Imran Khan: My success is born of tragedy

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The Independent Online

Imran Khan, 35, is best known for his work representing the family of Stephen Lawrence, which led to the Macpherson report. He was born in Karachi in Pakistan and moved to east London with his family in 1968. He has lived there ever since. He is currently representing the family of Zahid Mubarek and the family of Harold "Errol" McGowan and his nephew Jason, who died in suspicious circumstances in Telford. He works at JR Jones solicitors in Stratford. In 1999, he was named Lawyer of the Year by the Law Society.

Education and background

I spent my childhood in Stepney Green and Upton Park, and went to Lister Comprehensive in Plaistow. I did my A-levels at East Ham College and went on to do my law degree at North East London Polytechnic. I then did what were called the Law Society Finals, which is a year of very practical training, at the College of Law. It's a pretty horrible course because you do nine or 10 subjects in one year. Part of my education was about challenging the way the law operates. I can remember the most wonderful lecturers at college saying that you always had to question the way the law operates. That was a good foundation for what came later.

The big idea

After my finals, I went to BM Birmberg, which is now Birmberg, Pierce & Co, to do two years of training as an article clerk. I had always been very involved with community organisations, such as the Newham Monitoring Project. The firm's offices were based in south-east London and they did a lot of work with the Southall Monitoring Group. Because of my work with them I was offered a job at JR Jones in Ealing, helping to set up the criminal department.

We set up advice sessions for local people every Saturday. It was a drop-in centre for people who would come in with problems they wouldn't normally go to a solicitor with. I began working more and more advising people about racial violence and acting for victims. This was very unusual at the time. The legal profession has a tradition of defending people who are arrested, but nobody was representing the victims of crime, particularly racial crime. My role as defender of victims was not established. Not only are you representing the families of victims, you are also carrying out an investigation into the crimes, which the police failed to investigate, so that you can then present a case to them.

Worst moment

The worst moments are always just before a verdict is delivered. I have a really sinking feeling. It's the epitome of all the work you've put in. You never come to terms with that, whether it's shoplifting or murder. It is always a desperate moment.

It is horrendous dealing with the victim's family. You've got a combination of grieving parents and the process of trying to explain to them how the law is or, more likely, isn't going to help them. It can be very tough. I have to limit the numbers of victims' families I represent because each one takes a tremendous amount of work. No two victims are the same and there are no law books to consult saying what you should do. I was really attacked by the police during the Macpherson enquiry. You can be an anti-racist lawyer now. But at the beginning of the inquiry it was a dirty word. It was thought that having left-wing principles would somehow impinge on your abilities as a lawyer.

Greatest achievement

I suppose it's the ability to continue in the face of a good deal of adversity on a daily basis. Everyone says "'wow" about the Lawrence case but, to me, I'm just doing my job. If you go back a decade or two you'd be hard pressed to find lawyers that took on controversial cases - people who could bring the law of the street into the courtroom and argue that young black men are acting in self-defence in a lot of cases. I'd like to think that I'm one of the generation of lawyers following in the footsteps of people like Michael Mansfield.

I take great pride when I'm defending a 14-year-old who is up in a Magistrate's court for shoplifting: 99 per cent of my practice is this kind of law. The youth court is where the criminalisation process starts. I don't want to use my position for self-congratulation. My success is on the back of tragedy. When I got that award last year (Lawyer of the Year), it really put a hush on the proceedings when I reminded the audience that I'd won the award because a kid (Stephen Lawrence) had lost his life.

I wish I'd known

I wish that I'd known how difficult it was going to be. I had no concept that it would be seven days a week, 365 days a year. I really didn't know how tough the system was going to be in terms of change. It really is a daily grind. There are just so many disappointments.

 

The secret of my success

I have no idea. I never see myself as a success in that way. But hard work and dedication are my fundamentals. It's a cliché, but it's true.

 

My top tip

You're going to get so many knockbacks, especially if you are approaching it from a perspective that's not flavour of the month. But I'd say: do it. I've met people who've wanted to become lawyers because of the Lawrence case, which I find amazing. Law can also be seductive, so keep your feet on the ground. What I hate most is people who talk about, say, Magistrates' courts, without getting their hands dirty. There's a real need for people with some idea of justice, equality and fair play.

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