The czarina of the world of law in the country, tales of her round-the-clock availability are legendary. But ask Zia Mody if she would do anything different if she got a second chance, and it would be finding a semblance of work-life balance. Most corporate greats have her on speed-dial and hers is one of the most trusted names in the business, but getting to this point has been one roller-coaster ride, even though she may have enjoyed every bit of it.
GJ: How does it feel to have taken the family legacy forward?
ZM: I feel satisfied, I feel good. I think that that my father’s preference would have been for me to remain in the field of barrister, the council that is more elitist but I think I’m happy where I am. It has been a very interesting journey with a lot of hard work and struggle, lot of times when you feel you can’t take one more hour of work but also. In a sense we, the firm, all my other partners and myself, have been very lucky to be at the right time and at the right place as we were growing together when India was just opening up in the 90s. We were part of a landscape where the regulations were changing weekly, fortnight, monthly and had to keep the pace as it was a new practice. A bunch of 12 to 15 lawyers had started and so, I think that was where the excitement and the satisfaction lay.
GJ: What kind of work life balance would you recommend to aspiring lawyers?
ZM: The problem is that I have no work life balance and that was a part of my life problem. We women want it all and there’s no reason for us not to. But would I have done things a bit differently in hindsight, probably yes. I would have may be de-prioritized my work a bit , not let it consume me as much as it has and spent more time with family. But then would I have achieved what I have achieved? That is the constant thought. I had a great family life that supported me, had a mother-in-law who took over our house and children. But I always had guilt. I was also lucky that I had the infrastructure support and a husband who was so comfortable in himself and that I think a lot of young women have arguments over insecurity about what their husbands think to fit in their lives. But for us it was a partnership from day one and nobody has taken as much pride in me as my husband. So I was lucky. I also made sure that I could do the best. I tried to reduce the guilt as much as I could, I tried to balance as much as I could but I know I could not keep the balance.
GJ: Of all the M&A activities that you worked with, which has been the most inspiring for you?
ZM: I think more than inspiring, one of the most interesting ones for me was the one involving my most hot deals, which was with Tatas. They were acquiring a company called Natsteel. It was just fantastic; we were thrown into situation where we had to coordinate with lawyers from five-seven countries. We were learning as we were going along, the client was learning as we were going along, it was all about protecting the client in the new international space, what exposure could he take and what could he not take, what were the financing terms which would come to haunt us when we took over, what were all the litigations that were sitting there which we would have to handle… I think it was such a partnership when we worked together with Tata Steel and I never forgot about it. We had great folks with the Tata team. We’ve done many more deals with Tata after that like the Diwoo deal in Korea, we did Corous, we did Jaguar; it’s been great, they are great clients.
GJ: What about M&A that inspired you to pursue it professionally?
ZM: I was doing M&A in New York and so, I was already trained in that. And of course, when India opened up, every MNC wanted a M&A. Everybody was just coming through the door and the practice was very naturally M&A and so, that just grew and developed. I would say 60% of our work today is M&A. Most of our partners do M&A.
GJ: What are the core values of AZB and how do you see the firm 10 years from now?
ZM: I would hope it would be larger, carrying out the processes of institutionalization where people recognize the brand first, and it is less individual centric; growing in the domains of towering areas, practicing with competitors in our core areas, delivering international top quality service and mentoring and training the youngsters that come through our system, and continuing to have the super set of partners that we do, the partners taking on their lead and taking it to the next level as they are already in the process of doing because you can’t grow without all of us putting our heads together.
GJ: Do you remember when you developed a keen interest in law?
ZM: I think obviously that when you are younger, you don’t realize the extent of the achievements of your parents; so, to that extent, we very much took my father’s gravitas and dominance in the field for granted, we didn’t understand the path breaking work that he was doing. Everyday was a fun conversation at the dinner table. He was very often talking to his solicitors on the matters for the next day and what we would hear is only one side of the conversation, which always sounded fascinating to me as a child. I was by nature argumentative and loved debate and it was a very natural assimilation into wanting to be a lawyer and there was no soul searching of what will I be and what will I become. At the end of the day, I just grew up in an atmosphere and did my law naturally, came back and practiced here and there, and that’s how it happened.
GJ: You have been quoted as saying that it was your mother who encouraged you take up law. Can you tell us more about her?
ZM: My mother is a wonderful type paper personality. She got married at 17 and had me when she was 20. We often tease her that if it wasn’t for the early marriage, she would have been a noble prize winner. My mother has lived and projected a lot of her dreams through us and in hindsight, in extremely positive way, we are all committed, we are all professionals, we all want to excel in what we are doing. She was always been very clear that I was the eldest daughter, we were biased by our religion, which is ruthless on its equality of gender, and so, my mother always assumed that I would get an equal opportunity on the dining table, in life on the Sorabjee family and I think, to a large extent, she was an influencing factor on my father and on us as siblings that you know all of us had to achieve and there was no reason for us to be treated differently on accound of our gender.
