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A Conversation with ....Iain Smith

“It’s been well over 30 years since I started University in Edinburgh. Tonight, I am nervous to go back, in many ways but also chuffed that I get this opportunity to speak to the next generation of lawyers. I’ll put some extra letters after my name … #POT #BAM I smile when I read this recent tweet from Iain. It’s typical, unfiltered, unpretentious Iain. These are the characteristics which make him not only an award-winning lawyer but a champion of adversity and justice.

For Iain’s not your typical pale, stale, male lawyer destined to rise up the ranks in the Scottish legal establishment. Iain’s a down to earth, unassuming, everyday type of a guy. He didn’t go to a private school. He didn’t come from a family of solicitors. And he didn’t become a solicitor to earn lots of money. So why did Iain decide to study law?

“My dad was a policeman and I enjoyed watching crime dramas unfold, so I always wanted to be a criminal lawyer. In fourth year at school, following a conversation with my careers advisor where I explained I would like to go into law, it was suggested at best I could be a paralegal as I would never be able to be a lawyer. I decided to prove my career advisor wrong.” So much of what Iain shares resonates with me. Like me Iain went to a school in a socio-economically disadvantaged area, where the emphasis was getting youngsters into work as opposed to university.

But studying didn’t come easy to Iain and it was many years later he found out why.

“At school I performed better in maths and science. I struggled to read. It was only 8 years ago that I discovered I was dyslexic”. He tells me how his then girlfriend, now wife, Ishbel would help him with his essay writing and assessments and its only when they went to get their son tested that she suggested Iain may also be dyslexic.

“I’d stay in the library until 10pm just to manage to read through the books. In hindsight it would have been easier to know that I had dyslexia at that stage. When you’re dyslexic reading for pleasure isn’t an option. I would start reading and after 3 pages be asleep. However, at University there’s no option but to read and it’s the same with court and work. With the internet, podcasts and audiobooks, there’s now many different mediums for getting information”.

However, Iain believes that his dyslexia has helped him in his career and in his most recent endeavours for fairer, smarter justice.

I’ve never lost a jury trial at sheriff court level and I put that down to thinking differently due to my dyslexic brain. I don’t see things in a linear path which is a dyslexic advantage of teaching the brain to read and write differently. I’m often looking 5 or 6 questions ahead and taking visual cues from the witness. I’ve also spent the last 3 years questioning what others having been doing in respect of the criminal justice system, particularly judges and asking judges about being kind and treating people differently”.

Iain is referring to his campaign to raise awareness about adverse childhood experiences (ACE) the science behind it, and most importantly how decision makers use the science to make smarter, fairer choices when dealing with those who have suffered from it.

“It became apparent to me that those young people that float seamlessly out of the care system into the justice system and even more seamlessly into the prison system, they go past like ghosts and nobody notices them.”

Iain explains that events, such as violence, addiction, sexual abuse and neglect, which cause children stress, fear and loss, then lead to long term biological consequences and health problems in adulthood. For him it is imperative to understand ACE and the impact it has on human biology, including the growth of neural pathways in the brain and the development of the body’s self-regulatory system.

I was labouring under the misperception that my clients choose to take drugs, choose to drink to excess, not bothered about why they got angry but that they were just angry. What I’ve now realised, with understanding about the impact of trauma, is that choice is not straight forward. The science and information I gained changed me and made me realise that the bad things that happen to you as a child impact you as an adult and biologically changes your brain.”

It is Iain’s passion and endeavours to not only raise awareness of the impact of childhood trauma but to educate others, that led to him being awarded the Scottish Legal Awards Lawyer of the year 2020. So how did it feel to gain this recognition?

“Surprising and slightly surreal. Luckily with covid no one really noticed it and I haven’t really advertised it. My friend actually nominated me, said I wouldn’t win but that it would raise awareness for the work I was doing and would hopefully open further doors. In 2019 I was the runner up and then last year the winner, which was great. But even better, is the doors it has opened, the last few weeks have been extremely busy in a really positive way.”

Busy, in true ‘Smithy’ style, is a huge understatement. To list but a few of Iain’s recent ‘wins’ would include a full afternoon of trauma awareness at this year’s Law Society of Scotland Conference, an audience with the Scottish Sentencing Council, a meeting with the drugs minister and the Justice Secretary. I think he’s aiming to win lawyer of the year again this year!

