Uswah Khan on serving justice one family at a time
Published in 2019 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 16, 2019
Updated on October 23, 2019
My father was a lawyer in Pakistan. When he immigrated to America, he had to support the family, so he didn’t pursue law. He did accounting work, and he stayed with the same company until retirement.
Growing up, I wanted to be just like my dad. I said, “I’m going to be a lawyer.”
I took a family law class in my second year, and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t feel like I was working, even when I would read the case law in textbooks. I remember applying to three clerkships that summer, and one was a family law job. It was 2001, so we would fax in our résumés, and I remember thinking, “This is the one that I really, really want.” And I got it.
Right after I took the bar exam, I started working for the state of Connecticut as a temporary assistant clerk; they assigned me to family law. Then I met the judge, and she was an amazing mentor, and that was what molded me the most.
During my first trial, a divorce, the wife testified first, and the husband—my client—testified second. As soon as the court clerk swore him in and said, “Please state your name and address for the record,” he said: “Everything she just said is a lie!” That’s in the court transcript. It really taught me about managing client expectations, and getting more information out of them, so that when we did encounter a situation where they thought their spouse was lying, I was ready with proof of the spouse’s untruthful testimony.
I once represented a woman in a divorce case, and I never met her. We had an entire trial through videoconferencing. She was out of the country, and couldn’t come back because her visa had expired. But she was still legally married to an American citizen. The biggest difficulty was establishing a rapport with the client—one where they can really trust you. With video conferencing, there’s nuances you don’t pick up on, and body language you’re not attuned to. Trust is a big thing when you’re representing someone in a trial, and negotiations are definitely easier when someone is present in person.
I had a client, three or four years ago, who had a Haq Mahr issue as part of her divorce. When people in the Muslim faith get married, a marital contract form gets signed [that is similar to a dowry]. I started gathering other cases so I could present evidence to the court to show this is a valid prenup under Islamic law—that both parties willingly entered into a civil contract. There was maybe one in Connecticut, so I expanded into other states and, right now, have between 20 and 25. I want to get at least 50 to write regressions and an analysis of it. That judge treated it like a contract, but the cases I’ve found are very split. Some treat it as a premarital agreement, others as a contract. Some deny it, saying it’s like Sharia law and they don’t want to touch religious law.
I’ve recently been active with Sneha [a network for women of South Asian heritage]. It helps women who go through domestic violence, and I do some post-judgment work, or, if they need a lawyer, Sneha will refer them out to us family lawyers. Some of them are recent immigrants from India or Pakistan, and they don’t know the culture here—they don’t speak the language. When they’re able to talk to an attorney in their own language, they feel at ease and they’re able to get through the legal system in a way that’s more productive for them.
It’s been seven years since I’ve opened solo practice. I am the HR person, I’m the marketer, I’m the accountant. It can take away the time you’d like to be putting in as an attorney, representing clients. But I do get to pick the kind of cases that I’m working on, and if a case is not a good fit, I can refer it out, or be up front with the client.
Everyone wants to serve justice, but with family law—especially if you’re working with a victim of domestic violence—you really do see their case being heard. It’s very rewarding, emotionally, when you see the right outcome.
It can get emotionally draining, though. We’re all humans, and when you represent someone, you become close to them as a person. You’re there for their moral support. And sometimes in court, things don’t turn out the way you or they were expecting, and then you have to manage expectations and not get hopes up too high. If it’s something that’s litigated, it’s really not in our hands at the end of the day.