SJ Interview: James Libson
By James Libson
James Libson, Mishcon de Reya’s managing partner
James Libson has spearheaded some of the most high-profile cases in recent history, including the defence of Deborah Lipstadt against holocaust denier David Irving (which was made into the film ‘Denial’) and the Supreme Court challenges for Gina Miller. Outside the courtroom, he's earned a reputation as a dedicated philanthropist, particularly in the refugee space, and has collected numerous accolades for his efforts, including an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Law and the coveted 'Lawyer of the Year' award in 2020. In this interview, the Solicitors Journal delves into James' illustrious career, exploring his journey, inspirations, and thoughts on the present and future of the litigation landscape.
Can you briefly walk us through your journey as a litigator to becoming the Managing Partner at Mishcon de Reya?
Over my career, I've done a variety of roles within the professional services in terms of the law. I started as a litigator, primarily focused on contentious work. While I had a general commercial litigation background, I also delved into a lot of media stuff. For a significant period, I specialised in employment work, mostly on litigation. This evolved into much bigger commercial disputes afterwards.
As the firm grew, even before we had distinct practice groups and departments, I had many different roles. I was involved in management early on, seizing the opportunities that arose for younger professionals. For instance, when we initiated the employment practice, we didn't yet have a dedicated department. I was part of the team that built that from the ground up.
Subsequently, I took on leadership roles, first heading the litigation department and later the employment department when we created that too. When we consolidated various parts of the firm into a single private department, I was at the helm of that initiative too.
Beyond these, I took on a unique role called ‘executive partner.' This was during Kevin Gold's tenure as managing partner. He needed more assistance, so I adopted a roving role to assist him in various capacities throughout the firm. Over the last two decades, I've been deeply involved in management and worked closely with Kevin.
When we decided to restructure the governance, creating the position of executive chair for Kevin to oversee ventures outside the law firm, I naturally transitioned into the managing partner role.
You’ve worked on landmark cases like the Deborah Lipstadt case against David Irving and Gina Miller's Supreme Court challenges. Could you tell us about your role in such significant cases and some overarching lessons these experiences have taught you?
In the case of Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, I became involved when I was an associate, collaborating closely with Anthony Julius, who was at that time a partner at our firm. He recognised my keen interest in the subject matter. Our history with Irving was already established; we had successfully litigated against him for another client. Having had this prior experience and my familiarity with the subject made it logical for me to be deeply involved in the Lipstadt case. What added to the intensity and significance of this case was our connection to parts of the Jewish community, many of whom supported us. Additionally, our firm's position as a longstanding adviser to the Jewish community was instrumental in our involvement.
The experience was profound; we collaborated with not just legal experts, but also historians and other professionals. The case was not only legally intriguing but historically significant, and having the sense that we were on the right side of history made it even more fulfilling. It felt like a great adventure, and I was fortunate to be part of it. It really felt like being at the right place at the right time.
Then, with Gina Miller's Supreme Court challenges, our involvement reflected our firm's reputation for taking on complex and sometimes controversial cases. After the referendum, several firms were exploring the legal ramifications. Some hesitated to get involved due to potential conflicts of interest, particualrly one that had significant government contracts and therefore didn’t want to take a position on this.
However, when the opportunity arose, we approached the Miller case from a purely legal standpoint rather than a political one. And it was really interesting, it was controversial, and it was a good thing for people in the firm to get involved in because it was undoubtedly one of the hottest topics in the country at the time.
If the Lipstadt case was about being at the right place at the right time, the Miller case showcased our firm's commitment to pursuing cases on principle. While a large portion of our work is more routine, every so often, we get the chance to be part of transformative legal moments, and I consider us incredibly fortunate to have been involved in these landmark cases.
What has inspired you throughout your career?
What has consistently inspired me throughout my career are my clients. Even in cases that might appear mundane to outsiders, I find enthusiasm in the nuanced legal challenges they present. Like many lawyers, I get excited by the thrill of a new case, a fresh challenge, or a different client. I have a particular affinity for cases where we represent an underdog and where we get to help that person through the process.
I've been incredibly fortunate to work with some extraordinarily brave clients over the years. These individuals are determined to defend their position, investing not only their resources but also their emotional and mental strength. A notable example is my collaboration with a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at St. George's Hospital. For over half a decade, she has tenaciously battled against certain elements within the NHS and her hospital. It’s inspiring to witness such resilience in clients.
Representing and supporting individuals like her, who display such unwavering determination, is not just a job but an honour. Over the years, I've had the privilege of standing alongside numerous clients who've shown this same steadfast spirit, and their journeys have been some of the most fulfilling moments of my career.
Could you share some insights into your work with charities, particularly in the refugee space and with Prism, the Gift Fund? How do your legal career and charitable efforts intersect or complement each other?
Absolutely. Charitable work has always been a cornerstone of my personal and professional ethos. Over the past 12 years, I've had the honour of chairing two significant charities. The first is the World Jewish Relief, the primary humanitarian agency for the Jewish community here. My association with them remains one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Subsequently, I became involved with Prism, the Gift Fund, which offers a slightly different approach by acting as a conduit for charitable giving, rather than directly implementing projects.
