Shafaq Uraizee Sapre, Partner, J. Sagar Associates, shares her insights from the niche area of M&A and thriving in the legal profession as a corporate lawyer

This interview has been published by Ayush Verma.

How would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?

On the professional side, my introduction is that of a lawyer who focuses on mergers and acquisitions along with other forms of corporate transactions, and who is a part of one of India’s best and largest national law firms. On the personal front, I introduce myself as a woman who tries her best, every day, in all the roles she plays. I like to travel, spend time with my family and friends, enjoy watching movies and cooking. I think of myself as a representative of all those who have the will and determination to work hard and make a change. 

With over 20 years in this profession, how would you describe your journey so far?

I’ve had the most wonderful experience professionally and I’m thankful to all the people who have been a part of my journey. Every journey has its unique challenging moments, and it is important to recognise the contribution of the people who form part of our support system and make it happen for us; family, friends, mentors, team members, and those who work for us relentlessly in the background such as our helpers and assistants at home and office.  I feel overwhelmed that time has passed so soon and how much I have learned from all the experiences, especially the tough times. Every struggle and failure has made me a better lawyer and person. I was very lucky to have some fantastic mentors who have guided me and showed me the path to where I am today. One has to have a plan and a vision of what they want out of themselves and if they work hard with integrity, determination, and focus on higher standards of quality and professionalism, the road will eventually lead to a good and happy place.  

At what point did you decide to read the law? Coming from a family of lawyers, did you ever feel the pressure to pursue a career in the legal field? 

When you are brought up in an environment that has a rich mix of cultural vibrancy with emphasis on education and professional excellence; with more than 80% of the close family members being lawyers or connected to the legal profession in some way, there is a general expectation that you would choose a path that follows the tradition. My calling towards law was neither certain nor forced. It must have been working somewhere in the background in deep routed subconscious levels but overtly. I was at one time quite sure that I wanted to become a professor of literature. I had completed my graduation with a major in English literature and was in fact planning to pursue higher studies towards becoming a professor. My father, who is an ardent reader of literature and philosophy, supported me immensely and in fact guided me through the course. The turning moment was when I accompanied my father to the Bombay High Court during the summer break, after my final exams in the penultimate graduation year, and witnessed him argue a case. I still remember, it was before Hon’ble Justice R.M. Lodha, and I was spellbound seeing my father argue. Observing the proceedings, I found myself being naturally drawn towards the profession. I took admission in the Government Law College after graduation and during my time at law school, I continued to work with my father as an apprentice and attended office and court every day for the three years that I studied law. Ultimately, looking back at these 20 years, I feel it was the right choice for me. In the legal profession, one has the advantage of pursuing their passion for law and also playing the role of a teacher/mentor. I enjoy making presentations, conducting training sessions and masterclasses, and speaking at conferences on various topics of law. In a way, my desire to become a teacher has also been fulfilled.

You decided to venture into corporate law when it was fairly unheard of, how did you make that choice?

Deciding to take up a certain type of practice area requires a lot of thinking and analysis of one’s own interest and capabilities along with the right guidance. Some people are very good with negotiations, some are good with their ability to argue matters, and some people are great at research and drafting. To choose a practice area as their main focus, one has to have the opportunity to experience these different areas before deciding to focus on one. Although I started as a litigator with my father, he wanted me to gain experience in other practice areas. I went to work with a senior corporate lawyer for a year who encouraged me to give a serious thought about taking up M&A, after some of the clients had given positive feedback about my ability to bring commercial and business sense to transactions. I then joined Nishith Desai Associates, where I got the opportunity to work on corporate transactions and helped in setting up foundations for what are today some of the big practice areas of the firm. I am grateful that I have had the experience of both litigation and corporate practice. This combination helps me in seeing pitfalls in transactions and rectifying those issues at an early stage before matters end up in court. 

What does an average day look like for you as a Partner in one of India’s biggest law firms?

