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A conversation with...Amanda Millar

I’m nervous about this interview. When I think of Amanda I think of a confident, outspoken, independent, strong-minded lawyer, the type you would not want to get on the wrong side of. The sort of lawyer I want to be.

As we chat, I realise we have so much in common. You certainly wouldn’t think it by looking at us. We couldn’t be more different. Her pale complexion against that vibrant red hair. My brown skin against dark, glossy hair. But more importantly, it’s our readiness to fight against conformity that binds us together. For Amanda, it seems to come so easy. Admittedly, for me it’s come much later in my career.

But like many of us, Amanda’s journey into law was not plain-sailing and its stories such as these that she encourages to be told.

Amanda’s mother to all intents and purposes left school at 14. She was ambitious for her only child and through her strong work ethic built an expectation that Amanda would work hard, go to university and embark on a career. However, university life took an unexpected turn. Amanda was involved in a hit and run after her first year of studying the law degree. Her academic future was uncertain. She returned to university for her second year not knowing what she could or could not do. She modestly states that she made it through university, passed the exams, got her qualifications and that it was all simply a ‘means to an end.’ But there is so much more to Amanda than that.

For Amanda, is a trailblazer. Not only the first open member of the LGBT+ community to become President of the Law Society of Scotland but she was also the first in the profession to be accredited as a specialist in mental health law, and the first to hold dual accreditation in both mental health law and incapacity and mental disability law. Areas that she is very passionate about.

“In the early part of my Presidency I had people say to me that this (the presidency) would be the biggest challenge in my life, but I don’t see it that way. It’s the next big opportunity. I’ve attracted some criticism, but I make no apology for having conversations and doing a lot of promotion around diversity and inclusion. I have also talked at length about mental well-being, about legal aid and about issues around the rule of law.”

In her 2018 mission statement Amanda spoke about protecting and promoting the rule of law, but never did she imagine having to be answerable for the recent actions of our Government to the international legal community.

“At some level its embarrassing, attending an international bar conference and it’s the behaviour of your country, about something so fundamentally important that’s being criticised.”

Amanda explains that one upside of the pandemic, embracing virtual working practises, is the amount of ground she has managed to cover and the number of interesting people she has met over a relatively short period. Amanda had managed to meet with every Council constituency in Scotland and the England and Wales constituency by the end of October last year, no easy feat and in the past something that is rarely accomplished. She pays tribute to her colleagues and the Society overall, at how efficiently they have embraced the ‘new norm’ of working whilst ensuring services to stakeholders went as undisrupted as possible.

The pandemic has of course had dire consequences for many businesses, and law firms are no exception. 90% of firms surveyed by the Law Society in April/May last year reported a downturn in new business, with the majority also reporting reduced turnover and cashflow. There has been some improvement, with more recent results, which in December indicated that while workloads for Scottish legal firms has increased, turnover has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

“The pandemic is horrible, and consequences must never be underestimated but I have real concerns that if we’re not careful about other issues, the long-term consequences to the wider society will be much greater.” Amanda explains.

Amanda includes advancing diversity and inclusion, amongst the ‘other issues’.

“I’m aware that some feel I’m too concerned about diversity and inclusivity and that we need to deal with making businesses survive the pandemic. That is true but the way businesses will survive will be by being as inclusive as possible, by being as supportive of staff as possible, by having challenging conversations. That is how we will build loyalty, inclusivity, get best value and hopefully achieve sustainability. “

I can understand Amanda’s point of view. While it is generally accepted that diversity and inclusion is good for business, the economic consequences of the pandemic have hit business hard, and consequently, for some businesses now is not the right time to embrace inclusive practises. However, it remains critical. It gives us ways to recruit, welcome and include people regardless of socioeconomic background, neurodiversity, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion etc. If done well, it may prove to be part of a business’s survival kit in its recovery from the pandemic and essential future succession planning. But where do we start? For many in the Scottish legal sector, from the beginning with challenging conversations, something Amanda has learned to embrace.

“As time has gone on, I’ve become less concerned about it. There are lots of elements of my life that others will say ‘I don’t know why you need to talk about that’. I’ve gone through a range of experiences that have got me to the point where I accept that my life is my life and the way I see it, is for me to portray. I also feel that if people on the outside see it differently, they are entitled to their opinion, but they are not necessarily entitled to a higher level of regard from me. Afterall, they don’t necessarily know what got me from A to B to C. Over the years I have paused and sometimes even stopped having particular conversations because I was concerned how others might perceive it or react to it. Not so much now.”

It’s both refreshing and encouraging to hear this from the President of the Law Society, after all if we wish to educate and reform the profession, what better ally to have and what better way to start?

