Thelma Stober

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in September 2006. Read more about Thelma Stober in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Thelma Stober. Thelma is the Director of Law, Governance and Procurement at the London Development Agency (LDA).The LDA is the Mayor of London’s Regeneration Agency for London responsible for promoting and supporting the growth of new and existing businesses, the creation of new jobs and the development of new communities.


She is in charge of a vast budget and responsible for a staff of 21 and a panel of 18 law firms, who are mostly the top UK law firms. She was voted by the Lawyer as one of the Hot 100 lawyers shaping the law in 2006.

Thelma was born in Sierra Leone in 1960 and has always wanted to be a lawyer since she was a child. She attended LeicesterUniversity where one of the optional subjects she did was Planning and Environmental Law which ignited her fascination and love for this area of the law. After completing her Bar Finals, she was called to the Bar, Middle temple in 1981.  She did her pupillage between 1982 and 1983 at 13 King’s Bench Walk with Stuart Stevens.

Soon after her Call she went to Sierra Leone where she spent approximately 6 months attached to a set of chambers and was called to the Sierra Leone Bar before returning to the UK to continue her practice at the Bar.

Thelma left the private Bar in 1987 and worked at Tooting Law Centre for two years doing predominantly immigration, housing, social welfare benefits, employment and other areas of law that affect the ordinary man on the street.  Whilst at Tooting Law Centre she dealt with a lot of homelessness issues but was appalled by some of the housing policies and felt very strongly that she can make a difference in local government by influencing policies, practices, procedures and attitudes. In 1989 she therefore moved to the London Borough of Hackney in North London and joined the Race Equality Unit driving the race and other equality policies and practices particularly in construction. During this time she was instrumental in the establishment of the “Women in Construction training initiative” which she saw as a challenge given that it was a male and white dominated industry and wanted to make a positive difference.

In 1993, she re-qualified and became a solicitor, primarily because of her strong need to use the law to help people and also because most of the jobs in the public sector particularly at senior levels, where aimed at solicitors, not barristers. She was determined not to allow obstacles to stop her career objectives.

Thelma left the Race Equality Unit after a year and moved into legal work within Hackney. First she worked as a Planning and Property lawyer and she was swiftly promoted to Senior Solicitor heading the Planning, Property, Procurement and Contract. She then became a Principal Solicitor with even more responsibilities. In 1995, Thelma became Hackney’s Head of Law and successfully led an in-house bid for legal work during the Compulsory Competitive Tendering era, where she remained until 2001.

The role of the Head of Law at Hackney was a very challenging one because during this period the authority went through multiple crisis and scandals, record industrial tribunal cases including one of the highest industrial tribunal awards ever made (at that time) against an employer. The authority was placed on special measures by the Government, education services were privatised, and Thelma saw the departure of two Chief Executives. Despite the chaos at Hackney, Thelma did a tremendous amount of work on planning environmental and regeneration in the area working very closely with City lawyers, developers, engineers and she was frequently the sole black face and sole female. She feels very strongly that she had worked with some fantastic people in Hackney, including Sarah Ebanja, then an executive director and interim chief executive at Hackney, who has recently been appointed as the deputy Chief Executive at the LDA, Chris Boothman, Director of Law at the Standards Board for England and Wales and Kofi Akainyah in private practice. The planning environmental and regeneration work she did at Hackney has proved an extremely useful experience in her current role at the LDA.

In late 2000, Thelma joined the Greater London Authority (GLA) which was established in early 2000. She worked as a Planning Lawyer advising the Mayor on his strategic planning powers and preparation of the London plan, waste and environmental strategies as she was very interested in the GLA’s establishment as a strategic London Government body. She wanted to be part of the original vision in relation to economic development, strategic planning and part of the future of a bigger LDA. She was right in the middle of the strategic planning and economic development by providing the legal advice and support in developing the Mayor’s statutory strategic plans and exercising his planning powers.

