Young gun only lawyer to feature in inaugural business awards

A respected Australian lawyer will represent the legal profession at the inaugural Australia India Business and Community awards. He tells us why there is a problem with diversity in firms

Minter Ellison associate Ajay Khandhar has been announced as a finalist in two categories at the inaugural 2014 Australia India Business and Community awards.

The young employment and industrial relations lawyer, the sole legal professional to be recognised, is up for the Young Professional of the Year 2014 and the Community Achiever of the Year 2014 awards.

The event aims to recognise the role played by Indian Australian migrants in shaping New South Wales, and Khandhar says being nominated as a finalist means a lot to him, especially seeing he was one of the few to graduate high school where he grew up in Western Sydney.

The 28-year-old is the son of working-class migrants from Mumbai who immigrated to Australia in the early 1980s in order to start a family and afford their children opportunities.

They had just graduated university and married, and upon arrival in Australia the pair started up their own jewellery business.

“They worked really hard to put me and my sisters through school. The one thing they instilled in us was work ethic,” Khandhar told Australasian Lawyer, adding that he and his siblings were encouraged to pursue whichever career made them happy.

But coming from a family who enjoyed robust public debate around the dinner table, he naturally settled on law, he says. However, specialising in employment law was never part of Khandhar’s plan.
It just so happened that his graduation from law school coincided with the creation of the Fair Work Act 2010.

“It was a happy coincidence. When I started as a graduate they asked if I wouldn’t mind being put in the employment practice because they were so busy...I was always more interested in the advocacy aspect of law, but in terms of employment law, I’d never really considered it," he says. "The reason I enjoy practicing in employment law is because it's about human issues and human behaviour, so working in this particular field requires a higher level of emotional intelligence and good interpersonal skills – which makes lawyers in this field almost always pleasant to work with.  I think these are also very important elements of a 'mentally healthy' workplace – and something that Minter Ellison does well." 

Since embarking on his legal journey, Khandhar has been a trailblazer in his field.

In 2013 he was recognised as the Australian Young Lawyer of the Year by the Law Council of Australia for his contribution in developing a program to educate high school students about the law and issues of local and global injustice, he was the executive councillor of NSW Young Lawyers from 2011 to 2013, and he’s currently the vice chair of the NSW Young Lawyers’ workplace and safety law committee. He’s also a volunteer solicitor in the Employment Law Clinic at Marrickville Legal Centre.

His selection as a finalist of the 2014 Australia India Business and Community (winners will be announced on October 31 at a charity gala dinner at Sydney Town Hall) also gives a nod to his work raising awareness about the alarming rates of depression and anxiety in the legal profession.

Khandhar says the fact he’s a lawyer that’s been nominated in the awards is important because he feels there is a large lack of cultural diversity in law firms around Australia.

“A lot of debate has been around females in law firms and promoting females in firms, which I think is definitely a valid debate…but if you look at any law school now, you’ve got a large proportion of students from other countries, yet you don’t see them as much in firms.”

He says university friends of Asian descent he’s spoken have indicated that they’d felt “out of place” in some firms.

But with such a multi-cultural society, legal representation in Australia should reflect that too. It can be especially valuable when working with clients of other backgrounds, says Khandhar, recalling dealing with an Indian business owner that was grateful to be able to communicate in his native language.

“I think people from other backgrounds need to support and encourage people that are non-Caucasian – particularly in law,” Khandhar says.  

His strong sense of ethics and achievements spoke for themselves when it came to his nomination in the Australia India Business and Community Awards. His name was put forward by someone involved in the community who had happened upon his Linked In profile and was suitably impressed.

And the awards, which recognise his roots, culture and success, mean all the more to the young lawyer because one of those who shaped him from the beginning - his mother - sadly passed away earlier this year.

“I’m planning to take my dad along. There’s an option of a black tie or a traditional Indian dress, so I think I’ll wear the traditional dress in honour of my mum,” he says.

Khandhar hasn’t been back to visit his extended family in Mumbai since 2010, and would like to take a special trip with his father and sisters sometime soon.

The last time he went he felt privileged to see where his parents grew up, which included meeting the barber who used to cut his father’s hair, and whose father had cut his grandfather’s hair.

But times are moving rapidly in India with the abundance of technology and big business, Khandhar says.

“I really want to get back there before it all changes.”

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