The ‘daftness’ of the award is that I’m not the best lawyer and I’m not going to pretend that I am. But it has allowed me to do the very things my friend thought it would and he had the foresight to realise this. I now have a wee voice in the places that matter to bring about real change. I became a criminal lawyer to help people. I now feel I’m doing that.”

Helping and connecting people is what Iain does best ,and it’s how he and I re-connected after almost 18 years. He’s surprised when I remind him that our paths first crossed when I was a trainee PF Depute and that even at that point, I could sense his compassion for his clients. Despite us being on opposite sides of the criminal justice system, I admired him for what I saw as natural empathy, but he tells me that it’s taken him time to learn to do that.

I don’t detach myself as I once did. I try to be empathetic with clients. By being more detached you don’t listen quite as closely or as carefully”.

We then came onto discussing my endeavours, to improve diversity within the legal profession. I ask Iain what the legal profession in his constituency, West Lothian, looks like? Much to both our disappointment the criminal bar is regrettable a cliché of ‘pale, male and stale’. There are no female criminal defence solicitors let alone any person of colour. But there is hope with Iain explaining that there are 2 trainee female solicitors. His concern, however, is to hold onto them and not lose them to the Fiscal Service.

Sometimes I think that when woman come into the criminal bar, they change how they are in order to try to fit in. So that they can integrate with their male counterparts and because of that we lose them. I’m not saying they all do this. I don’t think I would find it particularly easy as a female walking into a common room that is male dominated. But things are changing, in our local court for example all the deputes are female except for the senior depute. The assistant prosecutor fiscal and prosecutor fiscal are also both female. So, in terms of proportion the fiscal service is better in terms of diversity”.

I then ask Iain what he would like the legal profession to look like in 10 years’ time.

“I would like us to get to a point where we are no longer having to talk about equality, where you no longer notice the colour of someone’s skin or their religion. I doubt that in 10 years’ time it will go away, which is sad. But it would be brilliant to see”.

It is sad but equally realistic. Change will take time and will need a concerted effort from us all. But what of the changes Iain wishes to see in respect of childhood trauma awareness?

“I’d like people in the justice system to be viewed compassionately and as people. There are things going on in the background which give me hope that this will happen. The Sentencing Council will be bringing out draft guidelines which will include recognising people under 25 as young people in the system with brain development still ongoing. These guidelines are also looking to help judges to take into account mental health and care experience but real they are talking about childhood trauma. While the guidelines are helpful, judges will also need training for this to work”.

Lastly, what piece of advice would Iain give to aspiring solicitor wishing to enter the Scottish Criminal bar?

Compassion. You’ve got to really want to help people and doing so in a compassionate way. It isn’t for everyone depending on your own experiences you may struggle being compassionate or don’t have space for it. But this is the main attribute of a criminal defence lawyer which can make the difference and may help you stand out”.

He’s right, it’s not for everyone but those who do choose to practise criminal defence work, seldom regret it. Add to this Iain’s recent success in gaining access to almost all the law schools in Scotland to give guest lectures on trauma and the impact on the justice system, means we may find a new compassionate breed of criminal defence lawyers in the not too distance future. Why is he doing this?

“I hope that such education will not only give students and the next generation of lawyers an understanding but that also our existing and future judges will be more empathetic and understanding of the real causes of offending”.

Iain’s Biography

Iain’s career as a solicitor started in 1993 and 5 years later, he formed Keegan Smith with Jim Keegan QC.

Iain specialises in Criminal Law and has a passion to create a fairer criminal justice system. He is the leading trauma informed lawyer in Scotland. He is a core group member of West Lothian Adverse Childhood Experiences Hub and a member of the charity Aid & Abet, who try to assist people get out of the cycle of offending.

Iain is the winner of Scottish Lawyer of the Year Legal Award 2020 and was runner up in the Herald Awards for Solicitor of the Year 2019.

Iain has published a number of articles, including:

Bad for business: Defence lawyer Iain Smith on cutting crime with compassion

Kindness in Court. Who Cares?

Revolutionary: ACEs Interrupters In the UK

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