Bilaal Shabbir | Solicitor and Head of Court of Session Litigation at MBS Solicitors
Our next guest in our interview segment is Bilaal Shabbir. Bilaal is a Solicitor and Head of Court of Session litigation at MBS Solicitors in Edinburgh. He undertook his LLB part-time at Napier and graduated in 2018 with a distinction and the University Medal! Bilaal then went on to complete the Diploma in Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh before undertaking a traineeship with MBS Solicitors.
1. Tell us a bit about your background. What university did you attend? Did you take a year abroad? What were your favourite/worst subjects in university? Did you participate in any societies?
My route through studying has been slightly unusual. Prior to doing my LLB, I did two Specialist Paralegal Qualifications on a distance-learning basis with CLT and the University of Strathclyde, the first in Family Law (2014) and the second in Civil Court Practice (2017). I studied the LLB part-time at Edinburgh Napier University from September 2014 until the summer of 2018. Napier was a great choice because it was one of the only universities offering the LLB part-time and had the most wonderful teaching staff (some of whom have become good friends). I had classes every Tuesday and Thursday from 6pm – 9pm which meant I could head straight to class after work. It was a tough and very hectic 4 years but I slipped into a routine quite quickly and having the ability to juggle work and studies definitely helped me become a better lawyer.
I didn’t have the best grades at high school so I was determined to try and change that around. I managed to get a distinction in my degree and won the University Medal. I think my best subjects were Advocacy (something I still have a keen interest in) and also business/contract law and human rights. I definitely found jurisprudence the hardest because it was a little bit too philosophical for me! Ironically, I had to study the hardest for that module and ended up getting the best overall mark in that module across my degree!
I really enjoyed mooting at University and was lucky enough to have one of my best friends as a mooting partner. Having someone you can trust and work with well made a massive difference and we won the internal mooting competition at Napier twice and were the last Scottish team standing in the National Mooting Competition.
I then went on to study for my Diploma at the University of Edinburgh in 2018 and graduated in the summer of 2019. The work-study balance was a lot harder because I was essentially working and studying full-time together! For my electives on the Diploma, I took personal injury, family law, and commercial litigation.
2. What made you choose to pursue a career in the legal profession? How did you know you know the area of law you wanted to practise?
I was really unsure of what I wanted to do when I left high school. I initially started my degree in computing but very quickly learned I wasn’t cut out for the software engineering part. I left that degree after a few weeks and spent some time working in a retail job whilst I thought about what to do. I decided to get some paralegal work experience at the firm I am currently at to see if it was something I might enjoy. After my first paralegal course, I decided I really enjoyed the work and slowly had opportunities to meet clients and do substantive work on cases. That’s when I decided to brave the LLB and have never regretted that decision.
One thing I strived to do was to create an identity for myself through my own hard work and by taking my practice off on a tangent. There were a lot of late nights, a lot of sacrifices, and not taking anything for granted. I was also really lucky to do a short spell at a boutique immigration law firm in Edinburgh where I learned so much.
My practice started off generally and now focuses primarily on commercial dispute resolution and public law.
3. When applying for traineeships, how did you find the process? Did you already have a lot of legal experience before applying? What made you decide that MBS Solicitors was the firm for you?
Because I was already a paralegal at the firm, I was really lucky to have a much easier in-road into a traineeship than most others. The firm is small (there are only four fee-earners). As a paralegal, I was given my own caseloads and significant responsibility and I was confident I wanted to continue being in that position throughout my traineeship. I also liked the idea of being able to do a variety of work rather than doing specific seats for 6 or 8 months at a time. It wasn’t easy when you go from doing family law to immigration law to commercial litigation in the course of an afternoon but it certainly trained me to deal with anything and everything!
4. What sort of tasks and responsibilities did you undertake during your traineeship at MBS Solicitors? Did you have much client contact?
On one view, my traineeship was probably not too far away from my life as a paralegal. I continued to run my own case-loads in a variety of practice areas and particularly enjoyed doing the Court of Session work because you worked with some fantastic advocates. A lot of that meant I ended up doing a lot of Edinburgh Agent (procedural work for other law firms in the Court of Session). That also meant a lot of my clients were other law firms which certainly made it interesting. My practice continued to be broad and through my traineeship, I gained experience of everything from judicial review of decisions of the UK Government, local authorities, and educational institutions right through to high-value disputes surrounding commercial contracts and actions for professional negligence through to niche family/immigration cases involving foreign adoptions and international private law.
