Baroness Shami Chakrabarti is a Labour peer and Shadow Attorney General. After studying at the Bar, she was a civil servant at the Home Office, before becoming in-house counsel at human rights pressure group, Liberty. In 2003, she became Director of Liberty, a position she held until 2016.
Photo: 39 Essex Chambers, Roddy Paine
I never had a life plan or career plan. I know some people do, but I didn’t. Everything for me has been an accidental journey, but the continuum has been that in one way or another they have been an expression of my values.
My first day at Liberty was the day before 9/11. I was hired to be an in-house counsel and do blue skies thinking and then 9/11 happens and there are no more blue skies.
When, I became the director of Liberty, it was the biggest shock of my life. I wasn’t just a lawyer anymore. I had to be a manager and a fundraiser and a spokesperson, and that was probably the biggest career change I ever made.
Listening to people is a great resource. I remember doing that a lot when I started as Director. And what people said to me was, “You’re running a really good law centre, with a half decent press office, but that’s not a campaign.”
I’ve never been ambivalent about fundraising. When I went to Liberty, people said, “Shami, how awful that you now have to raise money. How demeaning.” Well, I never felt demeaned at all. I wasn’t asking for a beer, I was asking for support for causes that I believed in. As Director of Liberty, I looked at fundraising asks and membership asks and parliamentary asks and legal documents, and of course, there’s etiquette that’s a bit different but the essential messaging is the same. You believe in it, don’t be ashamed to go and ask for it. And you’d be surprised how many people will respond.
Don’t retreat to the bunker. I think leadership is interesting. When you’re under attack, or insecure, there’s a tendency to go into the bunker, and it’s understandable, but it’s completely the wrong place to go. Instead, go outside the bunker to get people’s views even if you think they might be harsh or adverse, and you’ll be surprised how much good will you can find out.
You get as much credit for what you don’t say as what you do say. Don’t comment on everything — hold your nerve and hold your tongue. Then, when you comment on things that you really know about and care about, suddenly people are interested in what your view is on that topic.
Anyone’s equal. No-one’s superior. That’s become my motto in my late 40s. It’s about being confident without being cocky. It’s about being conscious of injustice without being chippy. Trying to walk a relatively straight line through life and work that isn’t too exclusionary and isn’t in the bunker, but also isn’t out taking the bullets on the battlefield with no armour. There’s got to be some middle way that is authentic and humble and reflective, but also robust.
My biggest regret has been about people that I should have talked to more. In my mind, it will always be the conversation not had, the relationship not explored, rather than the mis-step of the person you shouldn’t have trusted.
We’re all just sitting around the fireplace telling stories and we can do it through cinema and books and whatever or we can do it through politics and law, but in the end, we’re just trying to influence each other to be our better selves.
Life is about other people. In the intimate sphere, we call it love, friendship. In the broader sphere, some of us call it society, solidarity, fellowship. We all we want to be part of something a little bit bigger than ourselves. The same instinct that makes us love and cherish our family and our friends is the instinct that makes us want to reach out to other people, not just in our community and our country but all over the world.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.