Sitting down with Lubna Shuja, the Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I immediately feel like I am chatting to an old friend. Within minutes, we’ve already agreed that Lubna will make her way to Edinburgh for an in-person visit once restrictions have eased.
Even with Lubna’s impressive catalogue of experience, she radiates humbleness and is easy to speak to. She has worked hard at her legal career, coming from a working-class background to her current prominent position. But Lubna didn’t always dream of a career in law. “Law was never something I considered to be quite honest with you!” She reminisces that there were no role-models or lawyers to look up to, so she hadn’t had much exposure to the legal industry.
Lubna’s family were incredibly supportive of her education. Her parents had emphasised that education and financial independence were important. So, after achieving her A-levels, gaining better grades than her teachers expected, Lubna had planned to study a degree in English. “I figured I would do an English degree as that was what I enjoyed.” It was also a sector her two cousins had forged successful careers in as journalists, people she could look up to as role models.
But a school-friend suggested law. Lubna agreed “If you get a law degree...it’s actually quite a good basis for all sorts of things”.
Starting her university course, Lubna loved her first insights into law, rules and regulations. She enjoyed seeing how her learning applied to other parts of life, such as older cases setting precedent for what happens now.
Lubna continued her learning outside of the classroom, too. Gaining summer work experience with a local firm was invaluable to her education, and she feels fortunate to have had that opportunity. It started as a two-week placement, but Lubna regularly returned for several summers after.
Throughout our conversation, it is clear to me that Lubna enjoyed her learning. And even more prominent is her determination to pass on encouragement and guidance to future lawyers and students.
Her first snippet of advice to young students coming into the profession is to try and get work experience, in all forms. “You don’t just have to do work experience at a solicitor’s firm”. Many legal professionals work in-house for companies or local councils. But students often forget about these options when searching for work experience. Lubna rightly states that gaining work experience at in-house legal departments or local authorities “shows you’ve got commitment; that you’re really interested and want to learn and find out more about the area”
We both agree that in-house departmental or local authority work experience may give you more experience than working for a large firm.. We discuss the varied experience that can be gained at a local authority, for example planning, environmental or even neighbour disputes.
Our conversation digresses from work experience to university funding. “I was also very lucky that when I applied to do my law degree, student grants were available”, Lubna explains “I don’t think I could have gone into higher education (without the grant)”.
After finishing her law degree, applying for a Training Contract (previously known as Articles) was Lubna’s first big challenge. Lubna found an articles placement at a firm in the West End of London, but not without a tiresome slug of searching. “I did have to send off...well over a hundred applications before I got an interview”. She continues, emphasising it’s a struggle for many. “It’s hard getting to interviews; it’s hard getting your foot in the door”.
Much like her university time, Lubna continued her training outside of work. Once a week, she would spend an evening volunteering at the Camden Law Centre. “It exposed me to a different type of client”, she explains. Trainee solicitors will often only see private, fee-paying clients, particularly in a West End firm such as where Lubna was working. During her volunteering, she was encountering “people that had no money and nowhere else to turn...at a stage where they desperately needed someone to point them in the right direction”. Lubna emphasises that “it gave me that balance” and says she would recommend to any lawyers that even once they have work, to “always try and give back to the community”. She offers this advice from a philanthropic point of view as well as an excellent opportunity for experience and skill building. When volunteering, Lubna would have many opportunities to sit in client meetings with the solicitors. In my mind this is the main appeal of law, you never stop learning.
Lubna offers other suggestions to gain experience, for example observing court proceedings. Indeed, she explains that during the pandemic many students could benefit from joining virtual court hearings without the inconvenience of travel or indeed other barriers such as travel costs or caring responsibilities. Lubna recommends contacting a local court and asking to watch a hearing as a member of the public. “It gives you exposure...and experience”. She recommends speaking to court officials and to ask to see court lists, to find cases of interest.
Discussing the experience to be gained from watching an actual court hearing, we both laugh at the difference between real courtrooms and that which we see on TV, be it Suits or LA Law, as Lubna fondly remembers from her student days.
The discussion of legal dramas brings up an important topic around representation and exposure. TV dramas may have their creative appeal, but “it’s all part of what you’re exposed to, isn’t it?” Lubna says. She shares with me that there were only 709 solicitors in England and Wales who were of a Black, Asian, or minority ethnic background during her time as a trainee. “I never thought about it (at the time)...but I never saw anyone who looked like me.”
In 2018, that statistic was sitting at 20,000, showing the progress in representation over recent years. Despite this rise, when I ask Lubna her thoughts on how the figures sit in senior decision-making roles, it is clear there is still a way to go.
“Poor, unfortunately,” Lubna answers, continuing that it is evident solicitors from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds are not progressing well or being promoted as quickly as their white counterparts. Lubna is motivated by this topic, informing me about some of the stark statistics around senior-level legal roles. In larger firms with 80+ partners, only 8% of those partners are of a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, despite a quarter of all solicitors pertaining to this demographic. “It doesn’t match the numbers coming into the profession”.
