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The boardroom crusaders

The boardroom crusaders
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First Published: Sun, Jul 18 2010. 08 14 PM IST

Carrying on the legacy: Zia Mody believes law and its practice are still evolving in India. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Carrying on the legacy: Zia Mody believes law and its practice are still evolving in India. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Updated: Sun, Jul 18 2010. 08 14 PM IST
They are the essential ingredients in any big corporate deal. They move with equal ease from the courtroom to the boardroom. Whether it’s setting up a business, fighting a dispute or even framing an ordinary employment contract, this is one professional you can’t do without in the workplace. Little wonder then that the profession has such an aura of glamour attached to it, despite the sober black gown. We spoke to three professionals to find out more about their working life.
Zia Mody,54
Managing partner, AZB and Partners, Mumbai
The first thing you notice about Zia Mody’s 23rd-floor office at Express Towers in Nariman Point, Mumbai, is the art. Along the walls, in the many conference rooms, the Razas, the Sujata Achrekars and the Nitin Ghangrekars have all been selected by her.
And then there are the awards—plaques which read “Most Powerful Woman”, “Lawyer of the Year”, “Best Knowledge Manager”.
Carrying on the legacy: Zia Mody believes law and its practice are still evolving in India. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Not surprising, given the spectacular career graph this 54-year-old managing partner has had. The daughter of former attorney-general of India Soli Sorabjee, Mody returned to India in 1984 with a master’s in law (LLM) from Harvard Law School and four years work experience at the New York firm Baker and McKenzie. Those early days saw her in the courtroom in 1987-88, working pro bono for the Bombay Environmental Action Group. The cases were against illegal construction and different builders.
Mody moved  to mergers and acquisitions (M&As) and securities law, and away from  litigation, around 1995. “India Inc. was opening up, foreign clients were coming in, friends in America were referring work and sending me the kind of stuff I had worked on in New York. I was getting tired of all the adjournments, of not getting the time to focus, so I decided to move to corporate law completely,” she says.
Daily duty: “I have no body clock,” Mody says. “If I can sleep more, I make sure I do.” Not surprising for a lawyer whose “days” often end at midnight, sometimes 2am or even 5am.
Mody always carries her BlackBerry and appointment book. The pages for each day are crammed—meetings from 10am, speaking engagements and the occasional official function. “There’s no predictability about my days in office,” she says. “There could be meetings, internal or external, or conference calls. In a day, I get asked questions on so many matters.” Her team of around 250 lawyers is spread over six locations and she has to be available for all her colleagues.
Meals seem to be the biggest casualty in all of this. Breakfast never happens. If lunch isn’t a client meeting (at Vong Wong at Express Towers or at the Oberoi across the road), then it’s a dabba from home, which is “some dal, couple of vegetables, sort of a cold, dry, untasty chapati and some salad”. That dabba has to stretch to dinner sometimes.
Most of the partners work late. Mody herself wraps up often in the early hours of the morning, driving back home in her white Volkswagen Beetle. She lives 15 minutes away, on Laburnum Road.
Apart from a few unavoidable business trips (abroad or within the country), Mody prefers to “videoconference as much as we can”.
Sanity saver: The short breaks, three or four times a year, at the family’s house in Goa; and the annual two-week vacation, in New York (where Mody worked for four years) or in Europe.
Skills set: “A lot of hard work. A lot of commitment to knowledge, a passion for wanting to know more (rather than being
worried that you have to read more). Also having the luck to get involved with a domain of a practice that you enjoy.”
Education: LLB from the University of Cambridge, UK, LLM from Harvard Law School, US.
What I love about my job: “That I can make a difference. The law in India is still developing, and it’s been great being part of the thinking, in trying to bring about good change, being part of advisory committees that have interacted with (the) government.” Mody is particularly proud of the many overseas acquisition deals she has worked on, including the path-breaking first one in 2004, the Tata Steel takeover in 2004 of NatSteel in Singapore.
Wish I could change: “I would like to change my daily pattern in some miraculous way into a normal 8- to 10-hour day.”
Salary range: Rs20 lakh-Rs10 crore. “It all depends on you,” says Mody.
Ashish Ahuja, 37
Partner, Wadia Ghandy & Co, Mumbai
Ashish Ahuja is dressed, as most corporate lawyers are, in suit and tie. Seated on the first floor of the heritage building that is Wadia Ghandy’s office, amid leather-bound volumes of law books, he discusses his idea of a good lawyer: “If your maid gets hauled in by a policeman, and you need to go help, you don’t want to have to say ‘Go see a real lawyer. I am a corporate lawyer. I only do infrastructure and gas,’” he says. Ahuja’s varied briefs echo this philosophy.
