As part of our series talking to lawyers who are pushing boundaries in the profession, we interviewed Kaleem Khan, a Senior Tax Associate at Travers Smith. Kaleem is registered as blind. He has a genetic eye disorder called Cone-Rod Dystrophy (CRD), his vision started to deteriorate when he was 4 years old.
Tell us how you have got to where you are today.
I wanted to be a lawyer since I was a teenager. I was determined to be financially independent and not to have to rely on anyone, and I knew that if I worked hard and was lucky, law would give me that opportunity. I did face a lot of resistance and some derision from people in school and in some areas of my wider family and community for having this goal. People couldn’t imagine how I could become a lawyer if I couldn’t read documents and legislation. So part of me wanting to be a lawyer was to prove that I could do it both to myself, and to others. I wanted to do something that was challenging intellectually.
I went to Warwick University to study law. Contract law, business and tax law were the most interesting so working for a City law firm really appealed. I applied for a handful of vacation schemes, and I honestly didn’t think I would be successful, it was an aspirational application, much like buying a lottery ticket where you know in your heart of hearts you won’t be successful. I thought my disability would be a huge drawback, and I got a lot of rejections very quickly. But against huge odds, I was successful in getting a place, and was eventually offered a training contract at my previous firm. I did the LPC before doing my training contract, and following my training contract I decided tax was where I wanted to be and qualified in 2017 at my previous firm.
On its face, my journey sounds like a very traditional route into a City law firm but to be completely honest I never thought I’d make it past the application stage so I always assumed that I would never get the opportunity to take all of those steps.
What made you want to become a solicitor?
The idea of being a solicitor appealed because of the team working aspect, I knew I wanted to be part of a team. I also thought a team environment would provide the support – both accessibility wise and pastorally – that I needed to succeed. A barrister is a much less secure career path, and I didn’t think that would suit me in the first few years of my legal career in light of my disability.
Tax law in the City is very much about solving problems with the added layer of doing it in a commercial context. We not only consider the tax position but also ask “how does this fit into the wider business structure of our clients?” To be a good tax lawyer you need to be a good generalist lawyer. You are often advising on non-tax points as well, so its important to make sure the non-tax aspects of a transaction legally work before applying the correct tax analysis. To be a successful tax lawyer, you don’t just look at the tax, you need to take a step back and also consider the impact the tax treatment of a situation may have on your client’s business and work out the implications for the wider business strategy and any reputational risk factors a client may have with respect to tax.
How has your disability affected you as a trainee solicitor/ associate?
I have to listen to documents through specialist screen reading software and I have to spend time to memorise things such as presentations and key negotiation points in a way that my colleagues don’t need to. That can take me longer to work on cases.
I know how good I can be if I have the right support in place, but I have come across many people in law firms who assume I am in my role because my blindness meets some sort of quota, and often these people underestimate me or treat me less favourably.
It’s also common to work with people who think that if you have accessibility adjustments in place, you somehow suddenly become ‘undisabled’ because your adjustments cancel out your disability, and you should be able to work in the same way as everyone else.
As employers, law firms are legally obliged to make the necessary adjustments under disability discrimination laws, but individual people within firms can make such a positive, or negative, difference to the practical impact any adjustments may have. Travers Smith is very supportive. All my adjustments are in place, and I have specific contacts in HR and IT to support me. When I joined the firm, the partners were very engaged, there was a lot of good communication within the firm before I joined to ensure others understood the best way to work with me.
I believe that I am the only person at Travers Smith with a sight impairment and I only know of 2 sight impaired lawyers (across all specialisms and departments) in the City who are more senior than me. So, there is a real lack of peer support for people with disabilities, particularly at the senior end.
Have you ever felt like giving up on the legal profession?
Yes! When I first started my training contract I worked in the banking team, and I found that very dull as my job as a trainee was a lot more administrative than legal! It didn’t fit my skillset at all and was particularly not suited to someone who couldn’t see as it was very hard-copy document heavy. Looking back, it isn’t a surprise that I wasn’t doing particularly well as a result. But a supportive senior partner, Rich Hughes, mentored me and guided me into other areas that were a much better fit for me.
When I was part of a different team, I was given all of the worst cases that nobody else wanted, because I was blind, and in my superiors’ eyes unemployable anywhere else. There was definitely an attitude that I should feel grateful to even be employed and get this work because as a blind lawyer, the view was that “beggars can’t be choosers”. There was a really unpleasant culture in that team, and I had a real sense of dread on a Monday morning before going into work for another week.
Have you ever had any people that you would consider to be role models and if so, how have they helped you?
I did a week work experience with Digby Johnson, a blind criminal lawyer at the Johnson Partnership in Nottingham while at school. He showed that if you have the right support you can do the job although it’s never easy.
Rich Hughes was also key in my training, ensuring I found the right niche to suit my strengths.
As a role model yourself, what advice would you give to people with similar challenges about becoming a solicitor?
I don’t even think of myself as a role model! But you need to believe in yourself. Law is very competitive, ruthless, and highly pressurised. Within this environment you have to be your own advocate to make the environment suitable for you, and to ask for the adjustments or support you need. Looking back, I completely acknowledge that at the junior level this is very difficult. But if you don’t ask for the adjustments, you can’t do the job as well as you are able, so your performance inevitably suffers. It’s a vicious cycle.
One example of where being vocal helped me is when I recently realised that I had been using the same assistive technology since I graduated. I was finding that as I became more senior and my responsibility increased the technology wasn’t up to scratch, so I asked my firm if we could review it. They asked the RNIB to carry out the review and we implemented new technology as a result. I needed time to adjust to this new way of working, so colleagues were asked to support that.
It can be tiring, doing a stressful job, educating other people and advocating for your own needs all at the same time. So look after yourself (mentally and physically) and have confidence in your abilities.
How do you hope the world of work will change over the next 10 years and what one thing would you suggest we could do to help facilitate this change?
We are always going to be in a workforce where some people have a disability. I’d like more people to be aware of disability and how they can adapt their ways of working to make work more accessible. When you are in a law firm, you adapt all the time, to your clients’ needs, to their markets and to which partner you are working for. So, I don’t see it as being very different making adjustments for a disabled colleague. When a lot of people make those relatively small changes, it all adds up to a lot of positive change.
I’d also like to see more people with disabilities represented in leadership roles and this of course starts at the junior end of the profession. I would really like there to be more disabled partners in the city. Thankfully, we now see a lot more women in leadership roles as opposed to a decade ago, and that representation leads to more women starting their careers having leadership aspirations which can only be a good thing. I don’t see why the same can’t be made true for disabled individuals in a decade from now.
Once an organisation has been through the process of hiring someone with a disability once, they are likely to have a much better understanding of what they need to do for the next person. I’m not saying it’s a cookie-cutter exercise, in fact, far from it, but I feel like once an organisation has had one disabled employee, it should have the confidence that it can recruit even more and have some internal infrastructure to help meet their accessibility needs too.
To find out more about Kaleem