ULaw alumna Yasmin Khan-Gunns studied the LPC and Masters in Law, Business and Management at our London Moorgate campus. We caught up with Yasmin to discuss her role in family law and get her advice for students following in her footsteps.
After qualifying in 2019, I became a family solicitor at BLM. I was then promoted to family associate in early 2021.
BLM is a top 50 law firm specialising in insurance and commercial law. It has also recently branched out into private wealth, which includes family law.
I work in private family law (as opposed to public family law) advising medium to high net worth individuals on divorce and the division of finances, pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, disputes regarding children, applications by one parent to permanently relocate abroad with a child, cohabitation agreements, property disputes between unmarried couples under civil law, separation agreements and domestic violence protection orders.
There is no typical day in family law which means that my day-to-day responsibilities change. Family law is about the individual client; each case is different to the next as each client’s personal life, financial circumstances and family setup differ.
I spend a lot of time drafting documents, including letters of advice, instructions to barristers, chronologies, witness statements and exhibits, offers to settle financial cases and letters instructing single joint experts.
I also attend court and conferences with barristers multiple times a month. I have recently been in virtual court for the following reasons:
- Children hearing concerning safeguards to ensure that two children are not abducted and retained in the Middle East.
- Private finance hearing (as opposed to a court hearing) concerning reaching a financial settlement in a case where assets exceeded £8m.
- Children hearing where a mother who had retained a child without the father’s permission was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
I analyse expert reports weekly, correspond with clients, barristers, the court and solicitors on a day-to-day basis, and I regularly put together court bundles.
I also carry out a lot of marketing and business development. To be a well-rounded family lawyer it is important to think about how you can market yourself and your law firm to raise awareness, build a reputation and attract new clients.
I use my legal Instagram account @londonfamilysolicitor to interact with people every day. I post slides twice a week about family law topics. I do this to help explain family law to the public, particularly those who cannot afford a family solicitor. I want to help aspiring family solicitors get to grips with family law and understand whether it is right for them.
Networking with other family lawyers, barristers, barrister clerks and independent financial advisors is important too. Family lawyers are always invited to events, from parties hosted by barristers and charity pub quizzes to yearly family law conferences and seminars. Before the pandemic, I co-hosted a cocktail evening class at BLM for family solicitors and barristers, attended an event at the Shard hosted by an independent financial advisor at St James’s Place and went rock-climbing with a barrister and other family solicitors.
I chose to study at ULaw because it had, and still has, a very strong reputation in the legal education market. In addition to this:
- I knew that many law firms use ULaw to train their incoming trainee solicitors.
- I was impressed by ULaw’s London Moorgate building and its general sophisticated and professional study environment.
- I was grateful that I could obtain a Masters alongside my LPC without further charge
- I heard positive things about the ULaw from my friends and university tutors.
ULaw made and kept family law interesting. They did this through engaging workshops and lectures, including lively group discussions, presenting to the class, teamwork activities, mock advocacy, roleplay and board work.
At ULaw, I was motivated and encouraged to apply for training contracts and paralegal roles. They brought in recruitment consultants to assist and I could book a slot with a consultant to discuss my career path. This was extremely helpful. I also used the Employability Service which provided practical information, advice and links to the family law profession.
During my second and third years of university, I chose a mixture of commercial and private client modules, as I was unsure what area I wanted to specialise in. In my third year, I did a family law module, and something just clicked. I found the case law interesting, the topics relevant and relatable and I liked the idea of advising an individual rather than a business. This was not surprising as I had always worked with families and children, including private tuition, managing an afterschool club for children and working as an arts and crafts child workshop assistant.
I went on to choose the family law elective at ULaw. It was very different to my university module but in a good way. It confirmed to me that this was the area of law I wished to pursue. The ULaw elective focused on how family law works in practice rather than the theoretical side. Instead of writing long essays on whether divorce law should be reformed, I was given problem-solving questions and had to draft short, accurate and clear advice. Instead of reading lots of case law and writing broad-brush essays, I considered key family law legislation and principles, and advised fictional clients on what this means for them.
During the first lockdown, I was placed on furlough for two months. This gave me time to work on business development and marketing strategies, along with improving my legal Instagram account.
In terms of family law in general, Covid-19 has had several implications. These are:
- Hearings largely took place and still take place remotely via email, telephone, video or Skype, unless fairness and justice require them to take place in person, and only if it is safe to do so. Whilst there were some initial teething problems, remote hearings are arguably more cost-effective and efficient. However, there are instances where remote hearings have been considered inappropriate. These include where parties have limited access to technology, where a party requires an intermediary or translator or where there is a final hearing, particularly if there are complex issues or the cross-examination of lay witnesses is required.
- Covid-19 led to an increase in solicitor enquiries and court applications regarding children. One of the exceptions to the government's guidance on staying home included allowing children to be moved between separated parents' homes. However, during the first lockdown, there were widespread reports of parents refusing to allow the other parent to see the child and parents refusing to comply with child arrangements orders.
