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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

spouses/partners on which they rely on to fund them through the devilling process.

The Faculty scholarship scheme was expanded with the intention of promoting and

encouraging diversity within the membership of the Faculty of Advocates and to reflect the

population which members of the Bar serve in the pursuit of justice in Scotland. The financial

assistance which the scholarship provides alleviates some of the barriers to entry to this side

of the legal profession.


The results have been clear. More lawyers from a variety of unconventional backgrounds

have come to the Scottish Bar. This year, 28 devils – the second largest group of devils ever

- called to the Bar. When I see the names outside Parliament House of those people

matriculating as intrants to commence entry into Faculty, it gives me immense joy to see

more and more people are making that transition. That is one of the reasons why I work so hard in attracting people to the Bar in Scotland. I have had the privileged position of being able to make the move from solicitor to devil (and I hope, in due course, devil to Advocate). It’s the responsibility of people like us to inspire others who want to do the same. You can’t be what you can’t see.


The problem with our infinitely connected world is that it creates a distorted reality for new

lawyers coming into the profession. In particular, social media affects people’s perception

about what is achievable and what is not. That is why having relatable role models are so

important. Such role models are authentic about who they are and where they came from.

In the legal profession, a good role model can show a new lawyer that their world and the

new lawyer’s world is closer than they might think. It may be that both have started off in the

same place. If people see individuals who they relate to, achieving something which they

want to achieve, they are much more likely to aspire to achieve the same.


Relatable role models are only part of the jigsaw, however. Another significant part of the

solution is support. One definition of privilege is the ability to choose who and what a person

sees: a comfortable myth for those who have already succeeded is that hard work is all that

it takes to succeed. No budding advocate can hope to be successful without adequate

support. I have already mentioned family and financial support. There are other aspects to

support, however, that are subtle but essential. Faculty provides support through the

devil/devilmaster relationship that can endure far into an Advocate’s career. There is also

the early years mentoring scheme. There is also the wider collegiality in the Library, in the

gown rooms, and throughout Faculty. The culture of Faculty, from the Office Bearers through

the Membership and into the devilling process, aims to promote psychological safety and

diversity, inclusion and belonging. Through these processes, the need for and the means of

support are becoming more visible and real.


That is not to say there are not challenges in every profession. There will be. But without

relatable role models and effective support, potential advocates might not take that first step

to unlocking their potential. The advocates of the future- whoever they may be- need to know

that they can aspire to something more than they might think. Seeing someone from the

same background achieve what you want to achieve, makes it feel tangible and possible; it

feels within reach. It sparks optimism.

Be the role model and supporter you would have wanted when you were in the early stages of your career.


Bilaal has had a not only successful journey but used his initiative and hard work ethic it is very inspiring. To start of with he did his LLB part-time at Edinburgh Napier University (2014 – 2018) and his Diploma in Professional Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh (2018 – 2019).

From 2014 - 2021, Bilaal practised at a boutique litigation law firm in Edinburgh working his way up from a paralegal to Head of Court of Session Litigation. He had a significant judicial review and general dispute resolution practise encompassing, immigration, professional negligence, commercial disputes, oil and gas, and adoption. He then spent a period with a Band 1 rated team at a leading international law firm defending professional negligence claims on behalf of accountants, brokers, engineers, surveyors and construction professionals on behalf of some of the UK’s biggest insurers. His litigation practice included contractual disputes, property litigation, shipping, insolvency and debt recovery. He was also involved in advising and representing a core participant in the Scottish Hospitals Inquiry. In the summer of 2022, Bilaal was the Lead Solicitor on the EUSS Advice Project for the Legal Services Agency where he provided second-line advice to volunteer organisations on complex EUSS applications.

In 2022, Bilaal commenced his journey to the Scottish Bar and became a Devil at the Faculty of Advocates (the equivalent of a pupil barrister in England). Bilaal is also currently a Consultant with Dickinson Gleeson, a boutique Jersey litigation firm where he specialises in trust litigation, asset recovery and commercial dispute resolution. He acts for ultra HNWIs, law firms, settlors, trustees and international insolvency practitioners.

He is currently a tutor on the LLB and Diploma in Professional Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh and has delivered guest lectures at Edinburgh Napier University. He is an author for Free Movement, one of the UK’s leading immigration law blogs.

Bilaal is also an experienced decision-maker and currently sits on the FA’s National Serious Case Panel where he judges all types of serious disciplinary cases within grassroots football.

In 2022, he was also appointed as a Commissioner of the Jersey Appointments Commission where he helps oversee the recruitment of Jersey States’ employees and appointees to States supported or related bodies. His role is to ensure that selection is fair, efficient and conducted in accordance with best practice according to the Discrimination (Jersey) Law 2013.

He has organised and chaired some of the largest legal conferences in Scotland. He regularly trains and presents on various topics to the legal profession including on litigation procedure and practice. He has presented training in affiliation with the Legal Services Agency (LSA), Hey Legal, Central Law Training (CLT Scotland) and HJT Training.

He is an Affiliate Member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and a member of the Contentious Trusts Association (ConTrA). He recently completed a Diploma in Islamic Finance with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

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