Talking Law: Priti Suri, Founder - Partner, PSA Legal Counsellors

Richa Kachhwaha

5 Aug 2013 4:32 AM GMT

  • Talking Law: Priti Suri, Founder - Partner, PSA Legal Counsellors
    A seasoned lawyer with over twenty-seven  years of experience spread across three continents, Priti has developed PSA  and represented its international and domestic clients in the full range of cross-border M&A transactions, strategic investments, joint-ventures, venture capital financings, structuring private equity deals, leveraged buyouts and divestitures. A business lawyer, known for her pragmatic ability to get the deal done, she has advised clients operating in many different sectors, including aerospace, automotive, chemicals, defense, energy, infrastructure, media, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, telecom and technology. Priti is the Chair of the Women Business Lawyers’ Committee of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association and Co-founder member and President of Society of Women Lawyers – India, a platform for women lawyers across India

    In a free-wheeling conversation, Priti talked to Live Law about the challenges of being a first generation woman lawyer, gender issues in legal profession, the work culture in law firms, and much more…

    Live Law: You recently completed 27 years of being at the bar. Can you share with us your journey as a lawyer, in particular the initial years?

    Priti Suri: I graduated in 1986 from Campus Law Centre, Delhi University. The practice, back then, was very different. It was very court centric. Although firms existed, but they were very different than today as the primary focus was on litigation. I joined a senior in the Delhi High Court, went to court on daily basis, assisting, later appearing. Our goals and objectives were very different from what I see today. For instance, our fundamental goal at that stage was really to sink and immerse ourselves in the practice of law, and get to know how different it was from what we had studied. If somebody had asked me at that point in time what my goal plan was three years down the line, I did not have one. I did not know what my professional aspirations were at that stage other than the fact that I was only interested in learning how to become a good lawyer. Today, the younger generation is more structured in their thinking, more confident of what it wants and how to go about achieving it.

    I was clear that I wanted to pursue Masters in law. As a student, I had gained admission in big Ivy League colleges, but I could not secure a scholarship. So after spending a few years at the High Court, I re-applied again. In those days, the speed of the judicial process had become frustrating for me and so I decided it was time for me to retry for a Masters degree in law. Consequently, I left for US and with time I got an opportunity to work at a 1000 lawyer plus law firm in New York and later in Chicago. Working in large firms in the US, I got to learn what “law firm culture” is all about. It was an interesting phase and I enjoyed what I was doing, which was purely U.S. law.

    At that time, the market in India had not opened up, and so cross- border activity was unheard of. Later, in 1992 an opportunity took me to Paris. Those were the early days of liberalization and I had started to do work for French companies that were looking at India as a growth market.  Eventually, my work and the market increased, and I got engaged in lot of cross border work. In any sort of cross border transaction, there is lot of different aspects of human nature not just of law that you learn.

    In 1997, I finally came back to India and set up the practice.

    Live Law: Being a first generation lawyer, how difficult it was to build up a practice and a firm?

    Priti Suri: It is not at all easy for a first generation lawyer that too without a mentor in the industry to build up a practice. You have to excel at what you do; it is important to understand the challenges and the limitations of any matter and you have to have a sense of commitment which has to be communicated to the client.

    For a woman to run an organization in a male dominated society is quite challenging but at the same time I cannot sit and start recounting all the negative instances that happened. It is necessary to move on with life. One has to, in fact, become tougher because one has to deal with situations where if you allow your feminine side come up to the front then it could work to your disadvantage.  In the end, one has to overcome such hindrances and obstacles and carry on with your work.

    Given the nature of work and my practice, even now, I am often the only woman in a room full of 20 men. There have been lot of challenges over the years, but at the end of the day they become immaterial as it is part of the journey.

    Live Law: Your quest for gender justice in the legal profession has been witnessed in your involvement with Society of Women Lawyers-India (SOWL). Please elaborate the role played by SOLW in helping women lawyers gain gender justice in legal community.

    Priti Suri: I am active in several international lawyers organizations/bodies. As part of one of my positions which I had in Inter Pacific Bar Association (IPBA), I had organized a conference in Delhi in 2009. One of the committees of IPBA is Women Business Lawyers Committee of which at that time I was the vice chair (I am presently chairing that position). As a vice chair I was attending a conference of the IPBA at Los Angeles. The Chair of the WBLC was very keen to host a stand-alone event in Delhi for women lawyers and, as Vice-Chair, I agreed to support  and we decided to hold a conference in Delhi under the aegis of IPBA.

    The conference was a big success. I was able to get a lot of law firms involved in India. Following the success of this conference, with like-minded people from different backgrounds like litigators, solo practitioners, partners in law firms, and people from NGOs, we went on to create SOWL-India to have a platform (as there really was no other existing platform) for woman lawyers to come together and discuss issues. This is how
    was created in May of 2010. The organization is not only limited to gaining gender justice for women, but also aims at mentoring women, teach them what the tools of the trade are, and how to build up a practice. SOWL-India was also involved with the Justice Verma Commission who was reviewing laws for sexual crimes in India; we gave suggestions for changes in the existing laws. Some of our suggestions were incorporated in the final ordinance that has been passed.  As part of SOWL-India’s mandate, we have also started series of continuing legal education programs like, one on UID titled “
    Unique Identification: Challenges ahead”
    ; and another one on “What lawyers need to know about Social Media.” So SOWL-India is not limited to gender justice.

