As the first Asian, first Muslim, and seventh woman to serve at the helm of the Law Society of England and Wales, Lubna Shuja is devoted to advancing the rule of law. “I will continue to uphold the rule of law, scrutinise changes in legislation and make sure that – regardless of their means, background or position in society – those who need it can access a solicitor,” she said in a quote featured prominently on the society’s website. In its 200-year history, the Law Society has undergone enormous change. In fact, women weren’t even authorized to work as solicitors for about the first century of the existence of the organization, which — in addition to advancing the rule of law and human rights, offers an array of professional services for solicitors.
JURIST UK Senior Editor James Joseph conducted an interview with Shuja to learn more about her work, the organsation’s role in advancing rule of law issues, and more. The interview will be published in three parts, of which this is the first.
JURIST: Could you give our largely international audience further insight into your role as president of the Law Society?
Lubna: To be president of the Law Society of England and Wales, has been an absolute honour, and it has been an amazing year. It’s been challenging. It’s been interesting. It’s been fascinating. I’ve met so many different people. I have dealt with so many different issues … When you start as President [of The Law Society] you kind of have a ‘presidential year plan‘, and you set out what your priorities are for that year. Alongside that, you always get things coming up that you have to deal with. One of the really big issues that I’ve been dealing with during the course of my year … is the Illegal Migration Act. That’s been a big piece of work. But I’ve been doing a lot of work on criminal legal aid, and legal aid more generally.
At the moment here, we’ve got a massive crisis in our legal aid system in criminal legal aid and in civil legal aid, we have got solicitors who are leaving these areas of work in droves because they just can’t afford to do it anymore, and we’ve had no increase in the rates for legal aid for about 25 years. They’re just they just got to a stage where they say, “We can’t do this anymore.” ... As the President, as well as representing, supporting, and promoting our 20,000 members across England and Wales, some 10,000 of them work abroad, so we’re looking after them as well. About 25% of our solicitors work in-house, so we’ve got all different demographics, you’ve got the large firms, medium firms, sole practitioners, in-house solicitors. Then you’ve got [more specific demographics within those broader categories] — female, Black, Asian, minority ethnic, disabled, LGBTQ+ — you’re trying to do as much as you can, for as many people as you can.
A lot of my work involves having meetings with government ministers; having meetings with peers; doing interviews with media, radio, and television; and writing articles. Solicitors underpin absolutely everything that goes on in society and if you did not have solicitors, there would be chaos. They’re the ones who deal with every part of the legal process. So it’s about promoting the value of solicitors to society, and promoting why they’re important to rule of law issues.
JURIST: How have you seen the role of solicitor change since you first qualified?
Lubna: That’s a great question. Things have changed so much. I’ve been qualified now for over 30 years. When I came into the profession was a very different very different space. We didn’t have internet back then. We didn’t have mobile phones back then, or even email. If you needed to send something urgently, you used a fax machine.
One of the first changes was actually the pace was quite different in terms of the work. You used to go down to the post room first thing in the morning, you’d pick up all your letters that had come in for that day, and then that’s how you would plan your day. So you could actually pace your work a little bit better. You still had court deadlines to deal with you still had the usual stuff that you do not plan … But generally you didn’t have the urgency that emails have. We didn’t have that at all when I first came into the profession. And obviously that has completely changed now that we are in a work environment in which people expect immediate replies. So the pace, and the urgency of work and the turnover of work has definitely changed. Everyone expected such swift responses from across the profession now, clients, other solicitors, across the profession because email is instantaneous and everybody has such easy access, pretty much all of the time,
I think that has an impact in terms of mental health and coping strategies. You’ve got to find ways of dealing with this different way of working; the ways of working have changed quite a lot.
Technology has also changed how they’ve worked in terms of the actual makeup of the profession that has changed tremendously. When I came into the profession, and this was back in the 1990s, there were very few women solicitors around, and there were even fewer solicitors who were from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background. I now know something, which I didn’t know this at the time, but I now know that when I came into the profession, there were only 709 solicitors who were from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background. Now our profession is made up of 220,000 solicitors, which is fantastic.
When you look at the change over over the years, 52% of our profession is now female, which is fantastic. We’ve got more women than men coming into the profession now. The admission ceremonies that we do — 60% of our newly qualified solicitors now tend to be female. So we’ve definitely seen that tip in terms of gender within the profession. [Ed: And going back to ethnic minority representation] 17% of our profession is Black, Asian, or minority ethnic. And that’s brilliant … I think if you look at the overall UK workforce population, the figure is around 12%. So we’re very nicely represented within the solicitor profession, what we’re not seeing in terms of representation … We’re not seeing them progress to the senior levels of the profession. … So we need to see more partners that are female, more partners that are Black, Asian, or minority ethnic, and that’s where some of the challenges lie going forward.
When I when I first came into the profession in the 1990s, the first firm that I worked with as a fully qualified solicitor had a rule that women were not allowed to wear trousers. And actually back then, it was not unusual. You know, in court, if you went to court, women didn’t wear trousers in court. It’s insane.
JURIST: London has historically been seen as the UK’s centre of justice, law and order. How has the legal setting here in the UK evolved and expanded since you’ve been practicing?
Lubna: The legal landscape here has changed significantly:We’ve got some massive Legal Centres outside of London, including Birmingham, where I live. We’ve got huge law centres in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol. There are lots of very big legal centres outside of London now. We saw during COVID that people were actually getting a bit fed up with living in London and commuting into London and dealing with the additional expense of being in London. … When I first came into the profession, I actually also did my training in London, called articles back then. And actually, during my training, I used to come to the Royal Courts of Justice almost daily during my litigation seat, and I have to say I loved it. I loved it because you know that it’s a very historic building. It’s a huge building, and it’s really lovely to to be able to go in there and actually I got lost in there quite regularly. But then I left London, and my first job was actually in Yorkshire.
So while I was in Yorkshire, obviously I was dealing with clients and honestly, I can say that pretty much during the first 13 years of my career. I think I only came to London for work [if I had to] go to the Court of Appeal. … [Otherwise, I would just come if I] had clients that were based in London. … Now I think that’s very much changed. I think people can very easily go through their career without having come to London at all because there are huge legal centres outside of London. The city still has a fantastic global reputation across the world as being the Legal Centre of choice. We have a global legal centre, and a lot of international business. A lot of international court work goes on here. And it is great because our jurisdiction has a really good reputation all over the world and people tend to associate that with London.
This is part one of a three-part series.