Interviews

DEEPTI SARMA, PRACTICE LEAD, GENERAL CORPORATE & ADVISORY AT ANAND & ANAND & KHIMANI ON ESTABLISHING HER CAREER IN LAW, HANDLING M&A MATTERS AND HER ROLE BEING A CORPORATE LAWYER

Deepti Sarma

This interview has been published by Isam Kabir and The Super Lawyer Team.

After pursuing a Bachelor in Commerce, Economics and Accountancy, you got your career off the ground by studying law. Could you describe the transition from Commerce to Law?

I was quite sound in academics, right from school through college. I was a gold medallist and one of the state toppers in my HSC examinations (I was a commerce student). The very obvious choice was to pursue chartered accountancy or the company secretary course, both of which didn’t interest me at all!  The lack of alternatives didn’t scare me- I somehow just knew in my heart that I would find my true calling soon (although I must admit, that ‘soon’ happened only once I graduated from college!). I zeroed in on M.Com and Law as potential options for post-graduation. Back in 2005, law as a career had not really gained traction and was not considered as a lucrative career option, especially for first-generation lawyers like me. However, I instinctively decided to apply to Government Law College, Mumbai to give law a shot. I vividly remember the day I had to submit my application when GLC had run out of application forms and I literally wrote mine on a plain piece of paper and made my submissions! I got through and from there on, there was no looking back. I would like to call myself a classic case of a lawyer by chance.  

You joined Desai and Diwanji as Associate Lawyer immediately after law school. How has that experience shaped you and contributed to your interest in M&A and General Corporate?

I started working with Desai & Diwanji (‘D&D’) in my second year of law school. The practice of permanent interns was mostly prevalent then, and I was being interviewed along with ten other interns and believe me, I had no idea about the entire process or where I was going to land up! Just like when I got into law school, my academics spoke for me and before I knew it, I was shortlisted and had officially kick-started my journey as a paralegal trainee- my first step towards being a lawyer. Whilst I do agree that the current structure of the legal education system may not exactly unravel how good a lawyer you are, at a time when you are an intern or a fresher with no real experience to do the talking for you, sound academics to some extent helps people take you seriously.

Interning at multiple firms was something that I never considered as an option because by nature, I am a nester. I strongly believe that understanding a workplace and its dynamics takes time and making a judgement about whether or not a law firm is for you takes a minimum of 6 months. Again, this was my take and I must say that there have been several colleagues I know who have gone the ‘multiple internships’ path and found their conducive work environment as well. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to this decision and what works for me or someone else, may not work for everyone. 

I decided to give my stint at D&D a few months to understand how exactly a corporate team of a law firm functions. I was lucky to have worked with a wonderful team of young and senior professionals who helped me transform into a holistic professional. A law career requires a plethora of skill sets which I understood as my internship progressed. Whether it is interacting on the phone with a client or putting together a legal opinion as per the firm’s standards- I consumed all the knowledge I could during my paralegal trainee days. My commerce background also helped me grasp commercial concepts a lot more quickly and I was happy that I could to some extent, apply what I had learnt to what I intended to convert into a full-time career. I think that marriage of my educational background with my future career pretty much clinched my decision to make corporate law my career and before I knew, my plans to pursue MBA which I had decided as my subsequent career option vanished into oblivion! The few months which I had given myself converged into an association as a paralegal trainee for 2 years and I later got absorbed as a full-time associate on completing law school. Destiny definitely had other plans for me.

After spending almost a decade working as a corporate lawyer at DSK Legal, where you rose to the designation of Principal Associate, you took a short break before joining your new practice at Anand & Anand & Khimani. How was that decision rewarding on a personal as well as the professional front? Do you endorse the idea of career breaks?