In 2002, she joined the LDA as it became clearer what its role was going to be and was appointed as its Head of Governance and Secretariat. She found this an exciting time and set up the governance arrangement from scratch which she thought was a fantastic opportunity. She was also the Secretary to the Board working with only one temporary staff.

In 2003 the LDA Board members took the view that they needed a designated in-house legal adviser and a Monitoring Officer as a matter of best practice. Thelma therefore wore (and still does) wear three hats as she became the Secretary to the Board, the legal adviser and Monitoring Officer to the LDA.

Thelma’s involvement with the 2012 Olympics began in 2002 when the Mayor asked the LDA to come up with a package of how they would contribute to a bid for the 2012 Olympics. The package was for the central government to consider whether or not to put London forward for the 2012 Olympic bid. She was therefore responsible for advising the Board as to whether contribution towards staging the Olympics form part of their statutory purposes and how it could contribute to the Agency’s vision for regenerating the Lower Lee Thames gateway area of East London. She saw this as a lifetime opportunity to regenerate the Lower Lea Thames Gateway, an area of East London that has been dilapidated for so many years, with large pockets of deprivation and a high ethnic minority populace. However, she realised that for the package to work it has to fall within the LDA’s statutory framework. The package she and the team prepared was submitted to the Mayor, a major contribution to the total package of proposals was submitted to the government. The package was accepted and it was agreed that London should also apply to stage the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics games in London.

Thelma became involved in the establishment of the London 2012; a company set up to prepare and submit the bid and was involved with working on the bids in conjunction with central government departments, GLA, the British Olympics, Transport for London and the London 2012 etc. The submitted bid went through the final stages and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came to London.

The IOC had concerns about London’s bid, compared to Paris, where the infrastructure i.e. an Olympic stadium and better transport system were already in place but in need of modernisation. There was no such infrastructure in London and the lands for staging the Olympics were not entirely in public ownership. Thelma’s presentation as part of the LDA team, her thorough knowledge of planning, property and Compulsory Purchase Acquisition law and procedures was to prove invaluable as it persuaded the IOC that the problems could be overcome. Unbeknown to her at the time of the presentation, two members of the IOC were lawyers.

Thelma also helped negotiate arrangements for the LDA to acquire an interest in CrystalPalacePark a vital foundation to London’s winning the Olympic bid so dramatically on the 6th July 2005, beating the favourite Paris. For Thelma that day was an ecstatically happy one bringing all the hard work to fruition and feeling justified about her strong conviction that London can beat Paris. Thelma also felt proud that her contribution would go towards making lasting benefits to the people of London but particularly to local communities of the five Olympic boroughs thus realising her dream of using her legal training to help the ordinary man in a positive way.

Tragically, the day after London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics, Thelma was injured in the July 7th 2006 London Underground bombing at Aldgate. She suffered extensive and terrible injuries. She lost the lower part of one of her legs, had extensive surgeries and was unable to return to work until May 2006.  She has had to learn to walk again and has made amazing recovery which she attributed to her beloved eight year old son and her unquenching desire to ensure that the London Olympics of 2012 deliver a lasting legacy that London can be very proud of. Thelma is back in full force working on the Olympics in particular on the land assembly, major contracts relating to the tunnelling of power lines, remediation and demolition of land and building in the Olympic park and legacy issues.

Below is our interview with Thelma:

BLD: Please explain your involvement in London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics?

TS: It started in early 2002 when the LDA was asked by the Mayor of London to consider how it could assist supporting his proposal to bid for London staging 2012. I had to advise the agency on whether and how its activities could be done within its statutory powers under the Regional Development Agency 1998 and how it could contribute to its vision for regenerating the Lower Lee/Thames gateway area. Once approval was obtained from Government to bid then I got involved in establishing London 2012 the bidding company, the bidding application process and presentation of the bid at the IOC in November 2004


BLD: Have you been back on the London Underground since the 7th July 2005 bombing?