Lubna also notes that ethnic minority solicitors are more likely to be sole practitioners. We both agree that it would be interesting to know if there is a correlation between not progressing in a firm and leaving to become a sole practitioner.
Lubna, thankfully, has had a far more positive experience within the profession. After finishing her training in London, Lubna moved back to her home city of Bradford, and joined a high street practice where she was the only Asian female solicitor. After five years, she was promoted to Head of Litigation and, after eight years, became a partner in that firm. She stayed with the firm for around 13 years before becoming a sole practitioner.
Lubna enjoyed her experience in progressing through the traditional legal career path, sharing, “My experience was quite positive, and I had supportive colleagues”. Her move to becoming a sole practitioner was a personal and lifestyle choice for Lubna. Describing the difference between working for a firm and being a sole practitioner, she says, “working for yourself you are much more in control...of your destiny and your time”. While this is all true, Lubna smiles and admits that it wasn’t the perfect work-life balance she expected, and it was tough work!
Bonding over our experience of working for ourselves, we discuss why it can be so hard at times. Realistically, a sole practitioner is working in all departments, not just legal. You are the marketing, accounts and admin department, all rolled into one. Naturally, you also work hard towards achieving your dream, or as Lubna likes to put it, your destiny.
Lubna has not given up practising law, though. On top of her Vice President role, she is still a sole practitioner and has handled cases in varied sectors from litigation to conveyancing. As if that hadn’t impressed me already, Lubna announces she is also a mediator and was a part-time Deputy Clerk with the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. “My practice has evolved over the years,” Lubna says, noting that it helps to have no other solicitors working for her. “It’s allowed me to do other things without having to worry about supervising others in the practice” which has suited her personal circumstances.
I ask what her advice would be for other ethnic minority women wanting to set up on their own. Without hesitation, she exclaims, “Go for it! Just go for it”. Lubna adds that “It’s challenging...particularly in terms of work-life balance”. She advises that the first few years were particularly difficult, especially with a family, and in terms of finances. “You work out where you want to go with your career and how you want to do it”.
Lubna is an inspiration for women and ethnic minorities entering and progressing through the legal sector. Impressively, she is not done yet. “All going well, I’ll be the first Asian President of the Law Society next year.”
In the almost 200 years since the Law Society of England and Wales was founded in 1825, there have only been five female presidents. The Law Society of Scotland has similar statistics. I recently interviewed Amanda Miller, the 5th - and current - female president.
Thinking ahead, we start to talk about what the future holds for representation and diversity in the legal profession. I always hear, ‘We just need to wait a little longer; we need more time for it to filter through’ and wonder what Lubna’s thoughts are on this. She reflects on her election to become Deputy Vice President. “I had no idea if I would get it or not; I just thought I’d try. I think it’s actually a really good reflection on my colleagues and members of my profession that they did vote me in, so I see that as an encouraging sign”. Lubna believes “progress is happening - it’s slow, and we’d like it to happen faster - but it is happening”. She can see massive changes from the days where she never thought an individual of an ethnic minority would hold a position of President and positively states, “I hope I’m not the last.”
“Challenge yourself” is Lubna’s final piece of advice. Going for something she never thought she would get and being successful has shown Lubna what she is capable of. We compare our own career struggles and share our experience of holding ourselves back. Thinking of the next generation of legal professionals, Lubna wishes to encourage them, “Don’t think you can’t be what you can’t see - you can, you just need to have real determination”, adding, “if an opportunity presents itself, you should try and take it because you never know where it will take you.”
Lubna’s passion for encouraging future lawyers radiates in her words. Speaking of career progression, she mentions the launch of the Women in Law Pledge by the Law Society of England and Wales, which is aimed at encouraging more diversity within the profession. Specifically, the pledge encourages firms to commit to supporting women progressing to senior roles and continuing that support when they are there. Remote working becoming more commonplace has affected this, too. Firms are beginning to appreciate staff and colleagues can work well while working from home and having a better work life balance. Lubna speaks positively of the future and hopes that with more organisations offering support to female professionals, the future of women in leadership is looking bright.
Rounding off our conversation, I ask Lubna what her personal mission has been in her current role and what she hopes the legal profession to look like in 10 years. “Modern, diverse and inclusive” is her answer to both. “With the right mindset, you really can go beyond what you think you can.”
Lubna Shuja is the Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales. She will become the first Asian President in October 2022.
She has been a Law Society Council member since 2013 and is the chair of the Law Society’s Membership and Communications Committee as well as a member of the Law Society Board.
Lubna is a solicitor with her own practice, Legal Swan Solicitors, in Birmingham. She specialises in professional discipline and regulation. She is also a mediator.
She works with a number of different professional regulators as Chair of their Disciplinary/Fitness to Practise/Investigations/Conduct and Competence Committees. Lubna was also a Deputy Clerk at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for over 13 years.