GJ: What part of your personality would you say has been shaped by your father?
ZM: Not much, I think my mother shaped my personality more. I think dad left the harder moments of childhood to mom, I am sure he was talking to her in the bedroom; but I think, sometimes he felt awkward about discussing certain things with children because probably he couldn’t relate to us. I think that what I’ve imbibed from his personality would be the passion for the law, the ruthless commitment to detail and always being prepared. So, these sort of things you know was something I leart and hence, I was always ready for my court case. Whenever I went to the court, I was always ready so that nobody could catch me making a mistake. My father would always tell me to prepare for the court as if I was going to argue and he would always say that if a senior is sick or unwell, that’s one opportunity you grab; you don’t get scared but instead, you say I ‘m ready to argue. So, you always prepare as if you are ready to argue your case.
GJ: You studied at two of the most iconic universities – Cambridge and Harvard; what was your experience like?
ZM: I loved Cambridge, it gave me a sense of working in a tutorial system, it was a small system of lawyers that worked. You got engaged with the tutors after college. It was a lot of one to one, a lot of questioning, a lot of debate and a lot of learning and a lot of guiding and mentoring. Harvard was fabulous because it was a one-year programme where you met people from everywhere in the world. It was not a critical part of your studies to kill yourself for that. But you know, there the system was that you had to read up 300 pages overnight and come ready to class, a very didactic way of approaching it. And the sheer pressure of giving the wrong answer in front of everybody kept you going. There again, interacting with great professors, just seeing the things they’ve done outside the school, outside the college and friends have remained with me till today – a wonderful set of international lawyers who all came together for that year. They are all good friends, good professionals, and fellow colleagues who have the same sort of commitment, who have been to the same sort of school, same sort of benchmarking. Those were the wonderful years of my life. And of course, they defined me as a person. Because you know you are so exposed, you understand that what you want to practice is international law and not necessarily just Indian law, but with the issues facing different countries as well. You are not cocooned, you are not isolated, you understand the economic impact on transactions etc. So, they were great years.
GJ: You started your practice as a corporate associate with Becker and McKinsey. What is it that you have you carried forward from the US experience that we see as a working style in the AZB Partners today?
ZM: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s just my style because a lot of the partners have brought their styles in; there are a lot of best practices we picked up from everybody. But I would think that what Becker McKinsey taught me for the five years when I was there was to be very practical. We were not asked to put up hours and hours of useless memorandum. Giving esoteric opinions that would never be practical; giving views which would occur in 1% of the situation. So, I learnt that the bottom-line approach is important. Second, and I am not sure that it is only applicable to Becker and McKinsey or America, is the honesty of approach. No one can do opinions, not just trying to please the client for the sake of it. That your reputation is more important than your client and that if you lose a client to save your reputation then that’s fine. So, you know the importance of a letter head, the importance of being able to justify things when they go wrong because that is when you get tested, that is when things go wrong. When things go right, every thing’s fine but when the trouble starts, can you put a hand on your heart and say that I believed this, I still believe it and I will defend it for you? You could be wrong but, was it honest for you? Was it a view that you were capable of showing to the client, your thought process, so that’s clearly one of the things and that the other thing was commitment to knowledge. Couldn’t wait till the next week, can’t remember what happened in the last week, had to know yesterday, because that’s what made you definingly different and that’s what AZB hopes to do. You know that all the partners are committed to the same thing, excellence in knowledge and excellence in delivery and I think that it has been our USP that fortunately all the partners have the same DNA, they are proud of the firm and they all want to be passionate about it.
GJ: Business work has titled you that as the undisputed czarina of the AZB world, how do you take that and what is your sense of achievement?
ZM: I am very happy that I am a czarina but I think basically what is important is that people can perceive that important space that is obviously not the top space but one of the top spaces; that can be held by a woman, that gives a lot of messaging to young women out there, that they can achieve, they can make it there, you know it’s all within their grasp and it’s how much you want to go there and get it.
GJ: What would you say was your most challenging period?
ZM: I think it was probably after my first daughter was born, just because my second daughter came very soon after that. A lot of work had to be done those days, parenting, fairly new marriage, coming back from New York, settling into a male gender environment... I think those were years when I really had to struggle.
GJ: You have done a lot of CSR activities in the educational space and recently the right to education was proposed by the Supreme Court. If you could share your thoughts on the same…
ZM: It will have a huge impact because I am not sure all of it will be positively binding. I think now everybody is trying to get minority status but I think it will have its social issues… I don’t know how to define that frankly. Because it’s an encroachment on the rights of the priority class how can you have a neighbourhood priority, I think a lot of it will be simplistic and I think a lot of it will have its negative fall outs. Some people can’t just cope what happens.
GJ: What are the immediate challenges for the legal fraternity?
