Sunila Awasthi, Partner at AZB & Partners In a Discussion With SuperLawyer Giving Insights On Practice Areas Such As Corporate Advisory, Employment Laws, And Information Technology

This interview has been published by Prabhjot Singh, Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

What was your motivation behind choosing law as a career?

While I did not consciously plan a career in law, circumstances led me into it. While in Class 12th, my favourite subject was political science and when it was time to decide on graduation, Lady Shri Ram College for Women was my first choice because of its reputation as an excellent college.  I was fortunate enough to get in and it was a life-changing experience for me. It was at LSR I learnt that staying silent (when you really had so many questions to ask) was injurious to only yourself – something that has helped me tremendously in my journey and I pass it onto the new generation! Parallelly, the trajectory of my personal life had already made me super conscious of rights of women at a very young age so the desire to know the legal position had taken a strong hold.

Additionally, the family had been engaged in civil litigation for long and I was exposed to legal documents, working of litigation system in our country and the immense frustration that came with delays! After graduating in Political Science Honours, I decided to study law and joined the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. My sole motivation to have a career was financial independence and it turned out to be a career in the legal profession. Frankly it was unplanned, but I deeply believe that it was destined for me.

What were the challenges that you faced in the beginning of your career?

The first challenge was to find a job which did not require me to be a litigator! I passed out as a lawyer in 1992. No one, including myself had heard of “corporate law”.  But I had absolute clarity that I was not going to practise as a litigator. This puzzled my family as they would ask “then why did you do law?”. I had no answer only a strong belief that there must be something a lawyer can do which does not require her to go to court! I had witnessed the pathetic legal system during the 1980s and early 1990s, with its accompanying unimaginable harassment of litigants.

The disastrous infrastructure of the courts at Tis Hazari, one of the district level courts at Delhi and only slightly better facilities at the Delhi High Court, were equally demotivating factors. Being a first-generation lawyer and not knowing any lawyers to guide me, I was clueless.

I would look up classified ads in the newspaper and go for interviews in small companies looking for in-house lawyers. The few interviews that I did have, stalled at my refusal to go to court. In desperation I picked up the yellow pages of the telephone directory (yes, that was during my lifetime!) and shortlisted 10 law firms listed in that (my sole criterion was the distance I would have to travel in the DTC bus from my home – an unavoidable nightmare for any Delhi girl!). To cut a long story short, it was serendipity which brought me to Ajay Bahl & Co. which was looking for a lawyer who did not want to go to court since its corporate law work was just starting to pick up!

The second challenge was related to the environment in which I started my corporate law career – remember this is 1993 – no precedents (for Joint Venture Agreements etc.); no computers or internet, no search engines or data resources – only physical books; recent economic liberalization meant that everything was new for the regulators, the clients and the lawyers – exciting times full of potential but also a lot more of extra effort was required and the learning curve was really steep! Looking back, I feel it were those initial challenges of scarce resources and limited support which honed my skills to be able to roll up my sleeves and dig in – persistence, resilience and sheer grit to make it happen!

Sunila as per you, what are the skills required for being a corporate lawyer and any roadmap that a professional should follow to be the same? 

This is a very difficult question to answer. I have seen such varied people with different skill sets doing well as corporate lawyers that in my view it boils down to individual abilities and destiny. But in general, based on my observations and personal experience, some of the essential skills in today’s scenario are

(i) an analytical mind to be able to understand the rationale of what we are advising clients;

(ii) effective communication, whether verbal or in writing, so that non-legal persons can also understand your advise; (iii) confidence, which comes from doing your home-work well – that requires knowledge of the law, doing proper research (as opposed to Google search!), understanding the client perspective and business needs;

(iv) having an eye for detail and at the same time ability to look at the big picture;

(v) ability to think things through – this helps tremendously in not giving theoretical advise to clients – world over businesses push advisors to think out-of-the-box to provide workable solutions which are also legally complaint;

(vi) integrity – towards your profession, the law, your colleagues, organization and clients. Clients disclose the most sensitive commercial information relating to their business to their legal advisors so gaining and maintaining that trust is life-long effort!