5. What advice would you give yourself as a law student looking back now as a qualified solicitor?
Nobody is born a lawyer. Don’t compare yourself to the top lawyers when you start out. With time comes experience and experience will make you a better lawyer. Part of that experience is making mistakes which WILL happen. Nobody is infallible but make sure you never make the same mistake twice. Always take advantage of opportunities to learn from others. Most people in the profession, even the most senior lawyers, are supportive and will take 10 mins out to speak to you about your career and your plans.
Networking is more important than anyone can emphasise. You can never have too many friends or points of contact in this profession. There are loads of free events, conferences, and seminars. Take advantage of them all and go alone so you force yourself to mingle with others and introduce yourself.
The final bit of advice is always to be kind. Our profession is very small. You probably will not be the best of friends with everyone but if someone forms a bad impression of you or is unimpressed by your attitude, you can bet that news will travel fast. Be polite, be unfailingly kind but do not be a push-over. At the end of the day, we are here to represent our clients without fear or favour and we must do that to the best of our abilities.
6. What does your role as a Solicitor and Head of Court of Session Litigation look like day-to-day?
Being part of a very small firm means anything and everything comes through the door. My colleagues and I have our own expertise and niche areas.
A few examples of what I’m working on include; advising on a case involving the emissions impact of oil drilling in the North Sea; an inter-country adoption between Ethiopia, Dubai, and Scotland, and whether the licensing of music on YouTube was in breach of a previous contract. Apart from my own caseload, I do a lot of work for agents based across the UK and who need to litigate in the Court of Session. Usually, this means acting on their behalf and dealing with the procedural and administrative duties right through to attending hearings/attending consultations with Counsel and helping them with the preparation of cases in Court. Occasionally, the immigration work can come at short notice, particularly if I am helping other agents try and obtain a Court order to prevent a migrant from being removed from the UK. In those cases, it’s not uncommon for me to be in Court after hours or in the middle of the night.
7. What is the most rewarding part of your role?
It is a privilege to be able to advocate and represent clients in the most interesting, and complex cases. Part of that is the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented Counsel and working with some great agents when I am acting as their Edinburgh Agent.
Seeing good advocacy (in Court or on paper), for me, is one of the most wonderful things in the world. It’s like seeing a jigsaw come together in front of you. Seeing the gravitas with which Counsel presents a case is really awe-inspiring. Job satisfaction also comes from picking apart problems that might first seem insurmountable and coming up with a practical and tailored solution. I can think of few things better than locking myself in a room to do some difficult drafting. The variety of work that comes out of the blue never ceases to amaze or interest me!
8. Do you work from home all the time or do you work in the office on occasion? Do you appear in court at all?
My firm has a flexible working policy and even pre-COVID, I was lucky enough to be completely in charge of my own diary and working patterns. Since COVID, I work from home 99% of the time, and the firm has provided me with a second monitor, webcam, and microphone for any Court hearings and client meetings. I do appear in Court occasionally since being admitted in July 2020 but since the majority of my work is in the Court of Session, only Counsel have rights of audience there and so my role is more usually behind the scenes and spent advising clients and conducting negotiations.
9. What is your work/life balance like? Do you find that your workload has increased or decreased since the lockdown?
Being able to work from home has been great. Lockdown happened when my daughter was only 6 months old and so I’ve been lucky enough to spend the best part of a year watching her grow up next to me and seeing her develop and grow. My workload took a bit of a dip and slowed down like everything immediately after the first lockdown. Very quickly, things picked back up and I’m now busier than I’ve ever been before.
10. What is the firm culture like where you are currently working?
The firm is really close-knit because we’re a small team. We have an ‘open-door’ policy and regularly chat with each other inside and outside of work. Because we all have slightly different areas of practice, we can always pick up the phone to each other to discuss cases.
11. In your opinion, what are the most important skills required for a successful career as a Solicitor?
A skill which I think is really important and doesn’t get enough mention is the ability to not sugar-coat things for clients. Lawyers know how tough litigation is but clients who haven’t needed to litigate before might not know how time-consuming and expensive and protracted things can be. If a lawyer isn’t upfront on things like prospects of success, risk, and costs, clients can build up unrealistic expectations if they’re not told what is achievable and what is not. Having the ability to cut through things is hugely important, especially in litigation where a lot of time our work is risk-management and there are always unexpected turns. Make sure you adjust your client’s expectations from the outset and as the case progresses.
