Priti Suri: How to achieve gender diversity in Indian law firms
Priti Suri tells Manju Manglani why women need to work twice as hard as men to be successful ?in Indian law firms
Gender diversity at senior levels
is on the agenda of many law firms and client organisations around the world. In India’s patriarchal
society, where women still struggle to be treated as equal to men, the challenge is even greater.
To achieve success, according to Priti Suri, president of the Society of Women Lawyers, female lawyers in India need to work twice as hard as males and be willing to work 18 to 20-hour days as standard.
Suri, a first-generation lawyer and founder of New Delhi-based law firm PSA, discusses how women lawyers can help themselves and what their families should do to support them.
What is the biggest challenge facing female lawyers in Indian law firms today?
One of the biggest challenges is how to be a successful rainmaker. There are some very good women in India who have become rainmakers themselves, but I think when women lawyers in law firms are dependent on male partners or on the hierarchy to bring them business, then it’s a whole different issue altogether.
Women in law firms need to start becoming successful rainmakers – then they will not be looking to their male counterparts for the generation of their work. Rainmaking is almost a full-time job – you have to be constantly thinking about it.
So a woman who has a young child and is going through a tough time – even with a child who is 15 years old but needs her attention for some final exams in school – do you think that woman would be able to go out and find business opportunities? She might have to give up other things because she’s got to strike the balance. Usually someone else would take care of that, if a man was placed in that situation.
I firmly believe that you have to network, even when you don’t want to or you don’t have to – networking is an ongoing process. I don’t think women have that luxury of that constant networking – it becomes a very significant cost as well.
Is it more to do with work-life balance, or are there also some cultural issues involved?
It’s a combination of everything. I think women still have to work twice as hard
as men for the same kind of recognition.
I think women find it very difficult to pitch themselves at all times. There is a very high level of persistency that is required – you have to blatantly ask for work. I think women are not necessarily very good at that and, if they are, then they are treated as or perceived as being very aggressive.
Appearances are one thing, but body language does matter. When you go to a conference, how many times do you see a woman walk up to a man and introduce herself, even in today’s environment?
How do you think the work-life balance issues for female lawyers in India differ from those for their counterparts in the western world?
I think, for women lawyers in India, they definitely have an advantage. All of my other friends who are married and have children have the support of the larger family system. So, the guilt of the mother of leaving the children with a nanny –
that guilt doesn’t happen because
you’re leaving the child with someone within the extended family, and that extended family support is the key distinguishing factor in India.
There are several high-ranking female lawyers in Indian law
firms today, including Vandana Shroff and Pallavi Shroff at Amarchand Mangaldas. Why do you think women such as these have been successful?
I think you just have to work hard. There are no shortcuts – you give up a lot in life. You give up a lot of downtime and you get labelled as a workaholic. But there are some people who really are able to do that.
And I think one of the reasons why we are successful, if we are successful, is that we have anywhere between 18 and 20-hour days and negligible weekends. So it takes a lot out of you and, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t change it in any way.
Given that most Indian law firms are family owned and run, do you think that being part of a founding family helps some women to be more successful?
I think, for anybody, being part of the whole set-up does help because you grow up in an environment where you’re listening to that talk at the breakfast table and at the dinner table.
But I don’t think it makes anyone successful if you’re not good – you might be successful in inheriting the practice, but how good are you going to be at actually growing that practice or even retaining it? That I think depends on individual merit and your genes don’t determine that.
What do you think can be done to improve the male-female ratio of partners in Indian law firms?
I think what is very important is that, if women want to become real partners and make a contribution, at some level they’ll have to give a little bit more of themselves to the profession.
I think firms have to also give them flexibility. They should be able to do the work from where they are. The flexible hours and flexible locations, depending on the nature of your practice, I’m not sure if it works all the time. Oftentimes, it is the one who wants something who has really got to get up to speed.
I’m not saying that having a child means somebody cannot be a partner, but it does mean having understanding family support in the background. Firms also have to provide that support when that person needs to go away, to be with the sick child or to be at a meeting with the school, for example.
So I think some level of tolerance on both sides has to exist. However, I still do believe that you can’t be a partner in the real sense if you’re not there for all of the key decisions.
The problem, most of the time, is that you have different categories of partnership, without people who really have equity. So, to me, when you talk about a partner, let it be a real partner, an equity partner. Otherwise, what’s the point? You’re given a designation, you’re just going up the hierarchy without making any substantive contributions.
What else can be done to help women lawyers to succeed and rise up the ranks?
There needs to be a willingness on their part to understand what they are getting into. I’ll give you an example. Someone said to me recently that, at the firm that they worked at, they were not expected
to make any meaningful contributions
To me, that’s completely unacceptable. I don’t care whether it’s a first-year associate or if it’s a partner who is sitting in a meeting, but they are not there to fill chairs. I find it very hard to believe that you will have a team of six lawyers in the room, but only one will do the talking.
It’s a waste of time, isn’t it?
I think, oftentimes, partners are not interested in being owners – they want the financial gains, but they don’t want to be emotionally engaged. But you have to be emotionally engaged with the organisation, be a part of the strategic planning, the growth and everything else – it’s important for everyone to be deeply engaged with the firm. And, you’ve got to be available for the clients and for your people whenever they want.
Manju Manglani is editor of Managing Partner (www.managingpartner.com)Tags: