Baroness Helena Kennedy on Her Radical Law Career

Baroness Helena Kennedy QCThe NextWomen Career Theme: Law.

For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and/or male dominated professions. This is the story of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC.

Baroness Helena Kennedy is a barrister, broadcaster, and member of the British House of Lords.  She is an expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues and has received many honours for her work. Current chair of Justice, the British arm of the International Commission of Jurists, she was the Chair of the British Council and Chair of the Human Genetics Commission.  

She recently produced a report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission on Human Trafficking in Scotland and was a member of the Government Commission on a British Bill of Rights. She is the Co-Chair of the International Bar Association’s Institute of Human Rights.  At just 24, the radical lawyer set up her own chambers to work on sex-discrimination cases, domestic violence against women and to defend women who had killed or assaulted violent partners. By 1990, along with other human rights lawyers, Baroness Kennedy set up the Doughty Street Chambers, where she currently practises as a QC.

She is also Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. 

We spoke to Baroness Kennedy about the anxiety of defending the innocent; about being at the vanguard of the fight for justice for women; and her advice for those starting a career in Law.

TNW: What are the main responsibilities of your current role as QC at the Doughty Street Chambers?

HK: A QC is a leading counsel. That means that he or she leads the team of lawyers representing one side in a serious case. Most of my work is in criminal law, acting in very serious cases such as murder and terrorism. I have a lot of experience of cases of a political nature, involving national security and international terrorism. I have also done deportation cases where the person faces return to a country where there is endemic torture. Another area of special interest for me is women’s rights and I have done many cases acting for women, particularly women who have killed their partners after years of abuse. I also do cases at the interface of law and psychiatry; women killing their children, familial abuse, crime committed when mentally ill. And over the years I have conducted many cases involving racism.

In my chambers there are a significant number of QCs and we probably have the most women “silks” of any chambers at the Bar. I was the first and I like to think I have been able to nurture younger women in chambers and in the profession more generally.

TNW: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

HK: I love my practice. I have done many other things along the way – writing, broadcasting, politics, education – but nothing gives me the buzz that I get from the court. I love the intellectual challenge of it as well as the advocacy, the fight, the human stories. I learned about human rights from the pain of my clients.

It is such a privilege to be taken into someone’s life at a time of real extremis.

And sometimes you know you made a real difference.

TNW: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role and how do you tackle it?

HK: People always ask how it feels to represent someone who is guilty but you learn early on that that is not your function. You are not the judge or the jury. They decide on guilt, not you the barrister. You are there to give voice to your client’s case and to put it strongly on his or her behalf. A much more anxious thing is to represent someone whom you know is innocent and to feel the system may fail them. That is when you have real nightmares. I believe in law. The legal system is preserved by lawyers being strongly independent and highly ethical – and willing to represent everyone.

TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone starting a career in law?


I advise people who want to come into the law to be absolutely determined. There will be setbacks – I faced them.

It is highly competitive to get into chambers or a law firm, even more so now than in my day. Be bloody-minded and stick at it. I bludgeoned a poor man into taking me as his pupil. When pupillage was over, I could not get into a chambers so got together with five friends and we set up a new chambers. I look back and wonder where our confidence came from but I suppose I was quite entrepreneurial  and dogged.

I also tell people to get some experience of law somehow. Volunteering to a legal advice centre or a human rights group, a woman’s centre, a volunteer in a firm.   Anything that makes you stand out as really interested in doing law is good for your CV. I set up a legal advice centre in Waterloo with a friend who was a community worker. I learned so much.  It does not have to be fancy but it shows you are serious. Thirdly, remember that law equips you for other things  - do other jobs and that experience in other fields may then make you more interesting to law firms at a later stage.

TNW: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

HK: I think I did lead the way on alerting society to how law was not delivering for women. It is a long time ago now but by the late seventies and early eighties I was writing extensively and broadcasting about women and the law – it is now accepted that the law has often failed women on sexual offences or domestic violence but then it was not accepted or understood. I am glad I was at the vanguard and it is all now mainstream.  

At the time people were reticent to take on such an institution as the law. I am proud I did.

I think that was partly possible because I was something of an outsider - I was a woman, from a working class background and a Scot at the English Bar. It enabled me to see what the legal world looked like to ordinary people.

I am also happy to have been involved in so many of the big cases of miscarriage of justice, like the Guildford 4 and others, which showed how our system could fail to do justice. I am a reformer. I think you have to keep arguing for change to make the system truly just.

TNW: Have you always aspired to a career in law? If you hadn’t chosen law, which other career paths might you have taken?

HK: An old teacher says I always said I wanted to be a lawyer. I do not recall that. There were so few women lawyers then, I can’t believe it was ever an ambition I expressed. I did love debating and it gave me practice in public speaking so it is perhaps not so surprising. I originally wanted to study English as I love literature. But I am so glad I fell into law. I came to London and met some law students and thought it sounded like what I should do so that I could help people who could not afford lawyers. It sounds altruistic and naïve but it happens to be true. If I hadn’t done law I now think I would have liked to have been a broadcaster. I like the whole business of communication.

TNW: Is your current role the result of a carefully planned career strategy, or have you made the most of opportunities as they have presented themselves?

HK: I had no career strategy. I let things happen. But I am not against other people being more strategic and having a clear career plan. I tell women to think about whether they want to be judges and how they might get there. And how to make things work with having kids.

Juggling family and work can be hard but is eminently possible.

My disposition is to say YES to things. When invited to do something new and challenging I say YES and it has paid off, taking me into many new fields like journalism.  I even co-wrote a drama series about the law called Blind Justice back in the eighties. I always give things a whirl and encourage others to do the same.

TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?

HK: I admire our Supreme court Judge Brenda Hale - she is a truly brilliant. I admire Hillary Clinton – now there is a determined and dogged woman.  I love Ang San Sui Kyi – indeed I love anyone who stands up for what they believe in against the odds.  But my own mentor in law was a very special American lawyer – a man, Leonard Boudin – who was a great constitutional lawyer - he took me under his wing and inspired me. He made me see that law could be a real tool in the struggle for a better world.

TNW:  Law is a notoriously male dominated field. How (and how much) does this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?

HK: Yes, the law is male because it was made by men without women in mind and it is only changing now because there are more women practicing and making law. That is why it is so great to be in the legislature – the House of Lords  - making law as well as practicing law. I experienced plenty of sexism along the way within the system and I saw it impacting on other women too but things are changing - because women have become a critical mass in the law. However, it does mean we have to keep confronting discrimination where we see it. There is still a way to go.

I rarely experience problems now because of my seniority – ie age. I frighten the judges now. They don’t frighten me.

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