“I couldn’t see career progression, so I made my own opportunities”
I'm second generation. My parents came here from Pakistan because they wanted their children to have the best education in the world. The message from our parents was that education is the one thing you'll never lose or have taken away from you.
Growing up, there weren't many role models that looked like us. My dad worked in the Post Office, and my mum trained as a nursery nurse. Most of my parents’ friends were in retail, mill-work or became self-employed.
Law was never on my radar. I studied chemistry at university and worked in agrochemicals for many years. It was brilliant work. But, after some time, my husband – who is a barrister – said: “Have you ever considered law?”
I felt lost for the first three months of my conversion course. Then the penny started to drop, and I began to get a real feel for it. I completed the Legal Practice Course, then sought out work experience – I went through the yellow pages and wrote to every local lawyer.
But every morning I’d receive another rejection letter. I found conveyancing work eventually, then heard a local firm was looking for a family lawyer. I didn’t know much about family law, but was offered three months of work experience.
I remember going to court for my first hearing, absolutely scared stiff. But I got an affinity for it. I liked to hear clients’ stories and it was a good fit for me. After the three months, the boss offered me a training contract and I qualified in 1998.
I realised family law was for me during one of my first divorce cases. Our client was a South Asian woman who’d experienced domestic abuse. She came to us from another practice after feeling her previous solicitor didn’t understand the nuances of getting divorced in South Asian culture. She told me: “I sat in front of you, and you just got it.” It emphasised the importance of diversity in the law and I still get goosepimples just thinking about it.
I worked for the West Yorkshire Police Force solicitor's department for seven years. It was a step away from family law, but I wanted to learn something new. I worked on civil jury cases involving false imprisonment claims against the police and unlawful arrest. It was one of the best jobs in the world.
But, again, I was struck by the lack of representation. I was the only brown woman, and there was a culture of not asking about each other's religions or cultures, for fear of offending – I found that really odd. One time, I went to a high-profile meeting with senior police officers and about 10 minutes in, when nothing had happened yet, I asked why and they said: “We're waiting for the solicitor to arrive.” They didn’t envisage a brown woman could be in that position.
I didn’t only experience that sort of thing in the police. Early in my career, I had a case against an insurance company. After a phone call with their solicitors, they hadn’t cut off the call. I heard them say: "You just never can tell, with the accents with these Asian people, what their background is.” I was born and raised in this country, so why would I speak any differently?
After many years of feeling underrepresented, I set up my own firm in 2007. Many other South Asian lawyers ended up starting their own practices around that time – I think it was a symptom of how they were feeling in the profession. We’d been denied promotions when working elsewhere so we made our own opportunities.
I returned to the area of law I loved. Family law was growing as an area of practice, and I also noticed our clientele was changing, with more South Asians leaving marriages. We adapted to our client base and made law accessible to those for whom English wasn’t their first language, and we’re sensitive to the cultural nuances of South Asian divorce. For example, there are family dynamics to consider. I remember one client saying that in our culture and religion, when you divorce someone, you don’t just divorce them: you divorce their whole kandaan (family).
I’m now trying to raise awareness within the community about registering marriages. In Islamic law, you have a nikah ceremony and a nikah contract. As Islamic law isn’t recognised in the UK: you can register a marriage at a registry office afterwards. I still have clients coming to me after marriages break down who have not registered their marriage or protected their interest in the family home. Some are elderly women who thought they were legally protected under the nikah. It breaks my heart.
I was also awarded an MBE for my work with the Mosaic mentoring programme. It raises the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged communities to increase their confidence and future employability. After this, I set up the SKB Academy, which provides a soft landing for those trying to access law or return to work by providing work experience. Around 200 people have done work experience with us over the years. I’ve been in their position, and I wouldn’t do justice to myself if I didn’t give the same opportunity to others.
The fact that Lubna Shuja is president of the Law Society means so much to me. As a young trainee, I had opportunities to go down to Chancery Lane. You'd walk along these corridors and see portraits of former presidents who were all men. When Lubna came to Bradford for a presentation, I invited lawyers at all levels to join me in celebrating her achievement, even students. Now young people will see a new picture up there and think: “Actually, this might be the career for me.”