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A day in the life Of...
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A day in the life of ... Peter Watson-Lee

Date:17 MAY 2018

Peter Watson-Lee has recently retired as Chairman of Williams Thompson Solicitors LLP. He was named Family Law Partner of the Year at the Family Law Awards 2017.

What is your position and what do you do on a day‐to‐day basis?

After many years of full-on family law work at the coal face of high street practice, I have just retired and, without wanting to make you all jealous, as of just now my day-to-day life is total relaxation!

How long have you been in this role and what brought you here?

I qualified 40 years ago. In those days, we all undertook a broad range of litigation. Over the years we began to specialise, and a time came when I made the conscious decision to turn the litigation department of my firm (Williams Thompson in Christchurch, Dorset) into a specialist family law practice. The practice of family law has changed beyond recognition and much for the better. Highly aggressive correspondence has been banished and the more co-operative approach, now prevalent, is so much healthier for all concerned.

Any memorable stories from your career so far?

Many old-style high-drama heavily fought final hearings remain stuck in my mind. Not all as successful as one hoped, but they did get the adrenalin flowing.

Also putting my hand up to volunteer in meetings led me at times onto the Law Society Council (in the dramatic years of Presidential elections), to be being the Chair of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee when much was changing (Panels, Protocols, CSA etc), being a DIC Head (that means I headed the Divorce Information Centre meetings on the South Coast under the ill-fated Family Law Act 1996), involvement in further committees in redrafting the Form E, being involved in the introduction of the 'no costs rules' and most recently helping with the new Family Justice Council’s advice documents.

What is the best and worst part of the day for you?

The worst time was 9.15 a.m. You’ve got in and mentally planned your jobs for the day and are just getting started when the telephone goes. A client regales you about an unexpected flare up which needs urgent action and all your best laid plans go to pot. Now I have stopped client work, it is the best part of the day!
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What keeps you motivated?

It was the clients and their needs.

Tea or coffee?

Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and generous amounts of red wine in the evening.

What would you say to anyone thinking of a career in your field?

In family law, all human life is there. You get closely involved with the lives of a diverse range of clients. There are no dull days and there is satisfaction when you have helped (although great frustration at other times). The downside is that it is demanding work and you need to be able to deal with stressful situations. Also, the varied nature of the work means that you have to be up-to-date with family law itself but you also need to understand tax, companies, property law, mortgages, benefits – the list is endless. I have always felt sorry for the solicitor who is the only family lawyer in a firm – so if you are going to do it, my advice is to join a firm with a family law team.

What song do you listen to the most?

I am still stuck in the 70s and one retirement project is to develop my musical tastes.

Who inspires you within the world of family law?

Some of my family law partners over the years have been impressive both in their knowledge of the law and their application of it. As has the knowledge of some of the solicitors, barristers, judges and academics I have sat with on various committees. You quickly learn how little you know.

How do you enjoy your time outside of work?


What book would you recommend to others?

As family lawyers, we have too little time to see what we do in context. I have just read Marriage, a History (How Love Conquered Marriage) by Stephanie Coontz. It shows, in a readable way, how marriage and people’s expectations of what marriage is has changed and puts in setting the divorce rates we now have.

What would be your alternate career?

Journalist – another job where you can indulge your curiosity as to what really goes on.

If you could change one thing about the family justice system what would it be and why?

Don’t get me started. Whilst the practice of family law has developed, it is extraordinary that the law relating to the division of finances is still based on a 1973 Act. The Act was drafted in the late ‘60s when male breadwinner/stay at home wife was the norm and societies view of marriage, cohabitation and divorce was very different from today. The law is vague and unclear. Over the intervening years all we have had is judgements handed down from on high in multimillion pound cases with little real guidance for the middle and low asset cases. 'The one third rule' became 'reasonableness', and we now struggle with a combination of 'the yardstick of equality', 'fairness' and 'needs'. All of these terms are vague and open to wide interpretation. Despite my years of experience, I still cannot predict outcomes with any certainty. If I can’t, how does the newly qualified solicitor cope? On what basis are the mediators ‘guiding’ their clients and now legal aid has gone, how do the unrepresented manage? We need a fundamental review and update of the law.

What has winning the Family Law Award meant to you?

A fabulous thing to achieve in my final year. The competition was strong and it was great to win as a provincial High Street practitioner. My partners came up for the dinner and to unexpectedly win made for a very memorable evening.

Nominations close soon for the Family Law Awards 2018

All Family Law A day in the life of... profiles can be found here.