In conversation with Shriya Maini on clearing AOR examination, experiences at MICT & Oxford and being a woman in litigation

Ms Shriya Maini is an alumna of Oxford and GNLU. She is currently working as an AOR.  In this interview, she speaks about a host of things including experiences at Oxford, MICT, being an AOR and being a woman in litigation. She has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Prakhar Srivastava who is currently pursuing law from BVDU, Pune.

  1. Many congratulations on clearing the AOR examination this year. When did you think of taking the exam and how did you prepare for it, considering that you have been practising as well as teaching in three premier law schools of the country all this while?

Thank you so much, Prakhar!

Taking the AOR examination was a very instantaneous decision for me. I think as lawyers, we all dream of practicing in the Supreme Court finally, and so, after having been practising elsewhere for over five years, it was a very normal step up for me. Also in any case, if you map my pathway and see the kind of work that I have done or the educational decisions that I have taken, I think I have been pretty much on the go, and the AOR examination was no different.

Insofar as the preparation is concerned, yes, I definitely prepared for the examination. I think it is not an examination that one can take solely on the basis of their practice. The only way to clear it is to study very hard as well as to study smartly. What I mean to say here is that you do not just have to be very laborious while you are preparing, but you also have to be able to crack the pattern of the exam. You need to go through the question papers of the past five to six years and see what kind of topics or questions are repeated often. The trick is to identify important topics which you know are going to come for sure, and study those topics very hard. By the time you are done preparing for the exam, you feel you have achieved almost as much as having cleared the exam.

  1. Of course, so it is hard work and smart work – both that go into the preparation. I am also curious to know, however, that by the time one sits for the AOR exam, they would lose all touch with preparing for and writing an examination. Was it difficult for you too, to get back to preparing and writing a whole pen and paper exam, considering it would have been a long time since you took your last exam at Oxford?

Yes, it had actually been sometime since I took my last exam at Oxford but the shift was easier for me because I teach. I consciously kept myself very close to academia which not only makes teaching but even studying very easy for me. However, I do agree there were moments of nervous breakdown, since there is a lot of content that has to be memorised. There is the “Supreme Court Rules of Practice and Procedure” that has to be thoroughly learnt since it deals with the crucial aspects of working as an AOR, and then there are nuances of other important legislations such as the Advocates Act, 1961 and several others that have to be covered. But all in all, thanks to my teaching experience as well as the fact that I am closer to writing, publication and research that I had it a little easier.

  1. You have been practising as a lawyer for several years now in District Courts at Delhi as well as the Delhi High Court, primarily on the criminal side and matrimonial issues. But before you went independent, you also worked with Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co. What made you leave the comfort of a law firm like Amarchand and how do you look back at that decision?

You know, I am always asked this question and I always start by saying that it is actually not all that bad in the litigation world (laughs). It actually does get very comfortable after a few years. Of course there are the initial years of struggle but you get comfortable and used to it soon enough.

In any case, the point when I decided to leave was when I was given a rejoinder draft and was made to sit with it for about a month, whereas it was not even a three-hour job. I had a feeling that I was being underutilised. I would get the feeling of being servile to someone, when I wanted to fly high. I knew that if I wanted to have my own pair of wings, I will have to grow them myself, and I would not be able to do that in the firm, because the firm will always, for its own reasons, look for its profitable ventures and that is not to blame them, but that is how businesses run.

I also did realise that because of this structure, my shelf life at the firm would be very short and I was easily replaceable. Anyone might come in the next five years and would be able to do the work that I was doing. And, even if I were to stay there longer, I knew that I would not get the kind of recognition as I would outside. I realised that no one would value me and my work as much as I and my clients would, and that is when I womanned up to take this decision. Today, I think it was the best decision of my life. It is actually much like teaching a baby how to swim. You have to put them through deep waters and that is when they really learn.

  1. So would it be correct to assume that the litigation or dispute resolution practice of top-tier corporate law firms is not as robust as, say, corporate practice or other related areas? Will it be safe to generalise that?

You are asking me all the questions that we usually shy away from (laughs). But let me be honest here, yes. When you are in the firm structure on the litigation side, there are months when there is not much work to do, which is why maybe I was given a rejoinder for 30 days. You see, the firm has a certain corpus which is generating money, and dispute resolution is one part of it. There are many other limbs, and in the bigger scheme of things, dispute resolution is not given as much importance as corporate or mergers and acquisitions (M&A) etc., because that is what gets them more money. Now, I am not sure if I can generalise this for all firms, but at least when I worked there, and this is before the split into Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas (SAM) and Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (CAM), the work was a little lean in terms of content. Enough work would not flow down to the lowest level, and as a Junior Associate, you do want to do something that makes a difference in the case, and not just be in front of a photocopy machine.

  1. Let us now talk about your experience of working as an Associate at the Cabinet of Judge Theodor Meron, President Judge of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, namely, the “MICT”. Please share with us how you got the opportunity and what was your experience like?

