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Women breaking into the Bar: as tough as ever?

Women power
Women power

"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." The old saying that can be illustrative in the career success stories of many women, and perhaps few places more so than of female lawyers at the Bar.

The women who have picked litigation and are successful do not shy away from addressing the problem of gender bias compounded by lack of structure and sluggishness of court procedures.

"I went to courts like Bayana," recounts bemused IP specialist Anuradha Salhotra. "It used to feel like a zoo. I was the only lady in the courts there and the entire community used to come to see me argue.” She clearly identifies the sexist attitude of people as one of the bigger problems women faced in the courts.  

But monetary consideration and better working conditions were recognised as the main reasons for a leaning towards corporate work.

"Youngsters are attracted to corporate law practice because it is much better pay - larger firms like AZB and Amarchand Mangaldas pay enticing salaries," says Manik Karanjawala.

Sole Trilegal woman partner Charandeep Kaur notes: "Law is a demanding profession, corporate demands same amount of work as litigation."

But Salhotra feels that hardcore litigation is especially tough: "There are no timings; the court dictates time."

And while the gestation period from junior advocate assisting a senior counsel to starting one's own practice is very long and cumbersome for both sexes, it remains an even more distant possibility for women with no legacy to fall back upon.

Zia Mody adds that a woman litigating lawyer has to be outstanding in order to get noticed in the courts, "It is still a fair struggle for women to succeed and break through the ceiling if they like it in the court world."

And being outstanding is never good enough in the absence of perseverance and hard work. Those qualities are the prerequisites to excelling in any field but become even more significant while battling cases.

On the flip side of course, one female lawyer says that women's greater emotional intelligence gives them advantages of being able to strategise and negotiate with far more tact than men.

Even those willing to surpass the initial obstacles and stick around to become arguing counsels have to override psychological barriers clients may display in favour of men.

"As far as arguing counsels are concerned there is no question they far outnumber women. This is partly due to the level of confidence that a man has while addressing the bench," claims Karanjawala. "Though we have very tough women lawyers who have excelled like Indira Jaisingh, that’s an exception and not a rule."

However, despite the rigours of litigation and apparent ease of working in a law firm, female partners do perceive full commitment and dedication towards work as common key to success.

Khaitan & Co litigation partner Gauri Rasgotra who rejoined the firm's Delhi office after working for two years in the US as the head of the George Washington University Law School's India Studies Center says that while difficult, the Bar's pay-off is worth it.

"I have practiced in the courts from 1995 to May 2006,” she enthuses. “You get a high when you go to the courts. Just in the beginning of her career does a female lawyer face some discrimination by clients but not after she proves herself."

One female partner believes that things are now changing for the better with an increasing number of women graduating as lawyers every year. Some of them get drawn into litigation, and they are there to stay, whereas others return to the bar after spending years as corporate attorneys.

"Litigation is a very interesting part of law, corporate law can get monotonous,” she says. “Every case is a different fact situation like another story."

Therefore, it all boils down to what kind of work ultimately motivates and evokes passion in an individual which is less of a gender and more of merit-based contention.

And it should be pointed out that the Delhi Bar Council executive committee now has two female members: Rana Praween Siddiqui and Sarla Kaushik. When contrasted with the representation of law firm lawyers at the Delhi Bar Council (Luthra & Luthra partner Vijay Sondhi), perhaps women are not doing all too badly in the field.

Legally India wishes a happy International Women's Day to all readers.

Read more about women's careers in Indian corporate law firms.

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