I believe that in any organization, each person in the system, regardless of level and position, has to work hard and be passionate to ensure that the quality of work and responsiveness to clients is exceptional.  People often joke that lawyers are not humans because of our tight schedules and the absolute obsession with quality. I was once asked at a public forum if corporate lawyers indeed do not sleep or eat. Well, on a lighter note, to clarify all doubts, corporate lawyers are humans and we do eat and sleep. As is the case in any job or profession where timelines matter, we often end up doing long hours to cater to our clients’ needs. Personally, I have learned that the only way to get the best out of oneself is to prioritize. My day starts with catching up on important updates in my field, followed by responding to critical emails, calls with colleagues, and then moving on to transactional work like reviews, drafting, brainstorming sessions, and calls with clients and counterparties. Since we cater to both domestic and international clients, our schedule is largely driven by the needs of our clients based in different time zones, and therefore, on many occasions, we end up pushing ourselves late in the night or early in the morning, to accomplish important tasks within the deadlines. 

Due to the unprecedented situation created by the pandemic, it has become extremely important to stay connected with colleagues and clients, and the timelines are now blurred because of the need to be available to everyone at all times. Prioritizing in these circumstances has become more important than ever before. I have two kids and one is barely 2 years old. I ensure that I give adequate time to the family and check with the elders and those in need of attention a few times during the day. We have to be cognizant of the fact that apart from our work, we have other responsibilities and interests, and this fact must always be kept at the heart of things. Any successful person will tell you that the right balance will get you to a point of satisfaction and contentment in both your personal and professional life.  

You are one the most celebrated names in M&A. In your experience, how is the niche misrepresented in its portrayal that impacts the perspective of the younger generation of lawyers?

In my interactions with younger lawyers, I note that they are extremely smart, efficient, competitive, and hard-working. What many of them seem to lack, however, is patience and perseverance. Several of them are drawn to the glamourous depiction of corporate lawyers in the media. While it is quite appealing on the screen, it is, on many occasions far from reality. In this situation, the lawyers who choose this practice area or any practice area for that matter may find it difficult to accept the hard realities of the profession. The burn-out rate is high in the younger generation of lawyers because of the stress that arises out of expectations, coupled with the immense hard work that goes into the practice of law. What is not mentioned on the silver screen is that with patience,  a long-term vision of growth with a charted course of action in place, one can achieve one’s goals and have fun too along the way.  

How can law students grow in the niche of M&A and mark their presence?

If you put yourself in the shoes of the client and their legal team, you will realise that what they are looking for is a trusted advisor; someone who obviously knows the law and can also understand their business and expectations. Experienced transactional and commercial lawyers will tell you how it takes years to build this trust and how knowing the client’s business is critical to becoming a  trusted advisor. The only way to become a good M&A lawyer is by understanding the commercial and business needs of every client, the objectives of a transaction, working with your and the client’s team, effective communication and most importantly knowing the law. Good drafting and research capabilities are the other critical skills that have to be developed. Clarity of thought and articulation is the key to successful documentation and negotiations. Clients want a lawyer who recognizes the issues and provides productive legal solutions. M&A lawyers tackle complex regulatory and commercial issues and are required to think “on their feet” and therefore, it is very important to be solution-oriented.  Since it takes years to build these skill sets, students should spend time in good internships and gain as much experience as they can before they join the profession. They can also prepare themselves by reading transactional documents during their internships, writing research papers, and practicing drafting.  

We have witnessed that there is a huge section of students and professionals who believe that studying in a foreign university will give them an edge over other candidates; have you noticed this bias?

I agree that at one time there was some preference given to candidates with degrees from foreign universities, but over the years this approach has changed significantly. The quality of education in India is top-notch; and while foreign education provides fantastic exposure and opens one’s mind to different ideas and perspectives, what matters ultimately is performance and caliber.  The fact that many of my friends and colleagues who are successful lawyers, and many of whom are partners in law firms, have all completed their education entirely in India just like me, proves the point. The edge that younger lawyers should try to develop are qualities that will help them in becoming great lawyers in the long run, as discussed earlier. 

How would you like to address the requirement of career breaks for women lawyers?