Law is a demanding and all-consuming career. Most corporate lawyers almost never speak about back-to-back deal fatigue, the challenges of keeping up with an ever-evolving and fast work environment or the inability to consume knowledge at an exponential pace than one would ideally want to. Sometime during the latter part of 2018, I slowly but surely realised that I had completely lost the feeling of the adrenaline rush every new deal brought in. But the burning question was ‘how do you give up something that has been a part of your DNA for 11 odd years! Also, the fact that not too many lawyers take such decisions, makes one question their own! After a lot of thought, I realised that I wanted something more than being a full-time transaction lawyer and wanted to explore more hybrid opportunities that the profession had to offer. Also, although I pride myself on my ability to handle pressure, even the best have their worst days. I realised that I had burnt out and needed to take a step back- but one thing I was sure of was that I never really wanted out of the profession.

The decision was nothing short of liberating! Those 6 months helped me rejuvenate and do things that I had left behind me over the years. I focussed on rekindling my love for dance (I am a trained Bharatnatyam dancer), I travelled and spent a lot of time with friends and family, especially my then 3-year-old daughter. However, I consciously kept myself updated on legal developments- at least to the extent I could. Like I said earlier, corporate law is a way of life for me and I always knew I was going to bounce back so keeping in touch with developments was something that came very naturally to me.

I strongly believe that you attract what you are. A good and positive frame of mind always leads to sound decision making and before I knew I found myself speaking with Priyanka (lead partner of Anand & Anand and Khimani) in whom I found a kindred spirit. A few coffees and several discussions later, I embarked on a new professional journey with Priyanka in November 2019 and it remains my best decision till date.

Are career breaks for everyone? I honestly don’t think so. I have met lawyers who still thrive on the excitement and rush that every new deal brings, in spite of spending several decades in the profession. Every individual is different and it is a very personal decision to make- however, I firmly believe that the decision must be taken not on an impulse but with reasonable thought and planning. Please ask yourself some very important questions before you take the plunge-Like (i) How would you explain a break to your next employer? (ii) Are you financially prepared to be out of a job? If yes, for how long can you sustain? (iii) Is it fatigue/burn out or is it just a situation of ‘being done’ with a particular organisation? Would working with different people solve what you are exactly feeling? Be honest with yourself and you will be able to decide whether you are really ready for that break or not.

Deepti Sarma

Many people focus on finding the right mentor, a senior who can train and groom them as their responsibility. Where does your search stop when it comes to finding the right mentor?

Word of mouth. The traditional way of getting information about your potential senior/partner (who will eventually become your mentor if you are lucky!) is never going to change. You have to speak to people within the profession and understand your potential employer/organisation’s work ethics, cultural fits, team structure etc. Law firms especially are very individually driven organisations and it is imperative to get some knowledge about the person you will potentially be working with. I would also like to add something very important for future lawyers here: Give yourself some time to figure whether a place is really a fit for you or not- especially if you have done your homework and submitted yourself to a place very consciously. Law firms have volatile environments and sometimes you may have just caught your senior/partner in between something very pressing. Under those circumstances, certain situations may not elicit a reaction from them in the way you hoped for. Give your senior/partner some time-just the way they are giving you that time to acclimatise. Don’t instantly judge a senior/partner based on a couple of instances. Judge your experience over a period of a few months and then determine whether you have indeed found a mentor or not. 

You have a demonstrated history of working in the M&A niche for more than a decade, including advising high profile clients. Could you share how you manage such high stake matters?

Apart from a strong legal acumen (which is a given), being a lawyer requires you to be mentally strong and possess the ability to think on your feet. Knowledge can be acquired by reading up and spending a lot of time in gaining an understanding of various concepts, which is of course an integral part of being a lawyer. But the other skill sets which keep you going even at 3 am when you need to see a transaction through, is acquired with years of being a part of such situations. The one thing that I have learnt and consistently observed in the 13 odd years of my career is that you are never going to have ample time to ‘think through’ most of the time. This is where a mentor in your growing years plays an important role. You get the opportunity to learn and observe how your senior/partner deals with tight situations and this automatically becomes a part of your skillset over the years. I have had the opportunity to have worked with some absolutely fantastic legal minds at different stages of my career and that has contributed to making me the lawyer I am today.

How has the transition been for you from working shoulder to shoulder with corporate lawyers on M&A to establishing the practice in general corporate? What are the roadblocks and the lessons that you’d like readers to learn from your journey?

