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Lubna Shuja, President of The Law Society of England and Wales, reflects on her career so far. Legal Women is delighted to celebrate that in 2022, Lubna will be the first President of Asian heritage and only the seventh female President since The Law Society's inaugural year in 1825.
At school, being a lawyer was never something I thought about. I didn't know any lawyers and did not think someone, from a working-class background like me, could have any chance of a legal career. I managed to get decent A level grades and a school friend then suggested I should do a Law degree as it would offer good career options. I could hardly contain my excitement when I managed to get a place at university studying Law.
Once I started my Law degree, I enjoyed reading about cases and was fascinated by how the law applied to daily life. Watching LA Law while studying cemented it for me! I knew I wanted to be a litigation solicitor as it combined the excitement of going to court with helping clients to obtain justice.
Getting a training contract was a challenge. After sending off over 100 application forms, I was called for an interview with a West End firm in London. Fortunately, they offered me articles (a training contract) and my legal career was launched.
I have always been keen to give something back and help those who might struggle to access legal services. During my articles I worked voluntarily at a Law Centre for one evening a week, helping vulnerable members of the community who could not afford to pay for legal advice. After I qualified, I represented many Legal Aid clients and volunteered for monthly advice sessions at the local Citizens Advice Bureau. It is particularly satisfying knowing that you have made a positive difference to someone's life, when they might not otherwise have benefitted from any help.
When I started my training contract there were only 709 Black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors. I don't remember being conscious of not seeing others that looked like me. I just got on with the job. Now there are over 20,000 Black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors, and over half of the profession are women. It is wonderful to see such progress but much more still needs to be done. There are not enough women in senior legal positions and even fewer who are Black, Asian or minority ethnic.
We didn't have email when I started working. Letters were sent by post and, if very urgent, by fax. I think emails have now replaced not only letters but also phone calls which might otherwise be made. It is difficult to really switch off because you pretty much carry your work around on your mobile. That makes it even more important to manage client expectations and your own work/life balance (something I still feel like I'm learning!).
Helping clients to achieve satisfactory results led to a natural progression to qualify as a Mediator. Mediation was a relatively new concept when I decided to train, so there were not many of us around. I was keen to assist clients not only with saving costs, but also with taking control of their cases and avoiding the uncertainty of court decisions. I did my training with the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR). I have always been interested in people, their stories and finding out how disputes have arisen. Human nature never ceases to amaze me and unearthing the other side to a story is nearly always a revelation.
I decided to set up my own legal practice 13 years ago. Setting up your own firm is challenging and can be quite lonely. Joining the Solicitor Sole Practitioners Group (SPG) was invaluable as it allowed me to meet other sole practitioners and obtain advice/support from likeminded individuals. I became the Chair of SPG in 2012 and soon after in 2013, I was elected to be the Law Society Council Member representing the interests of sole practitioners.
My career has changed over the years. I started as a traditional high street solicitor dealing with various areas of law but have now become a specialist in professional regulation. I work with various professional regulators and Chair a number of disciplinary and Fitness to Practise Committees. My role is to ensure the public is protected, that professional standards are maintained and to act in the public interest.
The Law Society of England and Wales represents over 200,000 solicitors. Joining the Law Society Council has been an incredibly rewarding role. For three years, I have been a member of the Law Society Board and the Chair of the Law Society's Membership and Communications Committee. My role has been to ensure the Law Society effectively supports, promotes and represents solicitors across the profession. This is done in a variety of different ways which include providing guidance, services and resources to members, advocating the views of the profession with internal and external stakeholders, campaigning and lobbying the government and other bodies on policy and regulatory issues which impact on solicitors, acting to protect the public interest, as well as setting the budget, business plan and strategic direction of the Law Society.
There are many ways to get involved with the Law Society. Options include being elected to the Law Society Council to represent a region, a practice area or a characteristic, or alternatively joining a Law Society expert policy Committee.
I was elected to Deputy Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales in 2020 and became Vice President in 2021. Although the Law Society was founded in 1825, I am due to become the first Asian and only the 7th female President in 2022. There is a saying that you can't be what you can't see. Well, I hope to prove that you can be what you can't see. Whilst I may be the first Asian President of the Law Society, I sincerely hope I will not be the last.
My advice to others is to challenge yourself and step outside your comfort zone. Take every opportunity that presents itself, as you never know where it may lead. Keep an open mind about your career path as you may find success in unexpected places. Block out the negative voices and take a leap of faith. After all, what have you got to lose?