TS: Yes I went to Aldgate on the 7th July 2006 which was where I sustained my injuries.


BLD: How has the devastating bombing the day after the successful 2012 Olympics bid affected you personally and professionally?

TS: That’s an interesting question. Personally I am now more reflective, I appreciate everything and everyone more than I use to because I now believe life is short and one never knows what is around the corner. I could die tomorrow and I do not want to have any regrets. Professionally I think I am more determined to make a contribution to the lives of people and add value to whatever I do. I don’t believe or want anyone to be under any misconception that what has happened to me has affected my ability or commitment to do my job and making a contribution to society in a positive way. When I die I want to be remembered as someone who did the least harm.


BLD: If you were to choose a profession other than law, what would it be and why?

TS: I decided to become a lawyer at the age of 7. I never thought of anything else until I had to complete my UCCA form for university. If I had to choose prior to my accident it would be medicine. Now I would want to be a prosthesis working with children amputees.


BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?

TS: My father used to say to me that I must always  persevere no matter what the obstacles were and keep on saying “I will I will” until I achieved my goals.



BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?

TS: I was advised by the Career Advice to give up my idea of being a lawyer because it is difficult to become a lawyer as a black person and as I do not come from a rich family either I should forget about the Bar and look into nursing or teaching. I became even more determined to prove her wrong and I did!


BLD: What is the best career advice you will give to other lawyers and budding lawyers?

TS: The same, never give up or lose focus of your goal, particularly because it is much harder now to obtain training contracts, Pupillage or even a job after training generally, especially for ethnic minorities.


BLD: The person you most admire (dead or alive)?

TS: Nelson Mandela because of his determination, courage and forgiving nature.



BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).

TS: I would give two. One was being asked to appear before the IOC as part of the LDA team and the second was the announcement of the 2012 bid for staging the Olympics. I felt privileged to have made a contribution as a lawyer to something that will make lasting changes to London, the UK and the lives of people particularly in such a poor part of our city.


BLD: What was your worst case/worst moment as a lawyer?

TS: Having to give evidence in an employment tribunal in a matter affecting one of my staff and having to apply for bail for an alleged rapist as a young barrister


BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?

TS: One that springs to mind was successfully appealing  against a deportation order of a young homeless single parent Ethiopian girl of 18 who had been brought over to the UK as a maid but was then thrown out by her employer a year later when they found out she was pregnant. She was reported to the home office by a Local Authority she went to for help! It was a sad case but justice was done when she was allowed to stay.

In terms of projects as a lawyer it is obviously the Olympics which was a once in a life time opportunity and privilege!


BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?

TS: I am passionate about fairness and justice for all, my work and my family.


BLD: What are your dislikes?

TS:   Arrogant people who think they know everything and are always right.


BLD: Any professional regrets?

TS: I do not believe in regrets but learning and moving on!


BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?

TS: End discrimination in all its forms.


BLD: How do you cope with the media attention and find the time to do so much and have time for family life?

TS: I am not one for publicity. I prefer to keep a low profile and get on with it. I think my reputation for hard work commitment and determination should speak for itself. So I have a good Communications and Media Team in the office who deals with the media. Apart from this interview I have only done one interview by the BBC which was aired on the 6 and 7 July and on their website. In relation to time for my family, I have to admit that I have always been a workaholic, but now I take the view that life is short and it is therefore important to spend quality time with my family. So although I still start work at 7.30 am I no longer stay very late everyday. I engage in family activities during weekends and we also go away on holidays to spend quality time together.


BLD: Do tell us about your family life.

TS: I am very fortunate and have been blessed to have a wonderful husband and son. We do things together at weekends like walking, swimming, trampolining and horse riding and also holiday together. I also have a very large extended family and circle of friends including church members who have all supported me particularly since the event of July 7th 2005. For all of that and for sparing my life, I give thanks to God!