Here are her three pieces of advice:
There are no shortcuts to success. Let your work speak for you.
Do not compromise on quality even if others chastise you for being a perfectionist.
The path is very exciting and rewarding, so stay on it.
Can you tell us about your international law career so far?
I am a business lawyer, focusing on company and commercial laws. When I joined the legal profession, it was the norm that we joined a senior practitioner in the courts.
My first job was with a very distinguished senior at the Delhi High Court who was the Standing Counsel for DDA. I worked with him for two years. Like my family, he encouraged me to study for my LL.M. and assuaged my father’s concerns about lack of family funds for my further education. He was a stellar lawyer with a razor-sharp mind and an even better human being. He reinforced that there are no short cuts to success, that the devil is always in the detail and to ensure we had the full facts before starting to think of the merits or de-merits of a case.
After my LL.M. I worked with two different law firms - Morrison & Foerster in New York and Schiff Hardin in Chicago. Subsequently, I worked in Paris with a small firm for five years and returned to India in 1997 to set up the practice. We represent several Fortune 100 companies as well as domestic companies and start-ups.
Did you always want to pursue a career in international law?
No, not at all. I am an “accidental” lawyer. From age ten onwards, I knew I wanted to become India’s Ambassador to Russia, without knowing what it all entailed. As I grew older, I realized in order to achieve my goal, I had to pass the civil services exam. So, I planned to study History (which I love) in college, do a masters’ degree and then sit for the civil services. But, after I did my graduation from Lady Sri Ram College, I thought it would be prudent to have a plan B in case I did not qualify the exams. Following discussion with family and friends, I realized law would be a good option as it would aid me in the civil services. While I started attending MA History classes at Delhi University, when the law school lists came out, I opted to go there. Within the first year I gave the civil services exam, qualified fully in the first attempt, but, by then I was enjoying law so much that I decided to pursue it as a career.
Where did you go to law school?
I joined Campus Law Center, Faculty of Law and graduated in 1986. I worked for two years at the Delhi High Court, and then in 1988 went to the US to do a master’s in law at University of Georgia School of Law, from where I completed my LL.M. in 1989.
You have practiced law in many countries. Can you tell us about that experience and how it shaped you as a Lawyer?
My work with the large US law firms gave me insights on how large western firms function - a deeper and different kind of professional ethics, structured processes and systems, development of a profound sense of responsibility for the advice we gave to clients on the basis of which corporations were going to take decisions, concepts of negligence if our advice was incomplete or inaccurate.
After I moved to Paris, in a pre-Google era, I confronted different challenges including juggling work in a country where the native language was not English and I did not speak a word of French, other than “bonjour”, when I landed in Paris. I had no option, other than taking up the challenge and do what I had to. I was thrown into the deep end of the pool and simply had to figure out how to swim if I did not want to drown. I did not get anything easy, and, on hindsight, I am glad it was that way. Both in the US and in Europe, I formed lifelong professional and personal relationships and friendships and I continue to interact with them even today.
I also realized that regardless of the country, some key fundamentals are global: if you work hard with the key objective of securing the best result for your client, it will not evade you. All my lessons, professional learnings and value systems always pointed to one thing - work hard and the results will come. I suppose it is the age-old wisdom from the Bhagvad Gita. I firmly subscribe to the view that there are no shortcuts to success. Let your work speak for you.
Why did you decide to set up your own law firm rather than work with somebody else?
Sometimes life puts you on a course you had not planned for and, honestly, I went with the flow. My years away from India also had something to do with this. Plus, after having worked in Big Law and though I have nothing against it, I realized I wanted to have a small and focused firm which would partner with clients to help them attain their business objectives. And, it was easier to start from the ground up. I was accustomed to working with clients who reposed implicit faith in their external counsels and I wanted to build that up. Our primary goal is to exceed clients’ expectations and to be problem-solvers for them. That was also the reason why I put the word “counsellors” in our description. We want to counsel them in a way that is aligned with their business realities. Our goal is to ensure that our “counsel” is definite to help them to take correct decisions.
What do you look for in the lawyers you hire?
