Taking the road less travelled
I believe that a modern & humane Bar should provide proper service to those it seeks to represent, embraces diversity, strives to provide have integrity even though at times we have to represent and fight for clients fearlessly.
In 1976 Nicholas graduated in physics with first class honours from a top university. He had the world at his feet. He could land any job in industry and earn a fantastic living. He had many job offers, he was set for life. However, he decided to teach, and to teach English.
Given his qualifications he could have gone to teach in some of 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 2000 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 classes. Some of the kids were frustrated because the lessons were too difficult, others were bored because the 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 from some the students because of his appearance but he would laugh it off in good humour.
When he taught English he would bring the lessons alive and captivate the class. He told amazing stories with passion and wit. His pay was low, as he was a newly-qualified teacher, 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 on his student. 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 the school. Nick was there by his side. They prepared for the exam but again there were distractions in the young lad’s life.
He had his first relationship break up at the age of 16 from the love of his life, went into a depression and by the time of his exams failed them. Nick was again there and helped the young man and encouraged him 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.
That young man stands before you today, those events happened 35 years ago.
Nicolas was my teacher.
I’m sure many of you had such a mentor or teacher in your life. This is not just someone doing a job but truly going that extra mile.
This is what service to others truly means: –
When you decided to come to the Bar, you had your reasons for choosing this great and rewarding profession. Now I don’t know what motivated you.
For some it would have been a desire to represent certain clients, for others it would have been the desire to do certain types of legal work.
Some would have chosen this career path for the independence it offers, others still because of status and maybe for some of you because it was expected of you and others made the choice that you went along with either willingly or less so.
Perhaps it was or is the career many in your family have done before and you were expected to continue a family tradition. And yes there are even those amongst us who decided to come to the Bar to make a ton of money.
For some you will be the first in your family to follow this career path. Just as we are all unique and different it is also a fact that the reasons for any of us doing this job are too numerous to be able to make assumptions or value judgments about.
But regardless of what that driver is for you to choose law, we all have a common purpose. A golden thread that unites us all.
We all provide service.
We serve others with the various unique gifts and talents we have in the study and practice of law.
In the story I told about Nick the service given 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?
When you remind yourself, you chose a profession where our main goal is to serve.
So what are you doing to serve the community and society that rewards you with so many of the riches one can ever hope for, from this calling that so many other people in our society can only envy?
Understand this, I do not judge any of you for whatever reason or reasons motivated you. That doesn’t matter. We are all different and we have different drivers which propel us along in life. But as I look out to you all today I want to pose a question to each and every one of you.
What will be my legacy? Is that a vain thing to think about? Should you be more humble than thinking about leaving a legacy? But thinking to yourself how you would like to be remembered is important.
I do not think it harms to ask “Will I be remembered for the service I provided?”
Ask yourself this, in 30 – 40 years’ time, when you have reached the pinnacle of your career, how do you want others to remember you?
How do you want your loved ones to remember you?
And when you look even further into the future, because I sincerely wish each and everyone here a long, happy and prosperous life, as you reach the end of your days what is the epitaph that others will write about you?
So here’s my challenge to you today.
Why not mould and fashion that legacy now? Write your epitaph now.
You see no-one really wants to be remembered simply because they made a ton of money for themselves. As social beings we don’t want to be remembered as being 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 nearly every millionaire, or I should say billionaire, in the world today is making efforts to being remembered not simply because of the ton of money they made in their lifetime but for other reasons? Bill Gates, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg and many others have set up foundations to do great things with the cash they made in life.
What’s this got to do with you?
Now I don’t care what law you are doing. I don’t care how you got here. I don’t care whether you struggled to get here from a poor background and suffered unspeakable hardships in your journey here, or from the age of three your pathway had already been carved out for you because you were lucky enough to be born into wealth.
We are all here today and we are all equal in that we are all members of the same profession, we are all learned in the law. We have earned that right, that respect, to be called counsel.
And with that right, with our skills, there is much we can do to improve and assist the lot of others.
How many of us genuinely take the time out of our busy practices with the transferable talents we have to help others, those with greater needs or less fortunate than ourselves?
And I’m not talking about doing the odd pro bono case, although that is a worthy cause and a good start.
Will you be so consumed by work that you never think of others?
Take time to visit the local state school in your area and offer to speak to the children there. Now I’m not just talking about great schools I’m talking about the schools that maybe 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 such schools are alien to you. Maybe such a school is not in the area where you live. But that is even more of a reason to visit such a school.
