The Journal Article: 11th July 2005
Solicitor Liaquat Latif aims to combine running a successful law firm with making a real contribution to the community around him. Graeme King heard his story.
There is nothing flash about the home of Latif Solicitors. There is no brass plaque at the front door, no showy corporate logo above reception, and founder Liaquat Latif does not try to impress you with the scale or style of his office.
The quietly spoken lawyer shares a high ceilinged room in an office building on Westgate Road in Newcastle city centre with his PA. Their work areas are divided by filing cabinets and shelving, and piles of Latif’s clients’ papers are on every surface though not haphazardly, as our portrait might suggest.
Latif is focused on what he wants to achieve in his business life, but also aware of the role he has to play outside his office with his family and in the community.
He makes conversation easily, and speaks in the same measured tone throughout the interview, occasionally breaking off to smile and laugh at a memory from his university days or from one of his early jobs
The 34-year-old is part of a new generation of British Asians born and brought up in the North-East who are ambitious to achieve and make their mark on the region, both within the Asian community and as part of wider society.
He has lived all his life in Newcastle, apart from a few years away at university and on those early steps on the career ladder, and is passionate about contributing to the development of the region, though he also has a strong sense of his heritage and the significance of his parents’ roots in Pakistan.
As he tells his story, it is peppered with “positive experiences” and he seems to delight in his narrative, overturning perceptions that being a British Asian might be tough in terms of gaining acceptance and being allowed to be part of mainstream society.
He clearly takes the view that life need not be hard if you have the right attitude even though much of his work must have shown him how petty and narrow minded the British “system” can be.
He has worked in asylum and immigration law for a number of years now, and already runs his own firm at quite a young age.
He expresses frustration at the constant checks and audits which firms like his must endure to keep practising, and his left-leaning politics come to the surface occasionally as he takes a swipe at the right-wing Press skewing the debate on asylum and immigration.
He wants to help talented people from around the world to come to the North-East, and to stay here, to help build the economy of his home town, and the wider region.
He says: “I was born in the West End of Newcastle, and then we moved out to East Denton. We were the only Asian family in the whole area.
“We went to a middle school in West Denton and at one time me and my brother were the only two Asians in the whole school.
“We were always brought up with a mixed viewpoint some of the problems arise when you don’t have that.”
For secondary education, Latif’s parents were not keen on their children attending either of the local high schools, as neither had the best reputation at the time.
So Liaquat, the eldest of six children, was sent to private Eastcliffe Grammar School in Gosforth.
He says: “That was a very positive experience maybe not the best academically, but we had fantastic life experience. I was made up as head prefect the first Asian boy to do that.
“My dad was one of these people who came to the UK in the early 1960s, created a successful business here, but also kept his own religious and cultural identity.
“He used to have a clothes warehouse in Waterloo Street, near Central Station. He employed 20 to 30 people, manufacturing clothes, doing wholesale.
“He learnt English quickly he is perfectly fluent with no accent at all. In the firm here, we impress on clients the importance of language and the doors it opens.”
Latif says all his brothers and sisters have done well at school and are now in good jobs or studying at university.
His eldest brother Khalid is office manager at Latif Solicitors, his eldest sister Shabnam is a senior laboratory worker at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle and is completing a masters postgraduate degree.
His second sister Shabeena is a lawyer at Latif Solicitors too, second brother Asif works in IT, and his youngest sister Fatima is studying medicine at university.
He says: “My dad always had a soft-natured approach to help neighbours, friends and family. He would have made a very good lawyer.
He has pushed me, and been very supportive in this direction.”
After finishing school in 1989, Latif moved to London to study law.
He says: “I went to the University of North London in Highbury, which was great for an Arsenal fan.
“University was fantastic many of my best friends I met then. One of them was Sadiq Khan, who is now the MP for Tooting and a bit of a rising star in the Labour Party, with a moderate Muslim voice.”
After finishing his formal legal studies at Northumbria University, Latif sought his first job but found it hard to get what he wanted.
He remembers: “I found it really difficult to get any experience, to get a foothold in any law firm. I wrote to lots of firms but for six months I did not find anything.
“Eventually I spoke to my dad, who has a big influence on me, and he said to look for legally linked jobs. He’s always been quite pragmatic.”
So Latif went to work as a fair trading officer with Lancashire County Council in Burnley.
“I had an interest in immigration law, maybe because of extended family it moulds you on how unfair immigration law is and I thought pragmatically it would be a useful basis on which to sell myself. Not many firms did it.”
After Burnley, Latif moved across the Pennines to Sheffield to work for the Citizens Advice Bureau as an immigration case worker, which started him off in his later career.
After two years in Sheffield, Latif eventually got his first job in a firm of solicitors in Middlesbrough. “I had carried on applying for jobs with solicitors, and eventually got a training contract with Doberman Horsman.” He says the firm was quite old-fashioned and he had to do any task that came in his direction.
“I even did odd jobs for the firm,” he says. “Like there was a filing system housed out on an old industrial estate, and I had to sort it all out.”
