Talking Law: Pallavi Shroff, Senior Partner, Amarchand Mangaldas

Talking Law: Pallavi Shroff, Senior Partner, Amarchand Mangaldas

Live Law spoke to Pallavi Shroff, Senior Partner at Amarchand Mangaldas who heads the Competition Law practice. Pallavi was named the Best Lawyer in Dispute Resolution at the inaugural Euromoney Legal Media Group Asia Women in Business Law Awards 2011 held in Hong Kong. She was also named Best Woman Lawyer of India at the Legal Era Law Awards 2012. In this conversation, Pallavi talks about her initial years, on being Justice P N Bhagwati’s daughter, her career and many other interesting things!

Live Law: You started your career as a litigation lawyer with Amarchand and Mangaldas way back in 1981. How was the experience of being a woman lawyer pursuing litigation at that time?

Pallavi Shroff: It wasn’t easy. That was a time when very few women lawyers were actually in the profession, who took it seriously and did the practise. Since it was a full time profession, it was difficult. I could have counted 10 women lawyers who were in court coming to the court daily and doing the work in Delhi High Court. Therefore, it wasn’t easy to start off.  Primarily the resistance was from the clients. The clients were not used to dealing with the women lawyers- whether for litigation or corporate matters; they were not used to dealing with women lawyers. I had clients who would say, “We want to meet Mr. Shroff and we will wait.” Then Mr Shroff used to respond, “I am not dealing with this case, she is and you will have to meet her.” There was also some sort of inherent feeling within few of the Judges who felt that women lawyers will not take the work seriously. But some were really encouraging. I remember one instance where, I was doing a bank trial case before Justice Leela Seth, in the first week of my career, just after I graduated. While doing the Examination-in-chief, I asked a leading question. The Hon’ble Justice Seth asked me “Ms. Shroff, dont you think, it is a leading question?” Then I realized and I rephrased in a different way. Later, when Mr Shroff walked in after finishing his matters, she said, “Mr Shroff, you don’t worry, she is doing good job, you can leave”. That was really encouraging. Likewise, Justice Kripal and Justice Ranganathan were also encouraging and they all supported me to argue the cases.

Therefore, it was a good challenge for me to appear and argue. I had faced difficulties when I had to stay back with my children when they were not well, but I never took these pleas before the court. So for me, it was not that easy. It was my family- my husband, my mother-in-law, who supported me tremendously. So I would say, if one has a determination, one can do it.

Live Law:  Today, you are one of the senior and one of the pillars of Amarchand. How would you assess your journey from 1981 to where you are today?

Pallavi Shroff: A long and hard journey, but a fulfilling one. Long because it has been more than 34 years of being in the profession. It was hard, because I have been consistently working here for years together, I didn’t even take a Saturday or Sunday off. I worked 24*7, 365 days. For the first 5-7 years of my career, I didn’t take even a day off because I could not afford to take a day off. Even today, I take vacation once in 2 years. If work demands, I cancel the vacation. My work will never suffer. I have done this a number of times, all set to go out, matters come in, and clients come in and there was something that had to be done urgently therefore, I cancelled the vacation. So it is a long and hard journey that takes lot of determination. Whoever wants to succeed has to keep the focus. 

It has also been a satisfying journey, because we have built or are building an institution. It is not just about the achievement of my husband or myself, it is also about training others and making a name for themselves. That is more satisfying for me.

Live Law: You pursued an Honours degree in Economics and Masters in Management Studies before pursuing law.  How have these qualifications helped you as a lawyer?

Pallavi Shroff: My education and pursuing these degrees were not planned, it was more by chance than anything else. For example, I had pursued Economics because when my father moved to Supreme Court in 1973, I took admission in Lady Shri Ram College. I was in Ahmedabad then and my uncle, who was an Economist, had come here. It was he, who helped me to get my admission. The only degree he knew and he could fill up was Economics and he got me doing Economics, which I enjoyed. 

Then I decided to do MBA because I found that very challenging. My father was keen that I should do law. But he let me do what I wanted. I applied and got admission. Thus I did MBA for 2 years with first division. In the last 3 months of MBA, I got engaged to Shardul. He was from a family of lawyers. Then I realized that law is a jealous mistress and post the marriage I pursued law!

I did realize how valuable these degrees were and they gave me tremendous insight into business. How business people think, what matters to business, how the risks are assessed were part of the MBA. That helps me because we do commercial law and litigation. Understanding business, evolving strategies that serve business goals etc, helped me. I remember, in 1995 for a long time, I did a lot of anti-dumping work which was a blend of economics, accounting and law. Likewise, now, along with litigation I do a lot of Competition Law work in the firm. Competition law involves a lot of economics, dealing with hard core demand and supply. MBA is business, and LLB is about dealing with the legal part of it. Further, I was a part of Raghavan Committee that advised the Government on what Competition Law philosophy, approach, amendments are to be adopted in India and what legislation was required to be implemented by the Government. Therefore, all these degrees really helped me, though originally I had never thought about it.