ZM: I think quality. And I think that very thin pipeline of new students, just not enough good graduates coming out of the system. Numbers are not the problems, it’s the quality. I mean instead of having 45000 graduates a year, we should have 5000 but good quality. That again makes sure that the access to the law is available to many more people. Today, it’s thought of as expensive or you have a lawyer who is so overworked that he neglects some of his cases. The evenness is not available and that is the problem.
GJ: What are the essential qualities that a young lawyer must have to join AZB?
ZM:One, I think is the complete passion to law, second is the willingness to be honest all the time in the research, in the advice and in the analysis. A willingness to work hard and just sustaining your passion for the profession and wanting to be a part of the team member in an atmosphere where you know you are going to get top quality work and then learning and once you get enough experience then delivering it back to the AZB system and mentoring.
GJ: Your clients talk about your Iconic 24/7 availability. I want to know where do you get the energy from?
ZM: God and my husband’s grace. Just being lucky really. Tend to do something in fewer hours, sustaining the passion, wanting to be excited about new things everyday, interacting with partners who fill me up with all the good things that they have been doing, not as much in the delivery system as I used to be, they are the new future so, the whole day goes by very quickly but sleeping till 3 am or sometimes even 5 am hopefully, it will change.
GJ: You’ve also said that one of your icons is Ruth Ginsburg – an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. What is it about her that you admire so much?
ZM: She is fiercely intellectual. She is one of the most incisive women of her generation and she made her seat on the court in a comparatively short time. The thing that I admire about her is she is very emphatic and comes across as a very fair, just human being. She is going to serve as an icon to many American women lawyers. And that itself is the important message that she is giving out. And I think she sees that as a sense of responsibility also.
GJ: You are an icon yourself - Do you feel a sense of responsibility?
ZM: I do and I try and fulfill it I do as much as I can. I think people do look up to me and ask me for guidance, especially women and I try and give them honest advice everytime and understand what their issues are simply because I have gone through them. I am older and wiser now and so I can look back and advice them now.
GJ: Your idea of a quintessential woman?
ZM: Passionate, high IQ, a yearning to learn every day and I think that at the end of the day, a fair and just human being.
GJ: Would you recommend lawyers or that you get involved in CSR activities like filing PILs to improve the law?
ZM: Yes, I think young lawyers are best suited for this. They have more energy, more passion and more time. I did a lot of PILs myself when I was young, which got me noticed in court. A lot of PILs cannot afford senior lawyers, I mean junior lawyers kept on arguing. We got the visibility, but I think that absolutely good causes to support are very important because of the feeling of wanting to give back has to be inculcated from the beginning. If after doing 20 years in the law – you have never done pro-bono - you’ll never get back because you’ve lost the ability to.
GJ: You are the follower of the Bahai faith. Can you tell us the significance it holds in your life?
ZM: As a member of the Bahai faith, we don’t have priests; we read our religious teachings ourselves. We cannot be Bahais before 21 and so, it’s a religion by choice. For me it was a commitment that I made and what is the commitment? To lead our lives according to the principles of our prophets. Now who can lead lives by all the principles, then we’d become prophets. The goal is to say sorry when we are wrong, know when you are wrong and try and improve. To pray everyday, to know everything is a work of his grace and not your work and you are just his instrument. That he puts the power through you if he chooses to and what he gives, he can take away and therefore the continuous awareness that if you are arrogant, you are no longer a good human being and that the sense of the achievement has two aspects, one is what you did for yourself with your own efforts and one that you were guided by a greater power. So believing, in the faith and equality of genders, to pray in the language you understand and communicate directly with God. To work on your faults all the time, to believe in the soul and afterlife, your balance sheet ultimately is not in your bank; to be a little scared of God is a good thing, love of God has to be coupled with the fear of God . One regret has been that I have not been able to do much of bahai work. To give back and do what the faith tells you to, enhance communities to give your expertise away that can shape many lives. So, my biggest fear now is that when I am called I might get fired.
GJ: If you had three days off how would you like to spend that?
ZM: When I do get time off my husband and I get away for a long weekend and just chill, spend time with each other. Talking, sleeping, eating good food, trying to catch up on movies, sometimes trying to get the kids to come with us. Now the three of them don’t want to be with us as much as we would want to be with them. I think, just you know letting my hair down and not being as wound up as I am now for the rest of the day or month.
GJ: What are the activities you’d like to participate in after retirement?
ZM: Travel, I love traveling, spending more time being a Bahaivian, reading on the times that I have lost. Being as much with the family as I can, all the mundane things.
GJ: Your favourite book?
ZM: I love Lord of the Rings, Fountainhead, Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, History of Civilization by the Durands. I like history.
GJ: Of all the legendary cases that your father has worked on, which one is the most memorable?
ZM: I think for dad probably one of the most favourable cases was the Keshavananda Bharati case. For me, the main cases which helped shape the way the Supreme Court had thought on the issues of fundamental rights, citizenship, rights which have been deprived over the years - those are the seminal cases that I think most of the Indian lawyers of this generation will remember.