MUMBAI: Till January 2012, few had heard of Fereshte Sethna, 45, and Anuradha Dutt, 55, the lynchpins of the equally low-profile boutique litigation firm Dutt Menon Dunmorrsett (DMD). A Supreme Court ruling in favour of Vodafone in a $2-billion tax case changed all that.
In December 2008, the British telecom giant roped in DMD to work alongside one of India's best counsels, Harish Salve, to take on the income-tax department, which felt Vodafone had to pay capital gains on a deal done with Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong to enter India.
A little over two years after DMD arrived on the scene, the apex court ruled that Vodafone did not have to pay capital gains. Says Dutt, 55: "The Vodafone case changed the view of the world towards us. It was a huge professional success for us and got us massive media attention."
Adds Sethna, who grew up seeing her mother Khushnuma practice commercial law: "At the core of our success is that we mostly fight cases on our own and don't hire counsels, unless it's imperative." The alumnus of Government Law College, Mumbai, says the firm believed in Vodafone's case. "If I don't feel for the case, I don't accept the assignment," points out the senior partner of litigation at DMD.
Sethna and Dutt are just two of a new crop of gutsy and confident women lawyers who are following in the hallowed footsteps of India's best-known legal diva, the 56-year-old Zia Mody. Also in that elite club are Toral Desai, 42, a specialist in mergers & acquisitions; Mona Bhide, 49, an expert in project & structured finance and banking; and Anuradha Salhotra, 53, managing partner at Lall Lahiri & Salhotra, an intellectual property firm of attorneys.
Their gender doesn't make them stick out like sore thumbs - not anymore. "When I sit at the negotiation table, I see no gender, only the objective," says Desai.
Entry of MNCs has Changed Mindsets
Toral Desai is partner and head of M&A at Desai & Dewanji, a firm set up by her grandfather.
Desai, 42, cut her teeth at the firm 20 years ago with her uncle and later on her cousin as mentors. "They literally threw me directly into transactions," says Desai, who has handled some 100 deals in the past three years.
However, the first deal she cut was in the mid-90s, a private equity transaction for insurance major AIG; that was followed by Henkel's acquisition of Shaw Wallace's consumer division. At the time, it wasn't uncommon for clients to wonder aloud whether a woman would be able to "manage complex transactions", recounts Desai.
Today, acceptance levels are less of an issue. "I guess the entry of multinational firms has changed mindsets, resulting in a focus just on the talent and not the gender," says the third-generation lawyer, although she does add that every once in a while she comes across business owners who are uncomfortable dealing with women at the negotiation table.
Like Desai, Mona Bhide is another third-generation lawyer who has joined the family firm, Dave Girish & Co. But position didn't come on a platter. "My father always believed that I should earn my place," says Bhide, who became a partner seven years after joining the practice in 1985.
Armed with a degree from Northwestern University, School of Law, Bhide is today in charge of an array of verticals from international finance, securities and private equity transactions, to structured finance, securitisation, derivatives and restructuring.
"Even today, be it any document related to M&A or litigation, the smallest piece of paper never goes to clients before passing through my desk," says Bhide.
Zia Mody, co-founder of AZB & Partners - a regular topper of M&A league tables for corporate law firms - is glad to see women excelling in a challenging 24x7 profession like law even as they manage a family. "There is a higher professional acceptance of women in the legal profession today. But women continue to face the challenge of multi-tasking, donning many hats and roles, especially as a young married woman or a young mother," explains Mody. "It is easier only if they have the infrastructure back home to support a hectic work life as well as a supportive husband," she adds.
Such flexibility can help these professionals work wonders - the way Anuradha Salhotra grew her firm in a year in which the global financial crisis had knocked the wind out of most sails.
In 2008-09, the headcount at Lahiri & Salhotra grew from nine to 50, and revenues by almost 180%.
It was also the year in which Salhotra became managing partner of the firm.
An authority on intellectual property (IP) law, Salhotra works with a host of global consumer products corporations, including a handful of Fortune 100 ones. "The most challenging transaction of my career was the IP due diligence for The Coca-Cola Company when it took over Parle's soft drinks brands in the early 90s," says the veteran with close to 3 decades of experience.
It's a demanding profession, both mentally and physically, say the women lawyers who go through hundreds of pages of legalese and deal with demanding clients who expect them to be on call round the clock. "It can be very draining to go through a 400-page document carefully and later ensure that you are there 24x7 to meet client expectations. I have stayed nights in the office poring over data," says Desai.
Although it is a lot of hard work and involves long hours of research, Desai says the profession can be extremely fulfilling. Adds Sethna: "The real thrill is litigation, where you prepare microscopic details with the challenge to prove your point in the courtroom."
Sethna has argued cases for top companies in sectors such as aviation, shipping, oil & gas, real estate and metals.
Meantime, law firms have also begun hiring more women.
For instance, of the 36 fresh hires in 2012 at Luthra & Luthra Law Offices, 26 are women and nine of those are partners. Says Rajiv Luthra, founder of the firm: "The recognition that women in law are getting today has been long overdue. With the growth of the Indian corporate sector, women have been getting more opportunities to showcase their talent."
So is this bunch ready to step into the league of Zia Mody, the lady involved in such multi-billion-dollar landmark deals as Tata Steel-Corus and Hindalco-Novelis? Perhaps not yet.
A senior industry official says on condition of anonymity: "The next set of women lawyers aspiring to be like Zia will need to work a lot more with their instinct and gut-feel and not just go by the rule book."
Source: The Economic Times