While others were spending Valentine’s Day frantically searching for a last-minute card or overpriced flowers, I had the absolute delight of spending the afternoon catching up (virtually) with Safeena Rashid, Advocate.
We compare home offices and chat about working from home. Almost immediately, we’re discussing the various home offices some people have. I have to share the office space with my husband and granddaughter, with her “library corner” full of colourful children’s books. Safeena, on the other hand, is quick to admit she tactfully hides her washing before jumping on a Zoom call.
After a brief chit-chat swapping the latest details of our lockdown lives, I’m keen to learn where it all started for Safeena and how she entered the legal profession.
At school Safeena was heavily into science. She initially wanted to study medicine before deciding on a degree in Neuroscience. But then reality set in that she didn’t want to be in a lab her entire working life, so Safeena took a year out to work and to figure out what she wanted to do. She eventually decided to study Social Policy and Law before changing to a traditional Law degree.
It’s interesting to hear that Safeena looks back at her school life and realises she always excelled in English, Languages and even Drama, which all have played a part in guiding her through her successful career. When discussing her love of Drama, she states, “To a certain extent, being in court is a performance”.
Hindsight with careers is always an interesting thought process. Sometimes we don’t realise where our strengths really lie until later in life.
Home-life was a significant driver for Safeena, and she attributes a lot of her success to having a supportive family. She never felt pressured to do medicine, and her family gave nothing but support when she chose against the science route. In fact, Safeena was the first of her siblings to enter a traditional career.
When I asked how she felt about being the first in her family to follow a profession, Safeena very humbly said it wasn’t something she even realised. It was the same for many of her accomplishments, such as being the first hijab wearing woman at the Bar. Instead, Safeena tells me, she was simply following her passion. I find it charming and somewhat reassuring, accidentally breaking down barriers to pursue dreams.
It may not have been a goal of Safeena’s to become a role model, but that is certainly what she has done. After being a member of the Islamic society at university, she became more aware of her faith and why it was important to her, and this has been a driving force ever since. Now Safeena dedicates time to encouraging young Muslim women to follow their dreams and really think about how much they can achieve if they put their minds to it.
“I think the choice should be there for girls to choose what they want to do.”
Safeena takes the opportunity to inspire young women in many ways. For example, she teaches Tafsir, helping her students to interpret and understand the meaning behind the many verses of the Quran. She explains, “(I) try and relate the verses of the Quran to them, or I try and share my own experiences of going through life as a Muslim in this country and hope it resonates with them”.
She explains how she encourages young people to take a holistic understanding of Islam rather than seeing it as a static set of rules and that she finds they react differently to her once they discover that she is an advocate. “Once they find out I’m a lawyer...they show a different interest towards me and ask different questions. I think it comes as a surprise to them”.
In addition to this, Safeena has been involved in several Scouts groups, mini-trial demonstrations for school groups, and has given many talks to university students.
“I think it’s important for our faces to be visible...you never know which little girl in the audience is going to think ‘she’s just like me!’”
Safeena lights up when speaking about being involved in encouraging the next generation of young Muslims. But I wonder if there were many role models for her when she was at that crucial stage in life?
Safeena clearly thinks hard about the question but ultimately answers no. She elaborates, saying it is only in recent years with the introduction of organisations such as SEMLA that a platform for young lawyers to find role models from a diverse pool has appeared.
Interestingly, both Safeena and I completed our traineeship with the Crown Office. Safeena wonders if there is potentially some bias in traineeship recruitment of organisations and small firms, whether conscious or subconscious.
We immediately delve into a conversation about the need for further research into this and agree that there is a gap needing to be filled. Firms regularly claim they are not getting the right candidates through the door, yet plenty of aspiring lawyers struggle to be accepted for a traineeship. We discuss some potential solutions, such as checking if firms are advertising in the right places and whether they need to widen their search, including more universities with a more diverse student pool. Or do we need to look at the application process itself? This becomes a deep-thought sharing discussion, worthy of a separate article altogether, and even through Zoom, I can feel the eagerness Safeena has to find solutions.
The conversation soon lightens as we chat about stereotypical obligations in an Asian household, such as cooking meals for the family. Safeena said she feels lucky, as her parents have been very laid-back and not had such expectations of her. “I’ve done a lot that traditionally Asian girls would not do, but only because I have had a supportive family”.
We look back at Safeena’s life, and I question if it might have been different if she had married. While Safeena is certain she still would have taken her independent career path, she admits that she may not have had the same opportunities since her focus would be on family life.
Pressing for more details, Safeena uncovers the many enviable experiences she has had over her career. Most impressively, Safeena took her appetite for helping others across to Greece and assisted with refugees. Volunteering with the European Lawyers of Lesbos and flying out on a one-way ticket was both an adventure and an eye-opening experience. As Safeena states, “it was something I’ve never experienced before”.