    Live Law: Having worked in law firms in Paris and the US, can you shed some light on whether the international law firms have women friendly policies in place, particularly to support working mothers?

    Priti Suri: They do have women friendly policies, but I don’t think they are more when compared to India. The challenges that the woman lawyers face are universal. In fact, when we had that conference in 2009, people were impressed to see the number of women lawyers who are entrepreneurs in India. Look at Zia Mody who has been an inspiration to so many other enterprising women. There are more women who have been running their own firms and those who have become partners. It could not and is not easy, particularly for those managing families, but the more I work closely with people overseas, the more I see that the problems and the issues remain the same. In India, in fact, there are greater advantages because of the larger family support system. Further, Indian firms too are becoming more sensitive to gender issues. Now there are crèches which many law firms provide and they also give other facilities to help working mothers.

    Such policies also depend on size and scale of organizations. In the West, a 1000 plus lawyer firm may have the resources to provide such facilities, but it is not necessary that another firm in a different location with small number of lawyers will provide the same facilities.

    Live Law: Democratic functioning of law firms in India is a controversial area. How do you ensure that your Firm implements the best practices for all the stakeholders?

    Priti Suri: We have open discussions. If I am unhappy about something, I will call everybody and articulate my opinion. Communication is very necessary. If I am talking to someone on one to one basis, while I will express my opinion, I will also say, you are free to disagree with me. I also encourage my younger colleagues to think out of the box and express their ideas even though they may not have experience.

    I cannot speak for other firms but I try to underscore this to my associates that not many law firms exist where one has the door wide open of the head of the firm and where a second year legal associate can walk in and discuss a legal issue with me. Associates need to make sure that their work is in perfect shape before they walk into my room. There is another side to it; people can try to abuse this easy access. They often end up treating you like a buffer between them and the clients.  So, a stage came when I decided to set up a hierarchy because everything just ended up landing on my table. Nevertheless, I like to work closely with my associates.

    Live Law: What are your views in respect of the parameters set by law firms for promotions? Do you think that the existing parameters are satisfactory? 

    Priti Suri: As far as PSA is concerned it is an ongoing process because the parameters that existed five years ago have to be reconsidered. The market is changing and evolving so rapidly that one has to constantly look at the market and make sure that you keep pace with it. My fundamental criterion is the quality of work.  Whatever is the criterion in terms of expectations, we set it out very clearly, and it is documented in the HR policy which is given to people on their first day at the firm. For an associate to move up to the next level, the key factors and considerations are set out in the policies. There is an annual appraisal of work and only on the basis of quality of work; decision with regard to promotion is taken. It is not a matter of entitlement and in our firm you will have to earn it.

    Live Law: Law firms in India, particularly corporate law firms are known for their cut-throat competition and billing pressures. Are law firms doing enough to promote work life balance?

    Priti Suri: (Brings in a colleague to talk on this issue) This differs from firm to firm but here at PSA we get enough breathing space. It is usual to work from 9 to 9 and it is only when there are urgent client requirements that our working hours get extended. We get our weekends off unless of course there is a client exigency. So, nobody scores brownie points by staying late in office. I know many firms expect their associates to stay back late even when their work is done, but I personally dislike it.

    Live Law: In recognition of your litigation exposure vis-à-vis business contracts, you were appointed as “Special Counsel” to the State of Ohio, Office of Attorney General, in relation to advice on India related litigation matters. Please share the experience with our readers.

    Priti Suri: It was more than ten years back when I worked as a Special Counsel at the State of Ohio. It was an interesting experience. There was a great deal of tobacco related litigation that was taking place in the US at that time and we had started to see some of the impact of those litigations in India. Besides that, there were a lot of trade related issues. Since they were doing a substantial volume of India related work at that point in time, I was invited to join. It was a different experience, as I had to see things from a state’s perspective. In my early days of litigation in India, I did a lot of work for the Delhi Development Authority and did see how a state entity worked. But fortunately, it was different in the US. There, as a Special Counsel to the State of Ohio, we were always prepared and instructed unlike in DDA matters where the case would get over and we would often get the files from the clients later! In fact, no instructions were given to us. So, that role in Ohio was an enriching experience. It allowed me to see the mindset of a state and experience the concerns of a state of a foreign country were. It was phenomenal.

    Live Law: Despite the pressures of a hectic practice, you have been able to take out time for authoring books on law. Has it been a conscious decision or is writing a passion with you? 

    Priti Suri: When I was a law student in Delhi, we were never taught how to write. When I went to the US, the first course which I took up in LLM was legal research and writing. I am very particular about writing because I went to an Irish convent school in Delhi. Wren and Martin was my Bible! From the rigors of an Irish convent, reading the law and seeing the way in which it is drafted, I often found it archaic and indirect. I would find it hard to understand and I always wanted to simplify things.

    I enjoy writing and I like doing analysis but it was not because of my love for writing that I got into publications. It was because I found challenges in interpretations; everything was so complex and convoluted. If seasoned and experienced lawyers can have such challenges just imagine the plight of ordinary people who try to understand the issue. So I decided to – at least – train our teams to write with clarity and one method was focusing on publications.

    Live Law: Being a lawyer and an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to young women lawyers with entrepreneurial aspirations? 

    Priti Suri: Believe in yourself. There are no short cuts to success. It will be hard but you will get there. Continue to work hard.
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