We speak about why conversations that ought to be simple and engaging, can often be awkward and closed off. Why is it that we clam up when the conversation turns to equality, diversity, gender, race and sexual orientation? What’s happened to our ‘natural curiosity’ as Amanda puts it.

“It’s these types of things that irritate me because the open and inclusive conversations are actually easier to have instead of the ‘I feel uncomfortable’ and in doing so making the conversation even more difficult than it needs to be”.

But such conversations don’t come easily. Those from diverse backgrounds, me included, are eager to fit in and long to be accepted. Our early experiences at school and university have a lot to do with that. Barriers are formed that are difficult to overcome. Add to the mix the feeling of inferiority and looking out of place, you can then imagine why, what could otherwise be an innocuous question, such as ‘where do you come from’? can be perceived as insensitive if not offensive. Having relatable role models with whom to have open and inclusive conversations can be a God send, which brings me to the question of why Amanda decided to stand for election.

She explains how she joined the Law Society’s Council back in 2009 and that like many that have gone before her, she was curious about what went on in the Society and whether they really understood the professionals they looked to both represent and regulate.

“I thought how much longer do I want to do this for? What more can I offer? Have I something to contribute? Could I potentially make a difference? So, I decided to stand for election. I also thought if it’s not going to be me, who will it be? And I felt that if I had something to say and do, say and do it. I stood for election and won.”

These are questions I’ve recently asked myself. Thankfully, Amanda’s not shy to say and do things, because they are the right things to say and do, such as fighting for an increase in legal aid rates. This is no easy feat considering the years of cutbacks which have plagued the profession and for my own experience, deterred young lawyers from practising criminal defence work and firms from doing civil legal aid work.

“I am pleased to see the work of the legal aid sector of the profession recognised by Scottish Government resulting in a package of support which is a step towards resolving a generation of underfunding of legal aid”. Amanda explains. I can sense her deep routed concern about this issue and suspect she won’t give up readily, on this nor the many other causes she feels so strongly about.

So, how does Amanda fit it all in? The President’s job is designed to work alongside a practitioner’s day-job. It is not designed to be a full-time role. The theory behind this is to encourage a wider pool of applicants. Afterall, not many firms are likely to agree to a practitioner taking a full year out of practise and inevitably we’d be left with a small pool of candidates nearing retirement. Amanda does specialist independent reporting and Curator ad Litem work alongside her role as President and volunteer work with organisations like the Institute of Directors, Scotland. “The Executive team at the Law Society are a great support, understanding the other commitments and I am constantly updating my diary”.

So, what would Amanda change about the role?

“The Society is open to the role being more inclusive. I am the first open member of the LGBT+ community. I’m also only the 5th female President, despite the fact that throughout my career more women than men are entering the profession. As a profession we still have firsts to meet. We still have many ceilings to burst through. We need to get to the point were our skills and talent get us to where we deserve to be regardless of background, gender, colour of skin, sexual orientation, disability etc”

I ask whether by this she includes a person of colour holding the position? She agrees, points out that there are many worthy candidates within the Society’s Council therefore she would predict this possibility in the not-too-distant future. We speak about the many benefits that would bring, most importantly inclusivity and visibility of relatable role models for aspiring solicitors.

Turning to what advice she would give to aspiring solicitors:

“Be yourself. Be respectful and aware of yourself and your skills and those of others and their skills. Your opportunities to deliver will be huge if you’re not having fights within yourself about ‘what do I say and how do I fit in?’.

And finally, what advice would she give to the profession?

“Try not to recruit in your own image. When succession planning this may look comfortable, but it isn’t how your firm is going to move forward. The firms that have openness of mind and a modern understanding in relation to thought processes, they are the ones that will thrive.”

Given that one of the Society’s main aims, and business leaders in general are focused on sustainability for coming out of the pandemic, such advice is not only crucial but equally apt.

Amanda’s Biography:

Amanda Millar is a Scottish solicitor of long-standing who has committed her career to giving a voice to the under-represented. Admitted to the roll of Scottish solicitors in 1998 she has gone on to become the first solicitor in Scotland accredited by the Law Society in both Mental Health Law and Incapacity & Mental Disability Law. She is a keen advocate for the profession, determined to ensure that the value of a diverse membership is promoted and shared, and that the circumstances which allow diversity to thrive are created, supported and maintained across the legal sector. Not afraid to ask the questions others won’t, Amanda continues to bring this talent to bear to speak up for the profession and to ensure that the Law Society continues to fill its duties to both the membership and the public interest. She was the first non-exec Chair of Changing the Chemistry an organisation that seeks to improve diversity on Boards across all sectors. She is the Co-Chair of IoD Scotland’s D&I working Group. She has experience of change management in the private and third sectors as well as a breadth of experience across law, health and social care delivery.

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