Aamer Anwar: I face regular threats to my life; I had to grow a thick skin

Top lawyer Aamer Anwar discusses what viewers can expect from new legal docu-series airing on Sunday.

Aamer Anwar on The Firm: Glasgow lawyer discusses legal docuseries produced by STV Studios STV News

Internationally renowned lawyer Aamer Anwar and his team of criminal law experts are the subject of a new eight-part documentary series.

Commissioned by BBC Scotland, the series of eight episodes will be aired on the channel and BBC iPlayer from Sunday October 8.

Aamer Anwar & Co. have years of experience and professional expertise in representing clients in criminal and civil courts all over Scotland. Anwar has worked on some of the biggest cases in Scottish legal history including the Ice Cream Wars appeal, the perjury trial of Tommy Sheridan and the Lockerbie Appeal.

Anwar’s current caseload includes representing bereaved families in the UK Covid-19 inquiry; at the Public Inquiry for the family of Sheku Bayoh who died whilst in police custody and is described as Scotland’s George Floyd; the families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay who died by suicide in prison; and the mother of murder victim, Emma Caldwell.

Ahead of the show’s launch, Anwar offered an insight into what audiences can expect from the new docu-series.

What can viewers expect from The Firm?

Viewers will get to see the passion, energy and endless hard work that goes into the cases we fight. The series takes audiences on an emotional rollercoaster and they will learn that the wheels of justice can turn very slowly.

What I can promise is that, in-between the dark moments, tears and pursuit of justice, you’ll see laughter, as well as the drive and camaraderie that binds our team. And for the first time, a TV programme will touch upon the demons that drove me to become a lawyer. 

The level of access that The Firm producers had to you and your team was unprecedented. What convinced you to say “yes” when you were approached to take part in the series?

Over the last decade, I have been repeatedly approached to take part in fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but I didn’t want a sensationalist or salacious spotlight shone on our work. I didn’t think anyone could truly portray the work we do with honesty, integrity and compassion, and importantly also do justice for the families we fight for.

But the production team at STV Studios did a tremendous job in gaining our confidence, and it all just seemed to flow.

The series helps you give a voice to the voiceless, like the family of Sheku Bayoh. Was that an important reason for you taking part, and how powerful are the stories shared throughout?

If there is one thing taught to me by families like the Bayohs, it’s that justice is a right and not a privilege. For each case that unfolds in this series, there is heartbreak, grief, anger and pain – which, combined with love, is an unstoppable force.

None of these families ever wanted to be campaigners, but they have refused to be silenced. For some 25 years, my recurring slogan on the steps of the courts has been: ‘The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is the duty of the living to do so for them.’ For these families, The Firm was an incredibly powerful platform on which to narrate their struggles.

How easily did you adjust to being followed by cameras wherever you went?

Aamer Anwar has represented Sheku Bayoh's family throughout the public inquiry into his death

I’m pretty used to appearing on the news, but this was entirely different. For the first time, it was going behind the scenes – the cameras weren’t on the steps of a court or outside a police station, but in our offices, my car or my home.

It was a steep learning curve for everyone in my team. We were all mic’d up, often forgetting we were being listened to or being filmed. The fact we swear like troopers – and I’m quite vain – really didn’t help!

We’re used to seeing you regularly in the news in your professional capacity, often talking tough as you fight passionately for your clients. Will we see a different side to you in The Firm?

The Firm has succeeded in getting under my skin, and managed to turn the clock back, taking me right back to my roots. Over the years, I’ve realised that no one out there understands why I do what I do. No one knows of the childhood trauma, or the true impact of a racist attack by police and everything that followed. We are one of the highest profile law firms in the UK, but one-minute soundbites on the Six O’Clock News do not truly reflect our work.

It surprised me how much the programme managed to chip away at the suited, tough guy exterior that I present on the news. I’m not a machine; I do have feelings and dark moments, and trauma is a part of my life that I’ve had to learn to manage.

I always wanted to write an autobiography but have never had the time, and in some respects, this series feels like a visual one.

The Firm follows you during the busiest year of your career to date, and we see you worrying at times that you might burn out. Did you ever consider that you may have taken on too much?

Over the years, I have – on at least two occasions – burnt out, and they were dark periods of my life. In the middle of campaigns, it is normal for me to get by on three to four hours’ sleep. I worry through the nights, and I take on board the emotion and the pain, which then spurs me on.

But this is the busiest I’ve ever been, with multiple cases and families who expect me to be by their side. Yes, I’m conscious of burnout, but my friends and my team keep me right.

Do you have any concerns about how you may be perceived in the show?

I’ve had to grow a tough skin in this job. My defence of those who are vulnerable – addicts, criminals, religious minorities – more often than not inspires hate. More than any other lawyer in Scotland, I face regular threats to my life. That’s a lonely and scary place to be, and it makes you question your own beliefs.

I know my ego is my weakness, but my friends keep me grounded. In some respects I hope The Firm changes some negative opinions about who I am or what we do. It’s always risky letting the cameras in, but let’s see how it goes!

We see you talking in the series about taking pride in helping to nurture trainees. Is it your hope that The Firm will inspire young people to enter the world of law?

Sooner or later, my time will come to an end, but it has been a lifelong dream to leave a legacy behind. I hope the families who inspire me also inspire a new generation – creating fighters for justice that will act without fear or favour.

Justice is never achieved by a system relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, held up by the vanity of wigs and gowns. No – justice is achieved by ordinary people fighting back. I have hope in our new trainees – they have a sense of injustice, compassion and empathy. But it’s not just about what we teach them; it’s also about what they teach us. They are part of our team and very much the future.

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