In interview with...
Family Solicitor, BLM Law
Yasmin Khan-Gunns is a family solicitor at BLM Law in London. Yasmin specialises in matrimonial and divorce law. We interviewed Yasmin to find out more about the day in the life of a family solicitor in London!
What made you choose a private client practice area? Did you ever consider a commercial area of law?
Throughout university, I heard so many stories about the environment and culture of commercial law firms in London, including the hours being extremely long, targets being extremely high and work-life balance extremely poor. The more I looked into it, the more I found this to be true; I had friends who would regularly work until 12am/1am including having to be on-hand to reply within x amount of time on weekends; they were always stressed and under pressure, wishing that they had chosen another area of law but feeling trapped in the area that they had chosen or fallen into. This was not the life I wanted and I knew that for me, it would not be sustainable psychically, emotionally and mentally in the long term.
In addition to the above reason, the pay did not particularly impress or attract me. Whilst commercial law firms pay trainee solicitors very well, it only takes a simple maths calculation to work out that many of these trainees are working double the hours (or more) when compared to trainees in 9-5 law firms.
Finally, commercial law did not interest me. I did commercial law and company law in my third year of university and whilst I was good at it, I didn’t enjoy it. I found it boring, transactional and reasonably repetitive.
For all of the above reasons, I knew that I wanted to work in a private client area of law. I spent some time doing employment law at Slater & Gordon which I thoroughly enjoyed; the cases were interesting and there was a good balance between court litigation and settlements outside of court. I also did a 6-month seat in residential property which I grew to enjoy by the end. I particularly liked how fast-paced it was and I enjoyed reading leases and considering the results of property searches, such as drainage and water, coal mining, environmental and local authority searches.
Ultimately, I completed an 18-month seat in private family law and qualified into this area. The work is very interesting and varied, as no family set up is the same. The work involves substantial client contact, including contact with barristers, clerks, the court, experts and independent financial advisors. My hours are typically 9-5 Monday to Friday. I have an excellent work-life balance. The pay is good with scope to earn substantially more at a senior associate and partner level. There are plenty of opportunities to attend networking events and training seminars.
What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers that are currently undecided on which route they want to go down?
Talk to people who have completed work experience, vacation schemes and training contact seats in both commercial law and a private client area. What are their honest opinions? Reach out to newly qualified solicitors and ask them the same. I spoke to people who worked in high street law firms right through to people who worked in magic circle and US law firms. You may also find speaking to your careers advisor at university helpful.
If you can, try to obtain work experience in as many areas of law as possible. For example, I did some shadowing at Croydon Magistrates Court (Crime) and Uxbridge County Court (civil disputes). I did a few months of volunteering at Camden Community Law Centre (immigration). I did a one- week work placement at Lewis Silkin (commercial). I also did a two-week vacation scheme at Thomson Snell and Passmore (clinical negligence, dispute resolution, family and wills & probate). You should try to attend insight days and events at a wide range of law firms.
Finally, use resources on Google to gather as much information as you can about both routes. I used Chambers Student Guide, Lawcareers.net, allaboutlaw, thestudentroom and so forth.
Can you describe a typical day as a family lawyer?
There is no typical day, which is why I love family law.
Broadly speaking, the cases I deal with fall into the below categories:
• divorce and the division of finances on divorce;
• disputes between parents regarding children;
• wealth protection agreements, such as pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements and separation agreements;
• property disputes between unmarried couples and civil proceedings; and
• domestic violence emergency protection orders, such as non-molestation orders and occupation orders.
My caseload is predominantly divorce and finance based, with assets typically ranging from £5 million up
to £60 million. I spend a lot of time drafting offers to settle financial claims on divorce and analysing financial documents and single joint expert valuation reports (property, company, pension and tax). Then, I advise the client on my findings and liaise with various parties as to the best way forward. If appropriate, I try to settle financial claims outside of court and between solicitors. If not, I spend time preparing for court and speaking to barristers to plan a case strategy. Many of my cases involve interim court applications, such as applying for an order to freeze assets or to undo a transaction that was done to defeat my client’s claims on divorce, such as transferring a property to a third party or removing assets out of the jurisdiction. I am also involved in alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, arbitration and private financial dispute resolution hearings. In the background to all of this, I liaise with independent financial advisors, investment fund managers, private investigators, forensic accountants and ‘shadow’ experts.
If the case is a children case, I spend a considerable amount of time drafting emails and letters back and forth to the opponent solicitor to try to reach an agreement. Disputes often revolve around who the child lives with and how much contact the other parent should have, issues involving medication, religion, education and child maintenance and disputes where one party wishes to travel on holiday with a child or permanently relocate abroad with a child. Again, if necessary, I will issue court proceedings and this involves the drafting of witness statements, preparation of exhibits, the involvement of Cafcass (who are an independent organisation tasked with looking after the interests of children) and potentially the appointment of a children’s Guardian. If the case involves one parent wishing to relocate abroad with a child, careful consideration is needed as to how best to present the case to the judge. The relocating parent will need a solid, comprehensive and well-thought-out witness statement and in these types of cases, it is common to an independent social worker to assess the child and even medical professionals such as a psychologist or psychiatrist to assess the relocating or remaining parent.
If the case involves a wealth protection agreement, the majority of my time will be spent drafting the agreement, negotiating the terms with the opponent solicitor, liaising with financial advisors, liaising with the private client department, advising the client to seek legal advice abroad if they have assets in another jurisdiction and considering this advice.
