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Better the devil you know:The importance of having relatable role models and support on the journey

Written by Bilaal Shabbir



From an early stage, I had an interest in the work of Advocates at the Scottish Bar. Seeing

good advocacy (in Court or on paper) from Counsel, for me, was one of the most wonderful

things in the world. It was like seeing a jigsaw come together in front of you. Seeing the

gravitas with which Counsel presented a case was spectacular, I was inspired. Through my journey to qualification as a solicitor, I geared my work as much as possible towards the Court of Session so that I would get a chance to work with lots of different Counsel. Because of the breadth of work, I did at my initial firm, I got a chance to work with Counsel across a variety of practice areas.


Even when I started in the legal profession, 9 years ago, there was an air of mystery and

grandeur about Faculty. For one, the location was incredible. Walking into Parliament Hall

was always (and still is) an ethereal experience. It was full of Counsel, robed and wigged,

pacing furiously with their counterparts or agents up and down, deep in thought and

conversation. I loved the theatre of it.

However, at the same time, Faculty was seen by some to be a membership of hyper-

successful individuals who had come from privileged backgrounds. The same people

thought that the entry requirements seemed inaccessible to most people.

Members of Faculty were always unfailingly kind and took time out to speak to me about a

career at the Bar. But I was always acutely conscious of the fact that in those early years,

there were not many people who I could relate to. I was a young state-school educated

Scottish-Pakistani Muslim boy who had grown up in deprived areas around Edinburgh. How

was I able to do what they did?


Now, there is a growing number of BAME and state-school educated individuals qualifying at

the Scottish Bar but in those early days, it made me hesitate about whether this was

something I could actually achieve. It wasn’t easy to find relatable role models at the Bar

then.

One of the most important things that the Faculty of Advocates have done in recent years to

tackle problems caused by entry into the Scottish Bar, is to expand its scholarship scheme.

To understand the importance of the scheme, it’s important to have some understanding of

the process of qualification as an Advocate in Scotland. Unlike our English counterparts,

almost all individual who become Advocates will start out life as a qualified solicitor in

Scotland. For many, that is where the entirety of their legal careers starts and ends. Many

individuals derive comfort from the client-facing role, regular income and structures which a

law firm provides. However, for many individuals (myself included), it is more rewarding to be

involved in the presentational aspects of litigation, to consider difficult issues of law and to

act as a sounding board for solicitors but without being tied to the rigid structure of a law

firm.


To make that transition, individuals must renounce their practising certificates as solicitors

and commence a process known as “devilling”, a period of shadowing a practising member

of the Scottish Bar for 9 months. There is an administrative fee to start the process of

devilling although otherwise the devil is not charged for his or her training and education.

The biggest hurdle comes from the fact that the whole period of devilling is unpaid. Devilling

is expected to be a full-time commitment and whilst the Faculty of Advocates can grant

permission for some ad-hoc work like tutoring etc, in most cases, it would not be possible to

survive on that income for the whole period of devilling.


In addition, before and during devilling, there are inevitably other expenses to consider like

travel, examination fees, books, IT equipment etc. Traditionally, devils (i.e. those who

undertake the “devilling” process) will either have saved up funds during their practise as a

solicitor or might be supported by family during the process.

Therein lies a potentially significant barrier to entry. Many solicitors choose to make the

transition to the Scottish Bar after several years (or decades) of being a solicitor. Those who

have practised as solicitors for longer are therefore much more likely to have earned higher

salaries compared to newly qualified solicitors. Taking a pay cut to zero for 9 months might

be impossible for many of those solicitors. Those who choose to come to the Bar later in

their careers might have mortgages, car payments, spouses who do not work, nursery fees

etc, all of which can prevent motivated and skilled lawyers from taking that step forward.


Similarly, new entrants into the profession might also be prevented from coming to the Bar

because of an inability to save up during their traineeship or earning lower salaries during

their initial years of qualification as a solicitor. Some may have no family support network or