By: 30 May 2024
Shanika Varga’s year as president of Leeds Law Society

As Shanika Varga’s tenure as president of the Leeds Law Society (LLS) concludes, her final speech at the annual legal dinner encapsulated a year marked by resilience, inclusivity, and groundbreaking achievements.

From her humble beginnings to becoming the first minority president in the society’s 154-year history, Varga’s journey is a testament to overcoming adversity and championing diversity in the legal profession.

 

Shanika’s background

Shanika’s background is as inspiring as it is unique. Born in Sri Lanka and adopted at ten days old by a British family, she recounted her challenging educational journey and diverse upbringing. “I went to one of the worst schools in the county,” she shared, highlighting her early struggles and the improbability of her current success. Despite the obstacles, her determination never wavered, leading her to a remarkable career in law.

 

“I have tried to speak openly and honestly about the parts of me that I previously hid, create spaces where people are comfortable being their authentic selves, and made it my mission to improve the visibility of diverse role models in Leeds.”

 

Creating opportunities

Her presidency has been characterised by a drive to create opportunities and improve visibility for underrepresented groups within the legal community. Reflecting on her year, Shanika noted, “I have tried to speak openly and honestly about the parts of me that I previously hid, create spaces where people are comfortable being their authentic selves, and made it my mission to improve the visibility of diverse role models in Leeds.” This commitment is evident in the numerous initiatives and events she spearheaded, aimed at fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment.

One of the standout achievements of her presidency was the launch of the LLS’s first-ever family law conference, an event that brought together speakers and attendees to discuss key topics in family law. Additionally, the creation of the minority networking group, Empower, aimed to provide a platform for minority voices within the legal sector. Shanika introduced Empower with a profound African proverb: “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together,” encapsulating her vision for collective progress and support.

 

“Some of those old timers now gone would turn in their graves if they could see how we have become more diverse and flourished together…well let’s keep them turning.”

 

Diversifying the legal space

Shanika’s leadership has extended beyond structural reforms; she played a vital role in hosting the first-ever Regional Admissions Ceremony for solicitors in Leeds, a historic moment that allowed many to celebrate their achievements locally. Her dedication to diversity and inclusion has also been reflected in the activities of the LLS’s diversity and inclusion committee, which saw a return of the annual pride celebration, a sold-out social mobility roundtable, and various events celebrating significant cultural milestones.

Jason Pitter KC, who also spoke at the event, highlighted the progress made in diversifying the legal community since the beginning of his own career. “I first attended one of these events approaching 30 years or so now as a young barrister, keenly attending as the guest of one of the local solicitors. It was a very different entity to what we have now.

The first thing to strike me is how wonderfully the legal community has developed and become more diverse, but not at the expense of excellence. For those who feel out of place now, you should have seen it then.

Some of those old timers now gone would turn in their graves if they could see how we have become more diverse and flourished together…well let’s keep them turning.”

 

 

Trying everything once

Throughout her presidency, Shanika embraced a “don’t say no” policy, immersing herself in numerous events and initiatives despite the personal and professional challenges. She humorously recounted a recent tech event where, despite her self-professed lack of tech-savviness, she took the stage, demonstrating her willingness to step out of her comfort zone for the sake of the society.

In her heartfelt conclusion, Shanika expressed immense gratitude to her colleagues, family, and especially her husband, Ashley, for their unwavering support. “He has believed in me from day one, even when I didn’t believe in myself and I would not be stood here today without him,” she acknowledged, underscoring the importance of her support system in her journey.

 

As Shanika Varga steps down, she leaves behind a legacy of resilience and inclusivity. Her contributions have not only elevated the Leeds Law Society but have also paved the way for future generations to continue her mission of creating a diverse and inclusive legal profession.

 

Image: Provided by Leeds Law Society.
Emma Cockings
Emma is the content editor for Yorkshire Legal News. Emma is an experienced writer with a background in client-centric personal injury law for a major firm. She has attended and reported on numerous high-profile legal events in Yorkshire.