Then Middlesbrough saw quite an influx of refugees to the area and an opportunity presented itself for Latif to use his knowledge to good effect.
He managed to get a fledgling immigration department off the ground.
He says: “I did advice sessions in the Middlesbrough Refugee Service and I built a pretty good reputation which helped us to get a Legal Aid contract.
“I had a lot of clients and Doberman Horsman wanted me to stay on. But David Gray in Newcastle headhunted me he was short of an immigration solicitor up here.”
He worked at the Westgate Road firm for nearly four years, and has fond memories of his time there.
“David is a very decent man. He was fighting for the underprivileged, and he was very principled. I learnt a lot from him about being committed to the client, being committed to a case, about never giving up.
“The right-wing Press went on about the kind of Legal Aid work we did being easy money for lawyers but if anything it was a loss-leader.”
Eventually Latif went independent with his own firm just across the road from David Gray.
He says one of the main drivers to be his own boss was his responsibilities with his family.
He is married to Samantha, a basic skills worker for the TUC. They live in North Shields and have two children, Hannah, five, and Amy, two, plus Jacob from Samantha’s previous relationship.
He says: “I have a mixed marriage, and my wife has been a massive influence on me she was really supportive in setting up the firm.
“The reason why I set up the firm was that I wanted to have proper work/life balance.
“I have always been really family oriented and this set-up allows me to be that way.”
Since forming Latif Solicitors in 2002, the founder has moved his firm away from its original focus on asylum work, paid for with Legal Aid, to concentrate on private practice immigration work though he still does monthly legal advice sessions in community centres to make a contribution to the community. He says: “I employ four people and it’s difficult to make ends meet just with immigration work.
“There’s no other law firm like us everyone else has got other departments to provide support.
“We went from being 100% Legal Aid practice, down to 50%, and now we have just given up the Legal Aid contract fully.
“I have stopped doing refugee asylum work, and I now predominantly do immigration work permits, marriage cases, student cases, business cases such as people from abroad wanting to set up a business here.”
Latif, recent winner of two Equality Awards for his work, explains how the work he does can be very difficult as two parts of the same process can be seen to contradict each other.
“Work permits have got criteria there is a need in the UK for both skilled and unskilled workers, but even when a worker from abroad has got a work permit, they still have to apply for a visa too.
“So you can have a situation where a work permit is granted, but a visa is refused on the grounds of the disparities between the economies of the individual’s home country and the UK.
“In Bangladesh someone might earn 30 per month, while here they would earn 500 to 600 per month, and the argument is that people will not go home once they have come to this country.”
He is concerned that immigration law is getting more hard-nosed, and fears the loss of the right to an appeal on immigration cases.
He conducts his own immigration appeals at the court in North Shields, rather than employing a barrister. He says: “This region could miss out on the workers it needs it really seems like immigration is a second class area of law.
“People with 25 years’ experience have to do exams every two to three years to carry on practising.
“In the firm here, we are working on a system to make links between overseas job candidates and employers.
“I am born and bred in Newcastle, and I want to help this area.
“I have got contacts in the universities, and there is a problem with retaining students in the local economy.
“The pool of foreign talent is there in the universities, but employers are frightened of the work permit process.
“And universities want to show retention of students in local employment it’s a great advert to get more students in.
“Scotland has started a new scheme called New Talent, and the Scottish Executive has new powers to make it work.”
Latif is very much aware that as a businessman in 21st Century society, he has a role to play beyond simply turning a profit.
He says: “All these issues I talk about have a shared link one thing I’ve realised is that you can help people in local communities, and you realise you have a voice.
“A lot of businessmen are just making money not helping people that need help. It’s all about a balance between financial stability and helping others.
“To help others creates a positive role for your business as well as the genuineness of helping others.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Soloman’s [correct] in Denton Burn, Newcastle.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Laurel and Hardy films.
What’s your favourite book?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
What’s your favourite film?
Carlito’s Way, directed by Brian De Palma.
What was the last album you bought?
Up All Night by Razorlight.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
“Just like that” in a Tommy Cooper way.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
To recognise the importance of good staff.
And what’s the worst?
Don’t run a business, it’s too time-consuming.
What’s your poison?
I don’t drink.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I got £80 for working as a play worker one summer.
How do you keep fit?
Playing fivea-side football and badminton.
What’s your most irritating habit?
I laugh at my own jokes.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Al Pacino, Nelson Mandela, Viv Richards and Pele.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good father and husband who got on with people from all walks of life.
- W Denton Middle School, Newcastle; Eastcliffe Grammar School, Gosforth.
- 1989-1992: University of North London.
- 1992-1993: Northumbria University.
- 1994-1995: Fair Trading Officer, Lancashire County Council.
- 1995-1997: Immigration case worker, Pitsmoor Citizens Advice Bureau, Sheffield.
- 1997-1998: Trainee solicitor, Doberman Horsman, Middlesbrough.
- 1999-2002: Solicitor, David Gray Solicitors, Newcastle.
- 2002-present: Founding partner, Latif Solicitors.