In the young business of corporate law, the role of gender is slipping away from the transaction tables. Thanks to the pioneering work of some women lawyers, others now inch up the ladder at the same pace as their male counterparts. They are not ornate additions to the firm’s brochure, but stand out for working the same long and intensive hours that a corporate law practice requires.
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Corporate law practice is slang for a non-litigating practice in laws dealing with corporate bodies, including contracts, company law, securities law, project finance, mergers and acquisitions, labour, property and so on. The corporate lawyer is a relatively new animal, which has found flight largely since liberalisation. Most Indian law firms had a large law practice in the courts, but adapted to the new jobs and possibilities. In fact, many found it far more profitable than litigation.
Like the rest of the profession, it remained a male bastion for long until some pioneering women broke through the discrimination barrier.
The view from the 14th floor of Hansalaya building on Barakhamba road in the heart of New Delhi is formidable, as are its occupants in the law offices of Priti Suri and Associates. The leader of the law firm says she has made weekends compulsorily off in her office. “If you come on a Sunday, be prepared to climb up the stairs to the 14th floor,” says Suri.
A closer inspection of the mail server traffic on weekends might tell a different story. “She works 24×7,” pipes up her colleague Shalini, who has been with Suri for more than 20 years. The last “pleasure-travel” vacation Suri took was in December 2013, despite a solemn resolve to slow down.
At 10, Suri decided she would be India’s ambassador to Russia and after a bachelor’s degree in history from Lady Shri Ram College, she started preparing for the civil services exam and took up law at the Campus Law Centre in Delhi University, “only as a Plan B”.
Suri applied for a masters in law abroad and was accepted by several Ivy League schools, but had to scrap the plans because her family could not afford the exorbitant fees. So she spent the first two years of her career in a lawyer’s chamber. During that period, she used to save on bus fares by cutting down the required multiple bus journeys to the Delhi High Court to a single bus ride and a longer walk.
A lawyers’ strike—triggered by Kiran Bedi’s infamous handcuffing of a lawyer in 1987—shook Suri’s faith in the system. She applied for a masters programme again and, while she was accepted again at several Ivy League colleges, she chose the University of Georgia School of Law, Athens, which granted her a scholarship. This was followed by a nine-year stint in the US and France, where she would walk along the Champs-Élysées on weekends just to listen to people chatter in English as she did not know French initially.
Suri, reputed to be a nitpicker, says she learnt accuracy early on. “Lawyers are very careful abroad, because they are scared of being sued,” she explains.
In the late-1990s, a client, who wanted to invest in newly liberalised India, sent Suri back to India and she opened a corporate law firm with another woman lawyer to assist her. “Back then, in some parts of the country, some big Indian companies did not have washrooms for women. Forget executives, some companies did not even have a female workforce. Corporate law is still a male bastion. Even now, I am often the only woman in a room of 18 men,” says Suri.
Today, she has a wide array of clients, including Fortune 100 companies, banks, global MNCs, ports and defence companies working in India.
Along the climb up, Suri has observed how law firms view women lawyers. Traditionally, corporate law firms, like big corporate houses, have been male-driven and male-controlled. “When it comes to women, attitudes are very compartmentalised. If a working woman wants to have a baby, it is up to her if she wants to tone down her work and let the organisation support her in a way that will be mutually beneficial. Let her make the choice,” says Suri.
Suri had helped found the Society of Women Lawyers—a platform for the advancement and nurturing of women lawyers in India, be they in firms, courts or companies—and is its president. “The idea is to help the empowerment of legal sorority in a wide variety of ways,” says Suri. “Look at the numbers. With such a vast talent pool of women lawyers, how many of them are sitting judges or senior advocates?”
For her service to Indian women lawyers, Suri recently became the first Asian to be honoured by the American Bar Association the lifetime career achievement Mayre Rasmussen Award, given to women for attaining careers of excellence in international law and for promoting advancement of women in international law.