ULaw alumna Lubna Shuja was encouraged to pursue a career in law by a friend. From her humble beginnings, Lubna never dreamed she would one day become President of the Law Society of England and Wales. We spoke about the amazing career Lubna forged in the legal sector, diversity, and what advice she would offer aspiring solicitors.
I never thought law was a career for someone from a working-class background like me. I didn’t know any lawyers and knew little about law generally. It just wasn’t on my radar. However, I did better in my A Levels than my teachers predicted and that’s when a good friend persuaded me law would be a great option. It was the best advice I have ever received. I haven’t looked back since.
When I was studying for my law degree, the College of Law (now ULaw) had an excellent reputation for the Law Society Solicitors Finals Examination course. I chose the Chancery Lane branch of the College of Law because it was in the heart of legal London, which was a wonderful incentive to work hard. There was a good camaraderie amongst the students. I never dreamt that I would go full circle and find myself back on Chancery Lane 30 years later as the President of the Law Society.
When I first started working as a solicitor the career path was quite narrow. The only place to work as far as I knew was in a law firm. Back then I wasn’t aware that solicitors could work in other types of organisations. Now I realise there are so many career paths for students to consider. There are excellent prospects available working in-house, as well as with local authorities and in law centres. Even legal apprenticeships now offer another viable route to qualification. 25% of solicitors now work in-house, so it’s clearly an attractive choice.
I started my career dealing with civil litigation. At that time legal aid was available, and I acted for many clients who wouldn’t have been able to pursue claims successfully without it. It was a lifeline for them. The landscape now is very different, and there are real issues of access to justice for many due to the lack of funding available. There are huge areas in England and Wales where there are legal aid deserts and people have to travel hundreds of miles to access a legal aid solicitor.
I set up my own practice, Legal Swan Solicitors, over 15 years ago. Having been a partner in a previous firm I had a good understanding of what this would involve. I decided to work for myself as it would allow me to have control over the type of work I did, who I decided to act for, and flexibility over when and where I wanted to work.
Over the years I started to deal with other areas of law and found I really enjoyed disciplinary and regulatory work. I now sit as a Chair for a number of professional regulators where my role is to ensure the public is protected, that professional standards are maintained and to act in the public interest.
I am also a Mediator. I enjoy the challenge of mediating between parties and trying to help them find a mutually acceptable solution to their problem. It’s interesting because you get to hear their stories, which tell you a lot about human nature and what drives people to act as they do.
As well as being a solicitor, I am currently the President of the Law Society of England and Wales. My role is to be an ambassador for the profession, to champion the work of over 200,000 solicitors, and represent their interests to the government, the media, and other external bodies. No two days are the same. There can be a mix of speaking engagements, attending conferences, ceremonial events, and meetings which can be internal or external with members, government, key stakeholders, and the media.
The proudest moment of my career so far is taking up office as President of the Law Society. I am the first Asian, the first Muslim and only the 7th female to become President since the Law Society was established in 1825. I never dreamt that an Asian Muslim woman could become leader of a profession that has traditionally been seen as white, male and middle class. I have worked incredibly hard to get to where I am, but it is also thanks to my colleagues who encouraged and supported me to take that journey. Allies are very important throughout life, because they can often see your potential well before you realise it is there. I wouldn’t be where I am now without them, and I’m grateful to every single one.
I’m delighted to see the increase in diversity among solicitors. When I first joined the profession in 1990, there were only 709 solicitors from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background. I didn’t think about it then, but now I realise there was hardly anyone who looked like me. Now, women make up over half of the profession. Over 17% of solicitors are Black, Asian or from a minority ethnic background and 5% have a disability. That shows we are making real progress, but there is still so much more to be done, as this diversity is not reflected at the more senior levels of the profession or within the senior judiciary.
My advice for students? Find your passion because that’s what you’ll be good at. Be authentic, don’t try to change yourself into someone you’re not and don’t be embarrassed about who you are or where you’re from. Always treat people with kindness – they will remember that – and you.
I believe honesty and integrity are fundamental requirements for all solicitors. In addition, a keen sense of justice - knowing what is fair - is important. On a practical level, you need to enjoy reading because there is a lot of reading to do. Being able to reach logical solutions that have a sound evidence base will serve you well. You must be able to communicate and empathise with clients. Confidence in your own skills and abilities is important, especially when negotiating or presenting in court, but also being able to admit there might be a different or better way to achieve an objective is vital. Pragmatism goes a long way.
Join the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Network, a community for solicitor apprentices, LPC graduates, trainee solicitors and solicitors up to five years' qualified. Once you’ve started working as a solicitor consider getting involved with one of the policy committees or other Law Society member networks so you can contribute to the work of the society. The Law Society also has a Diversity Access Scheme, which supports aspiring solicitors who face exceptional educational, financial or personal obstacles to qualifying as a solicitor. The scheme has been running for over 10 years and offers funding, work experience, access to mentors and networking opportunities.
Finally, look beyond traditional law firms to gain work experience. Contact your local council, law centres, community advice centres, local courts, charities, businesses such as insurance companies, banks, department stores, telecoms, retailers, anyone who has an in-house legal department, as they may offer work experience.
And finally, remember that where you start your career isn’t always where you’ll end up. Grab every opportunity that presents itself because you never know where it might take you. Oh, and keep a diary. It’s one thing I didn’t do and wish I had because so much changes over the years.
Are you a previous ULaw student? Join our vast Alumni network and share your story now.