Interview

Snap election series: Moving from City law to politics means working longer hours for less money

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But magic circle solicitor turned Labour MP hopeful Bilal Mahmood says it’s his calling

In the second piece of our snap election series, we speak to Labour candidate Bilal Mahmood. He trained at a magic circle firm and is legal counsel at China Construction Bank; now he’s hoping to topple Iain Duncan Smith MP in his North London constituency.

A Russell Group law degree, a magic circle training contract and years of experience at the commercial law coalface, it seems a safe bet Bilal Mahmood has a prosperous legal career ahead of him.

But not if he can help it. Mahmood is hoping, come 8 June, he can sack it in and become Labour MP for London’s Chingford and Woodford Green instead.

His chances? Middling. In the 2015 election, he scooped up 29% of the vote; the winning candidate — none other than former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith — got 48%.

Mahmood’s expecting to do “a lot better” this time around. The constituency has enjoyed an uptake of new Labour Party members, plus Mahmood won’t be the new kid on the block this time around. “We’ve got more momentum this time,” he tells us, “and I’m in this for the long haul.”

With fighting talk like this, you’d be mistaken for thinking Mahmood had been in politics all his life. Instead, he studied law with politics and American law at the University of Nottingham and then qualified into magic circle giant Allen & Overy. He spent a further two-and-a-half years there, practising international finance and banking law, before taking up a mid-level associate role at Addleshaw Goddard. Now, he’s counsel at China Construction Bank’s London office.

It’s a career many of our readers would dream of, and one the aspiring MP may soon be waving goodbye too. A tough decision? Mahmood explains:

Politics is a passion, a calling. The hours [6am to midnight days during campaigning are not uncommon] are probably longer than working at a City firm, and you’re working for far less pay. But you don’t do it because of that. You do it because you feel it’s important.

And that Mahmood does. Long interested in politics, he spent a degree placement year studying in America. “I got to pick where in the states to go”, he says, “and, in a nerdy way, I chose to go to Virginia Law School because that’s where [American lawyer and politician] Bobby Kennedy had gone.” At the time, George Bush and John Kerry were fighting it out for President of the US glory — a battle eventually won by Republican Bush. Mahmood says:

[Living in Virginia] was hugely important to my career. It was a good experience of seeing how the other side thinks, and realising you can disagree with people’s views without clashing.

Passion firmly instilled, why didn’t Mahmood punt for a career in politics earlier on? He tells us:

I find what I do intellectually challenging and interesting. I get to travel the world, that’s what my job was and career is, but politics was that bit I did outside of the office that kept my mind ticking.

It’s hardly been a waste: just think of the excellent transferrable skills. Time management, dealing with documents, working long hours, keeping on top of projects — “in many ways, campaigning is just like closing a deal.”

While few will doubt Mahmood’s skills and his drive, some may struggle to reconcile his career with his choice of party.

Labour’s left-wing stance can prove a difficult pill for commercial lawyers to swallow; the party’s proposed ‘Robin Hood tax’ is expected to raid billions from the City of London. Indeed, Legal Cheek’s snap election poll shows practising lawyers and law students alike are wary, and would rather vote for Theresa May or Tim Farron.

On this, Mahmood says:

There is a common conception that the City is a Conservative place. The type of Labour candidate that I am is one that is aspirational, I believe everyone should have the opportunity to do well. I joined the party because it wants to make opportunities for people from all walks of life; that doesn’t mean bringing people down but pulling them up.

Mahmood himself understands the importance of having these opportunities.

Schooled in Chingford, he recalls being gently deterred from pursuing a legal career when he first floated the idea. Taking a ‘we want you to do well, but we want you to manage your expectations’ attitude, “lots of people” discouraged him from law, particularly City law. Mahmood likens his early career advice to “fumbling in the dark”.

With a CV like Mahmood’s you’d be forgiven for thinking this had limited impact on his career, but you’d be wrong. City boy Mahmood’s big passion was actually the bar, but it was very difficult for aspiring barristers from low income families to make it. Mahmood came back from Virginia and started to apply for training contracts instead.

“Labour is not about wanting people not to prosper,” Mahmood says. “We have many progressive ideas and we have the opportunity to get into power and do something with these ideas.”

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