12. How do you feel about the future of the legal profession? Do you think dealing with clients will become more virtual permanently?
I am almost certain of the view that the virtual way of conducting business, whether meeting with clients over Zoom or speaking to colleagues through MS Teams or appearing in Court by WebEx is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. I am hoping that it doesn’t become the norm though. There’s rarely a better feeling than getting up on your feet to do a good bit of advocacy or seeing others on their feet in Court. WebEx just isn’t the same!
13. How do you stay commercially aware with current events and what would you recommend for students?
A lot of commercial skills are built up from conducting cases. You will quickly come to see what things are important to clients and what things are less important than they may seem. Every client has different commercial needs and understanding what your client is looking to achieve upfront is key.
Networking is important, including with professionals outside the legal profession. Attend every event you can. There’s not usually an excuse now since they’re all conducted virtually. A lot of events for students nowadays also focus on things like how to stay commercially aware and how you can demonstrate this in interviews.
Being commercially aware isn’t something that happens overnight so expect to continue learning on the job and throughout your career. Clients need lawyers who don’t just know the law but also how the law affects their businesses and what clients can do to mitigate any impact.
14. How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Reliable, innovative, and collaborative
15. Who was your role model growing up and why?
My dad was an important figure growing up because he took the decision to leave running a successful retail business and retrain in an alternative career with 4 young kids. He was the first in our family to attend university – not an easy feat!
16. What is your proudest achievement?
I was delighted to be shortlisted for ‘Paralegal of the Year’ at the Scottish Legal Awards for two years consecutively and to win the category in 2018.
In 2017, I also had the opportunity to present a Petition in the European Parliament on how the UK Government could amend the administrative process to allow EU Nationals to more easily obtain a right of residence in the lead up to Brexit.
I’ve also been really lucky to have been involved in some fascinating cases. One which stands out and was a lot of fun to work on was acting as Edinburgh Agent in a Judicial Review against the Scottish Labour Party to stop a vote in the selection of Westminster constituency candidates.
17. If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go and why?
Traveling is a big passion and hobby of mine! I’ve been to around 16 countries and love finding cracking deals to far-off places. Just before lockdown, I organised a trip through Romania, Jordan, and Israel with flights costing only £90!
I’d love to visit Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. It’s only about 25 square kilometers with a population of about 11,000 people but it’s apparently the least visited country in the world. I was inspired by the country after watching the team at Yes Theory (check out their amazing motivational channel if you don’t know who they are). I found it cool that the island gets an income from their domain .tv.
18. What is your favourite pastime/hobby you like to do in your spare time? What Television series are you watching at the moment?
My wife and I have taken up running over lockdown and last summer I completed my first 5K after doing the Couch 2 5K programme. Since then, I’ve been an avid runner and love discovering new trails and routes around where I live.
I also have an obsession with boogie-woogie piano. Boogie-woogie is a genre of blues (but faster) and became popular during the late 1920s in the USA. I’ve been inspired by Youtubers who play boogie-woogie piano like Dr. K, Henri Herbert, Terry Miles, and Josef Sykora. I like to spend my spare time learning some new riffs on my electric keyboard.
I’ve recently re-discovered my love for chess too! I used to play to a competitive standard in my younger days but took a break for years and years until recently. I’ve been playing a lot more online recently and have just finished watching the Queen’s Gambit (which I highly recommend!)
Outside of work, I am also a tutor on the public law course at the University of Edinburgh and a blogger for Free Movement, one of the UK’s leading immigration and asylum blogs. Some evenings are therefore taken up with teaching tutorials or drafting blog posts.
19. If not law, what other career would you be interested in pursuing and why?
Since I love traveling, I think I would probably have ended up doing something in the tourism industry. I love learning about the history of far-flung countries and so I might have ended up being a tour guide or blogging about traveling. I’m really jealous of people like Mark Wiens who travel the world and eat the most delicious-looking food! I might give it a go one-day.
20. If you could write a book/film about your life, what would the title be and why?
Just do it.
Why? I’ll leave you with this quote by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
“Take benefit of five before five: Your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free time before you are preoccupied, and your life before your death”
Interviewed by Sean Doig (Editor-in-Chief 2020/21). We would like to thank Bilaal Shabbir for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate in the interview for the Law Review. You can find out more about Bilaal’s legal experience and specialisms on the MBS Solicitors website here and follow Bilaal on Twitter @mbs_786.
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