Women lawyers are increasingly visible at law firms across India. But have they succeeded in breaking through the glass ceiling?

The biggest and best-known law firms in the West are grappling with a wide gender gap among their more senior lawyers. Although women make up roughly half the number of students who go to law school and subsequently join law firms, they drop out in significant numbers on their way up from associate to partner – a climb that takes eight to 10 years.

Cause for concern

The numbers speak for themselves. A report in American Lawyer points out that in 2010, only 17% of partners were women in the top 50 law firms in the US. A study in Catalyst in January, on what it terms the gender gap in law at American law firms, found that 11% of the largest law firms had no woman on their governing bodies.

The picture is as bleak in the UK. An article in The Guardian reported that while women have made up approximately half of those entering big City law firms for well over a decade – they accounted for about 60% of the trainee intake in 2010 – just 18% of partners in these firms are female.

This shows that despite magic circle firms putting in place pro-diversity initiatives such as flexi hours, most women are unable to break through the glass ceiling at Western law firms. These firms largely remain old boys’ clubs.

Unexpected balance

So, what does the gender picture look like in the rapidly changing and expanding world of leading law firms in India?

The country’s conservative patriarchal societal structures would suggest even greater gender imbalances. However, Indian law firms do better than Western law firms in terms of representation of women at the partnership level. At India’s biggest law firm, Amarchand Mangaldas, 21 of the 59 partners are women. AZB & Partners declined to provide exact numbers, but said almost half of their partners are women. This includes their founding partner, Zia Mody.

Luthra & Luthra has less impressive gender figures, but even these are better than at Western firms: eight of their 40 partners (20%) are women. Younger firms aren’t necessarily more diverse. Trilegal, which was set up 12 years ago, took nine years to appoint a woman partner and today, only two of its 19 partners are women. For more on how women fare at some of India big law firms see Mind the gap, page 26.

Overall, these numbers are more remarkable when compared with women’s representation in the boardrooms of top Indian companies. A study on the number of women on the boards of companies in India carried out by Community Business, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization that focuses on diversity in companies in Asia, found that in 2010, out of a total of 1,112 directorships in companies on the BSE-100 index, only 59, or 5.3%, were held by women. The boards of about half the companies had no women at all.

At the same time, 14.5% of company directors in the US were women, compared with 12.2% in the UK, 8.9% in Hong Kong, and 8.3% in Australia.

Greater visibility

Most observers agree that India has seen a dramatic reduction in the gender gap among corporate lawyers in the past five to six years.

Describing the change, Mody at AZB & Partners says: “When I started out in the ’80s, women were more diffident, less ambitious, clients were much happier dealing with men, but with the profession becoming much more lucrative and acceptable, women have significant voices at the top.”

Zia Mody Senior Partner AZB & Partners

Most firms say they recruit male and female law graduates in roughly equal numbers at the entry level. Sowjanya Menon, co-founder of Vidhii Partners in Mumbai, which has 25 lawyers, says the firm has been recruiting more women graduates in the past few years as they just happen to be better. Two years ago, eight of a total of 12 new recruits were women.

The gender equality at the lower end of India’s law firms has made talk of a glass ceiling irrelevant for some women lawyers.

“If you know your job, it doesn’t matter any longer whether you’re male or female,” says Charandeep Kaur, Trilegal’s first woman partner, emphasizing that gender is not an issue.

Payal Chawla, a partner at HSA Advocates, agrees. She says making partner is about competence and generating business.

Reeba Chacko, managing partner of Amarchand Mangaldas in Bangalore, has similar views: “I did not have to work harder or prove anything more than my male colleagues or give less priority to my family to make it to where I am.” She says that she even took a year off to be with her baby and didn’t feel it affected her partnership chances.

Reeba Chacko Partner Amarchand Mangaldas

Vinati Kastia, a Delhi-based partner at AZB & Partners, believes that it’s not the work environment that makes women leave, “it’s their own personal choice”.

“I haven’t noticed a denial of opportunities … it’s never mattered where I worked from,” says Kastia.

