“My career and passion for diversity within law”

Posted by Legal Futures Associate AJ Chambers

Ali-Khan: Be your authentic self

The legal system is increasingly recognising and embracing the value of diverse perspectives, which helps to ensure fairness and justice for all. Shabnam Ali-Khan, partner at London firm Russell-Cooke, sits down with Stuart Whiter at AJ Chambers.

She discusses her background, career and passions within the legal world.

Please could you tell us a little bit about your current position?

I am a partner in the enfranchisement team at Russell-Cooke. The team specialises in residential leasehold matters, such as freehold purchase and lease extensions. We act for landlords and leaseholders.

What has your career journey been like, right from where you started?

My journey started off fairly standard. I did my A-levels and went straight to university to read law. I went to Bar school, as I originally wanted to become a barrister.

When I was there, I quickly realised how competitive the Bar was. This is over 20 years ago, when equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues were not really on the radar. Back then there was less support available for people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) or working-class backgrounds.

There was more of a ‘who you know, not what you know’ theme. I remember meeting people at Bar school who were from rich families and had important legal connections such as QCs for parents. Those were the people who already had pupillages in place.

I am from a working-class background – my parents are immigrants – and I certainly did not have those sorts of connections.

Immediately after Bar school, I went to work for LEASE, a government funded body providing free advice on residential leasehold issues. That is how I came into this area. I still applied for pupillages, having been called to the Bar, but it was super tough. I had interviews but nothing further.

Many of the chambers seemed to favour Oxbridge candidates. I eventually decided to pursue the solicitor route and was lucky enough that my previous employer supported me through what was then known as the qualifying lawyers transfer test and became a solicitor in 2007.

My time at LEASE taught me so much and gave me some fantastic experience before moving into private practice, joining Russell-Cooke in 2015. It enabled me to become senior associate in 2017 and partner in 2021.

I am really pleased it is improving and there is an appetite for change. There are some great events out there to encourage aspiring solicitors. I do some work in the EDI field. It is something I am passionate about, particularly in relation to social mobility and BAME issues.

I met the wonderful Sara Chandler KC (Hon) (a professor at South Bank University) at a Law Society roundtable event a few years ago and have been involved in various events with her, including presenting to South Bank students.

How important/achievable is a set routine in a legal career?

I don’t think you necessarily need a set routine. Although I think it is important to have tools and resources to help you work effectively. Time keeping and structuring my day really help me.

I do sometimes have a tendency to be like a gazelle (maybe less graceful!) and pop up as soon as I hear a notification when I am in the middle of something. Jumping from task to task does not work for me and I try to knuckle down and concentrate on one task at a time.

What are the biggest challenges you are currently facing, both in general and your specific area of expertise?

I think one of the key challenges we face along with many other professionals is fees and the competition out there. Although we receive a large number of enquiries that do convert into instructions, there are those clients who will go elsewhere because it is cheaper, sometimes to their detriment.

This is a specialist area of law and it is important to instruct professionals who are competent and professional. Therefore, it is important to convey that message to clients. Let them know exactly what they are paying for.

The recent emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) may also have an impact on the sector. We as a sector need to keep up-to-date with technology like this and the ways it can benefit the sector.

For example, the introduction of AI may be useful to help with administrative tasks such as billing, document management and sifting through large numbers of cases to find relevant cases and authority for a particular matter. It may contribute to increased productivity, leaving solicitors to concentrate on certain tasks, including strategic analysis of matters and negotiation.

However, understandably, there are concerns it may lead to job losses at law firms with AI taking over certain responsibilities. There is a risk that lay people may begin to turn to AI for advice rather than instructing a professional. The danger with this is, of course, it may lead to errors and the wrong questions being asked.

AI is still in its infancy. Recently I played around with the Open AI chatbot and asked it a question about the Landlord and Tenant Act 1987. The response I received was incorrect because it referred to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. I was able to recognise this mistake instantly. However, a layperson may not have spotted the error.

What is the best advice you have been given?

I have been to many events and met lots of inspirational people. I think one of the main themes of the best advice I have received is to remain true to your authentic self and honour your roots.

I am really proud of where I have come from and my upbringing. It has made me who I am today and it has made me humble and grateful for what I have.

What advice would you give someone looking to pursue a career in law?

I totally agree with being your authentic self. Don’t try to be something you are not. Certainly don’t change who you are fundamentally to fit in. Of course, there will be situations when you need to modify your behaviour and be respectful of a dress code.

Crucially, embrace your diversity. You are going to come across people from lots of different backgrounds and cultures. There will be clients from all over the world.  Use what makes you different to help you connect with a much wider range of people.

What hobbies or activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I qualified as a yoga teacher in 2017 and am lucky enough to teach colleagues at the firm. I really enjoy yoga and it helps me a lot with anxiety and stress. I have a tendency to over-analyse situations and worry a lot. I know this is not good for me and yoga and meditation have really helped me to manage this.

The last few months I have tried to slow down more and exercise greater self-care. For example, every few weeks I have a pamper day which includes a lovely massage and a facial. It is so important we take care of ourselves in order that we can show up better to help those around us.

I also take part in a Historical European Martial Art (HEMA) with a group called the Exiles. There are several around the country and we practice what is known as Fiore. This includes learning plays from Fiore’s manuscript with swords, daggers and unarmed grappling. I absolutely love it. It is a great way to keep fit and we are like a family.


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