- Covid-19 and the various lockdowns led to a substantial increase in domestic abuse and isolation. This led to an increase in solicitor enquiries and court applications for emergency protection orders.
- Covid-19 created economic uncertainty, which led to people losing their jobs or being placed on a reduced income. It also led to changes in property prices, company valuations, investments, shares, stock prices and pension funds. Family lawyers had to consider this impact on financial settlements on divorce, including finance proceedings, financial agreements already reached, asset schedules and offers to settle.
Working in private family law, I very rarely find myself getting emotional. That’s because I specialise in divorce, finance and wealth protection agreements. In relation to children matters, I empathise with clients who have not seen their child in a long time or whose child is relocating abroad with the other parent. It is certainly not a nice feeling to see a client break down and cry. However, during these times, I remind myself that I am helping and supporting my clients to navigate these legally complex and highly stressful situations. I like to think that I take a burden off their shoulders, making their lives that little bit easier.
Wellbeing is extremely important in family law. Divorce, finances, domestic violence and children disputes are stressful. In addition to this, clients can treat their family lawyer as an emotional outlet, whether that emotion is anger, sadness, denial or depression. Family lawyers tend to inadvertently take on the role of counsellor, therapist, GP and divorce coaches. This can become overwhelming.
Unless I am exceptionally busy or I have a court hearing coming up, I tend to start work at 9 am and log off at 5.30 pm. I do not check my emails after work unless I am waiting for something urgent to come in. I make sure that I take a one-hour lunch break when I walk to get some fresh air or do some other form of exercise. After work, I tend to go to the gym, relax with my family or see friends.
My firm place a lot of importance on wellbeing. During the pandemic, they regularly encouraged us to take breaks from our screens, sent us links to online well-being and exercise programmes and placed slots in our work diaries requiring us to ‘connect with nature’. We have a dedicated wellbeing email address, an Employee Assistance Programme and an app providing us with wellbeing advice. We also have wellbeing ambassadors and mental health first aiders.
I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved in 2021. In April, I was promoted to associate. In July I was shortlisted by Citywealth Future Leaders for two awards; Family Lawyer of the Year (Associate) and Future Leader Initiative of the Year. Then, in September, I was shortlisted by the LexisNexis Family Law Awards for Family Law Young Solicitor of the Year and Family Law Commentator of the Year. I never saw this coming when I was put on furlough in early 2020, so I am incredibly grateful.
My plans for 2021-2023 are:
- Continue to provide guidance and support to the lay public and aspiring family solicitors through my legal Instagram account.
- Reach out and support as many charities and communities as I can on Instagram.
- Apply for Resolution’s Specialist Accreditation in Complex Financial Remedies and Children.
- Continue to build BLM’s London family department and increase its visibility.
- Become a Mental Health First Aider to better support my clients.
- Upskill in the areas of surrogacy and adoption to better serve this community.
My top advice for students considering family law is:
- Consider whether you have or can develop the traits to be a good family lawyer. These include listening to clients and not presuming, strong analytical skills, empathy yet robustness, ability to analyse large amounts of documentation and extract key pieces of information, commercial awareness, ability to negotiate, excellent written and oral communication, ability to draft, ability to research and summarise findings, and client care.
- Try to obtain work experience within or around family law. If you are struggling to obtain experience in the bigger law firms, visit your local high street firm and make some enquiries. Consider applying to work in your local citizen advice bureau who are likely to have a family law department. Also, consider volunteering at a family law related charity, such as a domestic abuse charity.
- Do not underestimate the benefits of non-legal work experience, such as working in a supermarket. You will gain so many transferable skills, including organisation, attention to detail, communication with customers, customer service, working under pressure, the ability to handle questions and complaints and the ability to provide product advice.
- Join Resolution. Resolution is a network of family law professionals. Members include students, trainee solicitors, solicitors, legal executives, barristers, judges, family mediators and financial planners. Student membership is free for the first year gives you access to training, expertise and networks.
- Create a LinkedIn account and follow the family law firms that you are most interested in. Connecting with family lawyers is a great way to keep in the loop and keep up to date. Also, recruiters advertise family law jobs on LinkedIn, and there is a button that you can turn on that lets recruiters know you are interested in a new role.
- Put time into your CV. Get professional help if you need to. You worked hard to get to where you are, so show it off in the best possible way. I would also suggest that you run your CV through Grammarly to check for spelling and grammar errors.
- When looking for a training contract, consider what type of firm you want to work for. You will find family law departments in large commercial firms, regional firms, boutique London firms and local high-street firms. Do not dismiss high-street firms, as they often provide excellent training, hands-on experience, real responsibility, a chance to get involved in marketing, business development and charity work and a good work-life balance.