Both charities are deeply engaged in supporting refugees. While the World Jewish Relief directly manages projects catering to refugee needs, Prism supports a myriad of refugee-focused startup organisations. From a legal perspective, lawyers offer valuable insights to charities, especially given the regulated environments they operate within. However, being overly cautious is an occupational hazard for many in my profession, potentially causing us to see challenges where there might be opportunities. So, while having legal minds on a charity board is beneficial, it's essential to strike a balance.
For me, the most enriching part of my involvement hasn't been what I've brought to these organizations, but rather what I've gained. The opportunity to work with diverse individuals outside the legal sphere, particularly with charity CEOs, has been enlightening. In a law firm, my interactions are mostly with lawyers or those tuned to think in a particular legalistic way. Collaborating with individuals in the charitable sector, who have a different approach to problem-solving and decision-making, has been a fantastic learning curve. It's a more collegial relationship, devoid of typical hierarchical constraints, leading to more open and enriching conversations.
You’ve received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Law as well as the “Lawyer of the Year” award in 2020. Could you tell us about these and how these recognitions have affected your career?
Receiving the Honorary Doctorate from the University of Law held profound personal significance for me, primarily because it's where I pursued my studies. The recognition came at a time when I was deeply involved in addressing the antisemitism concerns against the Labour Party. This wasn't just another academic honour; it provided me an opportunity to address the graduating class, prompting introspection about my career trajectory, the role of law, and the influence it wields. That entire experience was deeply enriching.
Moreover, as part of the University’s initiatives, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a presentation with Cherie Blair. It was a delightful reunion, as I had previously worked with her earlier in my career. To connect and share insights once again was truly enjoyable.
Regarding the "Lawyer of the Year" award in 2020, while I was honoured to be acknowledged in such a manner, I firmly believe that individual experiences shape perceptions far more than accolades. Real assessments of character and capability stem from personal interactions and not just accolades bestowed upon an individual. And, amusingly, the limelight of such honours tends to fade quickly within one's inner circle. As they say, those closest to you have a way of keeping you grounded, no matter the accolades you receive.
How has the role of a litigator changed over the last two decades, particularly in the context of globalisation and technology?
Undoubtedly, technology has revolutionised our processes. At the onset of my career, the litigation process was simpler, albeit slower. If you wished to communicate a position to the opposing party, you'd draft a letter, dispatch it via DX, and then wait. The recipients, upon reading, would then draft a reply, perhaps on the same day or maybe the next, and dispatch their response. This entire correspondence could span a week for just a single point of contention.
Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves in an era where a single day can encompass multiple exchanges that previously would have spanned a week. Whether this acceleration has enhanced the quality of dispute resolution remains a topic of debate. However, it's undeniable that the rhythm of the process has dramatically shifted.
Yet, amid this whirlwind of technological transformation, the foundational tenets of litigation remain largely untouched, especially within the English system. And, in my opinion, this continuity is commendable. Particularly in our civil system, when provided with ample time and resources, we still witness rigorous forensic proceedings that, often, lead to just outcomes. Not always the desired results, mind you, but outcomes rooted in fairness.
It is this essence of our dispute resolution system that we must strive to protect. As technology continually reshapes our exterior practices, our core principle – to offer a platform for fair and effective resolution – should remain immutable. Our tradition, in the context of litigation, is a beacon of excellence, and its preservation should be paramount, irrespective of the evolving landscape around it.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the legal profession and your practice will face in the next 5 to 10 years?
The legal profession is undergoing a seismic shift, evolving faster than we've seen in many years. Despite decades of resilience against profound changes that other sectors have faced, the legal sector is now in the throes of rapid transformation.
One significant challenge is the emergence of new firm structures and offerings. Almost daily, reports surface about innovative law firms experimenting with alternate operational structures, diverse service propositions, and novel investment models. This diversification disrupts the traditional understanding of a law firm's role, and professionals must adapt accordingly.
Another significant force of change is technology, especially the onset of Artificial Intelligence (AI). These technological advancements are reshaping the landscape much faster than many of us had predicted, altering everything from research methods to client interactions.
In tandem with these external shifts, there's an internal evolution in the form of new product offerings. Firms, like ours, are branching out, introducing services that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. These additions challenge our traditional scopes and push us into unknown territories.
The intriguing aspect of these developments is that after three decades in the profession, where change seemed like a mere illusion, we're finally on the cusp of a transformative era. Over the next five years, we'll witness this metamorphosis, with its myriad challenges and opportunities, unfold in real-time.
With this in mind, if a junior or aspiring lawyer asked you for advice, what would you tell them?
Undoubtedly, the legal profession remains an incredibly rewarding career path. My foremost piece of advice, particularly to young and aspiring lawyers, would be to immerse yourself in areas of law that genuinely intrigue you. My own son, who has recently qualified, has reminded me of the importance of this counsel, bringing it to the forefront of my interactions with budding legal minds.
Finding the right firm is essential. It should resonate with your interests and values, offering you both stability and a stimulating environment. Patience, in this profession, is truly a virtue. It's imperative to take the time to meticulously learn your craft. However, with the pace of change we've been discussing, maintaining an open mind and agility will be equally crucial.
Despite the transformations the industry is undergoing, the core essence of the law – its intellectual challenges and opportunities for meaningful impact – remains unchanged. I've found immense satisfaction and even joy in my journey. So, to anyone contemplating a career in law, I'd wholeheartedly say, 'Embrace it with all your enthusiasm and passion. Go for it!’