As a hardcore PE/M&A lawyer one doesn’t get too much of an opportunity to dabble in a lot of general corporate work, at least not on a daily basis. Today, I thoroughly enjoy speaking with 10 different clients in a day and helping them with legal and commercial issues that they encounter on a regular basis. It almost feels like being a general counsel for every client and I would not have it any other way! Having said this, I still do a lot of transaction work and undertake deals of varied sizes for clients- it’s been a part of my career trajectory for too long for me to be completely out of it! Additionally, leading a practice is a huge responsibility- time management, team management, administrative governance, social media presence, networking- the list goes on!

I would therefore not really call it a transition for me as a lawyer- it is just a wider spectrum of roles and responsibilities within the same area of law.

My advice to young lawyers (and one thing I really wished I had paid attention to) is to assess your career every 4 years as a lawyer. Pause and reflect. You will realise you don’t want something at 28 when you were very sure of wanting that same ‘something’ at 22. As years pass by (which believe me you, fly past when you are a lawyer), you will realise that your thought process has changed, priorities have shifted and what you want of your career, is perhaps not the same as when you began. Take that time to assess your growth and expectations and once you made a decision, live by it come what may. Like I mentioned before, law is a demanding career and if you are signing up to something, do it wholeheartedly and very consciously. After that, don’t second guess and give it your 200%. One more thing to also bear in mind is that monetary standing doesn’t determine growth. It is a part of your assessment but not the only determinant. Always remember that, while money seems alluring at 25, it may not be so when you are 35. One, therefore, needs to make a holistic decision when it comes to determining career growth and not make an assessment merely on monetary terms.

In the top 200 US law firms, women make up only 14% of equity partners. Does this trend cascade in India as well? Do you see it changing anytime soon?

We don’t have any critical data in India to support this, but from whatever one can observe, the numbers do seem diminutive. Even today when you walk into a room for negotiations, you will find fewer women compared to men. There is no denying the fact that there is an obvious imbalance and a high female talent fallout ratio even today. But my general observation also has been that we are taking baby steps to fix this mismatch. To cite an example closer home, at Anand & Anand & Khimani, 95% of the associates are women! Priyanka firmly believes and I second that growth is gender-neutral, and does not have to be compromised because of gender roles or responsibilities. I also think women nowadays are far more prepared and better equipped to handle changing personal situations which invariably used to be considered a deterrent and lead them to take a back seat professionally. As women, we generally hesitate in self-promotion. However, women are now consciously putting themselves forward to seek recognition along with being hardworking and ambitious. The trend is emerging, yet promising and I am positive it is here to stay.

Deepti Sarma

Lastly, any parting words of advice for our readers?

I have tried to build in tips for young lawyers in course of this conversation wherever relevant. However, the one thing I can’t stop impressing upon is- Pick a mentor and not a firm. Working with the right person is very important in your growing years and phenomenally helps in shaping you as a lawyer. So make an informed choice of where and whom you want to work with. Secondly- Have an open mind and consume everything that you learn and see in a way that you will never forget. Before you know the world will be your oyster!

There are also a couple of leadership skills I would love to see amongst us senior professionals. I wouldn’t say these skills are completely absent, but they aren’t still largely prevalent. The most important of them is empathy. The profession is hard enough and a measured amount of compassionate leadership would take us a long way in building a more sustainable workplace. The stress and burnout caused by the pandemic speak volumes about why a high degree of importance needs to be placed on this quality.

It would be great for firms to also continue to promote work from home/hybrid workspaces and flexible work hours. While the pandemic forced us into a corner on this one, this is something that has been the need of the hour in law firms for years now. I constantly hear more and more young lawyers mention that flexibility should be an ingrained work culture for lawyers, given the long hours spent at work which in turn ends up causing a direct impact on health and personal life. There is no substitute for physical presence, but it is important to realise that it is not always required and therefore I am a strong advocate of a hybrid work culture (part office/part home). Flexibility in terms of time and place of work enhances work-life balance, could lead to better work satisfaction and possibly less attrition, which is a glaring issue for most law firms till date.

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