Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court Chambers
I grew up in Battersea, South London and I went to a local comprehensive school. My mother was a nurse and my father, a telecoms technician; both my parents were migrants from the Caribbean who came to the UK to make a better life for themselves. I would describe my background or roots as very working class.
I first decided that the law was something that interested me at the age of about 13/14. I think, initially, it was because I saw so much injustice against young black and Asian youths: where I grew up during the late 70s and 80s in London, tensions between the police and ethnic minorities were rife. It was a time that the old ‘sus’ laws were being used to stop people solely on the basis of suspicion, which often meant anything the police wanted it to mean at the time to justify a stop and search. I thought there was no point in getting angry about it, why not become a lawyer and see if I could make a difference?
I was fortunate to be offered a place to study law at Kingston University, which has a fantastic law school and still does. It was a real privilege to study there. I made some great friends, both students and lecturers. There, I really developed my interest for civil liberties.
I have always found the Education and Training Department of Inner Temple extremely helpful and caring. I came from a background where my family and school knew nothing about how to become a barrister, what it involved, what the costs were or what the commitment would mean in real terms. I even got a modest grant, although I was able to support myself financially, because Kingston University asked me back to teach after I had graduated. So while I was at bar school, I was teaching at Kingston, which worked well.
When I first started out, I did everything and then developed a niche practice in coronial law. From there things took off. I believe that I am well known in my field: I have co-authored a major practitioner text on Inquests, in addition to teaching lawyers and training coroners in this area. Currently, I am a specialist in coronial law/inquiries and civil actions involving state agencies such as the police, prisons and hospitals. I also practice in the area of clinical negligence.
Balancing my professional and personal life can be difficult. In my early years I wasn’t very good at separating out work from private life, although, as I’ve got older the importance of having a good work life balance cannot be underestimated. I now very rarely work at weekends. I think it is important to have time off work: as the late Stephen Covey said, one of the important habits of highly effective successful people is the ability to sharpen the saw, which effectively means that if you are cutting a tree down, eventually you will need to take time out to sharpen and look after your saw or axe, otherwise it will become blunt and you will be less effective/efficient. Batteries certainly need to be recharged. I’m a tenor saxophonist so I relax by playing music, which gives me a completely different release to the pursuit and study of the law. I also like studying foreign languages. This is because I was so bad at languages at school and I had to prove to myself it was not me but probably the teaching methods used when I was at school.
My career highlights include being instructed on Mark Duggan and working alongside a great legal team of solicitors and barristers, including Mike Mansfield. I’m also proud of obtaining an unlawful killing decision in the Azelle Rodney public inquiry; achieving an unlawful killing the inquest of Christopher Alder and recently, obtaining justice for the families of Christi and Bobby Shepherd who died on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu when they were both overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty boiler in their hotel bungalow.
I wanted to be a part of the Inn that has been good to me over the years. I also believe it is important that the Inn has role models for all walks of life and is seen to be diverse so I became a bencher. In this role, I hope I can play a small part in promoting that message so that other young lawyers who come after me, and perhaps from similar backgrounds, will not feel excluded and believe this is not something they can achieve.
I can well understand that many young people would feel discouraged to enter a profession where the vast majority of those within it look different, speak in a different manner, come from a different class or background from you. However, there are a few of us within this profession who might surprise you if you were to give it a chance. So do not be put off from trying to enter this profession. If you come from a diverse background, you have lots to offer and the Bar needs people like you. I hope my experience will encourage others to at least think, this is certainly worth a try. If Leslie can do it, so can I.