Business Today

Storming a Male Bastion - Zia Mody

     Print Edition: Oct 14, 2012

I came back from America in 1983. I was working in New York with the world's largest law firm, Baker & McKenzie. My parents told me it was time to wind my way back home. Soon after coming back, in 1984, I got married. As a young junior barrister, I started my practice at the Bombay High Court under Obed Chinoy, who was a senior counsel. It was difficult - especially for a young woman in a male-dominated profession. I felt quite diffident and it was tough to make one's presence felt. The only way to do that was to be able to argue in court, but very few clients wanted a young woman junior lawyer to argue their cases.

At that time an NGO, the Bombay Environmental Action Group, decided to file cases against floor space index violation by some builders. Prominent buildings such as Pratibha and Om Chambers (in south Mumbai) were involved. The NGO had no money and Shyam Chainani, who led the effort, decided to work with junior lawyers like me. We worked for free, collaborating with Chainani and Manek Davar, an unflinching journalist who is now a reputed publisher. There were a few other junior lawyers like me who took up these cases and we got to argue in the court on behalf of the NGO. There were very senior lawyers on the other side. We won all the cases. Eight floors of Pratibha were ordered to be demolished. This gave me the confidence to argue cases, and I would count it as my big breakthrough.

There was a second breakthrough in my career when I decided to slow down and move out of counsel practice to become a corporate lawyer in the mid-1990s. India had opened up and investment laws were being developed and we were growing with it. It took me back to my training at Baker & McKenzie. I started a small proprietorship called Chambers of Zia Mody around 1995 with a few but fabulous lawyers. Later it morphed into AZB & Partners and we started advising on overseas deals. Our first big overseas deal was when Tata Steel bought the Singapore-based Nat Steel, and then we also advised the Tatas when they bought Daewoo's truck manufacturing assets in Korea. We continued to advise the Tatas in subsequent deals.

For me, re-calibrating myself from a counsel into an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) lawyer was also a personal breakthrough. Many of the team members who were with us when we started off together are still with us. I did miss all the excitement of the courtroom in the beginning. Winning a case in court is the biggest adrenalin boost one can get. I still try to derive it by osmosis when we are involved in litigation and our litigation lawyers come back all excited after a day in court. This metamorphosis also occurred alongside a personal transformation - from being a singleton in New York to coming back, marrying a wonderful husband and having three beautiful daughters. The personal change was also a key element in my success.

KNOW YOUR LEADERS
Meher Pudumjee 

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