How Zia Mody broke the glass ceiling in the legal profession

23rd Jan 2014
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Zia Mody is known as the indisputable leader in corporate law in India. Her firm AZB & Partners is rated first among the top law firms for mergers and acquisitions. Daughter of Soli Sorabjee, famous Indian jurist and former Attorney-General of India, Zia confesses that while growing up, the only topic of discussion at their dinner table was law. She intuitively knew that she had to pursue law and make her mark in the profession. Naturally, her father is her inspiration and mentor.


Zia Mody

Zia’s colleagues and clients vouch for her commitment, work ethic and legal acumen. Zia is thorough with her research and spends countless hours burning the midnight oil to pursue her research and prepare her cases with excellence. However, Zia’s professional journey has not been easy. It is only after two decades of hard work and focussed commitment that today her name is included among India’s most powerful lawyers.

Genesis of life-long fascination with law

Zia Mody had made up her mind to pursue law by the time she finished high school in Mumbai, her home town. Talking about her childhood, Zia says, “I was fascinated by my father. He worked day in and day out. Our dining table conversations were all about legal cases and other aspects of law,” says Zia. Likening the process to osmosis, she adds, “The love for law seeped into me all through my childhood.”

Zia left India in 1975 to pursue law from University of Cambridge, followed by a Masters degree from Harvard Law School. She was one of the very few women at that time who went abroad to pursue higher studies at elite universities like Harvard. Talking about those days, Zia recalls, “Taking this decision was not very hard even at that time. I was the eldest in my family, and my mother was very keen that I travel abroad to pursue higher studies. She, in fact, pushed me to go abroad. My mother was a very strong lady and very progressive for her time.”

After Harvard Law School, Zia came back to India to get married. However, she returned to the US and joined Baker & McKenzie, one of the largest law firms in the world. “I worked at Baker & McKenzie for five years in New York. I had a mentor by the name of Norman Miller who trained me there.”

Zia decided to come back to Mumbai to be with her family, “When I came back, there were no law firms in India per se. I started my career in Mumbai as a junior barrister under Obed Chinoy at the Bombay High Court. Those days were hard. There were hardly any women in the court. The clients didn’t want women lawyers taking up their cases. It was stressful initially.” Sheer perseverance got Zia to where she is today. Zia adds, “I knew that my seniors as well as clients were not as confident of me as they were of my male counterparts. But having said that, once your seniors see that you are willing to put in the hours and time, and you are willing to work hard doors and opportunities open up for you. If you are determined to do well, you can overcome all challenges. The secret is just this, follow up, follow up, follow up and don’t give up.”

Zia is not apologetic about being ambitious. “I had this immense drive to succeed and desire to do well from the beginning, if you call that ambition, then yes I was ambitious. I think my drive to succeed comes from where I grew up, my parents, my family, their backgrounds and their beliefs,” says Zia.

Starting a corporate law firm

Zia started AZB Partners in 1995 and chose to become a corporate lawyer after her stint at the counsel. Speaking of entrepreneurship and starting up, Zia says, “At the counsel, you are not really on your own. You are somebody’s junior. I wanted to do something on my own and the timing was right in the early 1990s. Things were growing in India because of liberalization. A lot of foreign companies were looking to set up shop in India. India was really the buzz-word that time.” Zia’s first few clients were mostly American who came through the network of friends and former colleagues with whom she had worked in America.

Zia adds that passion, commitment and hard work are required for success as an entrepreneur. Talking about her early days as an entrepreneur, Zia says, “Why would anyone come to the chambers of Zia Mody instead of going to a blue-chip firm like Mulla & Mulla? But I started at an exciting time in India when many changes were being made in the laws. We had to keep ourselves constantly updated. Even though we were small, we did a good job of convincing clients. We were right up there in terms of timing and commitment. Those were the times when responsiveness would get you a premium. And we tried to differentiate ourselves by being responsive and working hard. Our reputation started to grow, and we started getting more and more work.”

Zia is known to lead from the front and she strongly believes that honesty pays. “You are only as good as your last email,” adds Zia.

Zia’s mentors Obed Chinoy and Norman Miller have significantly impacted her initial years as a young lawyer. Understanding the value of mentoring, Zia today takes time out to mentor and works closely with many young lawyers, especially the ones who are bright and enthusiastic to learn. “The training I received from my mentors was extremely thorough. Through these sessions I have learned the thoroughness with which a lawyer should approach any matter, the intensity with which one has to give advice while taking into account the practical aspects of the advice as well.”

When it comes to advising young lawyers, Zia doesn’t shun away from placing utmost importance on working hard, she says, “Willingness to work hard is the key. Everything starts with that premise. Young professionals need to be ready to commit time and mental energy to work.” She also urges young lawyers not to lose sight of why they have become lawyers in the first place – to support and do the right thing, to be practical and not theoretical, and therefore support clients by being on the right side of the law.

Infrastructure for success

When it comes to success, Zia is quick to acknowledge her supportive husband, the support system she had in her family and the infrastructural support. “I think it was very hard for women during that time. Now things are surely changing for the good. It depends on how much infrastructural support you have, how much flexibility your employer is willing to give you, and how understanding your husband is. So the advice really for women would be to hang in there, to stay the course, and understand that at certain times certain things are difficult. I think the organizations need to be a bit flexible, which is important for women and men as well. You can’t make women feel like second class citizens just because they have other commitments. The number of women in legal profession is still low, but we will surely get there, she says.

Speaking about her children brings a spark to her eyes. . “I did not spend enough time with them when they were young, though I have spent quality time. My husband was very supportive. I now have time to be with them, but they are very busy. My first daughter has her own furniture design store in Mumbai, called Josmo. My second daughter is studying law. She will be graduating this year. My third daughter works with Wildlife Conservation Trust.”

Professional highs and lows

“To some extent I have managed to break the glass ceiling in terms of having women out there in the legal profession,” says Zia. She has proved that it is possible to go from a 12-member law firm to a 250-member law firm. She believes if you have the right partners with you, if you have a committed team, and if you ensure quality service to clients all the time, good things are bound to happen.

“The journey is, of course, hard. Many a times you will feel low, you get tired, you feel that everything is too much to handle. During tough times, my mantra is to take a deep breath and move on. Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes again. Stay through the course, there are times when you will want to quit, but take a deep breath, take a weekend off, and things will be better.”

After all the success and recognition, what keeps Zia going? “The things that drive me today are the same things that inspired me 30 years back – enjoying the work that I do and commitment for my work,” adds Zia.

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