Interview: The Nottingham Uni law student with his own business helping litigants-in-person

And he’s only in his second year

The end of the summer term is a stressful time for all undergrad lawyers.

It is doubly so for second year Nottingham University student Mehul Desai. He’s got four exams coming up this month, in criminal law, land law, EU law and human rights.

But that’s not all he has to deal with. Desai also has to juggle his very own family law business, Pro Bono Family & Child Law Paralegal Services. With limited help from one of his fellow students, the LLB-er helps low-income litigants through the — often intimidating — family court system, without taking a fee.

Factor in caring for his eight year-old daughter (pictured with Desai above and below), and it’s unsurprising that late nights and early mornings have become the norm for the tenacious mature student.

Desai took some time out of his busy schedule to chat to Legal Cheek over a cup of coffee, where we learnt that his family law project is far from just a typical CV booster.

In fact, Desai’s story is not that of a typical legal business owner, or a typical law student. The former project manager started his career in a field about as far away from law as it’s possible to get. He did his A-levels in 2000 in double maths, physics and electronics, and ended up in the manufacturing industry.

Come 2010, Desai found himself unexpectedly thrown into a custody battle involving his young daughter. With no prior legal knowledge and no public funding for a solicitor, Desai was forced to get familiar with the nitty-gritty of the complex family law system or risk losing his case.

And that’s how it all began. Through word of mouth, friends of friends began to approach Desai, from Loughborough, and ask for help with their own family law troubles. A twist of fate in the form of a redundancy in late 2011 provided Desai with a golden opportunity to retrain and pursue a career in family law.

He went on to obtain new, more law degree-friendly qualifications, while working for a charity supporting vulnerable adults at the same time. The next few years saw legal aid rules and regulations turned on their head and Desai enrol at a Russell Group uni, both of which led to an influx of family law enquiries. The second year student has been involved in a total of 29 cases (mainly cases involving children), is becoming more and more used to courtroom appearances, and has a newly incorporated company and a growing social media presence to his name.

It’s undeniably an impressive achievement, but also a pretty precarious situation to be in. Desai admits that he is walking a fine line in terms of what he can and cannot say to the litigants he is helping. He explained:

I have to be very careful with what I say to the clients, because I am not a qualified lawyer and cannot give legal advice per se. I can explain how to fill out forms, and can and do give clients tips.

The intensely personal nature of the cases means clients rely on Desai in times of utter desperation, and he admits that “you need to have a thick skin” to flourish in family law. He even recalls a time a 63 year-old father showed up at his doorstep, begging for help with his paperwork. Desai was the first to admit that he doesn’t have much of a social life, and sometimes finds himself working well into the night to keep on top of it all. He spends, he estimates, about three hours a day working on his growing family law stockpile — precious time for a stressed out law student.

Many would see it as a less than enviable position to be in, made even less enviable by the fact Desai receives no remuneration for his work. Though he does charge the client for expenses, such as parking and photocopying costs, he does not take a fee for the work done. He even pays for website hosting fees off his own back.

The question — for us anyway — was obvious: why do it? If it’s that stressful, that expensive and that time-consuming, why do it? Without hesitation, Desai told us:

The children. I struggle to see my own daughter. I know changes to legal aid have caused havoc. The satisfaction comes when the case concludes and contact between my client and their child happens — all the hours are worth it.

He continued:

It’s like finishing a race. An endurance race though, the family courts are definitely not a sprint.

Fully committed to the cause, the Nottingham student intends to push on with his growing business, and even has big plans for expansion. The key issue for Desai is a lack of resourcing, and an increasing caseload means he’s on the lookout for fellow passionate students to help him out.

And for Desai, the future looks bright too. He said:

I’d love to make it in the family bar, but I know it’s competitive. Hopefully the business will make me stand out from the crowd.

32 Comments

Mehul Desai

Cheers dude. The mess created by the Legal Aid situation is wholly unacceptable, most of the clients I deal with have never set foot in a Court and unsurprisingly frightened to speak up as it still is an intimidating adversarial system where two people try destroy each other and the Judge has to try make sense of it all.

(8)(3)
Anonymous

If you’re looking for the tl:dr version

Man has a pretty rubbish time in the family courts but uses the Mantra “See one: do one: teach one:” to start up a business as a McKenzie friend giving unqualified, uninsured legal assistance (which includes guidance on merits but is definitely not legal advice) and who (oddly) according to his terms and conditions appears to be holding client money.