I look for this in everyone – lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Ability to think through a problem logically and present it well, ability to do a deep dive in the details, commitment, fire in the belly or passion, patience, perseverance and a sense of humour.
Tell us about the books you have authored.
I always enjoyed writing, even as a young lawyer in the US. I was asked to contribute to chapters in different books that were published in the early 1990s.
Fast forward to the first book I wrote in India. I was working on a large project for a client and the Indian regulations for foreign investment were constantly changing, leading to varied interpretations. I recall arguing with my colleagues on some new Reserve Bank of India notifications that impacted the transaction and a possible need to secure a prior investment approval for our client. Two of my colleagues went to meet officers responsible for the erstwhile Foreign Investment Promotion Board, and all of them were of the view that no approval was needed, including the officers. I disagreed and we had another round of discussions where I highlighted what the gaps were in the regulations with a possible adverse impact for our client if no approval was taken. In no time, the officers agreed that they had overlooked that possibility. I felt so strongly that the law had to be clear and decided that it was necessary to cohesively address all the relevant regulations in one place. That gave birth to my first book. My second book arose due to similar concerns regarding open source law due to absence of reliable and practical books. I had an opportunity to collaborate with an international technology lawyer on that.
Throughout your career you have been part of many international law associations. Can you tell us more about it?
It was not planned. Given my formative professional years were away from India, I did become active with the associations in the cities where I lived. It was a means of getting to know more people, share knowledge and interact on topics of interest and forge lifelong friendships. Then, when I set up my own firm, I was clear that I wanted to be an active participant in cross-border businesses. The world was becoming smaller and greater cooperation would be necessary in times to come with other organisations. A client could have a litigation in Jakarta or a small acquisition in Denver, Colorado and would ask if we could be engaged with local lawyers. Therefore, it was a natural segue to join international bodies – be it the American Bar Association, Inter-Pacific Bar Association or iTechLaw – and participate actively. All this requires time and commitment plus money as well.
How did these organisations help your career?
As I became increasingly active and participated in their conferences, people started to know me. And, different opportunities unfurled, be it of organizational leadership (like Co-Chair of ABA SIL’s India Committee) or referrals that eventually transformed into revenue as well. For example, say a potential US client knows of my work with the ABA, that may give him/her the reassurance of my ability to understand some of their local nuances as well. It is hard to say how exactly these organizations helped my career, but I know they did. When I was developing the firm, internet was not as all-pervasive as today and, therefore, it was almost an imperative for me to be a part of some global organizations. I would encourage everyone to do so.
You are the President of the Society for Women Lawyers in India. What challenges do women lawyers face there? How does the Society help them?
There are many challenges faced by women lawyers. I encountered innumerable hurdles as a first-generational lawyer starting out with my own firm and there were (and even now) no guide-books!
Some of the current challenges are as follows.
• Firstly, nobody tells you how to build a practice. Combine that with the absence of institutional support on “how to” do things, what is right, what is acceptable, how does one do business development, develop and retain client relationships.
• Secondly, sustainability of women in the legal profession. Women are very intuitive but regardless of their commitment to their chosen career, they take time off for marriage and/or children and that does impact.
• Thirdly, while the education system has definitely undergone a change, most prospective lawyers are unprepared for life with the law. This requires more practical courses and skilful use of interns. All of us who are experienced at the Bar need to contribute to bring about that transformation. There is a dire need to focus on professional development, which has to be matched by a desire to grow as well by the women protagonists
SOWL-India is committed to the advancement and nurturing of women lawyers in India. The idea is to help empowerment of the women legal sorority in a wide variety of ways. For example, help in removing gender disparity. The legal profession is changing so rapidly not only in India, but in the rest of the world. Indian women need to be equipped to handle the change, and how the future is likely to impact their practice, be it as solo practitioners in courts or within law firms or in-house positions. We want it to be the natural platform that women lawyers across the country will turn to - to discuss issues, problems, share experiences, and solutions, and in times to come, to have active SOWL chapters all over India.
What advice would you give young women hoping to work in international law?
• Work hard and the results will come.
• Give your best, always.
• Do not compromise on quality even if others chastise you for being a perfectionist.
• The path is very exciting and rewarding, so stay on it.
• Know the law, but also be interested in people.