Shelagh McCall is the convener of the Faculty of Advocates’ Human Rights and Rule of Law Committee and was appointed Chair of JUSTICE Scotland in June 2017.
Shelagh practised as a solicitor for several years before becoming a member of Faculty in 2000. She took silk in 2015. Her practice focuses on criminal law and human rights. She has appeared in many high-profile, sensitive and complex cases. Shelagh was formerly employed by the United Nations and was a part-time commissioner at the Scottish Human Rights Commission from 2008-2015. She is a part-time Sheriff and a legal member of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland.
How did your legal career begin?
When I graduated I was lucky enough be offered traineeships at a couple of big Edinburgh commercial firms. But my interest was always in criminal law so I took a deep breath, turned them down, and set about finding a more specialised traineeship. My first boss was persuaded to give me a job after testing my knowledge of deductive syllogisms and the songs of Don McLean! I spent seven great years with him working as a criminal defence solicitor in East Lothian with a practice covering everything from murder to night poaching.
You were a former Appeals Counsel for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for two year. How did you get involved in that and how did you find the experience?
I had been called to the Bar for about four years when I decided to take the summer off and go to film school at Columbia University in New York for a couple of months. (It was honestly not a midlife crisis, I was too young!) During that time away doing something so different, I got a real chance to review what I liked and didn’t like about my legal practice. I realised I wanted a new intellectual challenge and I wanted to spend some time outside of Scotland (which is not easy when you have a Scots law degree). So I applied for a job at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
I found the work challenging and rewarding – I was learning a whole new legal system that, relatively speaking, was still in its infancy. We were dealing with cases that were legally and factually complex. I thoroughly enjoyed working with an international team. The perspective brought to legal analysis by lawyers from different systems was fascinating and invaluable. I met some great people and I loved living in the Hague. I did realise that I am much happier being self-employed. The UN is a hugely bureaucratic organisation and the office politics were not for me. Having said that, I would thoroughly recommend that young lawyers try and get some experience in an international organisation outside their home jurisdiction. I definitely came back a better lawyer than I was when I went.
You are the newly appointed Chair of JUSTICE Scotland, congratulations. What motivated you to get involved?
I have always admired and respected JUSTICE’s work. The organisation has had a real impact over its 60 years and that is not an easy thing to do in this field. I’ve attended the annual human rights conference numerous times and without fail been impressed with the enthusiasm of the JUSTICE team. My tenure as a commissioner at the Scottish Human Rights Commission had come to an end during 2015 and I was ready to find a new way to engage with human rights and law reform. JUSTICE Scotland needed a new chair and I was privileged to be asked! I hope that I can help increase JUSTICE’s membership in Scotland because we rely on volunteers and with more people, we can do more. I hope we can attract greater numbers of corporate members to help resource our work. And I hope our events continue to be the place where interesting and innovative conversations about the law are happening in Scotland.
Do you have a top-tip for any students thinking about a career in law?
Take risks. Pursue the subjects that interest you at university, not just the ones you think will get you a job. Law can be very dull and your working life goes on for a long time. So find out what it is you’re passionate about. Nowadays people are very keen on career planning and how to get to where you want to be in 5 or 10 years time. I understand that given the work students put in and the amount of debt they have starting out. And that approach works for some people. But be prepared to keep an open mind – and if an opportunity presents itself for something off-script, go for it.
If you didn’t pursue a career in Law, what would you do for a living?
When I applied to study law, I thought I better have a fall back option in case I didn’t get in. I would’ve been gutted – I had wanted to be an advocate ever since watching Crown Court in the afternoons when I got home from primary school. Anyway I got a place to study English and music so, if I wasn’t a lawyer, I’d probably be an English teacher by day and a mediocre saxophonist by night.