Live Law: Has being the daughter of a former Chief Justice of India (Shri P.N. Bhagwati) made it easier or more difficult for you in your profession?

Pallavi Shroff: It was very difficult. First of all I had to fit into his shoes, and they were very big to fill! I was always nervous of being compared to him since he is a giant in the field of law. It is never easy for a child when his/her parent is a giant. But he is the most amazing father one can ever have. He is very encouraging and lets a person grow.

Secondly, when he was in the Bench, people would want the matters to be posted in his Bench. Therefore, they would not want me to come as a lawyer or the firm to represent them since they would want the matter to come before my father.

Thirdly, I used to meet him when there was nobody around with him. If some colleague judges were with him, I would never meet him. I was very disciplined about it, it was self- imposed discipline for me to meet him only when he was free.

Live Law: Were you not interested in the Judiciary?

Pallavi Shroff: I love the work I am doing. I love the challenge of different cases that I handle. The variety of matters I deal today whether it is about the shareholders disputes or the EPC Contract, I am equally fond of all the matters. I love being free. However, I fulfil my social commitments by being a part of Government Committees. I feel one should give back to the nation. My nation has given me remarkable opportunities to let me grow and therefore I have an obligation to render service for the Government pro bono. Being in the Government Committees, I assist in the policy making matters free of charge.

Live Law: Even today, legal profession is not seen as a viable career option in smaller cities, although this trend is now somewhat changing. What are your views on the scope of the legal profession for “small town India” since they don’t see it as a challenging area?

Pallavi Shroff: I don’t agree that it is not challenging. Not everybody has an aptitude to do commercial law. The practise of law in a rural place is very different since it would deal with service law or land related law, disputes etc. But in a commercial city, litigation would be a commerce oriented. And that is a huge challenge. I think people have chosen their career in law after the implementation of 5 year Law course. There are opportunities, like being in law firm, working with senior counsels, working as in-house counsel for companies and self -practise. May be, the people in smaller towns are not mentally tuned to deal with commercial laws. So the girls will not be sent out, and would probably practise in local areas. However, I have seen people from all big cities and small towns pursuing 5-year law course.

Live Law: Many traditional universities have still not incorporated some of the chief emerging areas of law in their curriculum, for instance, Intellectual Property Rights, Commercial laws, Arbitration etc. How do you evaluate this approach and the fact that the Curriculum in law schools still emphasise on conventional subjects like Criminal laws or Civil laws?

Pallavi Shroff: There are some basic subjects that are to be taught to all Advocates. The Civil Procedure Code, Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Evidence Act, Constitutional Law, Administrative Law etc. are some fundamental laws that Universities have to incorporate in the syllabus. Different people have different aptitude. The Universities give a basic curriculum and later if you want to pursue another area, you can specialize in it. Study of every area of law cannot be mandatory. Some new areas of law, for example, Competition Laws will not be taught, because it is an emerging area. The jurisprudence is still developing and, therefore, many Universities will not get Professors to teach such subjects.

Live Law: Today independent practising lawyers and even retired judges encourage Alternate Dispute Resolution Mechanism (ADR) and are competing with corporate law firms to take up such matters. Individual lawyers have also stepped into the realm of international commercial arbitration. Do you think this is a setback to the practice of big corporate firms?

Pallavi Shroff: No, it is never a setback. ADR is a different form of litigation and it has been never been a domain of big law firms. The litigation traditionally was started by solo practitioners. The domestic or international arbitration is just one  facet of  litigation. It can be done by anyone. However, as far as International Commercial Arbitration is concerned, very few people have the exposure to take up such matters. The firms get a better exposure in that since they handle large projects, same clients, and work closely with other law firms.     So when there is an international matter, clients usually consult law firms with an apprehension that the other party must have approached a law firm. Some matters need 3-4 people working on issues, and a single practitioner may not have the resources to handle the same. But for domestic arbitration, it is normal to see a single lawyer handling the matter.

Live Law: Invariably, most corporate law firms in India deal with “big ticket” corporate matters. Are such firms (including yours) now thinking of also pursuing pro-bono matters?

Pallavi Shroff: We do such matters. We have a huge pro-bono practise as work with NGOs and social entrepreneurs. It depends on one’s specialized area. Since we do not deal in criminal matters, the pro-bono matters related to criminal laws are never taken up. However, we do take up matters involving NGOs and social entrepreneurs. For me, pro-bono means giving back to the society. By doing work for NGOs and social entrepreneurs, we are encouraging pro-bono practice.

