A Long Island Kid in Queen Elizabeth's Court
How Thomas Foley came to be both a lawyer in New York and a solicitor in London
Published in 2021 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
By Jessica Glynn on September 30, 2021
Thomas Foley’s dialect confuses people almost as much as his professional trajectory.
He pronounces coffee like the Long Island native he is even though he’s more likely to talk about afternoon tea. And when asked what it was like to move to London and take a position no U.S. citizen had ever held—judicial clerk and later lawyer to the Court of Appeal for England and Wales—this is his response:
“Crikey, I was terrified. … I can’t tell you that many people from my law school advised me to do it.”
Today, for taking that road less traveled, Foley is a dual-qualified attorney and solicitor, representing corporate, individual and governmental organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. When there’s no pandemic, he splits time between the New York and London offices of the firm he co-founded, SavicFoley, drawing on lessons learned from 10 years working for the U.K. government on investigations as high-profile as the inquests into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. Those lessons are as much about staying cool under press scrutiny, adapting to unknowns, and understanding the value of relationships as they are about the law.
“You’re given an opportunity, you take advantage, you do well, you make relationships and it leads to other opportunities. Then start that process again,” he says.
Foley was a college/law school rugby player who dreamed of living an international life—especially after studying abroad in London and completing an externship with the Crown Prosecution Service. In his third year of law school, his student note adviser, a judge in Australia, told him he knew someone who might help him pursue that dream.
The friend turned out to be Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the highest-ranking female judge in the U.K. and the head of the Family Division. Emails were exchanged about becoming a judicial assistant—a cross between a judicial clerk and staff attorney—but no U.S. citizen had done that before, and sorting out the immigration details took a while. When time seemed to be running out, Foley spent his rent money on a plane ticket to London to plead his case in person. It worked.
After graduation, Foley moved to London and found himself in awe of the pomp and circumstance of his surroundings—spending his days at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, an 1866 Victorian Gothic castle, and living in Notting Hill because he didn’t know any other area. (It was much more expensive than depicted in the movie, he says, especially the council tax he didn’t realize he had to pay because he wasn’t on a council; his friends teased him for that one.) He spent his Sundays reading up on British common law.
“I showed up my first day in the Court of Appeal,” he remembers, “and it’s all English law and ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady.’ I was this Long Island kid, but I just tried to work hard and be respectful.”
The position was supposed to last six months, but it was extended another six months, and then he was asked to stay on to manage family applications and appeals—another first for a U.S. citizen. He was constantly amazed by the people he worked for, the prominent judges’ graciousness and the work he got to do—like writing a research paper on child relocation and traveling to a conference in The Hague.
He became a qualified solicitor around the time that Butler-Sloss came out of retirement to act as coroner on the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Fayed. Every time a British national dies abroad, there’s an inquest, but this one had been on hold for a decade awaiting proceedings in France. Foley acted in a legal assistant role for Sloss’ team, which transformed into a liaison role between the coroner’s team and the Metropolitan Police, with duties including managing evidence and electronic documents.
“It was the biggest thing in the legal world going on at the time,” he says. “There was a huge amount of responsibility attached to it—that it be done thoroughly and properly and with the utmost respect to the subjects of the investigation and their families. There’s nothing really comparable to it, before or after.”
After a brief stint at a Connecticut matrimonial firm, Foley returned to the U.K. when he was invited to join the government team investigating allegations of human rights abuses by British soldiers in Iraq.
Baha Mousa was a 26-year-old Iraqi hotel receptionist who died with 93 injuries after being hooded and assaulted while in British custody in 2003. For 2 ½ years, Foley reviewed and managed evidence in that inquiry, then moved into a more investigative role for the inquiry into the death of 19-year-old Hamid Al-Sweady and abuse of Iraqi captives after the 2004 firefight known as the Battle of Danny Boy. Foley became an American with U.K. security clearance, locating and interviewing witnesses involved in the firefight, as well as drafting protective-measures applications to keep their identities anonymous. The culminating Al-Sweady Inquiry report to Parliament cited instances of ill treatment of detainees, such as food and sleep deprivation, but concluded that the most serious claims of torture and abuse were without foundation; the Baha Mousa report condemned a “corporate failure” of the Ministry of Defense regarding the use of interrogation methods, like hooding and stress positions, that had been banned for more than 30 years.
When the hearings were underway, Foley, 10 years into his career, decided to return to New York. Coming home, though, turned out to be a bigger culture shock than leaving.
“I found I had become a very Anglified practitioner,” he says, which included using the passive voice in legal submissions. But he decided to own it. “I have not tried to alter my approach very much because it’s the kind of practitioner I want to be. I watched the top judges and barristers in the U.K. on a daily basis in the Court of Appeal. I was not going to be broken down and built back up as a street-fighting New York lawyer.”
In 2016, Foley found a niche as partner at Shipkevich PLLC, advising clients in complex litigation involving international elements. Then in March 2021, he and colleague Stefan Savic branched off to create SavicFoley, with lawyers in the financial hubs of New York, London and Zurich.
“It’s been great. It’s been surreal. It has been a rewarding culmination of a road less traveled,” he says.
UK v. US
Asked about the differences in the two legal systems, Foley points to British formality and ceremony, including barristers wearing wigs and robes, referring to opponents as “learned friend,” and bowing before and after appearances.
“I had to consciously stop myself from bowing in front of the bench when I was in New York,” Foley says.
The systems themselves have major structural differences. The U.K. is not a federal system and has no multitiered state system nor a written constitution. “In the U.K., you’re not very far removed from the highest court in the land,” he says. “The idea of getting to the Supreme Court in the U.S. feels insurmountable, but in England it doesn’t.”
Like his path and practice, Foley’s charitable work has a global theme. He serves as director and board member for the Batey Rehab Project in the Dominican Republic, which assists and empowers victims of human trafficking and domestic violence; and he also volunteers for Paving the Way Foundation to raise awareness about human trafficking. “Human trafficking is an incredibly preventable problem that requires truly grassroots efforts,” he says. “I’m not sure how many people appreciate how wide scale it is.”
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