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History Maker: James Libson

James Libson is an alumnus of The University of Law who graduated in 1991 and has since gone on to be involved in some of the most relevant cases of our recent history. Most notably, James formed part of the defence team supporting Deborah Lipstadt during the Holocaust libel case of the 1990s and was involved in the representation of Gina Miller in the more recent Miller v the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, more commonly known as the ‘Article 50 case’.

By Cara Fielder. Published 30 April 2018. Last updated 9 December 2021.

In recognition of his valuable involvement in such pre-eminent cases, James has recently become one of the first recipients of The University of Law History Maker Award. He was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate by ULaw as part of the University’s Graduation Ceremony held at the Barbican in April.

Being presented with the ULaw History Maker Award and Honorary Doctorate are, of course, fantastic and completely unexpected honours. My first exposure to law was at the College of Law (ULaw’s predecessor) and I was instantly hooked. I remember my two years studying at Lancaster Gate with great affection and I was privileged to have fantastic teachers and a terrific learning environment. After 25 years, my reconnection with the institution has been one of the real pleasures of the last couple of years.

I never intended to get involved in such landmark cases when I started practising law. Times were different then and I hadn’t given much thought to the direction of my career. In fact, my decision to go to law school was driven more by my needing to tell my parents that I was doing something constructive rather than by me having master plan. I’ve been very fortunate; a lot of the fun and interesting things I’ve been involved in came about through luck or being in the right the place at the right time.

Of all the legal areas I’ve experienced, I think that being involved in the building of Mishcon de Reya is the one I’m most proud of. We’re fortunate to have achieved great success over the last 15 years but never at the expense of the culture and sense of purpose that’s survived and thrived within the firm, even as we’ve grown enormously.

  Outside of the legal sector, I chaired the UK Jewish community’s international development NGO for five years. Although we operate exclusively overseas, when the refugee crisis started we offered our expertise to the UK government. We’d developed a in the Ukraine in assisting people into employment in managing the Syrian refugee resettlement programme. The scheme has been really successful and I had the privilege of seeing it in action in 2017; the transformative effect it’s had on families who have been through such terrible traumas was indescribable.

The highlight of my career so far has to be the Supreme Court part of the Article 50 case. I don’t mean the day we received the decision, but the four day hearing in December 2016. It gave me a moment to sit and really appreciate the importance of the case and to enjoy the privilege of watching our greatest advocates battle it out in front of an 11 member panel of the Supreme Court. In the heat of litigation it’s very rare to be able to sit back and enjoy the process. I made sure I did that as David Pannick was making our submissions that day.

Every stage of my career has brought new but unpredicted challenges and opportunities. Looking forward, I hope the next few years will be the same. I want to do what I can to assist in the effort to ensure English law remains as relevant to the world post-Brexit and the UK courts remain the best jurisdiction in the world for the effective resolution of disputes.

The pace of change in the legal sector is both a challenge and an opportunity. Technology is an aspect but so are different career aspirations, the underfunding of certain parts of the profession, Brexit, and client expectations. Change is constant but it happens much faster today than it did 30 years ago. With that, though, comes great opportunity for those who want to embrace it. No one thought drone law was a thing ten years ago and now there are firms which do only that. That said, some of the core aspects of good lawyering are constant; professionalism; intellectual rigour; and the privilege (in all its senses) of the lawyer-client relationship. These are the challenges for all lawyers, not just newly graduated ones. But younger lawyers should capitalise on their adaptability to trump the older lawyers' advantage of experience.

My biggest piece of advice to aspiring lawyers is simply to get involved. I think it’s a great career, and a career is based very much on the experience we accrue in the early years, so get involved in as much as you can and work hard. Become an expert but not narrow-minded. While variety is fun and attractive, loyalty has its attractions and the two are not mutually exclusive.

You can find out more about James’ amazing journey to success on his Set for Success profile page.


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