Live Law: Specifically speaking about your firm, what is the recruitment criterion which is adopted? Do you give more opportunities to fresh law graduates or experienced lawyers?

Pallavi Shroff: We prefer both. We do take lot of fresh graduates every year. We also encourage internships. We try to spot the talent during the internship tenures and offer placements. The other way of recruitment is campus recruitments. We recruit from various colleges. We even encourage LLM students, and those who have worked abroad and are looking for Indian firms to work. So we encourage fresh and experienced equally.

Live Law: You have been part of some legendary legal issues arising in the contemporary legal landscape of India. You played a crucial role in the aftermath of the unravelling of the Satyam Computer Services fraud. What are the chief lessons which the Government, regulators and also companies learnt from this episode? Do you see many more ‘Satyams’ happening in the future (particularly in the light of the manner in which chit fund owners have been diverting money to other enterprises).

Pallavi Shroff: A lot of things sometimes fall between the regulatory gaps. They are neither covered here, not covered there. Take the example of Sahara Case. The law is that you cannot offer to more than 50 people and it is very much there in the prospectus. There are rules and regulations for the prospectus, but you are beating that system. People come out with innovative systems. The government has to ensure that things do not fall within the cracks and for that better monitoring mechanisms have to be put in place. From every fraud, we learn more, but then what needs to be done is to ensure that we plug in those loopholes adequately. The Government is looking at this issue. They are looking for better methods to make regulatory mechanisms accountable so that they can be monitored on a regular basis. What information a regulator needs, has to be checked by the Government.

Satyam case was very challenging. It was a big fraud and we had to work with KPMG and Deloitte to unearth the whole modus operandi of the complete fraud which had many consequences. It had consequences on the finances, the ability of company to retain employees, maintaining the existing contracts, getting work delivered against those contracts, bank loans, preserving the whole company etc. Preserving the company by not losing its values was a big challenge. In between interference from every regulator, including SEBI, Income Tax, Security Exchange Commission from the US, DOJ etc., had to be dealt with. We had to work with regulators and advise the people on Board how to tackle the problems which arose on daily basis. Every day new problems used to arise, such as new litigation against the company, saving the existing contracts etc. On 7th January, Satyam was declared to be a problem, and the CLB orders were passed. Our firm was handing the matter from the very next week. Since then we were working on it until May when the Company got sold, we were looking into the issues of structuring, such as  how will the company be sold, what kind of due diligence is to be given to the vendor, what would be the terms and conditions of the sale, who would it be sold to, what selection criteria would be adopted, auction for price bids’ etc. There was no financial support from Government, but the Government had constituted a an admirable Board and the Board had to work hard to solve it. And I would say this is the only company in the world which has survived after such a fraud. Today has not only survived, but got a new owner and is doing good!

Live Law: You have been awarded “Best Woman Lawyer of the Year 2012” by   Legal Era and the “Best Lawyer in Dispute Resolution in Asia” by Euromoney Legal Media Group’s Asian Women in Business Law Awards in December 2011. We are confident that many more recognitions and laurels will be yours in the years to come. What advice would you give to the young breed of lawyers at the threshold of their careers?

Pallavi Shroff: I don’t work with awards or rewards in mind. I just do the work. If the work is good, recognition will come by itself. I have never worked for an award. What I advise is not keeping the awards in mind. Let them be the consequence of the work.

Live Law: On another note, crimes against women are being reported in far greater numbers these days and the public outcry is at an all-time high. Who is to be blamed for the rising gender inequality in this country? Can the dismal state of affairs be primarily blamed on our laws and the criminal justice delivery system?

Pallavi Shroff: I can’t think of any immediate solution. It is a variety of factors. Firstly, what is happening today is reiterating the awareness of the heinousness of the crimes and building the opinion that it is not acceptable. The second is to render some form of education in schools and colleges. Sex education and proper treatment of women are both very important. Changing the mind-set is also crucial and that I think would take generations. However, it has to be done. Education is just one aspect. Coupled with this, our judicial system has to also rise. I don’t think harsh punishment alone can solve this menace. I am against capital punishment and I maybe influenced by my father in this regard. What needs to be done is to send out the message that trial is time bound, it happens, and people get punished. Criminals must know that they are not going to be let off. People get angry when they know that something has gone wrong and yet judicial system is not adequate enough to punish. For instance, the Jessica Lal case. If police investigations are not properly conducted and there are lapses in the investigation, or if the conduct of the trial is shoddy, it can lead to public outrage. The protectors of the society need to do their job. Any civil society will react if law and order fails.