In hindsight I have not followed a roadmap, so I am unable to prescribe a roadmap as I believe its every individual’s journey that she has to undertake.

Among all the practice areas, i.e. corporate advisory, employment laws, Information Technology, e-commerce, etc, Sunila, which one do you find the most interesting and challenging? 

I have been fortunate enough to gain experience in diverse practice areas within corporate law at different points in time and each have been, in their own way, interesting as well as challenging. When I first started, I drafted commercial contracts taking help from conveyancing books! When you draft something from scratch, you understand the legal basis for which each provision that is included in the contract and sync it with client requirement. Today, with standard template forms and existing precedents, this opportunity to learn drafting is a huge loss to the profession. For me, the next phase came quite quickly because India had entered the era of economic liberalization.

Those initial years kept corporate lawyers like me very busy with Joint Ventures & Technical Collaborations with its related drafting & negotiating contracts; obtaining regulatory approvals for foreign investment; advising foreign clients on setting up operations in India which included a whole gamut of laws relating to employment, leasing of offices, compliances and the like.

There was never a dull moment in those days! Then the mammoth legal due diligence exercises took centre-stage. The excitement revolved around which new city the DD team was going to be based in and for how many days! I found the DD exercises gave incredible opportunity to learn about new laws, regulations and understanding different businesses. The variety for me ranged from alcohol industry, automotive parts, media, pharmaceutical companies to IT and BPOs. The advent of the Information Technology Act, 2000, again shifted the focus of work for me and new practise areas were evolving with online businesses throwing new challenges.

The big technology companies with large workforce brought its own employment related challenges and learnings. The focus expanded to employee issues including sexual harassment at the workplace. Laws kept changing trying to keep pace with technological developments and new businesses in fast-changing corporate world. I believe the last decade or so has seen the fastest growth in terms of new practise areas for corporate lawyers with data privacy, e-commerce, fintech, crypto, ESG (environmental, social and governance), gig economy and therefore gig workers and the like taking centre stage. From my perspective, even after 30 years, what’s not to love about corporate law?

How do you push through your worst times?

The support of your family and your workplace is vital especially in tough times! I have been blessed in both these areas and it is their support which has made it possible for me to face any and every challenge and come out stronger. Over the past few years, for personal reasons I have been actively practising “Gratitude” and “Forgiveness”, including by attending programs conducted by subject-matter specialists, and I have benefitted immensely from it in my professional life too. It has given me a different perspective on life, made me calmer, less stressed and given me the strength to push through some of the toughest times with equanimity and grace. The fact that these changes make it easier to deal with tough clients or work situations is a bonus!

Talking about work-life balance, there has been ample amount of discussion on health issues as a lawyer, what do you believe are the best practices to maintain the equilibrium? 

I believe that there is no perfect formula to achieve the right balance simply because the balance must be decided by each person individually. Long before work-life balance became a “thing”, I took a very conscious decision to prioritize my family without compromising on my professional role – this is easier said than done in real life, but I still follow it. Once there is clarity on this, not only will you subconsciously work in sync with this principle, but circumstances also arise which will be conducive to achieving this objective. To use my favourite line, it is as if you set a positive intention for yourself, and the Universe conspires to deliver it to you!!

The other important decision that I took consciously was to build a team which would make my life easier because no one can be on the treadmill constantly and forever! My mantra was, and continues to be, mentor people to take your place so that you get to get off the treadmill whenever you want to slow down or take a break. There should be no place for insecurity as there is no substitute for experience.

My workplace gave me freedom and flexibility to achieve this objective and I am grateful for that support. The starting point for this is the coming together of people with right work ethic/drive/passion and committed to their own professional growth as well as the growth of the team and therefore the organization. Teamwork means you can delegate, share responsibilities and distribute the pressure, hopefully equitably – what better way to grow professionally without compromising on family time or “life outside of work”?

