Khan & Associates’ founder, Mohammed Faiyam Khan, was practising law before Ronald Reagan became President of the United States.
He was admitted as a barrister in 1980 after qualifying from the famous Lincoln’s Inn, London.
It’s a family law firm, with Mr Khan the principal and his two daughters, Farah and Serish, partners, ensuring the firm’s survival as it heads into an increasingly technologically-driven future.
“When I first came to New Zealand, a conveyancing transaction was about a six-week turnaround. Now, we might get a contract at the beginning of the week with settlement expected by Wednesday,” says Mr Khan.
Mohammed Khan was born in Fiji in 1953 and has lived in several countries, which could partly explain why his firm takes a multicultural approach to practising law.
“Our firm is diverse, multiracial and our staff speak a variety of languages such as Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi as well as English,” he says.
Mr Khan’s family were in the transport business in Fiji, which included operating buses and heavy earth moving machinery, so studying law wasn’t an expected career choice.
After gaining his legal education in England, he returned to Fiji where he was involved in a lot of criminal trials as a practising lawyer.
“I was involved in the first-ever counterfeit trial in Fiji which lasted six months. I got my man off, that’s the kind of work I was doing before moving to New Zealand,” he says.
It was a job offer at Massey University as a tutor that brought Mr Khan across the South Pacific and eventually led to him starting his own law firm. Khan & Associates has been operating in Auckland since 1994.
“Sometimes running a law firm can be like flying on Emirates one day and Air New Zealand the next in terms of the cultural diversity, we deal with,” he says.
And while their clients come from mixed cultural backgrounds, so do many of the lawyers the firm has employed over the years.
“I’ve always tried to have cultural diversity within the firm. I think clients feel very comfortable when they see one of their own. I’ve had lawyers working here from South Africa, China, Fiji, India, England, as well as Pākeha New Zealanders, people from all over the world.
“I like the mix. I like languages. I have a large contingent of Cambodian clients and they have been for many years. It makes me feel ten feet tall when they say to me, in relation to a legal problem, ‘Khan, if you think it’s all right, it’s all right by me’. It’s one of the biggest compliments a client can pay you,” he says.
At Khan & Associates it is not uncommon for a meeting with a group of clients to be a multilingual event, which is often the situation with an immigration case.
“The language may be broken, it could be a conglomerate of different cultures but I will understand them because of years of experience in this area of law,” he says.
Mr Khan doesn’t view himself as a hot shot lawyer, yet he exudes immense confidence and personality.
“I’m just a general practitioner but I’ve always practised law with vigour and passion, and over the years I’ve created a wide legal network of people I can call on for advice including Queen’s Counsels at the drop of a hat,” he says.
Mohammed Khan may do very serious legal work, but he also knows how to laugh at himself.
“Many years ago I was in the family division of the High Court in England. There was this very beautiful woman who was being represented by this very suave solicitor, and that’s the image I like to portray, you know, of a suave man.”
The next generation
Serish Khan is the younger of Mohammed Khan’s two daughters who are both firm partners. She was admitted in 2010 after gaining her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Auckland.
Aside from a short internship at another firm, Ms Khan has worked at the family business since her graduation.
She says when a law firm has been around for nearly 25 years, sometimes the children of the clientele become new clients.
“We have some long-standing Vietnamese clients, they refer their family members to us so it’s generations of clients who have used our services from when the firm started,” she says.
But loyalty is a two-way street, and the firm prides itself in that quality and assurance to the people it serves.
Serish Khan’s fluency in Hindi, as well as English, is handy for dealing with their many Indian clients.
“There are many dialects but I’m able to adjust to the other dialects and understand them well enough. It’s a case of breaking information down into more simple language,” she says.
Ms Khan picks up the majority of immigration law work at the firm.
“Residence visas, work permits, visitor visas. People who have come to New Zealand and are looking for lawful ways of being able to stay here. We help them explore what options they have available given their current circumstances. It’s a very big area of work that continues to grow and it’s in high demand,” she says.
She says, because her father was originally an immigrant to New Zealand, that resonates with people.
“It’s really important and has proven successful because a lot of clients want to be able to identify with the lawyers that are providing services. They feel safer being able to speak or ask a question in their own language. They can also feel very embarrassed and don’t want to let on that they can’t speak English well. It might take a little more time but if I am to offer a client the preference of speaking in Hindi, for example, straight away I’ll often notice a change in their demeanour,” she says.
Ms Khan says while languages are a speciality of the firm, they still get ‘average Kiwi clients’.
“If you’re able to speak to people, be kind, be polite and explain things to them on a level they understand whether you’re talking to a millionaire with multiple properties or a first home buyer; if you can keep the balance between treating everyone equally and with respect, you’ll gain clients from every culture and all walks of life.”
A family law practice
Lawyer Diva Gopalan began her law degree at the University of South Pacific in Fiji but finished it at the University of Waikato where she graduated in 2011. She grew up in Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest city.
“I do quite a lot of commercial law work here and most of the family law work, including legal aid,” she says.
She says the Khans treat her like family which is good but can also be challenging. “There’s a lot less boundaries with families as you can imagine.”
Serish Khan says there are opportunities for lawyers with the right legal ingredients to become partners in the law firm, debunking any perception it was a family-only law firm.
“Diva has been with us for six years. There is a potential opportunity for her to make partner,” she says.
Ms Gopalan says it is something she is giving serious consideration to.
“I’m next in line, it’s a family business and we would have to ensure that we are all on the same page when making decisions if it happens,” she says.
Ms Gopalan says she has gained a lot of experience working for a smaller law firm.
“I started off with a six-week internship, moving to a law clerk and now while I’m focused in two specific areas, it’s a general practice so I’ve had experience in all areas of law. I couldn’t have got that if I’d worked for a large corporate firm.”
While it wasn’t an easy road, it has paid off.
“When I first started practising law, I struggled because I was expected to work in many areas. I had friends in large firms who didn’t appear to be struggling because they were focused in one area of law. But the tables have turned because there are so many areas of law that I can work in now,” she says.
Khan & Associates has two Auckland offices, one in Papatoetoe, the other in Albany on the North Shore.
It employs five lawyers including the partners along with a graduate law clerk.
The firm’s practice areas include criminal law, family law, estate planning, immigration consultation, notary public litigation and conveyancing. Farah Khan is also a Notary Public and one of the only Fiji-Indian female notaries in New Zealand.