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#HerStory with Khushbakht Shah Jillani

“Youngest female lawyer with her own law firm in Pakistan”

“If I was told this 7 years ago, I would not have believed it.

When I decided to pursue law, I was driven by my intention to help people especially women. I am an empath so naturally my mind was inclined towards saving the world from misery and pain. And a law degree promised to equip me with the tools to do just that.

After graduation, when I ventured into the legal field, I thought I was ready to have a career in human rights but the saturated legal industry offered no space to pursue the path I desired instead I stumbled upon the opportunity to work at a multinational corporation as a legal consultant. Fearful of not having many options to choose from, going against my instincts –I accepted the offer. Few months later I joined a law firm that trained me in corporate transactional matters. After these two experiences, even though I learnt a lot, I felt unsettled. To address that, I resigned and joined an independent lawyer without pay, who taught me the basics, from filing a case to representing the client in court. After 5 months, I joined a top litigation law firm where I finally began my training in human rights as well as commercial, civil and criminal litigation. After some time, I decided to go solo and finally in 2022 –I started my own firm.

The journey from one firm to the other was not easy. It took me 16 + hour work day, no social life, strenuous court days and continuous low pay to make the hard decision to bid adieu to the law firm life. Despite the drawbacks, I kept moving forward and soon ventured into solo practice very early on in my career –many said I have made a mistake –I kept goingregardless.

My first case, entrusted to me by my cousin, was a civil service matter. It required me to study the entire legal jurisprudence around it. I reached out to my mentors in the industry to ask them if I am correct in my strategy. I did not give myself the room to make mistakes because I couldn’t afford them, knowing well that this is an opportunity very few get, and this determines my chances of paving a career in law on my own. On the hearing day, the court room was filled with senior lawyers and men –as a civil service matter, each hearing in this matter gathered 20 people including government officers (petitioners/respondents), advocate general office staff, lawyers and their juniors on almost every hearing so the optics of it were not so promising and I would attest to the fact that it wasn’t the most accommodating environment for a novice like myself. I managed (though hesitantly) to outshine the others with my grasp on the law, despite the unfavorable settings; and I won the case.

As a victorious lawyer, the amount of confidence it gave me was tremendous. I made money, helped my clients get the best possible relief, and most importantly it was an affirmation that contrary to what I have been told–I can in fact do a very good job. This victory was personal. It acted as a cure to my 3AM overthinking that cropped up time and again. In hindsight, I still get goosebumps thinking about it; and if ever, I felt under-confident, this experience was my way of regaining my confidence and restoring my faith in my abilities.

There had been moments where I almost succumbed to the pressure of a less demanding 9-5 role instead of a tedious litigation cyclic role. But as they say –you find your path if you are consistent and persistent. Did I question my decision? YES. Every step of the way. I was young, naïve, scared –but more importantly hopeful, excited and fascinated by law, which helped me stay firm upon my decision and not diverge easily.

For more than a year, I practiced independently and I realized that for business purposes, I should work as an organization rather than a solo player. Many clients, especially businesses, are wary of onboarding a solo lawyer unless you have sources/connections within the organizations. Although I get many private clients, I wanted to bring companies on board for a consistent flow of money plus the experience of working on different areas of laws. Alhmdolillah, my law firm has completed a year in the legal industry from one employee to now 4 people in the team who are respected, accommodated, trained/mentored and paid well. None of my interns are on unpaid arrangements; and I am actively invested in the professional growth of each associate at the firm. We have Pakistan Stock Exchange as our client along with two startups working on femcare and nutrition; and a portfolio of more than 60 cases. I have deliberately kept my scope of work limited because, while I manage a business, I am also a litigator and I need to do the deep legal work for my representations before the High Courts. And the latter always takes precedence for my vision to come to fruition.

I am not running the firm with the aim of only bagging clients and earning money. Yes, financial independence is one of the goals, but I am looking at the future of women in Pakistan and the future of the legal industry. I love the law and I want it to evolve in a manner that is adaptable to the societal needs and is inclusive. That is –when I represent a client, I am focused on the both the relief for the client and also development of the legal jurisprudencee through my pleadings and submissions. With that vision –as a young female lawyer, and as an early law-firm –we successfully secured a landmark judgment on section 26 Guardian & Wards Act 1890 –that for the first time, set out the law around the permission to a parent/woman to travel abroad with her child. This judgment has been ordered by the Honourable Justice in the High Court to be circulated in all the family courts in the province, and serves as a precedent to strengthen the women’s access to mobility and freedom of choice.

Apart from and in addition to my contribution to the Pakistani society through my law firm practice, I am also working towards social and gender justice through my nonprofit Adal Aur Sehat (Urdu for Justice & Health). We are focused on destigmatizing the conversation on mental health with a special focus on awareness around neurodivergent brains. Additionally, under its pilot project namely Legal Aid Bureau –we work with victims of domestic violence and create awareness on the law to address the issue of violence at homes and create access to safe spaces and competent legal aid.

Having been deprived of adequate training and mentorship myself, it is my mission to promote growth and exposure of law students and graduates. I have now dedicated a platform “Law Student Coach ®” to enable access for them to coaching and guidance. Through my practice, I am also actively trying to bust myths around female practitioners. This is also the reason that I joined bar association political groups last year with a mission to increase gender parity and representation at the bar and bench. Women are generally hesitant to take part in politics due to male hierarchy but after being a part of it for a year –I have been successful in paving way for my fellow female colleagues to be highlighted for their legal prowess and more. You cannot change the system without being a part of it. So, I believe the only way I can accomplish that is by taking the space in bar associations so that the bar leaders are women deciding for women lawyers. Or feminists’ men could be elected to make decisions that increase women representation and most importantly promote a culture in litigation that is accommodating and conducive to women lawyers’ stature.

My journey continues; and, I want to leave behind a legacy of my own. While I am alive, I want to improve the lives of the people around me and it is THIS purpose that I see myself fulfilling as a lawyer.”

Khushbakht Shah Jillani is the youngest lawyer in Pakistan to build a career independently in litigation pertaining to commercial and civil litigation, family laws, domestic violence, human rights and women’s rights advocacy. She is also the Founder & CEO of Adal Aur Sehat Project, which aims to spread legal and health awareness amongst the masses in Pakistan and push for socio-legal reform through its various initiatives. She was awarded the Rising Star of the Year (1st Runner Up) Award in the Women in Law Awards 2021 by the Federal Ministry of Law & Justice, Pakistan for her contribution to the legal industry. She was also featured by the Asia Law Portal amongst the top 30 lawyers to watch out for in 2022 as well as amongst the 30 Legal Innovators in Asia.

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