My Story: Dashni Khimji, Reed Smith
Dashni Khimji is a trainee solicitor at Reed Smith. In this article, they detail the hurdles they have overcome in order to land a training contract and outline what law firms should do in order to increase diversity in the profession at entry level.
In a few words, provide a brief summary of your career so far.
I am currently a second-seat trainee, sitting in the Asset Finance team in the Transportation Group. My first seat was Shipping Litigation. Prior to obtaining my training contract, I was a real estate paralegal for almost 5 years at Reed Smith and worked at another regional firm prior to Reed Smith.
At what point in your life did you decide a career in commercial law was the path you wanted to pursue?
When I was applying to university, I did not really know what I wanted to do. At the time, I enjoyed History and chose to study History at Brunel. As I enjoyed History, I thought I would excel. After graduating, I volunteered at a law centre. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to pursue a career in law.
While volunteering, I thought I wanted to qualify into immigration. However, I found myself becoming emotionally invested in cases. I shortly realised that unless I was working on pro bono cases, day-to-day work on similar cases would not be ideal for my mental health. After completing the GDL, I started working as a legal assistant in the commercial property department and then as a Paralegal at Reed Smith. It was at this point that I realised that commercial law was for me. It was exhilarating negotiating leases and I got a rush from completing deals and helping our client’s businesses grow. I quickly found that I was genuinely invested in the deals I was running and cared about the clients. I have not looked back since.
Pursuing a career in law is difficult enough without additional hurdles to overcome and barriers to breakdown. Can you please describe the difficulties you encountered, and how you overcame them?
I am a British Indian, state school educated female who graduated from a non-Russell group university, who did not achieve top A-Level grades. I felt that the odds were stacked against me before I even graduated.
I grew up in a traditional Indian family, where the women in my extended family had not gone to university. Most of the women in my extended family (including my mother) gave up their full-time low-income jobs to raise children and look after the family home. The focus in my community was more on “finding a husband” and “raising a family”. However, my mother never stopped me from going to university and pursuing my dreams, teaching me early on to break down the barriers. Other than my parents, I did not have any mentors growing up let alone any lawyers (or any other professional) in my family to guide me.
My A-Level grades were average, not because I do not work hard, but because I personally find exams extremely stressful. I always felt my A-Level grades would hinder any prospect of obtaining a training contract. This was particularly apparent when I applied to various summer work experience placements and was automatically (and in some cases within minutes) rejected after spending months preparing applications. This massively lowered my confidence and I felt I would never be successful.
During my GDL exams, my grandma passed away quite suddenly and my grades were not as I had hoped. In fact, I ended up taking a gap year volunteering at various charities, a law centre, and working at John Lewis. I almost felt embarrassed by my background and never spoke to anyone about career progression. I did not even apply for training contracts, as I did not feel I was good enough to obtain one.
I was lucky enough to obtain a paralegal position at Reed Smith in the real estate department who were incredibly supportive. Two partners (and their associates at the time) took me under their wing. The team pushed me in ways I did not think were possible. They taught and encouraged me and before I knew it, I was working on complex deals at the same level as junior associates. They showed me exactly what I was capable of, became my mentors, and encouraged me to apply for a training contract at Reed Smith.
I was unsuccessful at the application form stage the first time around. With feedback and plenty of support from the team, I applied the following year and I was incredibly happy to be successful. It was certainly not easy. Training contract applications, at all firms, are designed for graduates, not paralegals. Working as a full-time paralegal meant I was not able to own a business, travel the world, or captain a sports team. I had to find ways to shine through my legal experience and volunteering.
I almost felt as though the bar was raised higher as an internal paralegal than an external candidate was and this was partly due to the pressure I put on myself to succeed. I did not let my own insecurities deter me and fought through the process – attempting to “tick every box”. It was exhilarating to hear when I heard I was being offered the contract and even more heartfelt when my team said they were proud. I now spend a lot of my spare time encouraging and mentoring other paralegals. It has been great to see many changes in the industry and also be part of that change at Reed Smith.
How do you think that diversity in the legal profession is improving? And, in your opinion, what steps still need to be made?
Traditionally, the legal profession was only accessible to the elite. Law firms hire their lawyers based on someone they would be happy to put in front of clients. To obtain a training contract, you would need extremely strong confidence, excellent academics and a concrete support network with mentors.
Additionally, law firms may have only recruited from certain universities. However, Reed Smith and other firms have actually made changes that are supporting diversity. Reed Smith no longer recruit solely from Russell Group universities, making the firm more accessible to everyone.
However, there is more to be done. The graduate recruitment processes are still the same as they were decades ago and still take into account A-Level grades, even when an individual may have far more valuable practical experience.
Many firms are now talking about diversity more openly and changing their application forms to make them more accessible to everyone including small changes like redacting applications when reviewing or prior to interview as an attempt to prevent unconscious bias. At Reed Smith, the Multi-Cultural Network (one of many business inclusion groups) has recently successfully piloted the reverse mentoring scheme to openly talk about diversity and build a diverse workforce.
Whilst the legal industry is taking small steps in the right direction, it is far behind other industries for example; EY has dropped grade thresholds for their graduate programmes and is instead using strengths-based assessments. Although Reed Smith actually adopted a strengths-based approach to the graduate recruitment process many years ago, other law firms are yet to follow. Law firms, collectively, must take action and consider taking similar steps to ensure diversity, not just talk about diversity.
Where do you ideally see yourself in the next five years?
Finally qualified! I hope to be in a position where I am continuing to encourage paralegals and students with a similar background to mine to pursue a career in commercial law.
If you could only give one piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
I would encourage her to be positive, persevere, and do what makes her happy. I would stress to her that if your mentors believe in your abilities… actually believe them! Accept their help and advice, you do not have to do everything on your own – they would not be supporting you or encouraging you if they thought you were not good enough!
Reed Smith is a proud supporter of the AllAboutLaw Employability Programme for socially mobile students.
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