Is the Indian legal profession seeing the rise of women entrepreneurs?

Eleven of the 50 law firms named as India Business Law Journal’s Rising Stars are headed by women. Is this significant? We think it is.

The legal industry in India has long been dominated by men, as is evident from the fact that women are few and far between on the bench and at the bar. Yet there is no real reason for this and with large numbers of young women aspiring for a career in law, change must surely be around the corner.

Does the fact that women lawyers in private practice are setting up on their own suggest that the glass ceiling is finally being broken? Conversations with three lawyers (highlights below) suggest that it may be, given that they see little challenge on account of being women in what used to be a male-dominated world.

Read more: Rising Stars 2018 – See the full list of 50 up-and-coming law firms that are making a mark in the legal market →

Talha Salaria, founder and sole partner at Lawyers At Work in Bengaluru, which she describes as “a fully women driven firm” is quite certain that she is operating in a gender-neutral space. “It doesn’t matter to my clients whether the lawyer working with them is a woman or a man,” she says.

The six-lawyer, all-women firm takes pride in being a small one that works in M&A and other areas typically dominated by larger firms.

“We have a few anchor clients that are listed companies who give us regular work … very often we are up against large firms such as Khaitan or J Sagar Associates,” says Salaria. “It has been very exciting to get the confidence of clients who can go to any firm and yet they regularly come to us.” Apart from M&A advisory, the firm provides employment law, real estate and intellectual property (IP) rights services.

Commenting on the absence of men within her legal team, Salaria says she hires for the job and gender is irrelevant.

Yet, she does visualize situations where men may have an advantage. “From a practical, cultural perspective there would be some clients who would be more comfortable dealing with another male lawyer,” she says. Almost in the same breath she adds that her firm is “way past all that” since it works with larger clients.

As for the future, Salaria says she is “definitely looking out for a good partner” to allow her to concentrate on growing the firm.

Women are, similarly, in the driving seat at Burgeon Law, a law firm that specializes in advising startups and their investors while being something of a startup itself. “We are a firm for entrepreneurs and investors and emerging growth companies, whether you are at an early stage or not,” says its founder Roma Priya. After setting up in New Delhi in 2015, Priya now has nine lawyers, six company secretaries, and a second office in Bengaluru. All nine lawyers are women and, as Priya points out, their clients are typically men.

“Most entrepreneurs are men and we have had a very encouraging experience,” she says adding that gender is immaterial in most professional services.

Do women lawyers have any advantages?

“What is important is quality and efficiency as technical knowledge is not enough in our kind of work … you have to be able to manoeuvre your way through a transaction multiple times and there are a lot of other skills that are needed,” says Priya.

“I wouldn’t say women are better … it’s just that each time we have interviewed we have found that the women are spectacular,” says Priya, who adds that she believes in equal opportunity and is not a feminist.

“I’m here to do business and will hire the best person for the job,” she says. At IP specialist Fidus Law Chambers, managing partner Shwetasree Majumder expresses similar sentiments when she says “gender doesn’t matter when we hire a professional”.

However, what matters to Majumder is to provide the 20 lawyers and two patent agents at the firm, 14 of whom are women, with a safe working environment. The firm has long had in place robust policies to deal with sexual harassment and other actions that hamper an individual’s right to work with dignity.

“This is increasingly important even for our clients,” says Majumder adding that international clients appreciate the fact that her firm strives to provide a workplace that is free from all forms of discrimination.

As for any advantages that women may have when they set up on their own, Majumder believes that having women in managerial positions results in a better atmosphere within an organization. “Women managers bring a little more empathy,” she says.

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Rising Stars 2018 – See the full list of 50 up-and-coming law firms that are making a mark in the legal market