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 you time, perhaps organising an hour of your time to explain why you do what you do and how it fits into the grander scheme of things, you touch a younger life.
You may well trigger an interest in the law.
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 that 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?
And I am talking about reaching out to young children who are our future, not just teenagers in Year 10, but the little ones. Year 7 is a good place to start. Because there is enough time for them to be inspired early enough to re-set their course to do what we do.
Anyone who has experience of young kids knows that they are curious and have heroes.
Why not be a hero in a wig?
But why limit our talents to the very young? I actually think our skill-set can be offered across the spectrum of society.
Grassroots organisations and charities which struggle to find good people on their boards and management committees.
Providing assistance to those who are elderly and perhaps what we know might be useful to them.
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? And you know why you should. You’ll feel great. You’ll glow. It’s magical how those small generous gifts to others make what we do seem more meaningful.
We are in a thinking and creative profession, that is what we do.
So we should constantly be asking, “what can I do?”
We should not fall into the trap and think, “I can’t make a difference, so I will just do the day job, I will just earn my money. I am just here for me.”
Thinking about what we can all do to make a change reminds me of the quote,
“You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable…” Marian Edelman
A question I am often asked is “Have you suffered discrimination, or felt the effect of racism in this profession?’”
And it’s a really interesting question – but more interesting is who is asking the question and why. Why interesting? Because would that person ask that question if I was a white person who he’d just met? And when you stop and analyse the question and the questioner, it’s not an excuse to say, well, Leslie, he (or she) is just trying to get to know you and is just curious.
The questioner needs to think and ask themselves and answer truthfully, would you ask it of anybody at the Bar?
And, if the answer is no, why not, why would you limit that question to somebody who is a person of colour?
Granted, if asked that question you may well have a different answer if you were a white man or a woman.
I very much doubt that a room full of white men, on the management committees of certain chambers or law firms which are predominantly white, usually ask that question of themselves.
Maybe there could be questions such as, “do you think we discriminate in our recruitment?” Or, “what more could we do to get our diversity numbers up?”
But here’s the thing, asking the question, “what can we do to improve the diversity situation in our organisation or profession?” is a loaded question.
It’s a loaded question because the precursor question must be, why?
Asking why is such a powerful question. If you understand the ‘why’ that is the key, for potentially long-lasting and effective change.
So why should we want to change?
Why should we make our profession more diverse?
What is in it for me?
What is in it for us?
Now let’s think about this, if you are one of the over-represented groups in the profession you are in a position of privilege and power, like it or not, and there is an obvious natural tendency to think of increased diversity as a decrease in ‘us’. Therefore what is the case for change? It will need to be a very powerful one because it is a normal thing to want to keep things as they are. But regardless of where you come from, or on which side of the divide you fall, or what your current demographic representation is in our profession, diversity benefits us all.
You see, I believe if you understand this, you understand the heart of the problem in our profession.
So it is our job to understand and make the argument for change.
So what is the case for change?
One of the best articles and arguments I’ve seen for diversity comes from one of a series of articles from a New Zealand lawyer and mediator Paul Sills
He argues the following:-
- 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.
- 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.
- By learning about and understanding the different traditions of a friend or work colleague we can become more sensitive to those traditions.
- “You cannot solve a problem from the same level of thinking that created it” (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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Sills concludes that:-
“People who have grown up in multicultural societies often find it not only normal but desirable to live with people of different backgrounds. Diversity is not merely tolerated, but something to be actively sought out.” https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/practice-resources/practice-areas/mediation/embracing-diversity .
Paul Sills is a lawyer is prepared to take a different road. His arguments are powerful and persuasive.
We all have to embrace these arguments.
My biggest fear though is at times these arguments are not presented and argued in a convincing way. This leads to push back or a reluctance. Sometimes you can see eyes just glazing over as if this is just politically-correct talk. But it is so much more than this. You see, we will only just tinker around the edges and never create real, lasting or substantial change unless we change our mindset. We should not look at diversity as something just to be tolerated, as Sills says, it is to be embraced.
So let us all make the case for change and recognise that is also being able to convince others. It is a less travelled road, but one worth running down.
Leaving a legacy
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference” Robert Frost
This keynote address was delivered by Leslie Thomas QC (Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers) to the delegates at the Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference 2018.