"Law was often looked at as a marriage degree - three years in law, then you get married," recalls AZB founding partner Zia Mody about women's views of a legal career 30 years ago. Since then law firms have gradually fought the profession's gender bias, arguably more successfully in India than abroad. But there is still a long way to go.
An un-Indian problem
Retaining female lawyers all the way to partnership has been a headache for almost all international law firms and is a perennial debate.
The percentages of female partners at UK corporate firms stubbornly hover between 10 and 20 per cent and Clifford Chance managing partner David Childs recently expressed concern that this was "not good enough". And last week Allen & Overy (A&O) radically broke (or fixed) its existing partnership lockstep to improve female partner retention by integrating flexible working.
Apart from Amarchand Mangaldas Delhi opening up a crèche for working mothers late last year, however, female career progression appears to be rarely talked about within India's law firms.
Nevertheless, many women in Indian corporate law have arguably already achieved much greater visibility than their London City or New York Wall Street counterparts.
Women of history
Most of the first generation of today's top female corporate lawyers started their careers at the Bar. Indeed, there were few alternatives in the first decades after India's independence but many nevertheless soon beat a hasty retreat.
"Men in court don't understand women in skirts," says one female partner bluntly.
Even beyond overt sexism, however, the general lifestyle of the Bar and Bench is not conducive to the careers of women, many of whom are traditionally also expected to lead a family and household.
Days are usually spent in court and evenings can be filled with client meetings and case preparation. Taking time off means no income.
"We saw a number of women in court, but only a few were very serious," explains Amarchand Mangaldas Delhi partner Pallavi Shroff, adding that there are maybe only half a dozen senior counsels across the country who are female. On the High Court Bench, only 6 per cent of judges are women, which Law Minister Veerappa Moily wants to desperately address.
"Woman lawyers working in the courts, the number keeps receding but you don't see that in corporate law firms," notes Phoenix Legal co-founding partner Manjula Chawla, who started her career in the courts.
The rise of Indian corporate law firms may have improved women's legal career prospects but juggling the demands of transactional law and family is still far from easy.
"I remember when I started, [clients] just wanted to meet Mr. Shroff even if I was dealing with their case," says Pallavi Shroff, "but today clients are willing to give respect if you can command it."
And one female partner articulates the concerns of others in the Indian cultural context and laments: "As a woman it is difficult to network as well as a man would do, especially without sending the wrong signals."
Bearing the burden
However, bearing children, raising them and maternity leave are usually cited as the main reasons of why women and demanding legal careers do not go well together.
"What pains me most," recounts Amarchand Mumbai partner Vandana Shroff, "are women who are brilliant, but then suddenly 'here comes a baby' and off they go."
"For a woman lawyer it is important to get married to a lawyer," posits Manik Karanjawala who has been a litigating advocate since the heydays of Emergency. "I agree that you don't marry a profession and you marry a person, but it helps."
Trilegal's first female partner Charandeep Kaur agrees that motherhood makes things hard, remembering how she would take conference calls from home after putting her baby to sleep.
Pallavi Shroff adds: "I had occasions earlier in life where I had to leave a sick child at home because I had a matter in court to argue. I would prepare at night with my daughter in my lap running a temperature."
"The main thing is really for the family to be supportive and that's where it cracks if that doesn't happen," notes Mody.
But if the in-laws, grandparents, extended family and domestic help do step in, it creates a resource that is culturally or financially all but unavailable in the West.
"In the US or the UK," jokes Luthra & Luthra capital markets partner Madhurima Mukherjee, "if a woman has to become a partner you pretty much have to not have a child or be divorced."
Another female partner says: "We have so much domestic help – we don’t need to take care of the house at all. Driver, cook, groceries, nanny - I have nothing to think about except providing intellectual attention and entertainment to my child."
LawQuest founder Poorvi Chothani adds that a double income in the family can also mean that many women are "rather entrepreneurial" in India. "It gives them the boost and they are able to stick their neck out further than they would otherwise."
Chothani runs a Mumbai immigration and employment boutique firm of two lawyers and four paralegals, all of whom are women. She says that she had intentionally made the choice to start a firm that allowed a work-life balance, although she is happy to admit that this has also come at the expense of profit.
London-based ALMT Legal co-founding partner Shalini Agarwal raises another family perspective and says that it can cut both ways: the close proximity and high expectations of an Indian family can in some cases be a burden in itself.
Another reason for India's apparently more level playing field is that family firms still loom large in India's legal landscape. And family firm often literally means that the entire family gets involved in the legal practice irrespective of gender, and the distinction between work and family becomes blurry – and easier to manage.
"Every successful woman lawyer in India comes from a family of lawyers, has a lineage," claims Lall Lahiri Salhotra co-founding partner Anuradha Salhotra. "The reason is not any other but the balancing of work and family – law is a very demanding field."
Ready or not
At least anecdotally it appears that at many firms, particularly those with female role models at the top, the ratio of men to women at the partnership level is higher than in the West, although by necessity senior and equity partners still make up a minority at the older firms.
Mody admits that in the very top tier there are still perhaps fewer women although she expects that in the next five years many junior female partners will rise up the ranks. "If they can survive the 28 to 36 year period, then the struggle is by and large over."
Vandana Shroff argues that even putting a career on hold for a year to have a baby should not be the end. "In the whole scheme of things, everyone has a professional life of at least 40 years," she says, although she agrees that in the dark of the night not every principal associate might see it that way.
But Mody's truism that "nothing succeeds like success" and Pallavi Shroff's recommendation that complete focus, grit and determination are the bare essentials in making it, both point to the same conclusion. Ultimately most successful female lawyers appear to have gotten there through ambition and hard work, despite the expectations and the environment.
"I have children and I am married but I have chosen to have a full time career," says Luthra & Luthra's Mukherjee. "I have to compete on a basis that makes me understand that I cannot use my children as an excuse."
Nevertheless, senior female lawyers are still more of an exception than a rule. And although menacing discrimination against women in the profession has decreased and the new generation of lawyers may improve matters it is yet unclear whether all Indian law firms are ready for them. Or perhaps they do not need to be and families will take care of things?