Helena Kennedy QC: Doughty Street Chambers, London
3 November 2008
What was your first-ever job?
I had a Saturday job in Woolworths at 15. My first case in the law was defending a shoplifter at Tottenham Magistrate’s Court. She’d breached a suspended sentence and went to prison. I was bereft and thought it was my fault.
What was your worst experience as a pupil?
My pupil master wrote a column in Private Eye under the pseudonym Justinian Forthemoney in which he told hilarious but scurrilous tales about judges and leading members of the bar. When our rather conservative chambers found out he was the source of this column he was given the heave-ho, and me with him. He didn’t care as he was standing for Parliament, but I had no idea what to do. I saw my career disappearing down the Swanee, but I got together with five others and we established a new set of chambers – Garden Court. Necessity is the mother of new chambers.
Where’s the best place to go to find out what’s really going on in chambers?
The clerk’s room.
What time do you usually leave chambers?
I’ve now organised my work in such a way that I rarely go into chambers after court. I go to the House or Lords to vote or I go to meetings of organisations I chair. New technology means I can be in regular contact without going in.
What do you do at weekends?
Spend time with family and friends, work on cases, prepare lectures and go to movies or the theatre.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
For regular family clutches we love Daphne’s in Camden Town where the Greek food is great. For a bit of swank, the Wolsley in Piccadilly.
If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you have been?
An architect – I love the idea of combining the aesthetic with the functional, the socially important with the creative. I can draw, but would fall down on the engineering side. Or maybe a midwife. I’m overawed by the miracle of birth.
Who’s your hero and why?
Sister Helen Prejean, who campaigns against the death penalty in the US. How can we talk to the world about human rights while the US still has Death Row? She’s brave and compassionate.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I see the best of the human condition as well as the worst, but in the end I feel uplifted and privileged to be involved with people at extreme times in their lives.
What’s the toughest thing about your job?
The long hours.
What car do you drive?
I rarely drive, but when I do I drive a small Suzuki I share with my son.
What book are you currently reading?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
What’s on your iPod player at the moment?
What’s your favourite children’s book?
Burglar Bill by Allen and Janet Ahlberg.
What’s the most exciting deal/case you’ve worked on and why?
The Guildford Four appeal – it was like a movie, as indeed it became.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what two luxury items would you take?
A radio and a very expensive duvet.
What’s the worst partner conference location you’ve attended and why?
When we were young and ran our chambers as a collective, we spent a weekend in a hippy cottage in the Forest of Dean. It was hell. There was no door on the toilet as it was considered too bourgeois by the owners and I didn’t go to the loo for the whole weekend.
What’s the longest you’ve worked without sleep?
Clio my daughter was one of those babies who wanted to party into the night, so there was a period of several months when I went back to work and got by on strong coffee and catnaps.
If a movie was being made about your life, which actor would play you and why?
Helen Mirren now. Maggie Gyllenhaal then.
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with and why?
Colin P, a psychopath I represented many years ago when I was a junior. He was a serial killer of women and I’ve always thought, ‘if he ever gets out, I’ll be the next on his list’.
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Name: Helena Kennedy QC
Set: Doughty Street Chambers, London
Lives: Belsize Park, London
Education: Holyrood Secondary School; Inns of Court School of Law
1972: Called to the bar
1988: Presenter of Hypotheticals for Granada Television
1988-89: Co-wrote award-winning TV drama Blind Justice
1989: Presenter on BBC TV documentary Heart of the Matter
1991: Appointed silk
1997: Bencher, Gray’s Inn; member, House of Lords
1998-2004: Chair, British Council
1998-2007: Chair, Human Genetics Commission
2008: Chair, Justice’s council