The Big Interview: Anthony Julius

Anthony Julius

We spoke to Mishcon de Reya's deputy chairman Anthony Julius about negotiating a royal divorce, defeating a Holocaust denier and why being a 'Jack of all trades' is no bad thing.


Like many careers, Anthony Julius' began with a wobble at university. “I had the typical undergraduate crisis,” he explains, as we sit down to chat in Africa House, Mishcon's plush London pad. He'd envisaged a life as an academic, but while studying English literature at Cambridge the niggling voice of self-doubt set in; believing his grades wouldn't be good enough to pursue a PhD in the subject, he headed to the careers centre. “With all the melodramatic pathos and self-pity of a twenty-year-old, I told them that through my own incompetence I was going to betray my vocation. What should I do if I can't be a don?” In response, they asked whether Julius would consider being a lawyer. He said he would. When he stumbled on the difference between a solicitor and a barrister, they just told him to be the former.

On being a lawyer: “If we're philistines we're not going to be appropriate guides to our clients.”

Julius' fears turned out to be unfounded: he graduated with a First in 1977. “But by then I was already committed to my legal career,” he says. “I'd booked my place at law school and had sorted out funding. I thought I'd stick with it. I could always go back to university.” He ended up training at what was then Victor Mishcon & Co, “not the obvious firm for me to go to,” he reflects, “but one I was interested in because of its Labour Party connections.” The firm's eponymous founder, Victor Mishcon, had served as a Labour councillor for Lambeth and – upon being made a life peer in 1978 – would go on to act as the Party's spokesman on home affairs in the House of Lords. Yet he remained a familiar face at the firm, to the benefit of Julius, who was quickly rising up the ranks: “I certainly learnt quite a lot by watching how he managed himself and how he engaged with his clients.”

Upon qualifying in 1981, Julius found himself working for the Prison Officers Association. “For the first two or three years of my professional life I did everything for them. Not just their employment and personal injury cases, but what we used to call their collective work: their labour relations matters and quite a lot of their policy work on penal reform.” It was challenging and interesting, not least because it coincided with a broader change in our legal system: the rise of judicial review. Prisons ceased to be the closed-off spaces they had been, free to operate and discipline as desired; now they would fall under the courts' jurisdiction, giving prisoners the right to legally challenge decisions that affected them. Julius excelled. Just three years after qualifying, he made partner – an achievement, he insists, that deserves “no particular credit attached to me. It was just the way it was back then, plus it was still a small firm.”

On privacy: “No further leaps in the law are necessary at the moment.”

It's not a small firm anymore. Today Mishcon houses over 700 employees and boasts an ever-growing commercial remit alongside its long-standing private practice, which traditionally offered the typical family and estate planning services. By the nineties, however, growing tabloid intrusion and celebrity obsession had prompted Mishcon to expand its scope; it quickly became known as a firm of savvy media fixers, especially with regards to reputation protection. The rich and famous – among them Lord Palumbo and Jeffrey Archer – flocked to the firm, and to Julius in particular: in 1995 he secured an out-of-court settlement for Stephen Fry after the actor quit a West End production of the play Cell Mates; two years earlier he assisted his most famous client, Diana, Princess of Wales, after pictures of her exercising at a gym were taken without consent and published in a tabloid newspaper.

As an expert defender of personal lives, does Julius think our privacy laws are up to scratch? “The revolution in privacy law has been extraordinary,” he says, pointing to the gym photos case to emphasise the progress made: “At that time we essentially had to invent our own law of privacy. We did so on the back of an argument about contract and what a person exercising in a gym was entitled to assume in terms of privacy.” He feels that “no further leaps in the law are necessary at the moment,” but has pointed to the need for a technological leap instead: in the age of phone hacking scandals, mass data breaches and routine cyber theft, better tools are required to root out those who abuse technology to invade the lives of others.

On Diana: “She said 'this will be my first divorce too, so we'll learn together.'”

Julius knows first-hand what it means crop up on the media's radar. Not long after the gym photos case settled, Diana requested his advice again: this time it regarded the prospect of her divorce from Prince Charles. “I had no divorce experience and no interest in doing divorces,” he says, “and I said this to her and told her it would be my first divorce case. She said 'this will be my first divorce too, so we'll learn together'.” Persuaded, Julius agreed to take the case on, but was inevitably brought before the legion of cameras and reporters honed on Diana. On top of receiving hate mail, Julius was the subject of a Daily Telegraph article which equated his Jewishness with an inability to play fair – the newspaper subsequently printed an apology.

How did he deal with this period of intense public and press scrutiny? “Mostly I just focused on process and more than that on negotiation,” he replies, highlighting that he didn't read the press at the time. Having a worthy opponent to keep him on his toes also helped, he adds: “I was very lucky in having as my adversary Fiona Shackleton, who's an outstanding lawyer. We negotiated in a suitably tough way and I quickly came to esteem her.” The pair would test each other's mettle again a decade later, when they thrashed out the terms of Sir Paul McCartney's divorce from Heather Mills (Julius represented Mills).

We turn to another of Julius' well known cases. In 1996, Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, called Julius. Lipstadt had labelled the English writer David Irving a Holocaust denier in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving, the author of several books on Nazi Germany, had – among many spurious claims – proposed that more people died in Ted Kennedy's 1969 car accident (one person) than in Auschwitz's gas chambers. When he became aware of Lipstadt's book, he sued her and her publisher, Penguin, for libel. The case was heard in London, and it was down to Julius and his team to prove that Irving had falsified history in order to further his own ideological and political views.