Law suit: Ashish Ahuja loves the challenge of setting up operations for diverse businesses and helping them reach a level where he’s not needed any more. Kedar Bhat/Mint
From the legalities of stadium building in the private sector to public-private partnerships in road building, to framing sourcing and subcontracting agreements, he enjoys them all. But Ahuja clearly prefers his corporate practice to litigation (“because of the time process that it involves, where you can wait full days in court and the day can be totally unproductive”, he explains).
Daily duty: Ahuja gets his five-year-old son Chaitanya ready for the school car pool every morning before driving to his office in the Fort area. A typical day at work for this partner, who heads a team of 24, starts at 9.15-9.30am with paperwork: preparing legal opinions, clearing mail. Meetings follow, and could go on through the day. A few might be internal conferences, such as the 12 Mumbai partners meeting to discuss their vision for growth. Or a client might call to discuss the best way to enter the Indian market, and whether it is possible to set up an investment advisory committee and yet avoid the long-drawn process of a Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) registration.
And so it goes through the day, with a brief break for a buffet lunch served in the firm’s dining space upstairs. Ahuja leaves the office by 8-8.30pm. After dinner, once Chaitanya’s in bed, he might spend an hour or two drafting a contract or working on a brief. Travel, which used to be a weekly affair in the first five years of Ahuja’s career, has now come down to once or twice a month.
Sanity saver: Moving home from Vashi to Parel. It has reduced the commute time dramatically—from an hour and a half each way to 25 minutes. “I can even pop in to see my son at lunchtime on the occasional weekday and still have not travelled as much as I did one way to Vashi,” he points out.
Skills set: Patience; thinking out of the box, analysing and being solutions-oriented. “Of course, to reach a phase where you can have all of this, you need to have strong fundamentals, to understand law very well, and to have the ability to put yourself into the shoes of the client,” Ahuja adds.
Education: BA LLB (Hons) from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
What I love about my job: “Being able to add value; starting diverse enterprises (a recording label, a software company) and taking them to a level where I am not needed any more.”
Wish I could change: “The inability to take frequent holidays.” Partnership has meant no more treks in the Sahyadris around Mumbai, to the Rajmachi Fort near Lonavala, or on the route from Peb Fort to Matheran. The last time Ahuja took time off was a five-day break in February 2008.
Salary range: Rs1-5 crore a year. “At this level, you define by yourself your limits; it depends on how hard you work and how much effort you put in,” he says.
Anupam Prasad,27 Associate, Khaitan and Co, Mumbai
“If you get a call at 2(am) on Friday night, you should take it, even if you have to work all weekend long,” declares Anupam Prasad. “After all the stakes are often high. When you are dealing in millions and billions (of) rupees you can’t say ‘Wait for Monday’.”
Braving a challenge:: Anupam Prasad doesn’t mind being on call 24x7 .Kedar Bhat/Mint
Prasad has moved recently to Mumbai from Bangalore. “There’s more exposure here, everything is based here. So what if I get less time to myself,” says Prasad. “I knew I wanted to practise corporate law from the start.” Litigation had little appeal because he believes “it’s a struggle, unless you have a family in the background which practises law. And at the starting level, it’s almost always underpaid.” He started his career with Nishith Desai Associates and worked there for four years, before he moved, a few months ago, to Khaitan and Co. in Mumbai.
Daily duty: His day at work may begin as early as 7.30am if there is a conference call with a client in the US. Otherwise, he arrives by 9am. First in line are the follow-ups. Prasad is part of the private equity and infrastructure team. This means there are always queries to be handled on setting up legal entities, compliance requirements, rules on foreign direct investment (FDI) in specific sectors. Agreements or memos for various ongoing transactions have to be worked on. There may also be client calls or meetings to attend, sometimes solo, sometimes with the partner he reports to. Most workdays for Prasad end by 8pm, but they may on occasion stretch till 10pm or midnight, or even all night.
Sanity saver: Listening to music. Meeting new people, friends of friends, maybe at a get-together with school friends, or with colleagues/ex-colleagues.
Skills set: Willingness to respond 24x7. “As a lawyer, you’re dealing with people all the time, so at the end of the day people skills are what really count.”
Education:LLB from WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. There’s no special training for corporate law, but you may choose appropriate elective courses during your LLB course.
What I love about my job: The challenge.
Wish I could change: Early morning meetings.
Salary range: Rs12-18 lakh a year. A 100% bonus could take that up to Rs36 lakh.
Career progression: There are a lot of options for young lawyers. After graduating from a law school, one can go into litigation, join a law firm, or even go abroad for further study. “The ultimate aim of every associate is to become a partner, maybe at the end of four-five years. It could take as long as 8-12 years too. A lot of lawyers at the partner level go on to start their own firms, or even make lateral moves to private equity or become entrepreneurs,” he says.
Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of three executives at different stages in their careers. Tell us which profession you want to know more about at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jul 18 2010. 08 14 PM IST
More Topics: Corporate Law | Lawyers | Law | Legal | LLM |