I believe that no man or woman should suffer in any way for prioritizing their families. In this day and age, with discussions on diversity and inclusion even in the legal profession, it is quite unfortunate that one still hears of instances of bias and differential treatment. One should not shy away from a career break if it is important to take one at the relevant time. What is important from a career perspective is that one should be able to give a sense of confidence to the organisation, that you are willing to work hard, and you will demonstrate that the break has not reduced your ability or capacity to perform. As I said before, one must make efforts to draw opportunities towards oneself and the only way to ensure that you make the most from an opportunity is to be dedicated, focused, and stay updated. One of the positive outcomes of the current set-up has shown that working from home does not mean that one cannot perform well and perhaps the pandemic situation has presented workplaces with an opportunity to create more options for its employees to be with their families in times of need and yet be able to sustain their jobs.  

How has the pandemic that entailed the lockdown been for you personally and professionally?

We are facing a very unfortunate and unprecedented situation due to the pandemic. The multiple lockdowns and fear of the virus have taken a toll on all our lives, businesses, and livelihoods. The situation has affected us emotionally and professionally with many of us losing some close family, friends, and neighbors to the virus. While we all are dealing with it in some way, in my opinion, the children and elders have suffered the most. It was difficult to restrict kids within the four walls of the house and dealing with online schooling and work at the same time. My husband is a counsel and had to attend virtual hearings, I was working on transactions and my kids were attending school virtually, all at the same time in different parts of the house. It was difficult and hectic at the start but slowly we settled into a routine. The biggest lesson I learned was from my kids, who showed so much resilience and adaptability, that  I was inspired to adapt and continue my work. We are very fortunate that JSA did well despite the challenges with the strong support of our clients. It is true, however, that business, both domestic and global, was affected adversely. Clients had new issues to deal with such as the effect of the pandemic on their businesses and organizations and force majeure provisions were being discussed. While we have all studied these topics academically, we did not imagine the scenarios playing out in our lifetime.  By and large, we all agree that the first two quarters of 2020 were difficult for everyone. We all slowly adapted to this new normal of online communication and work from home. With the tremendous support and understanding from clients, the firm, colleagues, family, and my helpers at home, I have been able to work from home effectively and efficiently.

As a law firm partner, you shoulder many responsibilities. How do you stay detached from negative outcomes or setbacks?

Every one of us has suffered from negativity and setbacks and it is only human to feel these emotions. The role becomes more demanding as you progress and grow. It transforms from doing purely execution work to that of a leader, a mentor, and an entrepreneur. I personally have learned the most valuable lessons from setbacks and perhaps those experiences have helped me in dealing with difficult situations today in a constructive manner. I try to break down the problem or set- back into parts and after understanding what could have been done better or differently, I dust off the remains and move on to constructive thoughts and objectives while dealing with one issue at a time. This trick works for both personal and professional matters and I highly recommend this approach. With experience and practice, one learns to deal with such downfalls and it is also important not to dwell on negativity and setbacks for too long. I try to do something that detaches me from negativity such as spending time with my family, having a good laugh, going for a drive or just cooking my favorite meal. I have had the benefit of mentors who have provided their support and splendid advice, so reaching out for help and guidance is also recommended. Keeping a clear head and avoiding overthinking and speculation also helps in the long run if one has to survive in this profession. 

If you could go back in time and do something differently on the professional front, what would that be?

I would change absolutely nothing. Each and every day of my career has been fantastic and made me a better lawyer and a better person. I cannot be more grateful for these 20 years of great memories and opportunities. I suppose the only thing I should have done additionally, and not differently, would have been to learn German. I have spent a lot of time in Germany for work while representing many German clients and I have always been so fascinated by the language. It is still on my ‘to do’ list and I hope to learn the language before I hit another 20 years in the profession.

What would be your advice to upcoming lawyers, especially women who look up to you?

The advice is clear and straightforward: chalk out a clear path for yourself first and set goals. Work hard towards your goals with integrity, patience, and perseverance. Develop your skill sets, keep reading and be up-to-date with whichever area of law you choose. Try and get as much experience as you can, research, write, build good contacts and people skills. Soft skills are as important as technical skills. Do not be afraid to fail or take a step back. Be determined, adaptable, move forward, and build a good support system. Most importantly, stay grounded and humble.

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