“It wasn't especially demanding,” Julius reveals, “as there was never any real doubt about the outcome.” Indeed: Lipstadt won and Irving, unable to pay the defendants' costs, was bankrupted by the defeat. The immediate legal significance of the case was clear: “It's always important that the truth is upheld,” says Julius, “and that someone pursuing a defamation case – particularly one with a very strong political objective – should be defeated when he is so plainly wrong and champion so obviously immoral a position.” Its broader historical and political significance is, as Julius stresses, “complicated and requires a lot of analysis – it doesn't bear summary explanation.”

On defamation: “The times have changed to the point where litigation isn't the appropriate way of addressing most reputation problems.”

The events of the Lipstadt case are the focus of a new feature film, Denial. Rachel Weisz stars as Lipstadt, Timothy Spall appears as Irving and Andrew Scott – of Sherlock and Spectre fame – plays Julius. During production, a film crew pitched up at Mishcon's old Red Lion Square offices and restored them to their 1998 glory; the real lawyers involved, including Julius' colleague James Libson, watched on as the actors re-created key moments. Having seen a cut of the film, how does Julius feel about his depiction on screen? “It's a little odd,” admits Julius, “but Andrew Scott does a much better job playing me than I do myself most days.” So it's flattering then? He laughs: “Flattering to the point of being implausible that I should be the person that I'm represented as being.”

These days Julius' work couldn't be further from the spotlight. He describes it as “discrete alternative dispute resolution of a kind that never gets into court and rarely surfaces in any public way at all.” His cases – which include a lot of trust disputes – don't suit conventional forums and therefore require “diplomatic skills as much as straightforward, forensic litigation skills.” His ongoing defamation work also calls for a different approach: “When I started the way one did defamation law for a claimant was just to issue a writ and shut up the defendant for two or three years. The times have changed to the point where litigation isn't the appropriate way of addressing most reputation problems.” Instead, Julius opts for a strategy of reform, whereby he advises clients to “put themselves in a position where they're no longer vulnerable to the kind of criticisms being made of them.” It's an approach that's most applicable, he adds, to the “institutional end, where the object of criticism is likely to be a business or institutional practice of a continuing character that is capable of reform.”

Getting a client to reform requires a broad approach: it could entail devising new PR strategies, redesigning company websites and coaching employees on how to speak to the press. These aren't the typical duties people associate with the legal profession, and they clearly require knowledge sourced from fields beyond it. But it all reflects Julius' more expansive and porous mode of lawyering – a mode he feels is vital. “We can't be satisfied anymore with just being masters of black letter law,” he says, warning of the danger of ongoing isolation in the profession: “We're not going to be able to exercise the necessary judgement with sophistication and understanding if we remain cut off from society and from the broader cultural and intellectual influences coursing through it. If we're philistines we're not going to be appropriate guides to our clients.”

On the future: “Lawyers will be paid for thinking about things rather than doing things.”

Why is it so important that lawyers keep their finger on society's pulse? Because, Julius explains, more efficient technology will reduce the number of process-related jobs available for lawyers. Therefore “the other aspect of being a lawyer – the advisory and exercising judgement part – will increase in significance: we will be paid for thinking about things more than doing things. And so the character of our thinking, the range of our reference and the nature of our general education is going to be much more important.” As director of Mishcon Academy, Julius is keen to ensure his firm remains switched on. He regularly invites speakers to come and host discussions at Africa House; previous participants include Stephen Fry, former Labour politician Jim Murphy and cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar. “I also had a conversation with Rowan Williams, and Juliet Stevenson recently came in to talk about the refugees in Calais. These events are for everyone at Mishcon, and we've had audiences in the hundreds, challenging and debating – it's been fascinating.”

Public speaking clearly doesn't phase Julius. In the past he's said that advocacy is the thing he enjoys most about his job, and as a solicitor advocate he's appeared in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Given how oversubscribed the Bar is, does he think more students should consider becoming solicitor advocates instead? His response points to the affirmative: “I'm always surprised when I hear people tell me that the Bar is oversubscribed because it feels to me to be a dying part of the profession. It's not rats leaving a sinking ship – it's sleek and beautiful animals joining a sinking ship.” He also encourages students not to just associate advocacy with the Bar. “It's not just a matter of standing up and speaking in court. Everything we do is advocacy. Every encounter, every letter, every meeting. Once engaged by one's client, one is – in a very fundamental sense – the advocate of that client's interest.”

On the Bar: “It's sleek and beautiful animals joining a sinking ship.”

Julius believes that people should steadfastly pursue their own interests too – with a heavy emphasis on the plural there. He's not a fan of “that banal slogan, 'Jack of all trades, master of none',” and criticises business culture for perpetuating the notion that “people can only be good at one thing and should only do one thing.” One look at Julius' bio reveals he hasn't been constrained by such a belief: on top of his various roles at Mishcon, he's also taken on an assortment of chairman/non-exec positions elsewhere and achieved success as an academic. Yes, Julius did go back to university after all: aged 30, he embarked on his PhD in English while working at the firm. He went on to write four books that explored – among other things – transgressive art and the history of anti-Semitism, winning praise from literary heavyweights like Harold Bloom and J.G. Ballard in the process. He's not stopping there: he's currently writing a book on censorship and hopes to teach parts of it during a new position he'll be taking up at UCL in 2017.

But how does Julius find time to serve clients, write books, teach students and fulfil all his other responsibilities? “If one only does what one is passionate about then it's extraordinary how much one can do,” he says, with an air of optimism that wills his listener to grab the nearest piece of paper and start scrawling their magnum opus. And on that note, the time is up. It's understandably precious, and Julius must return to his work. As he disappears into Mishcon's warren of rooms he leaves this final piece of advice trailing in his wake: “Shun everything that's dull, engage with everything that's fascinating, and if everything means many more things than one, then that's something to celebrate.”


This feature was first published in January 2017.

It was written and researched by Chambers' Paul Rance.