Vinati Kastia Partner AZB & Partners

Tough for some

While these lawyers appear to have faced no discrimination on their ride to the top at India’s leading law firms, other women, like their Western counterparts, cite a host of challenges.

As a result, most firms struggle with high attrition rates, particularly among women who take a break or opt out to marry, have children and devote time to their families, which many say is incompatible with the long hours a corporate lawyer is required to put in.

Acknowledging the problem, Mody at AZB & Partners says women are a big talent pool and firms like hers allow them a lot of flexibility as they are keen to retain them. Amarchand Mangaldas’s Delhi office has gone one step further and runs a crèche to support its women employees.

But this may not be good enough. Nisha Venkataraman, a Singapore-based associate at Latham & Watkins, who worked at Amarchand Mangaldas after graduating from the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata, says she worked 15 to 16 hours every day regularly for five to six months – including weekends. “About 10 lawyers quit every month,” she says.

Vidisha Krishan worked at several law firms, but subsequently moved to the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a legal officer as it had more regular hours. She says: “An innate characteristic of corporate law is the long hours … you can’t change it and law firms are not to blame for it.”

Krishan now works as an independent consultant in Mumbai and the choices she has made are typical of what many women do after they put in a gruelling five to six years in a law firm. She believes attitudes are changing and that “a lot of people in this economy are saying no to jobs, but are saying a big yes to working from their own desk”.

Family matters

Despite a lot of talk by firms about flexibility, many mid-level and senior women associates say it’s easier once you’ve become a partner. A senior associate at one of India’s bigger law firms, who does not want to be named, says many women delay having children till after they have become partners as they know billable hours is an important factor when being considered for partnership, and good billable hours equals long hours at work.

Career first: Some women lawyers have children only after they have made it to the partnership.
Career first: Some women lawyers have children only after they have made it to the partnership.

The same lawyer says it was conveyed to her that because her focus for the next few years would be her children, the firm had decided to wait a few years to assess her commitment to work. She quit to set up her own practice as she thought it was unfair that anything any other than her performance was being considered.

Another senior associate, who quit a leading Indian law firm to relocate to the US, recalls that she was regularly called back to the office in the middle of the night when she was pregnant even though there were others to handle the work. When she complained, her boss – a woman partner – told her that as it had been her decision to get pregnant, she would have to put up with it.

Speaking off the record, many women lawyers say that while offers of part-time working hours sound good on paper, accepting them amounts to professional suicide for anyone on a defined track to partnership.

Clearly, women lawyers who have supportive families and domestic help find it easier than others. Kaur at Trilegal believes that the crucial difference between women like her who stay on and those who opt out is the support they get from their families.

“To stay on track in their careers women have to manage three Ms in India: marriage, motherhood and mother-in-law,” says Kaur. “I had support from family so I was working for almost 12 hours every day before I went into labour and came straight back to work when my baby was three months old.”

Charandeep Kaur Partner Trilegal

Not one of the boys

Women lawyers across firms in India talk also about the disadvantage they have over their male counterparts while dealing with and trying to build relationships with clients.

“A woman has her limitations,” says Menon at Vidhii Partners. She believes a woman cannot take a client out for drinks “for fear of sending out the wrong message”.

Speaking off the record, a woman lawyer who recently left a top-tier firm says that the male partner she worked with regularly went out until 1 or 2 in the morning for drinks with clients. However, she felt she could not do this.

“Women lawyers I meet constantly tell me that the social norms make breaking barriers and rain-making hard,” says Priti Suri, proprietor of PSA Legal.

Priti Suri Managing Partner PSA Legal

Suri and others set up the Society of Women Lawyers two years ago as they felt it was important to be able to support each other if they were to get ahead.

Mody also recognizes that women at the top have an obligation to mentor other women wanting to rise. But most younger women lawyers say that doesn’t really happen in the real world.

Unequal pay?

One of the reasons for this may lie in the remuneration structures at law firms, which tend to be opaque. While information on gender parity in remuneration structures is difficult to come by, most partners in India, whether they are women or men, are salaried partners. The equity and profits are usually shared only among the founding partners.

Mind the gap

How do women fare at some of India’s big law firms?

