A waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower’s Sea Lounge is walking towards the only occupied table overlooking the Gateway of India, where I sit across from one of the country’s top transaction lawyers, Zia Mody. She sifts through her plastic when I pounce on the moment I dread: negotiating with a woman known for skilful negotiation.
“We have a budget for this,” I say. She pauses, wallet and credit card in hand. “I have to come back with a receipt,” I add quickly, with a shrug to emphasize that there is nothing I can do. “If that’s the rule,” and the card slips back in.
My successful block is partly due to the fact that I had been listening closely to Mody about 90 minutes earlier when we first sat. “Think in advance of what could become a dispute and how you would pre-empt it.”
She was talking about the best lesson she learnt when she was arguing in court for almost a decade, before she founded the law firm that is today favoured by most top industrial houses: AZB & Partners.
“What did you like about litigation?” I ask. Mody looks out towards the Arabian Sea and says: “I loved, the sort of...” she searches and comes up with only one word: “Winning.”
This is my first piece of the Zia Mody puzzle. It is no mistake that there are countless movies, television shows, and books that star relentlessly successful lawyers and we relish watching them win. I want to know how she does it.
So far, it’s been a great year for Mody. Her firm was advisor to the two largest cross border deals in India’s history: Tata Steel’s $12 billion (Rs48,000 crore) purchase of Anglo-Dutch Corus Group Plc and Aditya Birla group-owned Hindalco Industries Ltd takeover of Atlanta-based aluminum firm Novelis Inc. for $6.4 billion.
We chat for more than 15 minutes before we order. Mody opts for sevpuri and coffee. We weave through topics including the growth of India’s companies, religion, parents and children, and her own evolution in life and work. Every sentence is punctuated by her easy smile, every paragraph by her hearty laugh. Her look—floral print, accessorized with a simple pearl necklace, her face devoid of make-up and her natural hair— makes her personality pop all the more.
She knows it all works for her. Mody says she can be more blunt than most at the negotiating table. “Well, I can get away with it because I am a woman. I think they accept a little more abruptness from a woman. Yeah, you know, because I say it with a smile,” she says (with a smile). “In any case, people expect me to be mad.”
She supports her argument with evidence, confirming a story I heard about her running around court in the 1980s heavily pregnant. “Once when I gave my appearance, the judge said he would agree to hear me on the promise that this was my last appearance,” she laughs. Another time, a counsel who introduced her to the court said: “I appear with my learned friend, which is a catchphrase for a lawyer, and he added ‘and her little friend’.” She laughs again. “Everybody tried to pull my leg because I was heavily pregnant every time.” But the spotlight was on her back then, she says, and she worked hard to ensure she shone under it.
Yet, Mody’s reputation is not from her days doing litigation, which she aptly calls “an extremely demanding mistress”. That decade is greatly overshadowed by her more recent work, taking Indian companies across the border.
Over the years her firm’s work has been vast and varied as it worked on the dispute resolution for US sports network ESPN, was project counsel for Noida Toll Bridge project, served US financial services firm J.P. Morgan & Co’s merger with Chase Manhattan Corporation, helped with the Indian aspects of personal computer manufacturer Lenovo Group Ltd’s acquisition of IBM’s PC division, and advised Citigroup when selling its stake in i-Flex Solutions Ltd to Oracle.
She seems to have been a favourite of the acquisition-hungry Tatas, having helped Tata Steel buy Singapore’s NatSteel, and Tata Motors get Daewoo of South Korea. While her formidable major competitor are Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A. Shroff & Co. and J. Sagar Associates, Mody has the reputation of seeing every major deal.
“In Japan, it is different,” Mody says, talking about where she finds she must adjust to the business culture. “China also. I am very comfortable in the US.” She seems to be scanning an invisible world map. “Australia, no problem. The Islamic countries are not really used to an aggressive woman, but I have no problem there.” Maybe, her smile translates well across cultures.
And it seems that her commitment to perfection also translates across different areas of work: the ever-sexy mergers and acquisitions, the not-so-flamboyant securities law, the ballooning private equity work. Her firm recently advised equity giant Blackstone Group and its competitor, the Carlyle Group.
The next target is intellectual property, which she says has not yet reached its full potential here.
“Even my father,” she says of the well-known Soli Sorabjee, former attorney general, “what he lives and dies for is his reputation.” She remembers him always being on the phone, preparing for the next day’s trial. As she recants, her phone and BlackBerry sit on the table, getting due attention. He read them Shakespeare and listened to jazz. He joked and pulled their leg about everything.
Even though Mody says she is more like her father, it was her mother who ensured she would have a career in law. “She always thought she lost out on a higher education and was convinced she would have ended up far better than my father. So, she very often lived her ambitions and aspirations through the children. Always guiding us to be independent, self-sustaining, honest to the value structure that we were brought up with, not to compromise our principles, and try to achieve more than what other people have achieved. Alpha mother.”
She looks back with some regret that she and her father couldn’t appear in court together more often, although they did on a few occasions. “It was nice enough not to feel overpowered, overshadowed because he wasn’t around that much,” she says, noting that she was in Mumbai and he in Delhi once she became a professional. “And yet to be able to know that I could look up to him and reach out to him. He had to answer. I was his daughter.”
In her earlier days, her father hadn’t been sure that she would continue with the profession when she married. But Mody had never considered not being a lawyer (except for the six months she wanted to be an airhostess).
“It was very intuitive, very natural, no soul-searching,” she says. “I think it suits the way I think, and one has reinforced the other over the years.” Which means she is argumentative, aggressive. She cuts to the chase. She talks passionately about preserving the spirit of the law.
Just as I seem to be putting together the puzzle of her legal mind, she says suddenly, “I think you know enough of me, Rana,” gesturing to my digital recorder with another smile that fills her face.
So I pay the bill, and we come outside the hotel to find her Honda magically waiting for her first in the line of cars. Before I can think of how to say goodbye, she swoops in with a hug. And a kiss on one cheek. Oh, and then the other. And then she is abruptly on her way.
And the whole Zia Mody comes together right then. She is the warmest, no-nonsense person I have ever met. I can see how that could be a lethal combination .
Name: Zia Mody
Born: 19 July 1956 (Mumbai)
Education: A BA in Law from Selwyn College, Cambridge University, UK. An LLM degree from Harvard University.
Work profile: Founder and senior partner, AZB & Partners.
Recent trip: Haifa, Israel: the place of pilgrimage for Baha’is.
talent: Played classical piano, achieved Grade B at the Royal School of
Music and got a distinction.