(9)(23)
Anonymous

This is a rubbish tldr. He’s doing pro-bono. He’s only paid expenses. That isn’t a business.

(16)(1)
Mehul Desai

Dear Anonymous 1:

It is really easy for one to hide behind a pseudonym and be a mighty warrior hammering away at the keyboard in rage, jealousy and anger. Mate, everyone has their own reasons for pursuing a path in life, sometimes its to help others more disadvantaged, sometimes its chasing papers. You do seem to have made a lot of ridiculous assumptions and advanced a lot of propositions based on fallacies. What I suggest might be good is you meet me for a coffee, my number is 07906 207710.

“Man has a pretty rubbish time in the family courts”
– What evidence do you have to support this?

“but uses the Mantra “See one: do one: teach one:”
– And the problem is?

“to start up a business as a McKenzie friend giving unqualified, uninsured legal assistance (which includes guidance on merits but is definitely not legal advice)”
– Read the site.

“who (oddly) according to his terms and conditions appears to be holding client money”
– What is wrong with this? Are you going to start paying my parking and fuel costs?

(17)(1)
Quo Vadis

Your clients “will always be informed in advance of any expenses to be incurred”. Are they asked to pay them in advance? What if the expenses are not needed, or end up being less than anticipated (hence the query about holding client money)? You are an LLB student, and have not completed the court – do you consider that you have sufficient training and knowledge to advise your clients? What happens if you give faulty advice, and your client suffers harm? Are you insured (apparently not – according to your website, your indemnity insurance is “pending”)? Are you regulated? Are you a member of a professional body? And so on.

I’m sure you are doing this with the best of intentions, but you are opening yourself and your clients to a serious risk of harm.

(2)(3)
Mehul Desai

Hey Quo Vadis,

There is no remuneration involved e.g. if say someone needs a hand filling in forms, help writing a statement, needs help with cross examination etc. The remuneration only comes in if I have to attend Court with them to cover my fuel and parking. In the past I used to send an invoice to the Client but often found myself chasing (something I don’t need) so if there is a Court hearing scheduled, I will always get expenses upfront. Obviously if it is cancelled etc. then that is fully refunded. It is not to make any profit off and targeted at mainly those who cannot afford representation.

Have a read of Lord Neuberger: Practice Guidance 2010…Its written in the rules of Court.

I do not give advice. I make this clear immediately, if you read the whole website – no where does it say the word “advice”. Sometimes a Client will ask for an opinion e.g. read my statement, does it make sense? and I will go through it with them etc. Sometimes they might ask what happens next? and I will talk them through it. As I do not give advice there is no risk of harming a Client, to be honest nearly every time I have been in Court, the Judge or Magistrates always make a positive passing comment after Judgment regarding the assistance.

The MOJ led by Mrs Justice Asplin is calling for regulation, and I fully support that move and made submissions directly to the MOJ consultation.

Insurance is just waiting as I’m bang in the middle of exams. Then converting it into a Charitable status so I can present a case for funding, hence all expenses would be covered, some which I currently pay out my own pocket and sometimes a Client can’t even afford the fuel and parking and I pay that out my own pocket.

(5)(1)
Anonymous

How is this a business? Surely, it’s just a student doing lots of pro bono, albeit having set up his own particular scheme (which is impressive, but also a regulatory risk).

(6)(0)
Mehul Desai

Hi, despite being Pro Bono, technically it is a business even if there is zero turnover, the plan is to convert it into a Charity (with trustees) once my exams are over so status will change.

With regulation, there is currently none, and currently the Ministry of Justice has an open consultation on the matter, and I have recommended introducing regulation in line with Mrs Justice Asplin’s proposals.

If you want to read the abstract of my submissions, you can find them here mate:

http://www.probonochildandfamilylaw.co.uk/students-volunteers/

(1)(0)
Pantman

Mehul, what is “technically a business”? I’m not putting you down on the service you offer, clearly someone needs to do this sort of thing because the general public doesn’t really have a clue about the law. But, this is a service, not a business – the fact that you are converting to a charity underlines this.

