Leon Samuel Phillips, retired solicitor

My father had a law degree but switched to accountancy. He worked in Manchester for nearly 50 years at his own accountancy practice. It was always engrained in me to become my own boss. During work experience in a law firm, I witnessed a fight in a family court. What made a big impression on me was the lawyer who acted for one of the parties trying to calm his client down. I realised then that the law had to deal with raw emotions. From an early age, I knew it was for me.

At the first opportunity I started my own firm in Wakefield. It was a high street practice dealing literally with whatever came through the door. I had to be able to turn my hand to most areas of the law, although there were some which had become so specialised I would not touch them. I did a lot of residential conveyancing and criminal work (always defence).

Leon Phillips

It was important to me to be able to deal with a variety of work. I often picked up work from larger firms because they had different people to deal with differing legal problems. With my firm, clients usually got me rather than someone else.

Doing defence work, I came across very dangerous people who you would not want to meet on a dark night. Although they gave me little or no trouble, it always concerned my family. My most worrying moment in practice came when I had to see a new client who was in custody. The police warned me, beforehand, that he was unpredictable. As all the interview rooms were taken I had to see him in the cells. I told the police that I would leave the door open for my own safety and asked for someone to regularly walk up and down the corridor. I entered the cell and left the door slightly ajar, but the client immediately got up (he towered over me) and promptly closed it. It went fine but I was very worried. In time I learnt that although you must always be careful and not take unnecessary risks, you are unlikely to have trouble because you are one of the few people that are actually trying to help them.

I worked in private practice for about 20 years and built up a thriving firm. I was also a partner in a firm that just did criminal law, as franchising encouraged larger firms. However, at 42 I became ill, with the main symptom being constant headaches. Initially, we assumed it was due to the stress of moving house and/or buying an office. However, I also suddenly developed double vision – disturbing when you are on the M62 at night and trying to work out which white lines you should follow. Something had to be done. I was sent for a brain scan. It showed up a large (thankfully benign) tumour. It took three major operations (two were 13 hours and one was eight) to remove most of it. Even when I was waiting on the operating table – I think to distract me – I was asked loads of legal questions by nurses, anaesthetists, surgeons…

Each operation caused damage and I have needed extensive rehabilitation, with physiotherapy still ongoing. My walking and balance is poor and I only have the use of one arm and hand, I am partially sighted and suffer from tinnitus. In total, I spent 18 months in hospital. Following my first operation and hospitalisation period, I had no choice but to close down the office.

I found that my sudden illness brought out the best and worst in people from all walks of life. There were those who tried to help in whatever way they could, be it arranging meal rotas for my family, helping with our house move (I was in intensive care on the day we moved home), or arranging social activities for me once I was able to go out. The Solicitors Benevolent Association were very supportive – they have helped my children, one of whom who is now a solicitor, go to university.

However, there were others who saw my illness as a golden opportunity to take advantage. I needed a good solicitor to protect my interests.

My legal career may basically have ended at 42 but my life is far from over. I still drive (in a specially adapted car), I have time for my lovely children and grandchildren, I have learnt to use a computer, and I have written four books about the family’s history. It’s a good life, not planned, but I keep busy. I often wonder how I ever had time to work.