BRADFORD-born Sohail Ali, who graduated with a First from Oxford University, has just been promoted to Partner at the largest international law firm in the world at the age of 37.
It is a hugely significant milestone and makes him the first ever South Asian or Muslim lawyer to be promoted to Partner in his practice area at the firm anywhere in UK or Europe. The accomplishment is particularly impressive as DLA Piper, a US$ 4.5 billion turnover business, which traces its roots back over 200 years, has almost 100 offices located in more than 40 countries throughout the world.
He tells Bradford Means Business why, with sheer perseverance and a relentless drive for constant progress, success is not only possible but inevitable.
“It is a hugely satisfying feeling to become Partner. To achieve that milestone in your mid-30’s, which is a relatively young age to become a Partner in an international law firm, feels incredible.”
He didn’t tell his parents the news until he got ‘The Call’ – the telephone confirmation from the firm’s CEO and Global Managing Partner in February that he had been promoted to the firm’s partnership after a rigorous nine-month process involving exams, multiple interviews with the firm’s Executive and Board, scrutiny of business plans, client testimonials and performance reviews.
“Every young lawyer sets out hoping one day to make it as a Partner. However, the reality is partnership remains a largely exclusive club, particularly in large corporate law firms. Generally, it requires the backing of your line manager and you need to be nominated to go through the “process”. Firms are looking not only for excellent technical lawyers with a strong financial track record and leadership skills, but lawyers who are entrepreneurial and who will grow and develop the business. In essence, someone who has the X factor who will grow the pie not just take from the pie.”
Sohail clearly has that X Factor.
His star quality was evident from an early age and he was promoted and encouraged by his determined father, Allah Ditta.
At the age of six he had a regular spot on a local community radio station and at the age of eight he made his maiden speech at the House of Commons on the plight of Kashmir.
He passed the Bradford Grammar School entrance exam the same year, making him one of a handful of Asian/Muslim entrants at the time, and was consistently top of the class.
“Bradford Grammar School provided me with the ideal platform to succeed. The academic and extra-curricular facilities were first class and unparalleled at the time. I particularly enjoyed being part of the debating competitions, the highlight being selected for the England English Speaking Union Debating Team which competed with countries from around the globe.”
Sohail was also a keen cricketer, representing his city and county at junior age groups, and his boyhood hero was the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Unsurprisingly, Sohail sailed through his GCSEs and scored a full suite of top grades in his A-levels of English, History, Politics and Economics and went on to study law at St Edmund Hall College, Oxford.
“My dad was very keen for me to go to Oxbridge and I wanted to emulate my idol, Imran Khan (an Oxford University alumnus) and so the decision as to where to go to university sort of made itself.”
It was inevitable he would go into law.
“It was quite organic. Growing up people would say to me, ‘you’re going to make a great lawyer’ because of my public speaking and debating. That constant encouragement, coupled with my innate strengths in the Arts subjects, meant law was a natural fit.”
After obtaining a Distinction in his first year law exams and being made a ‘Scholar’ by Oxford University, Sohail received his first job offer after just the end of his second year of studies.
“In hindsight, becoming a lawyer was a relatively seamless process. I was offered various contracts by international law firms whilst I was still at University. I was offered a £10,000 sweetener, an offer to have my Legal Practice Course (LPC) fees paid for in full (which was a further £10,000), a starting salary of £50,000 and an opportunity to work at one of the biggest law firms in the world and to travel across the globe. I was 19 years old and this type of world was completely alien to me. I naturally seized the opportunity.”
His work took him to Dubai and then London but ultimately, he came back to settle down in Bradford to work for DLA Piper in Leeds.
It sounds like it all came so easily but he admits that this was not always the case and there were occasions he did feel like a fish out of water.
“My dad was a taxi driver and my mum supported him tirelessly working long hours in factories, peeling onions and potatoes or packing magazines in order to be able to provide for us as a family. In turn, I was mixing with very privileged people, but I very deliberately never tried to hide my background.
“Getting a First wasn’t due to natural ability alone. I think it was Thomas Edison who once said ‘genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.’ Success is not what you wish for, but what you work for. It’s the culmination of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”
Sohail never forgot his roots and is heavily involved with helping others from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He was one of the founders and a steering committee member of Mosaic, a race and ethnicity network at his firm, DLA Piper. The network aims to educate, celebrate and promote diversity of lawyers from all backgrounds regardless of race, colour or creed.
He was also involved recently in a ‘reverse mentoring’ programme at the firm where he mentored the Senior Partner and Global Co-Chairman on issues related to diversity and inclusion.
“The sessions were hugely beneficial for the both of us. We spoke openly about our backgrounds and experiences, discussed difficult and sometimes sensitive issues such as race fluency and unconscious basis, whilst also discussing the challenges that people from ethnic minority backgrounds sometimes face with a view to creating a genuinely more inclusive and understanding workplace.”
The father- of-three who married his wife, Saira, when he was 27, is now looking to take his family out for a well-deserved celebratory meal once lockdown restrictions are lifted.
“Of course, there will be roadblocks and obstacles in life, but that is true for most people regardless of race or ethnicity. I prefer to think positively, and I believe there are a lot more things which are within our control, such as how hard we work, than are out of our control.
“People regularly assume that I must come from a middle-class background, that I must have had a silver spoon in my mouth and I say no, honestly, I’m just a local Bradford boy and a son of working class immigrant parents. Without their vision and success, I most probably would have been yet another one of the statistics in Bradford. If I can do it, with the far greater resources and opportunities now available, so can others.”
His advice. “Aim big, aim for the moon, and if you miss, you’ll likely land among the stars.”