Withers’ Julian Lipson took the helm of the firm’s 40-strong family law team at a time of intense change for his practice area.
In the past seven years, there have been multiple alterations in pre-nuptial agreements, while the continuing debate over legal aid and increased court publicity has led to an increase in alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
As such, Lipson has seen his practice change since he became head of the family team. One of the main changes concerns the publicity of litigants in court, as there is an increased wish for family law proceedings to be made public, with debates raging as to how transparency should be treated.
“The risk for clients is that journalists could be sitting in court,” he explains. “I think openness is good, but it should not be at the expense of someone’s dirty laundry being exposed.”
These concerns have led more people into arbitration, which Lipson describes as the “private medicine route”. He says more and more people are choosing ADR over the courts and the former now accounts for around a third of Lipson’s cases, as opposed to about 5 per cent pre-2009.
“There is no risk of publicity in arbitration and it is becoming more common,” he says. “But you can also pick that route if you wish to choose the pace of your case. The court system is overstretched and if you don’t want to wait, you can choose ADR in what is turning into a kind of two-tier system.”
The reduction of legal aid has meant many people cannot afford legal advice, so the courts are dealing with more litigants in person, which makes cases longer and difficult to resolve. As a result, even more people have turned to arbitration if they have the economic means, although the traditional route can still be taken if “one party wants to use the leverage of publicity” to get the other side to pay out.
However, on the other side of the scale, family lawyers have had to adapt to the development of prenuptial agreements into legally binding contracts post-2010. This has caused the number of prenups to quadruple, according to Lipson, as they become “the rule rather than the exception”.
The increase means March, April and May are now an extremely busy time for the team, as couples prep-are for summer weddings. But as well as dealing with these cyclical changes, Lipson has also noticed a shift in divorce cases away from Christmas time.
“Divorces are no longer concentrated in December and January, and there is more workflow from a client base that is much less English-centric than before,” says Lipson. “Fifteen years ago, clients adhered more to the English school calendar, but they are no longer governed by this so there is no longer a post-Christmas rush.”
The family head attributes the change to a greater foreign population in London, especially French, Italian, Russian and US communities. Lipson says that the shift has made the legal market more attuned to foreign law, as lawyers must prepare clients for whatever the situation might be in another jurisdiction.
Wisdom and resilience
Lipson is aware that “people confide in you as a family lawyer,” and it is this part of the job that led him to switch from the private client path at Macfarlanes to family law at Withers back in 1997.
“People ask ‘if you were me what would you do?’” I switched over to family law as it had more of a litigation and psychological angle to it,” he remembers.
“You’ve got to be prepared for the emotional side of the job, as people use you as an emotional sponge. But if you have the resilience, then wisdom comes with time.”
It has been a stellar year for Withers partner Lipson. He was elevated to head of Withers’ family team and has continued to carve out a niche for himself as the leading adviser on prenuptial and pre-civil partnership agreements.
He acted for Kevin McGee in his split from Little Britain star Matt Lucas – the UK’s first ‘gay divorce’.
With the Family Court giving greater consideration to prenuptial agreements, Lipson will undoubtedly have a hand in how this area of family law develops.
The Lawyer Hot 100 2008