I look at my SEMLA WhatsApp group chat and the last message from Usman is a photo of his 3-year-old son, Hasan, standing tall on top of Usman’s desk playing superhero. Ordinarily, this may mean very little. Just one day in the life of a toddler, but when I think of his father and what he has accomplished, I can see why Hasan is aiming high.
You wouldn’t know it, given Usman’s humble nature, but he’s one of Scotland’s finest Advocates specialising in the very up and coming area of Intellectual Property law, as well as in commercial litigation and public law. He joined the Bar at the age of 24 having completed his traineeship. This made him the youngest Advocate at that time.
“I didn’t enjoy some parts of the traineeship. I didn’t find my seats in commercial property and projects particularly interesting and with the financial crash in 2009, the whole market was pretty quiet but I did really enjoy my seats in commercial litigation and IP. I loved the contentious part of the job, to be able to research the law and analyse a case, to solve problems, it was much more appealing to me than filling in forms and tailoring templates which appeared to be a large part of my work as a trainee in the non-contentious seats. The Faculty seemed like a good option for me.”
Usman took a leap of faith and with it some real risks when deciding to train as an Advocate, the lack of financial security being one of them. So, how did he find the first few years in establishing his reputation and securing a steady flow of income?
“I was never sure that anyone would want to take a chance on a new Advocate with very little court experience. However, I threw myself into cases, spent a lot of time researching, drafting and preparing every case, and this helped establish my reputation with solicitors. Once solicitors get to know and trust your work, you get repeat instructions and start to build a practice. Luck is also an important part of the Bar. One of my career highlights came about because I happened to be the right person at the right time. A firm of solicitors who I did work for needed to bring a junior into an existing case. That case was in the Supreme Court and at 28 years old, I was lucky enough to appear in that court.”
But this success didn’t come overnight. It wasn’t until his third year at the Bar that Usman thinks he came under the radar of the biggest firms and started to receive regular instructions from them. His passion for the job is one of the reasons why Usman wants to improve diversity at the Bar, including helping break down socio-economic barriers, which prevent many from considering a career at the Faculty as a viable option.
By way of explanation, Advocates are specially trained lawyers who are independent and self-employed. Unlike mere mortal solicitors, they have the right to appear in the highest courts in Scotland as well as the UK Supreme Court. As well as initially having trained as solicitors, they have to complete further training and sit exams to gain admission to the Faculty of Advocates. This training is known as devilling and is unpaid, which can be a barrier for many, something Usman is very aware of.
“Back when I devilled there was only 2 or 3 scholarships and I was lucky enough to get one. The majority of the year had no financial assistance whatsoever. So, unless you had some support behind you like a working spouse, savings or parents, it would make it very difficult to come to the Bar and effectively have a year of no pay. There has been a mindset change over the last 10 years or so, and now everyone recognises the importance of improving access to the Bar.”
Usman has been a qualified Advocate for 10 years and has seen some encouraging changes, such as the introduction of equality and diversity officers, flexible working, mentoring and more scholarship schemes.
“I do see it improving, we are going in the right direction in terms of improving accessibility to the Bar, with various programmes and initiatives being introduced over the past few years, such as the Lord Hope scholarship scheme which was launched in 2018 at an event co-hosted with SEMLA. This scheme is aimed at helping those in under-represented groups come to the Bar, such as women and ethnic minorities. Many devils now benefit from these scholarships. Ultimately, I want the Bar to be a place that attracts the best lawyers from all backgrounds as it is a great career.”
The Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyer’s Association (SEMLA) is Usman’s brainchild. Its mission is to facilitate a diverse and inclusive legal profession in Scotland. It aims is to provide support and create career opportunities for ethnic minority lawyers and law students. Since its launch in 2017, SEMLA has pursued its mission by working with the Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates and some of the largest law firms and in-house legal teams in Scotland and the United Kingdom, all with the aim of increasing access into and progression within the legal profession for all talented lawyers and law students regardless of background.
Why was forming a group such as SEMLA important to Usman?
“When I was a student at Glasgow, there wasn’t anything like SEMLA. There were hardly any visible role models from ethnic minority backgrounds in the profession as far as I could see. Even going back 4 years ago before SEMLA’s launch, I’m not aware of any law firm in Scotland having an event for ethnic minority lawyers, there was no forum for them to come together and network. The idea came to me while mentoring on the diploma at Glasgow University, where many ethnic minority students would come to me concerned about being unable to secure a traineeship. I wanted to do something to help them.”
Usman and I speak fondly of how the SEMLA family was formed. Despite all 5 co-founders and committee members being part of what is widely accepted as a small pool of lawyers, in a small legal jurisdiction such as Scotland, we were complete strangers to each other. Herein lies another reason why an organisation such as SEMLA is needed. As ethnic minority legal professionals there was no forum or network for us to come together and get to know of each other. We all worked in isolation in our own little corners of the Scottish legal system, oblivious of the existence of others like us. Unable to share experiences, unable to help each other, unable to tell each other of opportunities, unable to offer support. All critical elements if we wish not only to improve diversity in the profession but also to support it to its full potential.
