For women in India’s legal profession, there are two parts. The state of affairs for women in litigation is still quite woeful. You have very few female senior counsel who can compete with the best of men in that sense. I don’t see that glass ceiling being broken quickly, and that’s a function of many things.
One is the stage on which you have to act, day after day, in an audience full of men, and before judges who are mostly men. It’s pretty exhausting, and however stressful my day is today, it’s nothing compared to what I experienced in court. I felt watched, judged, diffident, nervous, and a much deeper sense of loss if I lost a case. The sheer time that it sucks out of you mentally makes it very difficult.
In the M&A and non-litigation space, women are far better off. Every intake by law firms comprises 50-60% more women, so the level playing field is good to start with. It is up to us as employers and mentors to make sure we retain these women because we simply cannot afford to lose talent.
When I started our boutique of 12 lawyers, I didn’t face discrimination from foreign clients who were coming to me because they came recommended by my foreign counterparts. In some ways, I was gender neutral. For the first five to eight years, I catered exclusively to foreign clients because I knew I would get more money. I charged dollar rates, grew the balance sheet and the practice, hired better and paid more. It was an instinctive move.
I earned a market reputation for understanding the nuances of foreign exchange law, company law, being tactical and being good at the negotiating table. I never went out and pitched myself to Indian clients, so when they came to us, it sounded exciting, and I thought, why not?
Personally, I don’t think I had a work-life balance. That’s the truth. I always wonder whether my children will be honest with me, but I think I really let them down sometimes when they needed me. I have a fabulous husband who was always there because he wanted to be.
I found it necessary to work so hard because I thought if I wasn’t the best every day and every time, I would be laughed out of the courtroom as a woman. It was a lot of self-induced stress, bordering on paranoia, with an inner dialogue that said, ‘I can’t lose, I can’t look stupid’. That took away so much time from my family.
After I started the boutique, the individual stress that I took to court disappeared. But starting a new shop with 12 people as a youngster with no experience carries its own stress: How to get work, how never to make a mistake, how to make sure you are able to battle the traditional law firms with your quality, your responsiveness, etc. I would probably tell my younger self to be a little more balanced, but I don’t think I would have achieved what I had done without sacrificing my time.
India is in the space now where if you have talent, there is just so much work, you don’t want to let anyone get away. Mentoring is a key part of retention. The vast mentoring today is still in the hands of men, simply because there are fewer women at the top.
Male mentoring needs to be more meaningful. We need a mutual opening up. It’s a combination of the male boss actually initiating the conversation when there are obvious times in a woman’s life where she’s going to need some flexibility.
They have to raise these issues rather than wait to be asked, or never asked. Women must also understand that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. That conversation has to be one where the woman is comfortable speaking without shying away.
Zia Mody, Founder & Managing Partner