Aina Khan OBE is a world-renowned consultant solicitor in London, specialising in the field of International Family Law. She is a leading expert in Islamic and Asian issues.
Stand out, be yourself and work hard
In addition to her demanding cases, in 2014 Aina launched the highly successful campaign ‘Register our Marriage’ (‘ROM’ with the aims of (a) raising awareness of the complete lack of legal rights for those living together without a registered marriage and (b) lobbying for English marriage law to require compulsory registration of all religious marriages, not just those of 3 faiths – Church of England, Jewish and Quaker.
In light of her achievements, Aina was awarded an OBE in HM the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list 2018 for ‘Services to the protection of women and children in unregistered marriages’. As a valued member of the Non-Executive Director Network, we sat down with Aina to learn what drew her to the law, how she met critical challenges in her career and what advice she would impart to aspiring professionals who must break through more barriers than others to stand out and make an impact.
Aina, how do you feel to have been awarded an OBE?
It has been truly wonderful. I never expected to receive an OBE and had to keep it quiet for months before the announcement, not even telling my family. To this day, I do not know who nominated me – though I know it is a rigorous process, with 10 to 15 references sought. The Honours committee’s recommendations go to the Prime Minister and then to the Queen, who awards the honour. The Cabinet Office asks that we use the initials after our name so that we continue to promote our causes. I have come to realise that the Honours system is based on merit and recognises the achievements of normal people, as well as celebrities, who have committed themselves to serving and helping Britain. If you know someone who deserves the award, do nominate them. It is important to recognise talent and sacrifice for others.
What were your motivations to pursue a career in Law?
I originally wanted to become a Doctor, like my mother and grandfather. But I was squeamish about blood, so that dream ended. My father was a solicitor and came home from work every day fulfilled and content. I realised the law could be a force for good and heal mental anguish, so I could pursue the goal of healing from another angle. I have never regretted that choice.
Why did you choose to work as a consultant?
Working freelance for the past 10 years has given me the ultimate freedom to determine my work-life balance. As a working mother, I have the flexibility to work for several days a week from my tranquil home office, whilst looking forward to going into my City office or Club, where I line up meetings over the course of 2 – 3 days. This way, I maximise the fruitfulness of each day but still get a change scenery when needs be, without the constant interruptions of an office. You do need to be incredibly disciplined, organised, and focused. You must have the confidence that you will be sought after, which makes up for the absence of statutory sick pay and holiday entitlement. The best tip I can share is to be smartly dressed and punctual, regardless of where you work.
You are seen as an example of women breaking through the Glass Ceiling. What advice would you give to those facing barriers to opportunity in the workplace?
There has been a depressing regression, certainly in the legal sector, with the resurgence of a highly elitist system and restricted opportunity for City-based experience. We were more diverse 20 years ago. Now it is much more about being privately educated, going to a top university and parents setting up internships via their networks. To counteract this, I mentor non-elite individuals who need a lucky break – who face layers of glass ceilings, including race, religion, disability and social status. I am especially proud to have personally trained dozens of young lawyers to qualify, who are now running their own firms or are in successful careers. Recognising that I can inspire a passion for the law in others, I offer internships as a way to ‘pay it forward’.
To those individuals seeking to break through barriers, I would advise first to accept the harsh reality – take it on the chin and become 10 times better than your counterparts. Fine-tune your writing skills, expand your cultural knowledge and, if not a native speaker, focus on your eloquence and fluency in the targeted language. When you truly are the best candidate for the position, your merit shines and simply cannot be questioned. This will, in turn, boost your confidence immensely.
If you cannot or do not want to break into mainstream employment, make a niche for yourself. Use your perceived disability as the ability to stand out in a sea of grey suits and do something exceptional. To illustrate, I started my own firm as soon as I was able. We became only the 25th law firm in the UK to receive the prestigious ‘Investor in People’ award in 1996, an outstanding achievement for a small firm. We then started winning awards and expanding. I sold the firm 10 years ago to focus on my young family and have a more harmonious lifestyle as a Consultant.
What advice would you give to directors to increase diversity in senior positions?
Continually hiring those who look the same as you is dull and stagnating. Evidence shows that firms with women and higher diversity in their leadership team are more successful. Bringing in people of different faiths and cultures to provide different perspectives enhances your offering. In the context of the post-Brexit narrative, this is even more imperative.
As a tangible measure, take the names off CVs, give them numbers and then look blind at the application. You will act solely on merit to make your decision. In the interview, you will be pleasantly surprised. It is true to say that we all have some inbuilt prejudices, whether we acknowledge this or not. So taking a step back and viewing the situation as objectively as possible will be of benefit to you, the individual and your firm.
You are a member of the Non-Executive Director Network. What have been your highlights of the Network so far?
The networking events have been superb. Last year’s conference, ‘Winning in the Boardroom’, was well put-together and kept us engaged all day. I would advise members to participate in as many events and pieces of training as they can and network, network, network.
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