There’s an interesting story behind how I got the opportunity. This happened when I was studying BCL at Oxford and Judge Meron used to teach us International Criminal Law every Sunday in a seminar class for two hours, because he was a sitting Judge, the President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICT). Even on a Sunday, he was able to garner an audience of more than 50 people which was quite impressive. It was in his classes that I began to develop interest in International Criminal Law (ICL), because I thought this is a very new thing and I was never even taught the subject in India. It was like Intellectual Property Rights until about two decades ago, when we would borrow a lot of foreign jurisprudence for our own decisions. But anyway, at the end of the year at Oxford, when Judge Meron finished teaching us, there was a vacancy as he was moving from ICTY to MICT, which is the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals. He offered me to join him there as he was looking for someone from a common law jurisdiction. Now, having been in practice for two years already, I told him that I needed to earn; to which he said that he shall pay me and so I agreed. That actually made me the first Indian intern there who was actually being paid almost equivalent to a P-2 Associate.

The experience was absolutely fantastic, because one, it was a very new field of law. In fact, it is still being carved as we speak, so it is perhaps one of the best fields to work in even today. There is tremendous scope since everything is in the grey. Two, I got the opportunity to work with two tribunals simultaneously. I was working for MICT at The Hague and also at one of its branches at Arusha in Africa, which proved to be intellectually very enriching. It was a brilliant living experience too. I had flatmates from different parts of the world; we would all venture out to different countries over the weekend, learn from each other about our laws, cultures, etc. too.

  1. Can you comment, generally, on how Indian law schools are approaching International Criminal Law as a subject? I ask you this because by what I understand, there are very few law schools that teach this subject in their curriculum even today. What is your take?

I am glad you asked this question. I would like to share that when I came back to India in 2016, there was no law school that was teaching this subject. Then, about two months after I returned, National Law University (NLU) Delhi approached me with a request to interact with their students on the subject. It was an hour’s lecture. Subsequently however, I approached them asking why we were not teaching a full-fledged course, because the field is a budding one with a large number of avenues. That was when we started the first course on ICL. Subsequently, I floated the idea to Lloyd Law College, which was very welcoming too, and then to MNLU, Nagpur as well.

Now, I have been teaching the subject in three law schools, and ever since I started, the subject has gained more relevance with newer breakthroughs happening very frequently. For example, the entire Rohingya Crises; the judgment of the Delhi High Court in 1984 Sikh Riots (State Through CBI v. Sajjan Kumar and Ors., 2018 SCC OnLine Del 12930) wherein it was observed that genocide should be dealt with as a separate crime under  IPC, 1860; and so many others. These events make the knowledge of the subject very important, and I think more and more law schools should take this up accordingly.

One problem, however, is that India has not signed the Rome Statute, but I believe with more and more awareness, we can get there as well because India is viewed as a very lucrative destination for the growth of the law.

  1. Let us go back a little to your Oxford days. You completed your BCL from Oxford? How was the experience like? Was Oxford your first choice?

I would like to answer the second limb of the question first. Oxford was indeed my first and perhaps one of the only choices other than Cambridge. I had applied for the Prathiba M. Singh Scholarship for Cambridge but the Salve award had come through before.

As for the first limb of the question, yes, I completed my BCL in 2014-2015, and this question gets me nostalgic because as glossy as Oxford looks from outside, it is not a very easy place to be in. It is very competitive and brimming with intellect. The bubble is full of crème de la crème of the world. We have three semesters for which we have to pick up four subjects. One has to be really careful in their choice of subjects. A combination of three very heavy subjects with a relatively milder one is always good. There is also a system of regular tutorials whereby you have to write a paper every month and the professor in the subject assesses you basis that. In fact by that I am recalled, I once wrote a paper critiquing my Professor’s previously published paper. It was very well received by him, further showing how intellectually welcoming the place could be.

  1. Absolutely! Let us now shift focus to your teaching experiences. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in India, you have been teaching a large number of certificate courses. Prior thereto, you had been teaching in three premier law schools of the country, including NLUD. How did you venture into teaching? Was it always your calling?

Since college, I was a very average speaker and perhaps not that great a listener too. I would love talking even during classes (laughs). But I think I realised that for me when I would teach the others, I would have the law much more reinforced in my own head. I would teach my friends before the exam after having studied myself, and I think that made me top my exams. So teaching, in that sense, comes very naturally to me. I do not really have to make too much effort to teach, it is a very organic way of being for me. Also, ICL was a major driving force. I almost fell into the lap of academia with getting an opportunity to teach ICL. After that, opportunities kept getting linked from one place to another.

  1. A lot of students do not pay attention to proper legal research when in law school. What would you have to say to them?

I think both legal research and presenting one’s research in writing are very crucial, perhaps one of the most important skills we acquire in law school. There are five reasons why I think so. First, mastering research helps master the art of analysing. Second, being good at research reduces the time it takes to gather data and information and put it to use. To exemplify, if you know just the right keywords to use, you can get to your desired results much faster and use that as you wish. Third, researching on a certain topic also gives you a comparative outlook on the same, which is further beneficial in arriving at a more holistic understanding of the subject at hand. Fourth, presenting your research in writing, say as research papers or articles helps you learn how to present a well-reasoned argument on any subject. Fifth, I would like to point out that excellent reading and writing skills are an absolute must if you are entering into the legal profession, something one can learn immensely by way of researching and writing. Exceptional writing and reading skills help you get recognised even among Judges, your peers as well as clients.

