What can I do?

With the New Year ahead, it’s a time to reflect on what we want from life – and what we want to give back. What makes a modern and humane Bar? Should it serve those it seeks to represent in a wider sense? Leslie Thomas QC sets out a convincing case


 

Nicholas graduated in physics with first class honours from a top university. He could have landed any job in industry and earned a fantastic living. However, he decided to teach, and to teach English.

Given his qualifications he could have taught in the best schools in the country but he chose a school that was recruiting dynamic young teachers in a poor part of south London.

The school population at the time was hitting 2,000 pupils. There were on average 38 kids in each classroom. Some of the kids, despite being 13 or 14 years old, could barely read or write.

The education policy at the time was against streaming. The classes were mixed ability. Some of the kids were frustrated because the lessons were too difficult and others were bored because lessons were too easy. Controlling the class was a challenge. Nick, being young and enthusiastic, did not give up.

He took a lot of abuse due to his appearance but he would laugh it off in good humour. When he taught he would bring the lessons alive and captivate the class. He told amazing stories with passion and wit. His pay was low, but he would work long hours and was always there for his students if they needed help with homework or with understanding concepts he introduced.

One of his students particularly struggled. He came from a family where books and learning were not a priority. There was no big library at home. But Nick saw promise. He helped this student.

At the age of 15 this student was preparing for his O levels. There were a million things happening in his life. And he wasn’t particularly motivated. Nick encouraged him nevertheless. But the student failed his exams.

Nick did not give up. He encouraged him to retake his O levels and this time the student passed – just. The student then started his A levels and stayed on in school. Nick was there by his side. They prepared for the exam but again there were distractions in the young lad’s life.

His first relationship, with the love of his live, broke up when he was 16. He went into a depression and failed his exams. Nick encouraged the young man to try again. He re-took his exams and this time passed. He managed to get into university and decided to read law. In college he went from strength to strength.

By now his life had stabilised and when he eventually graduated in 1984 he came second in his year. The young man never forgot the kindness and the service this teacher gave him. It was service beyond the call of duty.

Those events happened 35 years ago. Nick was my teacher. He is an exemplar of someone not just doing a job but truly going that extra mile. This is what service to others means.

Power to do great things

Nick’s service was special and unique. It went beyond the call of duty. How many of us think like that every time we open a set of papers or meet a new client? Given that you chose a profession whose main goal is to serve, what are you doing to serve the community and society that rewards you with this calling?

You had your own reasons for joining this great and rewarding profession. A desire to represent certain clients or do certain types of legal work. Some chose this career for the independence or status it offered, or because it was expected of you. And there are those who decided to come to the Bar to make a ton of money.

Regardless of the driver, we all have a common purpose. A golden thread that unites us all. We provide service. We serve others with the various unique gifts and talents we have in the study and practice of law. Is it a vain thing to think about your legacy? In 30 to 40 years’ time, when you have reached the pinnacle of your career, how do you want others to remember you?

As social beings we don’t want to be remembered as mean-spirited or selfish. There is so much more to life – and life at the Bar – than that. We have the power to do great things. Why do you think that nearly every billionaire in the world today is making efforts to be remembered not simply because of the money they made? Bill Gates, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg and many others have set up foundations to do great things with their cash.

Will you be so consumed by work that you never think of others? How many of us genuinely take the time out of our busy practices with the transferable talents we have to help others with greater needs than us or who are less fortunate than ourselves? I’m not talking about doing the odd pro bono case, although that is a worthy cause and a good start.

Giving the gift of skills: how to get started

Why not visit the local state school in your area and offer to speak to the children there. Choose the schools that are struggling, the schools that maybe you were fortunate not to go to because they lacked resources, had oversized classes and children from impoverished backgrounds.

Perhaps the kids there look nothing like you. Live nothing like you. Speak nothing like you. Maybe they pray to different gods, eat different foods and are culturally strange. But by offering your time, being prepared to serve them with your knowledge of this fine profession, by showing that you care, offering your time, perhaps just an hour to explain why you do what you do and how it fits into the grander scheme of things, you touch a younger life.