I am also a great believer in taking periodic breaks with complete disengagement from work– whether for family vacations or doing some programs for mental well-being. I also encourage team members to plan vacations or short trips at periodic intervals and spend time with family – in my book switching off is good for rejuvenating your mind and re-charging your batteries – both for personal and professional life – so the work-life balance happens organically. Finally, if one is assured of support from team leader, team and the workplace in times of personal emergencies or family crisis then the major cause for stress is automatically removed.

How do you make contract drafting and managing look easier for your clients? Our readers are interested in knowing that.

I am not sure about this question? Most big companies today do contract management internally and do not look at external lawyers for this function. And as I mentioned above, no one is doing drafting today – everything is templated.

Sunila, could you highlight some of your success habits that enable you to meet your goal?

If you work as part of an organization then understanding the ethos of your workplace is very important. I have always been a team-player and not pursued individual glory – nothing wrong with pursuing that but I personally have not been motivated by it. As I said earlier, financial independence was my sole driving force to pursue a career. However, over the years, witnessing that your individual success is intrinsically linked to the success of others working with you and of your organization, it motivated me to make conscious effort towards building a solid team which imbibes the true philosophy of the organization.

Our objective is to deliver the best quality & effective legal advice and support to clients in a timely and cost-efficient way. Simultaneously, the workplace environment provides equal opportunities, encourages dedication to work without compromising on personal priorities, recognizes talent & merit and rewards excellence & commitment. It may sound unreal, but it has been experiential for me. 

Building a sustainable team has been at the core of my professional success. In my experience, individuals working together cohesively, appreciating & supporting each other while subscribing to same core values tend to thrive. And to make an effective team I put great emphasis on

(i) mentoring juniors,

(ii) delegating work & responsibilities while being accessible for guidance,

(iii) direct interaction with clients,

(iv) providing regular feedback including appreciation,

(v) pro-active thinking & taking initiative,

(vi) professional conduct & integrity, no matter the circumstances,

(vii) trainings to enhance knowledge building/sharing & staying updated,

(viii) equitable opportunities to grow individually,

(ix) support in personal crisis,

(x) rewards and recognition.

I firmly believe that the present status of my professional life reflects a sense of belonging and being invested in my work and workplace. Flexibility to evolve and adapt with changing times, openness to keep learning and hear/implement new ideas, approachability and humility have all been contributory factors as well.

If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same path for yourself? If not, what would you change?

As I said previously, I did not consciously choose this path, I believe the path chose me! I don’t really believe in do-overs, so I guess at this stage in life I would not like to speculate what could have been…I think it’s a waste of time. What is, it is – that’s all.

What advice would you give someone who is considering being in this field?

Do not be blindly allured by the so-called glamour and money associated with a career in corporate law – it is a lot of hard work, nose to the grind, sheer dedication and commitment, before you see the fruits of your labour – this is true for any profession or career. The pressure is compounded by essential requirement to stay up-to-date with any changes in laws/ regulations; case law including impact of judgements or interpretation by courts or regulators. I cannot think of another profession which requires this constant necessity to be fully aware with the latest (legal) position – even if it pertains to knowledge of only your area of practise.

Finally, in my experience, two factors which are highly overrated, which seriously impact law students or in-coming lawyers in corporate law practice, are firstly, the pedigree of the law college and secondly, the internships done while studying law. I may be old-school, but I sincerely believe, both these factors make little difference as long as the candidate is clear in her focus on what she wants to do and why.

In all my hiring for my team since I became a partner almost 15 years ago, I have never reviewed a resume based on law college or internships or even previous organization. Having most of the best performers from so-called worst or average law colleges and unknown law firms, I believe it is mostly individual capability and drive which determines the professional path of every person (of course on an esoteric level, I would add destiny or serendipity to it as well!).

So do not get bogged down by “pedigree” of your law college or “status” of law firms or organizations you intern or previously worked with (whether its Tier I or not etc.), instead focus on what is it that you want to do and how would you want to achieve it.

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