(0)(0)
Mehul Desai

Hi Pantman,

In order to apply for the indemnity insurance and as I’m receiving expenses I need to file accounts; I had to register the services with Companies House in April 2016 as Ltd liability status for the insurance. The accounts are zero with a float of £1000 (personal money) but its still a legislative requirement. Also I had a pain sorting out a Bank Account to receive payments of expenses (not to mix my personal account) as they needed a certificate of incorporation and shareholding, luckily Barclays were helpful and even set it up as ‘serving the public good’ so its free, keeping the administrative overheads right down.

But yes, it will be transformed into Charitable status once my exams are over, the application is nearly complete, just need to run Constitution and other documents past my Solicitor to approve and appoint trustees then its a case of scavenging for funding!

(2)(1)
Pantman

Sorry, I don’t see how that is “technically a business”, in any normal sense of the word. See my previous comments.

I recall a friend being told by the VAT man that “this isn’t a business, it’s a hobby”.

(1)(0)
Mehul Desai

Hi Pantman,

Currently, it’s still classed as a business that offers services in exchange for money (expenses), albeit not for profit – I do have a family member who is an accountant and this is how he advised me to get it set up and running, but I’m no expert in Company Law.

(1)(1)
Not Amused

Or … maybe … we as a nation could start letting Dads have equal access to their children and not engage in a bigoted belief that humans with mammary glands make better parents or have magical child raising skills.

(8)(8)
Trumpenkrieg

Oi vey, we’ve got an MRA tin foil hatter in the house! Where is the Lottie Proudperson snark hose when you need it?

(1)(1)
Mehul Desai

To be honest, Not Amused and Trumpenkrieg, 75% of my clients have been female. Some have been victims of DV, but as a lot of victims do not report it to Police, they do not qualify for Legal Aid and the other parent is financially stronger and will have representaiton which creates an unequal footing. This is the void. But I’m neither, pro mum or pro dad.

(7)(1)
Anonymous

Good read! I am on a similar page to this guy and can understand the mental tiredness and struggle. Fair play to you!

(5)(1)
Fitch

All credit to him.

A few years ago Legal Aid would have been available to these poor sods.

(3)(0)
Mehul Desai

Jeez dude, there is some haters here. Wow. Jokes.

Could you perhaps point out where I have lied about my credentials or qualifications?

(2)(1)
Quo Vadis

Correct me if I’m wrong, but credentials-wise you don’t even have a QLD?

(0)(0)
Mehul Desai

Hi Quo – no I don’t hold a QLD, neither do I claim to do so. Its made absolutely clear on the Home Page, Legal Notice and also in standard terms and conditions. I do have various other Law Qualifications and also Diploma in Social Sciences and suitable work experience thus hold Associate Level Membership with the Institute of Paralegals (See Certification on page)

However, I do have 2 x BPTC Students who will be joining the team very soon, just waiting to receive paperwork from their Law Schools to confirm status. The idea is to get as many volunteers as possible (all levels of qualifications) and ideally even practitioners through networking. So it can be a much broader service that can be offered.

Sorry, I don’t know much about you, but you may already be familiar with Lord Neubergers Practice Guidance (2010)?

Regards,

Mehul

(2)(1)
Anonymous

Quo Vadis and anonymous are very bitter Mehul… in fact, Quo Vadis is a little jealous as I didn’t review his Poundland training contract application, even though he offered to provide head in the chancery section of Middle Temple library…

(1)(2)
Anonymous

Dude, I admire your desire to help, but this is risky for all involved. You are leaving yourself wide open. You can disclaim all you want, but to your clients you are effectively their lawyer. Even with indemnity insurance this could end badly.

(1)(1)
Bantersaurus Lex

Your drive, passion and commitment would make you ideal for the family bar. I sincerely look forward to working with you one day. The persistence will be worth it.

(5)(1)
Anonymous

This really is outstanding work!!! I secured pupillage this year after three years of banging my head against a brick wall; I believe, due to taking a year out and undertaking a great deal of pro-bono work with real time advocacy and client contact.

Mehul, I really do hope you make it to the Bar- we really do need more people like you. IMHO this is such great experience, as well as providing a valuable service.

Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

(6)(2)
Anonymous

Mehul- really impressive work. Do not let the doubters bog you down, you are doing very fine, keep going!

(2)(1)

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