She explains the lack of human rights in refugee camps and reflects, “Human rights are only human rights if you can afford them”. Refugees are left to navigate the system on their own - a system that, as Safeena openly states, is hard enough for qualified lawyers to get their heads around.
“We tried to do what little we could”, Safeena recalls, and those who are lucky enough to get legal advice are statistically more likely to have their case accepted. She also felt humbled that the refugees seemed reassured to see a woman in a hijab who was giving them advice - having someone they can relate to being introduced as the lawyer and not the interpreter was a welcomed surprise for many refugees.
This leads us into a conversation about the class divide in law. Safeena explains she feels lucky to have the opportunity to do outreach work like this. It is hard for these experiences to be available to people who do not have a wealthy background, as it’s a voluntary role. And the class divide is something Safeena feels very strongly about.
“I think the class divide is something that really is still rife in the legal profession. How many people from a working-class background actually make it to become lawyers?”. Safeena is incredibly keen to start organising more support for anyone from less-traditional backgrounds to have the same opportunities as she did.
We start a deep discussion about how we can help, who we can approach and what needs doing to tackle the class divide. It was the second time in our conversation that we had an impromptu mind-mapping session. It just goes to show how conversations like this are critical to inspire new thoughts and connect ideas and people to tackle big issues.
We then reflect on our responsibility as qualified and experienced lawyers to continually encourage the younger generation. The fight for more equality and assistance for aspiring lawyers is ever more crucial in the current economic climate. This turns our conversation back to traineeships, and I ask Safeena how she found her experience at the Crown Office.
“I absolutely loved it”, Safeena says, with zero hesitation. Her traineeship fell at the start of the last recession, so no one was kept on. But regardless, she says the experience was incredible, with more court experience than you can expect anywhere else. She also believes that if she had the chance to be kept on, her career path would have been very different.
In terms of role models during her time in the Crown Office, Safeena says they were there, but you had to search for them. Again, she attributes platforms like SEMLA for helping create a safe space for finding role models, as this would have been ideal when she was a new lawyer.
I want to know more about why Safeena decided to go to the Bar. “I like the idea of independence”, Safeena states, unsurprisingly, and truth be known, I can’t imagine her elsewhere. She explains she also loves the variety of skills she can utilise and the tremendous amount of training and support she receives. Overall, she loves being a self-employed practitioner, controlling her own diary and having the time and freedom to look deep into a case.
But being at the Bar has its ups and downs. Sometimes Safeena feels lonely, and other days she is surrounded by support. Polar opposites, but part of the appeal is that every day is so different. “Sometimes, it can also be a struggle to find work”, which Safeena admits grated on her confidence at the beginning.
She also provides an insight as to what has changed over recent years. Receiving instructions used to be a given, but now the process is far more competitive. “It’s a lot of “being in the right place at the right time”.
As far as equal opportunities are concerned, Safeena says she probably has faced barriers as a woman, as a Muslim, for her skin colour or for wearing a hijab, but understandably admits it is hard to identify what caused this. “When I first came along, there were some questions… (such as) ‘Will you be comfortable working with a male senior?’”. Safeena radiates a positive and understanding attitude and said she appreciates being asked rather than colleagues purely sitting on an assumption. But on reflection we both agree it would be better if the assumption wasn’t there in the first place.
At present, Safeena is working with the National Midwifery Council on a fixed-term contract but she plans to return to the Bar, where her real interest and passion lies.
And what of her spare time, what does Safeena like to do? I'm pleasantly surprised when she tells me about her hobby, “I want to see how far I go with comedy, as I do some stand-up”. Now to me this is simply mind blowing and I insist she sends me a clip. I'm already hooked.
I ask my final question to Safeena: What is the one piece of advice she would give to an aspiring solicitor? “Keep going!” she comes straight back with, “Be determined...don’t stop at the first knockback...keep going, keep at it.” Now that’s fighting talk, the kind I like.
Safeena’s experience predominantly lies within criminal law, having appeared in courts ranging from the Justice of the Peace Court to the High Court of Justiciary. As a devil she has had exposure to a wide range of other practices such as medical negligence and personal injury. Since calling to the Bar in 2013, she has also been regularly instructed in immigration and employment cases. Safeena trained with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. She served as a Procurator Fiscal Depute in Livingston before commencing devilling in 2012. Her career at the Bar has allowed her to take advantage of many opportunities, including giving legal advice to refugees in Greece and also mentoring criminal defence lawyers in Palestine. She is currently drafting rules for the Nursing and Midwifery Council, as part of their broad regulatory reform programme.
Safeena also holds board member positions with Amina – The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre and the Scottish Legal Action Group (Scolag). She participates in widening participation events with school pupils through ‘Reach’ and the Leaps (Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools).
Some of Safeena’s comedy can be sampled through her YouTube channel ‘Rightly Guided Ship’:
More information about the Faculty of Advocates and how to become one, can be found here: http://www.advocates.org.uk
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