Nikki Aston – ‘It’s sometimes okay to say no’

I am a Family Lawyer with 15 years’ post-qualification experience, working full time in the Family Team. My specialisms are divorce, mid to high-net-worth financial settlements, Pre-Nuptial Agreements, arrangements for children, domestic abuse, and civil partnership cases. I joined Shakespeare Martineau just over two years ago, my previous firm was a regional law firm and the move to Shakespeare Martineau was a natural progression in my career. 

Pre-COVID, I was based in the office but obviously had to adjust my working practices as we all did, during the lockdowns. My caseload is 70% divorce and financial work, and 30% children cases. I am now based at home, but hope to return to the office for one or two days per week, in the autumn. Mornings are usually spent catching up on urgent emails, and then the rest of my day is structured around drafting documents, speaking to clients, having Zoom meetings, and having remote court hearings at home. 

My father is Pakistani and quite traditional, and he had quite strong views on my career choices suggesting that I do law or medicine. So as I was not very good at science, law had to be the default option!  I was fortunate in that I enjoyed English, languages and humanities so I found that I did take to this area of study quite well. I went to Liverpool University, I studied English and French laws and I spent a year in Bordeaux. I had not actually decided to pursue a career a law until my fourth year, when I was back in Liverpool. I secured a position as a paralegal in a small firm after university, where they then offered me a training contract so I could go on to do my Legal Practice Course at Chester. Fast forward a few years, I trained at my small firm, and remained in high street practice for around 11 years. However, in this role I worked with clients from all walks of life like with clients with children in the care system to wealthy landowners. I fell into Family Law by mistake, as my original intention was to do Criminal Law. However, at the time I qualified, a position in the Family Team became free, I had done Family as part of my Training Contract which is why I decided to qualify into Family. Fortunately for me, the mix of it being people based and office based worked very well for me, I do not think I could have managed in being a more paper-based type lawyer. I do prefer the face-to-face interaction. 

For the first eleven years of my qualification, I worked for a small high street practice, where I was very happy but did not have a great prospect of career progression at the time. However, I did have two small children, and was working part time so career progression was not at the top of my list. I did enjoy my job and enjoyed working but found it difficult to fit five days’ work into three, as well as caring for small children and the inevitable absences from nursery due to illness etc. It was particularly difficult when I had a very important court case but would then be told that my child was ill. After I moved to a firm in Nottingham, this was a completely different set up. I had to learn to be commercially minded, learn BD skills and networking. I was lucky to be with a great office of people, and I learnt all of this very quickly with their help.  I was fortunate in that my husband and I could share care of the children in these situations, as well as my family living locally, so that I could juggle my job as well as my family commitments. Obviously as my children became older, this juggle became a lot easier. My new role in Nottingham helped too, as my children’s school, my home life and job were all based in the same place. I found that BD was a real strength of mine; I am quite creative, I’m very organised, so was able to apply my natural aptitudes to things such as hosting events, speaking at events etc,

For me, my job is extremely stressful and to do it properly, so that I remain on top of it all, I have to have a good work-life balance. Shakespeare Martineau are pioneers with their empowered working initiative. This means that as long as you get the job done, look after your clients and fulfil the requirements of your role, there is no pressure in terms of presenteeism in the office, or availability at all hours. You are given the autonomy to do your own job in the time that you need to do it, as well as factoring in your exercise, fresh air, and family commitments. For me, I am extremely passionate about this, as it means that I can tick all the boxes that I need to in my own way in how I want to do it. 

I am hugely competitive and set myself sometimes ridiculously high standards in everything I do. That does mean that I like to get the best for my clients in their cases if I can, but it also means I set myself my own achievements and try to do at least one thing every year that I am pushing myself towards. For example, this has included professional targets such as going for promotion, and personally with fitness targets and training for sports events. I really admire my dad who is a huge role model for me. He worked as a Consultant Surgeon for the NHS in the eighties, but while doing this ran his own private practice and also had a number of nursing homes, doing all of this at the same time. He was so determined to succeed and  how hard he worked for our family; I truly admire how he was so determined to achieve the things he wanted to do. 

In terms of being a female in my role, I think my gender is irrelevant. I am proud to work for Shakespeare Martineau LLP and the role itself is great, and I think a male in my job would feel the same as me. As I am now in  my forties, I think the life experience you have at this age from this as a woman gives you such insight into the various areas of your work . For example, by having children, it does help me to understand the difficulties my clients go through when there are children disputes. I feel that as a woman you are faced with more challenges in life in terms of career choices, university, and in the workplace. I can see that there has been a change in that but looking back on my career at the start from 20 years ago things were very different. 

My biggest achievement in life is personally, running the London Marathon in April 2018, having never been a runner before. It was the winter where we had the Beast of the East so I was training in snow for four months. On the day, it was the hottest London Marathon on record and I completed it in 4 hours 46 minutes. I was hugely proud of myself for this achievement. Also, I have two children who make me proud every day. Professionally, when I became promoted to Legal Director this financial year, I was immensely proud as I did not think that I would be able to get to this level in my career for such a successful firm, when I started my career at a very small high street firm. I thought jobs like these were out of my reach. 

The biggest lesson that I’ve learnt along the way would be that you cannot please people all the time, nor should you try and change yourself for other peoples’ expectations. I was very much of this attitude when I was younger, often getting my fingers burned, realising that I would spread myself too thinly. I wouldy get disappointed or hurt when all I was trying to do was to keep everybody happy, but often to my own detriment. 

I don’t think that my gender has brought unnecessary challenges to my career. Whether that is because I am of strong nature, I have never let that become an obstacle for me. 

My hobbies outside of work consist of running with my dog and I being hugely into nutrition and fitness. I try and run 20 miles a week as well as weight-training four times a week. Exercise and fresh air is hugely important to my mental health and wellbeing, I do not think I could do this job without that. 

The Mantra I live my life by is: ‘You think I can’t do it? Just watch me’

My top three tips I would give to young females starting their careers would be:

Don’t try and fit into a job, the job has to fit you.

You have to love what you do. You spend years at work, so make that time worth it and fulfilling.

Be a good egg, and be kind with excellent manners. People will always remember you for this.

In terms of working with other family lawyers – someone once said to me ‘the family law community in Nottingham is small – don’t sh*t in your nest – it won’t be forgotten’ Very true as people can have long memories!

I have been lucky to have great colleagues, many of whom became good friends. One particular one is my very good friend Louise Read who is also a lawyer and a mother and juggles all the things that we have to do as a modern working mum. She, despite being a very high-level runner and the fittest person I know, suffered a stroke at the age of 36. She was told she would never run or work again and very nearly died. From that, she managed to regain her fitness completely, run at club level competitively, go back to work, and completely rebuild her health. She got me into running too, which also changed my life. She was and is a complete inspiration to me.

My key motivators are just ‘Getting it done’ – If I set myself a target it is almost a competition with myself to achieve it. 

I would say that at my firm, lots is being done regarding gender imbalance but don’t think I am informed enough to say generally, in all honesty.

Some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations would be: Do something different, be creative, be visible, and get involved with everything. That can include mentoring, charity work, volunteering etc.

Listen to others, take criticism where needed, learn from your mistakes and keep trying to improve yourself. 

One key leadership lesson I’ve learned along the way would be to look out for your juniors in your team. Help them, ask them if they are ok, give clear instructions, and really listen to them.

Be the leader who you would want to follow yourself.

What would I say to my 16-year-old self: Do not ever let anybody tell you that you cannot do something!

To quote Henry Ford, “whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right”.

It is sometimes okay to say no. 

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