Shilpa Bhasin Mehra, on being a lawyer in Dubai, second innings of life and the happiness chat

This interview has been published by Ayush Verma.

How did you choose law as a career?

Law as a career option was almost automatic for me. I am the fourth generation of lawyers in my family. I was in complete awe of the lawyers that I saw around me since I was a child. I had heard tales about my great grandfather and my grandfather, who were great lawyers.

My father, Mr Lalit Bhasin has been the biggest influence in my life. The sheer hard work and dedication earned him the complete faith of his clients. I loved the respect they commanded, “Vakil saheb”. I have seen the black coat and gown ever since I can remember. Strangely that’s all I wanted to be. I recall an essay I had to write when I was in the 5th grade about my ambition in life. I wrote about becoming a lawyer. It was as though there was no other profession in the world.

What challenges did you face as a young female lawyer while starting your career?

I was fortunate to have started my career in the chamber of Mr. K.K. Venugopal. My father was instrumental in getting me this opportunity. We were 3 young women lawyers and 3 male lawyers. We were treated with respect and equality. After a year I got married and shifted to Dubai, UAE. So I would not be the right person to comment on the challenges that young female lawyers face in India when they are starting out.

How was the experience of starting life in a new country? 

The experience was truly challenging and eventually rewarding. Everything was new for me, the country, the people, the culture besides being newly married. UAE was like a different country in 1993 when I shifted there. It was not full of skyscrapers and all the modern architecture then. Life was simpler and slower. 

Starting life there was a huge learning curve and very exciting. I had to learn everything from scratch. UAE as such is a very welcoming place so I felt at home sooner than I expected. The fact that I am here even after 27 years is evidence of how comfortable I feel here.

What were the challenges of being an Indian qualified lawyer in a foreign country? How did you overcome them?

Coming from a Common Law jurisdiction, I was suddenly like a fish out of water. The United Arab Emirates is essentially a civil law jurisdiction. Besides that, I did not know Arabic at all, which is the national language and mandatory in all legal documents and court proceedings. I spent many hours a day reading the English translations of the laws to familiarize myself. I realized that since I did not know Arabic, my best bet was to concentrate on documents that were required to be drafted in English. Working in a local law firm was the best learning experience.  Soon I carved a niche for myself, drafting the English legal documents and attending meetings with International clients.

How was the experience of starting your own consultancy firm in a foreign country?

After working in a local law firm as well as the in-house legal advisor for an international marine company, I decided it was time for me to start my own consultancy firm in 2015. The experience has been a big learning experience and I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey so far. The process of setting up the firm procedurally is a simple one, but to get clients to a solo consultancy firm can be a challenge. My USP was and always has been practical solutions for legal problems. The costs are lower, procedures quicker and we avoid litigation as much as possible. Clients appreciate the honest advice and no legal jargon meetings and are comfortable in discussing their matters. Big law firms can be intimidating on many fronts.

My first client was someone I had known for many years and had advised previously on small matters. He entrusted me with some contracts for his company. Fortunately, from good references, the word spread and today I am gainfully busy. There were some lady lawyers who had already established their own law firms, so it wasn’t anything unusual when I set up my own practice.

How has life been since you recovered from the health battle? Can you tell our readers about it?

In 2003 March, I was struck by viral meningitis that put me in a state of coma for 40 days and then waist down paralysed for 2 ½ years. My life turned upside down. It has been a slow and steady recovery and I returned to some sort of work in 2006. My clients were kind enough to come home and discuss their matters for me to draw up their contracts. In 2010, I returned to full time work in the same marine company that I was working with in 2003 when I fell critically sick. In 2015, I started my consultancy firm. I still need a hand for support to walk and I am lucky I don’t have to run around, so my working capabilities and results are not affected. 

You have been a contributor columnist in Khaleej times for a while now, has writing always been a calling?

When I was a teenager, my mom would tell me that I write well. At that time writing was limited to birthday cards, so I did not take her seriously. Being a lawyer, one has been writing legal opinions and contracts. But it was my illness and long rehab that gave me all the time to introspect and write. I started writing for “Lawyers Update”, a leading magazine for lawyers in India in 2007. Khaleej Times came across my articles in this magazine (that I would put up on Social media) and asked me to write a column for them. Now I realize and appreciate how special and liberating writing is, it is therapeutic for me.

Talking about writing, tell us something about your book “ALL BATTLES AREN’T LEGAL”.

When I was paralysed for 2 1/2 years in 2003, I suddenly had all the time in the world. My father got me a laptop to keep me occupied. I started writing my thoughts, much like a personal diary. The thoughts revolved around my life, routine, family, observations of things around me, my emotions and simply my situation. Soon from 10 pages it becomes 100 plus pages. 

It is thanks to my father that this diary got published in 2005 as a book titled “All Battles aren’t Legal.” Because it is my real life experience of how I came back from the brink of death (during the coma I believe I was declared dead twice and revived), people find it very inspiring. After so many years, I still get heartwarming reviews. This book will always hold a special place in my heart.

How has the pandemic been for you? How did you cope with the lockdown blues?

I am glad this question came straight after my book question. I feel I have lived through my own Tsunami/Covid in 2003. I was locked up and stranded on a 6 feet bed. I could not move at all. I needed help and a call bell 24/7. 

I wrote down my thoughts then in 2003 and that was the most healing; I still do that. I smiled when I met people, because there was little point in depressing them. I learnt to live in my given situation and deal with it. My life experience taught me a lot, so honestly the lockdown is not freaking me out at all. When life throws lemons, one may as well make lemonade, why be sour? 

If you could go back in time and give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would your advice be on the personal as well as the professional front?

My life has been quite a rollercoaster ride. From shifting base to a new country in 1993 after I got married and starting my legal career there, to being declared dead in 2003 and a long rehab to now working for myself. I have truly lived a very interesting life (to say the least).

My advice to my younger self would be to be better on all fronts, to try harder and not settle for anything less – be it in my personal or professional life.

What is on your list of goals for the coming years?

I am a work in progress. I want to get into the field of legal education, write more and do something to make a difference in the lives of others. Not CSR but PSR (Personal Social Responsibility). I am looking at starting some courses for law students, something that will help them in the practical side of law.

I host a talk show called The Happiness Chat that can be viewed on YouTube. This chat show was started in 2020 when people had started getting depressed by the struggles with Covid. I think mental health is very important and it is gaining the due relevance it deserves. I would like to collaborate with like minded people to spread the message of love, hope and happiness to as many as I can.

What advice would you like to give our readers, especially young lawyers and law students?

Never stop learning, adapt and thrive (not just survive). Change is the law of nature, so be receptive and versatile. Listen to others, be respectful to seniors but follow your heart and dreams. Don’t let anyone belittle your ambitions. You are unique and that’s your USP.

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