So, what has SEMLA achieved since its formation in 2017?
“There have been 12-13 events over the past 3-4 years. Those events wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for SEMLA. Ethnic minority students now have many more opportunities available to them, including access to great role models within the profession”.
More importantly, SEMLA has played an integral role in breaking down the perceptions of the Scottish legal profession. Collaborating with a host of stakeholders, it looks to widen access and help dispel the myth that law is only for middle class white men.
The highlight for Usman was the event co-hosted with the Faculty of Advocates in 2018.
“Seeing the attendance of some 70-80 minority ethnic lawyers and students was overwhelming. That type of event had never happened in the Faculty before. For me, it’s important to show that Faculty is a place where you can succeed not because of your background but because of your abilities”.
I remember speaking at this event and looking with pride at the diversity around the room, the future pool of talent. So, where does Usman see SEMLA in 10 years’ time?
“I hope it’s an organisation that we’re no longer involved in; a thriving organisation run by the next generation of talented and ambitious lawyers, self-sufficient and that every few years new people join, share fresh ideas, moving it forward. We will have exhausted all our contacts and ideas by then. Our responsibility is to lay down the foundations, which may still take a few years to finish, but then at some point hopefully there’s no need for us because there will be fresh people with fresh ideas coming through.”
I couldn’t agree more. Much like the small family businesses I grew up in, there comes a time to pass on the baton and it’s important to do that while there is still a need and appetite for development and growth.
Where does Usman see himself in 10 year’s time?
“I’d still like to be at the Bar. I love the work that I do and wouldn’t want to give it up. I enjoy appearing in court and the areas of work I do. I’m still on the younger side despite calling in 2011. I’m not sure where my career will take me or if I’ve reached the pinnacle. It could all be downhill from here!”
Something tells me that’s highly unlikely, for I’m aware of how highly regarded Usman is in legal circles and I’m aware that he has many projects still to complete, the introduction of a Scottish Intellectual Property Court being one such project.
Usman’s expertise in IP work makes him the ideal person to take forward this idea. He explains how we are losing IP business to England, where there are better, slicker processes with lower costs and more active judicial management. Together with Colin Hulme, partner at Burness Paull, they have put together proposals which have the backing of the Law Society of Scotland and major stakeholders such as NatWest, the Scotch Whisky Association and the Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys. Their proposals have recently been submitted to the Scottish Civil Justice Council. It’s a long-drawn-out process and with the consequences of the pandemic, further delay is inevitable, but in the long run it could prove to be very good for Scottish business, and as Usman puts it:
“We are a small jurisdiction competing against a neighbour who has an international profile. We need to think innovatively about how we can compete. This means not only stopping the loss of business from this jurisdiction to London but also to think about ways to attract business up here”.
Yet London appears to be a popular destination for aspiring solicitors, therefore what final piece of advice would Usman give to a future solicitor?
“While working in London has a certain attraction, remember that some great opportunities also exist closer to home. Do your research into the profession in Scotland, engage with the profession, engage with organisations such SEMLA and the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association and attend events. Put in the effort. There are still some students who expect that because they have a law degree they’ll land on their feet. That’s not the case now. Wider economic uncertainty and the competition for traineeships means you have to stand out from the crowd. As a student, you need to move out of your comfort zone and invest the time and effort to meet people in the profession and to learn about the profession. When you are in the profession, you should back yourself and have confidence in you. I appreciate almost everyone has times of self-doubt. But if you do not have confidence in you, why would a client or your colleagues have confidence in you? Finally, be prepared to challenge yourself in your career as that is how you grow as a lawyer and a person.”
All good advice, and I suspect its advice he’s already sharing with his son, for in ending our conversation Usman, light-heartedly, tells me that Hasan has already made his first Court of Session appearance, at the ripe old age of three and a half, when he interrupted a hearing, virtually of course!
Usman is an Advocate at the Scottish Bar. He is a member of Ampersand Advocates and the Faculty of Advocates. He has extensive experience of high-value and complex commercial disputes and public law. He is appointed as a Standing Junior counsel to the UK Government. He has appeared at all levels of the Scottish court system, including the UK Supreme Court. He was named by the Legal 500 as Junior Counsel of the Year 2019 for the Scottish Bar. He was named as Advocate of the Year at The Law Awards of Scotland 2017. He is ranked as a leading lawyer in the Chambers & Partners and Legal 500 UK Bar Guides in multiple practice areas. He called to the Bar as the Faculty’s Lord Reid scholar for 2010/2011. He is a graduate of the University of Glasgow and the University of Cambridge.