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

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By Katie King on

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.