  1. Not many people are familiar with the concept of “exhaustion of a search”. What are your views on it?

I am glad you asked this question because it is such a common phenomenon. It happens very frequently that once you begin researching on any topic on the internet, the pool of information available there is simply humongous. Because of so much content being available, one often tends to feel lost or tired, sometimes so much so that the research is not taken to its logical conclusion. To overcome this problem, one needs to filter the resources at their behest and use the most reliable ones only, and learn to use them very properly too.

  1. You describe yourself as a proud, unabashed feminist and are someone who has voiced her opinions on equality for women many a times. In your opinion, how easy or difficult is it for women to be able to leave a mark in litigation in India? Did you have to battle any misogyny when you were starting out anew? Were you ever judged for being ambitious, as women often are?

Personally, I will say that litigation is not a very easy road notwithstanding whether you are a woman or a man, if you are starting as early as I did. There are times when you are competing against lawyers who may have been in practice for sometimes even 50 years or more.

Having said that, however, of course the profession is unfortunately male dominated. Whenever you enter a court, even in a metropolitan like Delhi, the room is full of black-robed men, and chances are that none of them would be if you do not have a mentor or a godfather in the profession. It gets difficult in cases of women because there are a lot of judgments about everything she does –how she dresses, how she walks, how she talks, everything. For example, we never poke fun of how a woman’s voice is, but when she is speaking in the court, there will be five men commenting about how squeaky her voice is. There are subtle undertones of misogyny which still play around. Things are changing, of course. One of the good things is that more women are now taking education. If you see the ratio of men to women in law schools, it is sometimes 50:50, or in some cases, even 40:60, where the number of women is higher.

So, to sum it up, we do see women entering the profession in corporate roles, in-house, teaching, etc., but yes, litigation is a ceiling still to be broken through being women today.

  1. So what will your advice be to young female lawyers or female law students who are willing to venture into litigation?

To be honest, as someone whose father has also been in the profession, I do not think it is very fair of me to give an advice as such. However, there are a few things that I can share that I learned in my experience.

I think firstly, hard work and persistence is a must to survive in this profession. Secondly, you have to tell yourself that you are here to stay, come what may. You have to understand that in litigation there are lobbies that you would have to breakthrough in order to sustain and that can only happen with persistence.

  1. How do you advice young female lawyers and law students to handle and address the constant judgment that they have to face, be it in courts or chambers or law firms?

I think firstly, there is tremendous need to sensitise men. Secondly, what I have come to do over the years and I would advise others to do as well is to develop a very thick skin. Call people out; express yourself when something of the sort happens, if you think that is the right thing to do.

That reminds me of a very numbing incident that happened with me a couple of years ago. I was in the Supreme Court for a matter and there was a very popular senior lawyer who came up to me and commented on my appearance. This was my year of articleship at the Supreme Court after having done four years of practice, and he had the audacity to talk about me that way in an open courtroom. I did call him out and address the issue, but it is instances like these that made me develop a thick skin.

So all in all, draw a line for yourself. Learn to say no when you think you must. If there is something that you do not like in a room – if there are judgments floating around, have the courage to walk out. Reply if you think you should, but not replying is also totally your call. Work very hard, and let your work speak for itself.

  1. What would you like to advise to law students in general?

Set short-term goals and try to achieve them – that is the first thing I would say. Instead of having very long-term goals like “I will be a senior advocate one day”, have achievable short-term goals. The second tip I have is that you must never refuse work. Do not refuse any sort of work coming along the way – writing a paper, going to a conference, participating in moot court competitions, whatever you can do, make the most of it right now. These opportunities will not come again so make the most of them right now. The third tip is that once you come out of law school, do not run after money. Earning should be a consequence of your labour. It should not be a driving force because then it begins to get pressurising. Accordingly, unless you have family commitments to honour or there is a personal problem, do not enter into litigation for money actively. Believe me, two years later, money simply flows in. Lastly, have a mentor. Have someone who guides you personally and professionally. I remember having an excellent Professor called Dr William Nunes in GNLU.  He was my driving force through the college. I also had almost all of my LLM recommendations written by him. He was someone who would constantly advise me to leave Amarchand, and not just that; he would guide me for various other things personally and professionally. So having a mentor to guide you through law schools and the initial years of practising is always very good.

  1. As a young lawyer, what are your ambitions? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years?

I see myself doing what I love the most – practicing the law and teaching it. I also hope to continue learning the law. I have never planned earlier, I will not now. Maybe moving to a different jurisdiction is something I can try, but practising in India and teaching has been my first love and I hope to continue doing that for sure.

  1. If you were not in the practice of law, what would you be doing? Our readers would like to know your other interests as well.

In hindsight, I can say that I would definitely be a lawyer any day after all the practice I have done. But if I have to pick up an interest apart from law, there are certain hobbies that I pursue. I love painting and travelling, so if I would have to do anything other than law, I would probably be either a travel blogger or a painter. In fact, during the lockdown, I did a lot of sketching after a lot of time.

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