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‘If my facts were with me and my law was with me, I was good’

Shaili Chopra


Vol 6 | Issue 6


India is changing; it’s being shaped by those who make up its majority – the youth. At 25, there are many young people across small towns and cities and who are willing to take a risk.

The millennials are running businesses; they are leading teams. But life at 25 cannot be only about chasing success. It’s also rife with challenges, confusions and chaos.

In this excerpt from When I Was 25 – The Leaders Look Back, published by Random House, Zia Mody, lawyer extraordinaire, a woman after her own dreams and passions, reveals how she strikes a balance between being a dealmaker in the corporate world and championing the cause of women in her profession.

Zia Mody, lawyer extraordinaire, has hit the headlines for cracking big deals (Courtesy: Penguin Books)

The last decade, one can say, has been Zia’s. She has occupied headlines for cracking big deals. And behind the success is a story of remarkable grit and intuitive learning in India’s courts which can disillusion and dissuade any hot shot lawyer in a single day.

Dirty courtrooms, a male-dominated profession, tough colleagues and more. ‘Women were regarded as a mysterious exception, especially in litigation. But things have certainly changed for the better,’ she recalls with amusement. For someone who wanted to be an airhostess as a young girl, Zia’s twenties redefined her life and her career. ‘I have had an overriding passion and I loved the law.’

Mody’s early education was at Elphinstone College, Mumbai. She went on to study law at Selwyn College, Cambridge University, followed by a Master’s degree from Harvard Law School in 1979. She passed the New York State Bar examination, and qualified as an attorney in the State of New York. …

But when she returned to India, Zia stepped into the real courts, in her black band and gown, dealing with cases on a daily basis compared with more research and case studies of corporate houses across deal tables as was her experience as a junior in the US.

‘It was a completely different mix. There was no international corporate M&A in India as the country had not opened up. So you come back to what? Your Lordship pleases and My Lady pleases,’ Zia recounts.

Upon realizing how tough it can be being a young legal eagle in a country - this was 30 years ago - where mostly grey hair was given importance, Zia had to ingeniously strategize to break the glass ceiling.

She was looking for acceptance among peers but admiration from seniors. Her return to Indian courts from a multinational American firm did come as ‘quite a shock.’ But Zia soon put a strategy in place to try and learn the system and customise her approach.

‘The agenda was to try and be an intelligent junior, who was willing to work double time and to look for visibility and consistently do good work that would be noticed.’ Zia realised there was no short cut to experience but proving one’s worth as a young and energetic resource would help her step up the career ladder. …

She evokes the scenes of her early days. ‘We had no frills. We had to dress up soberly and know our place, so to speak. And arguing or trying to open your mouth in a courtroom when there were almost 99 percent men—this is how things were. I would wonder if I was making a fool of myself and always being paranoid if I had missed a case the night before. So, yes, our time was very different.

“But in a way this was very good for confidence building. Once you know you have mastered your brief and you have got every fact and date, once you know you have got the law right, then you are confident enough to know that nobody else has an edge over you on that basis. If my facts were with me and my law was with me, I was good.’ …

Zia reflects on a host of experiences while growing into the legal profession. One cannot emphasize enough the gender gap as law was completely dominated by men.

In ‘When I Was 25 – The Leaders Look Back’, author Shaili Chopra gets 13 eminent personalities to open up about the tough choices they had to make to reach where they have today (Courtesy: Random House India)

Zia was forced to adjust with the environment but at the same time created space for herself by being intuitive in her approach to bag deals and showcase her acumen.

‘I am not confrontational, contrary to public perception,’ she says with a chuckle. ‘I basically understood it was a much harder ladder for women to climb. I could see the audience in the court myself, they were all men. I was, with a few other women, the exception.

Really, more than getting the confidence of your peers, I set about seeking the confidence of my seniors. Because if I had done a good job for them, they would then ask for me to be on the next case with them. The next set of people I had to go around gaining the confidence of were my solicitors.

The clients of our solicitors were also male, and they would eventually be doing business with us. So imagine, back then, if you have this 60-year-old traditional businessman and he sees this young girl fighting his case, he is going to turn around to the solicitor and say “you are kidding, right?” So my priority was to gain enough faith in that solicitor so that he’d be able to go tell the client “you wait and watch, no problem, I am putting myself on the line.” …

For many years Zia Mody has been teased for hiring more and more women and supporting them in building their careers while they manage their familial responsibilities on the side. But that doesn’t ever stop Zia from reminding her colleagues that, ‘law remains a very demanding mistress.’

‘I think as a lawyer you are reading, reading, and reading some more. The time taken to just keep yourself updated is tremendous.’ She says with a sense of regret that not enough women have joined the legal force.

‘Like in most professions, women tend to wonder if it’s worth it after their first or sometimes second child. One hopes for more passion in the hearts of young women that can sustain them through these tough times,’ she avers as someone who balanced career and caregiving.

(Excerpted from ‘When I Was 25 – The Leaders Look Back’ by Shaili Chopra; Published by Random House; Pp: 208; Price: Rs 199.) - Women's Feature Service

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