Law firm

Total lawyers

Women lawyers

Total partners

Women partners

ALMT Legal

84

38

18

7

Amarchand Mangaldas

500+

50+

59

21

Anand and Anand

78

43

10

2

Dua Associates

250

48

50

11

Economic Laws Practice

82

19

19

0

HSA Advocates

70

18

10

2

J Sagar Associates

230

91

50

9

Khaitan & Co

290

88

53

8

Luthra & Luthra

250

75

40

8

Majmudar & Co

50

8

7

0

Mulla & Mulla

83

33

14

1

Nishith Desai Associates

65

27

6

2

Remfry & Sagar

69

34

9

4

Trilegal

143

53

19

2

Wadia Ghandy & Co

109

57

24

9

Speaking to Mint in February, Cyril Shroff, a managing partner at Amarchand Mangaldas who, along with his family, controls the firm’s equity, said: “Obviously we will always retain a sizable chunk to remain influential … But by 2017, we roughly expect we will be below 50%.”

Data in the US show a substantial gender pay-gap in law firms there. A 2010 survey of almost 700 partners by the Project for Attorney Retention and the Minority Corporate Counsel found that female partners earned 22% less than their male counterparts. Female equity partners averaged US$66,000 less, while income partners averaged US$25,000 less.

The survey dwells on some of the reasons for this gap, which include there were no women or only a token woman on committees that decide compensation and lack of transparency while deciding compensation. It says that 32% of white income partners and 27% of white equity partners reported that a partner had tried to “intimidate, threaten or bully her into backing down in a dispute over origination credit”.

In the absence of any data on earnings of female and male partners in India, the notion of a closing gap between the genders may be deceptive.

Anuradha Salhotra, managing partner of Lall Lahiri & Salhotra, an IP firm in Gurgaon, is not surprised that the proportion of women partners in India is higher than in the West and has an interesting theory about why women make good employees.

“Women partners are usually easier to handle, more stable and much less likely to break away, poach clients and start something of their own,” says Salhotra. “Women are looking for less, more easily satisfied, happy with a conducive work environment and do a lot more for less.”

Anuradha Salhotra Managing Partner Lall Lahiri & Salhotra

Lall, Lahiri & Salhotra has four partners, including one other woman. Salhotra set up the firm in 1983 with her father and another woman lawyer and subsequently bought her father’s stake.

Mody expresses a similar sentiment, saying women are more “sticky” employees if you give them just a little more in terms of flexibility and support.

Court gap wider

Whatever their problems, corporate law firms seem like a haven of gender equality when compared to the world of litigation. Pushpa Menon, an advocate at the Madras High Court, says the gender disparity in the courts is dire. Pointing out that only four out of more than 100 senior counsel who practise in the Chennai court are women, Menon says few women lawyers get important matters.

In addition, Menon says women lawyers can be the targets of overtly sexist remarks in the courts. She recounts how an attendant at a court instructed her to not sit with her legs crossed as the judge did not like it. Another time, she was reprimanded for wearing a blouse without sleeves in court and attracting attention.

“The South [of India] is more conservative and people will often ask me, doesn’t your husband suspect you when you return home so late in the evenings after work,” says Menon.

Pushpa Menon Advocate Madras High Court

Sowjanya Menon at Vidhii Partners says she has to appear before a judge at least three times before the judge begins to take her seriously. “Though things are changing, a mental block still exists,” she says.

Kanan Dhru, who began as a litigation lawyer in Ahmedabad and now runs a think-thank advocating legal and political reforms, says the entry barriers for women in litigation are very high. “Women find it specially hard to fight the cliquey environment,” says Dhru. “I was advised by a lot of well-meaning people that I should marry into a family of lawyers if I was serious about practising.”

Kanan Dhru Founder Research Foundation Governance

The small number of women judges reflects the depth of the problem in the courts. Only two of the 25 judges at the Supreme Court are women and data for 2009 show that there were only 45 women judges out of a total of more than 600 judges across high courts.

And yet, there remains much to cheer about when it comes to the representation of women in Indian law firms, which could provide their Western counterparts a few examples to follow.