And who knows, a kid from a completely different walk of life might think to him/herself that what you do is so cool, so great, so interesting that they become inspired and you spark that interest and they want to follow in your footsteps. And wouldn’t it be great if we all contributed to the introduction of new diverse talent into our noble profession? Wouldn’t it be wonderful you took that time? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all made that effort?

"We all have a common purpose; a golden thread that unites us all. We provide service. We serve others with the various unique gifts and talents we have in the study and practice of law. Is it a vain thing to think about your legacy?"

We should be reaching out to young children who are our future. Not just to teenagers in Year 10, but the little ones. Year 7 is a good place to start; there is enough time for them to be inspired early and re-set their course to do what we do. Anyone who has experience of young kids knows that they are curious and have heroes.

And why limit our talents to the very young? Our skill-set can be offered across the spectrum of society. Grassroots organisations and charities struggle to find good people on their boards and management committees. Consider providing assistance to those who are elderly or those struggling with accessing universal credit; perhaps what we know might be useful to them.

We are a thinking and creative profession. We are good with the spoken and written word. It’s what we do. Why not give a gift of our skills to benefit someone less fortunate who may need our help? You know why you should. And you’ll feel great. You’ll glow. It’s magical how those small generous gifts to others make what we do seem more meaningful.

Leslie Thomas QC is a barrister and Joint Head of Chambers at Garden Court. This article is based on his keynote speech to the Young Bar at the 2018 Bar Conference.

Where to start:


Leslie Thomas QC: Bar life in quotes

Striving for integrity even though at times we have to represent and fight for clients fearlessly

‘Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?” But, conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.’ Dr Martin Luther King

Embracing failure is a true gift

‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default... The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift...’ J K Rowling

Leaving a legacy

‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.’ Robert Frost

Thinking about what we can all do to make a change

‘You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.’ Marian Wright Edelman


Making the case for diversity

What is the case for change? It will need to be a very powerful one because it is normal to want to keep things as they are. But regardless of where you come from, on which side of the divide you fall, or what your current demographic representation is in our profession, diversity benefits us all.

One of the best articles and arguments I’ve seen for diversity comes from one of a series of articles from New Zealand lawyer and mediator Paul Sills. He argues the following:

  1. People have diverse aptitudes and skills, whether based on their cultural backgrounds or different fields of interest. It is beneficial to have individuals with various talents, whether in a group, company or social setting.
  2. Diversity encourages individuals to embrace some of the qualities of humanism, not necessarily as a religious or philosophical policy, but rather as a way of relating to others.
  3. By learning about and understanding the different traditions of a friend or work colleague we can become more sensitive to those traditions.
  4. ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them’ (Albert Einstein). Different backgrounds and cultures approach conflict in different ways. People with diverse backgrounds can provide insight on new approaches to address difficult moral or other dilemmas.
  5. Diversity educates us. We learn about the traditions of other ‘tribes’ through formal education and life experience and, in doing so, find it more difficult to judge people from those tribes.
  6. Research shows that productivity flourishes in culturally diverse cities and that people are willing to pay to live and work in such fertile environments. The mind expands when encountering modes of thinking that differ from its own. Diversity provides innovation which in turn propels economic growth.
  7. The diversity that globalisation has brought into the world’s most cosmopolitan cities offers tangible benefits – for personal development, communities and the economy as a whole. For people who appreciate cultural diversity and want to live in tolerant, open societies, the vibrancy of major cities like London, New York and Melbourne is a major attraction. Diversity thus acts as a magnet for talent, which in turn further spurs economic growth.
  8. Diversity broadens the range of cultural experiences available in a city or country. The mingling of cultures through immigration leads to distinctive innovation. People are now interested in new holistic approaches to issues that blend Eastern and Western influences, spirituality and quantum physics, ancient wisdom and modern theories.
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Leslie Thomas QC

Leslie is Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers. Human rights/civil liberties specialist with an emphasis on inquests and public inquiries. Master of Bench at Inner Temple. Lifetime Achievement Award (2017) Diversity Legal Awards from Black Solicitors Network.