce is miserable. I don't want that for me." Heather Mills may be 24.3 million richer, but you can bet she is thinking exactly the same.
Wet or dry?
Scottish beauty writer ALISON KERR asks three top hairdressers
what they think of Shackleton's unexpected makeover in court.
NOT since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has a quick shower seemed quite so dramatic – or provoked so much debate – as Fiona Shackleton's soaking at the hands of Heather Mills. Shackleton went into the court looking prim, proper and posh with the sort of fluffy, bouffant hair that is a staple of superannuated Sloane Rangers, along with pearls, a pinky ring and high-neck blouse. It wasn't exactly lacquered into submission, but it certainly hadn't been updated since 1988.
When she emerged from the court, Shackleton's Doris Day helmet was gone and in its place was a slicked-back style that oozed sex appeal. A nation gasped in glee and hairdressers across the land began to debate the before-and-after hair shots of the middle-aged legal eagle. We asked three of Scotland's leading hairstylists for their views.
TAYLOR FERGUSON, CELEBRITY HAIRDRESSER IN GLASGOW
"I WOULD love to get my hands on her! She looked so much better, so much younger after Mills threw the water over her. Her hair is over-coloured and it was draining her face, but after it was wet, it looked a bit darker and much less harsh. I would advise her to have lowlights so that she could have that darker look all the time. Her style looks like one she's had for years.
"It looks like she has naturally curly hair that goes frizzy, and she probably doesn't realise that there are things we can do to fix that. If you've got naturally curly hair and it tends, in our damp climate, to go fuzzy, then get it chemically straightened so it stays smooth for something like between four and nine months. I'd also cut her hair into more of a head-shape haircut – take it off her face, as in the 'after' pictures."
LEANNE MCNAUGHT, CHEYNES, EDINBURGH
"HER hair was very formal-looking before she went into court, but when she came out she looked much more up-to-date – and about ten years younger. If she came into one of our salons, I'd definitely not backcomb her hair and spray it, as it has been done. I would go for a softer, more tousled look. It was far too groomed, even for a top lawyer. There's always a way to look professional but stay on-trend."
JASON MILLER, DIRECTOR OF CHARLIE MILLER SALONS IN EDINBURGH
"SHE looks to me like a woman who puts a lot of effort into her appearance. It probably gives confidence to her and to her clients. But if she came in to the salon, I'd probably give her a shorter version of her current style so she's still got volume in her hair. I can see why people might think her look is old-fashioned, but I think that flicked-back look can still be glamorous."
WITH Fiona Shackleton having emerged as the true star of the Mills-McCartney divorce show, it's clear that dousing her with water was the only smart move Mills made this week. The resulting wet look and the attention it's getting have drawn attention away from some pretty appalling crimes against hair colour committed by the ex Lady McCartney herself. But then, as she was probably going to get round to pointing out, she's too poor to afford getting her highlights done any more. Isn't she?