If the case involves a property dispute between an unmarried couple, a detailed consideration of the law on trusts is needed. It is advisable for the parties to attend mediation and if this does not solve the dispute and if an agreement cannot be reached between solicitors, I will need to consider whether to issue civil proceedings under the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 (rather than family proceedings under the Family Law Act). This area of law is very complex and we always seek advice from a barrister before issuing; the general rule in civil proceedings is that the loser pays the winners costs whereas in family proceedings, the general rule is that each party pays their own costs.
Finally, if the case involves obtaining domestic violence protection orders, I would need to act swiftly. I would draft a witness statement and place the case before a judge on an urgent without notice basis. I would then need to instruct a process server to personally serve the court documents on the respondent. The court will list a court hearing and I would need to prepare for this. Often the court will order the police to provide us with police disclosure. The court may also order the client’s GP to provide medical disclosure.
When working with vac scheme students or trainees, what do you think makes them stand out to you?
Confidence. I am always impressed by a student who comes up with a good idea and then has the confidence to voice that idea. Similarly, I am always impressed by a student who points out an error that I have missed or who points out an alternate but better way of doing something.
A can-do attitude. It is important that a student at least tries to carry out a given task and does so with a can-do attitude. In my opinion, it is better to try and fail (and learn from the process) than refuse/shy away and learn nothing.
Asking for help. Following on from the above, it is important that a student recognises when they need help and asks for it. There is little point in spending hours try- ing to work something out when asking someone could resolve the issue in 5 minutes. This is a far more efficient use of everyone’s time.
A student should try to have a good understanding of the case and law relating to the case, be mindful of the client’s objectives and concerns, organised, work well under pressure, have good time management skills, able to communicate effectively and in a clear and precise manner, be approachable and able to build rapport with both clients and colleagues and ideally, be willing to engage in activities such as charity initiatives, marketing initiatives, business development initiatives and networking.
What traits do you think make a good family lawyer?
Listening and not presuming. A family lawyer must actively listen to their client and understand what they want from the process. Every client wants something different. For some, it may be important to remain living in the family home and for others, it may be important that they keep their pension untouched. For some, it may be important to reach an agreement out of court as soon as possible, even if that means settling on less favourable terms and for others, it may be important to see the case through to a final hearing on a matter of principle. For some, it may be important to spend as little money on legal costs as possible and they may only want your advice on an ad- hoc basis and for others, money is not an issue and they would be happy to instruct as many third parties as necessary and have as many conferences with barristers as needed to ensure that the case is dealt with as carefully as possible.
Strong analytical skills. It is crucial that a family law- yer is able to identify, analyse and critique witness statements, pleadings, financial disclosure, expert reports and case law. This skill is needed on a day to day basis.
Empathy and robustness. Given the nature of family proceedings, a family lawyer needs to show their client empathy and compassion. That said, a family lawyer must remain level-headed and must not let their emotions dis- tract them from the job. A client seeks reassurance in a family lawyer but at the same time seeks an impartial view, realistic advice and practical direction.
Excellent communication skills and the ability to cut through and summarise large amounts of information. A family lawyer must be able to communicate clearly and summarise the key points precisely. Often, client’s are busy parents or busy professionals and they do not have the time to read lengthy documents, advice, legislation, letters or emails from you or the opponent solicitor.
In addition to the above, a family lawyer must be good at negotiating, drafting, proof-reading, litigating, researching, aware of their client finances and how worldly events such as Covid or a dip in the stock market may affect them, able to uphold strict confidentiality and privacy, provide excellent client care and ability to network, market themselves and the law firm and develop business and client referrals.
What have been your most interesting cases to date?
...International Abduction Case...
I acted for an Applicant Father in the reported case of T (A Child Hague Convention proceedings)  EWHC 3554 (Fam). The Father sought the return of his young son to El Salvador in interna- tional child abduction proceedings. The son was 61⁄2 and had been born to the parties in El Salvador. The parties divorced in 2014 and the Father spent regular time with the son. In late 2014 the mother married another man who lived in London. In July 2015, the father agreed to the mother taking the son on holiday to Miami for a week. Whilst there, the mother flew to London with the son without the Father’s knowledge or consent. From that date, the Father had no direct or indirect contact with the son. The Father instructed us through an international organisation. We sought disclosure orders from HMRC providing the mother’s whereabouts. The Father sought the return of the son to El Salvador. The Mother refused, primarily on the basis of the ‘settlement’ and ‘grave risk of harm’ defence. A Fi- nal Hearing took place in 2016. The judge ruled that the son should remain in the UK. The Father obtained extensive contact with the son during the holidays.
...Islamic Marriage Case...
The family department at BLM acted pro bono for Fatima Hussain, an Intervenor in the Court of Appeal case of Attorney General & Akhter, Khan and others  regarding the validity of Islamic marriages. The Court of Appeal permitted us to intervene in this case which concerned two parties, Ms Akhter (A) and Mr Khan (K) who undertook an Islamic mar- riage ceremony in 1998. The parties had 4 children together and whilst Ms Akhter kept insisting on a civil ceremony, it never happened. Mr Justice Williams ruled that the marriage was a void marriage rather than a non-marriage, meaning Ms Akhter could apply for financial remedy under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (as in the case of married couples). The HM Attorney General appealed. We invited the Court of Appeal to dismiss the appeal, on the basis that we were relying on the judgement to argue that our client’s Islamic marriage to a Mr Adam in 2013 was a void marriage, thereby giving our client the same ability to apply to the court for financial remedy. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal unanimously allowed the appeal and set aside the order of Mr Justice Williams. On the 13 March 2020, we sought permission to appeal to the Supreme Court on three grounds. Our application was supported by Southall Black Sisters, Register our Marriage, JUNO Women’s Aid and One Law for All. Permission was recently refused. This case was widely reported in various newspapers and on TV.