While penning this piece for the prestigious SCC Online Blog, I was reminded of the stunningly appropriate words of the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle:
“the law is reason free from passion”.
I have also been inspired by the legendary words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who has pithily observed:
“The best protection any woman can have is courage”.
International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. Then in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions1.
I was inspired to read law and to consider the legal profession seriously as a career at a very young and tender age in London, when as an Indian schoolgirl studying in London between 1971 and 1973, I was taken by my British school teachers to visit the Old Bailey, (the famous Criminal Court in London) in 1972. Further, a distinguished English barrister and Queen’s Counsel, Michael Sherrard QC, CBE, became a mentor to me at the age of seventeen when I met him while I was studying in Grey Coat Hospital in London for my ordinary levels and advanced levels, General Certificate of Education of the University of London.
Upon my return to Mumbai, India in 1973, I joined Elphinstone College, where I read English Literature (Honours) and French Literature for my BA (Honours) degree. In June 1975, India was plunged into a draconian period called the emergency which lasted between 1975 and 1977. My father, Dharam Vir Taneja, became one of the first victims of this emergency when he was dismissed as Chairman of Central Bank of India, because he refused to buckle under Government pressure exerted upon him by the Prime Minister of India at the time, Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay Gandhi. In fact, my father’s dismissal occurred in April 1975, just a few weeks before the infamous emergency was declared on 25-6-1975. What followed was a nightmarish experience during almost two years which spanned the dreaded emergency, as a false criminal investigation was unleashed against my father by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Mercifully, the CBI exonerated my father during the emergency itself. This mala fide harassment of my father by the CBI, was the turning point for me as a student and made me aware of the importance of law in our lives. In 1977, I began my studies in law at the Government Law College, University of Bombay, which culminated in my obtaining my law degree (LLB) in 1980.
The law touches our lives in every sense of the word. Being a lady in the legal profession for 41 years, (some of these years were spent in the Middle East, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I lived and practised as a legal consultant between 1982 and 1997) has been both a challenge and a struggle.
My early years in the legal profession were spent in Mumbai, India with Little & Co., (between 1980 to 1982), trying to understand the intricacies of legal practice.
It has been a constant battle that I have silently endured, stoically and quietly, knowing that this is a profession where it takes decades to establish credibility and to receive any kind of recognition or appreciation.
I guess I have survived to tell the tale having occasionally endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”during the course of this legal journey.
When I look back at my first year in practice in 1980, I hope that these 41 years have been intellectually fulfilling and professionally meaningful.
Practising in the Middle East was fascinating; this was during a period when there were very few women lawyers in the Middle East. The situation has changed with the passage of time and it is wonderful to hear and read about the success of lady lawyers in the Middle East. I practised both transactional law and litigation for almost 14 years, with A.R. Hilal and Associates, a law firm in Dubai and in the UAE between 1983 and 1997.
Mentoring is vital in our profession. The late Michael Sherrard QC, CBE, former Treasurer of the Middle Temple and former Director, Middle Temple Advocacy, has been a towering influence both during my academic days and also in practice. He always believed in my abilities to survive and above all, he taught me, as a young girl, in 1973, (via long distance), up till his passing away in 2012, the highest professional and ethical standards. Dara Mehta, Senior Partner, Little & Co., Mumbai has provided me with the confidence and the strength to practise the profession and has also ingrained in me the need to uphold the ethics of the profession. In my early years in practice in Little & Co., Mumbai, I had the honour and the privilege of being trained by Dara Mehta. I must also mention the late Charles Grundy, one of the last surviving English lawyers in India who was also a very formative influence on me when he was a Senior Partner at Little & Co. The late H.M. Seervai, India’s finest constitutional expert encouraged me as a student and later as a lawyer to work hard and to achieve the best legal standards.
Ever since I returned to Delhi from Dubai in 1997, and more particularly in 2002, Dara Mehta honoured me with the privilege of heading the branch office of Little & Co., in New Delhi, because he believed in my abilities to run a practice. My gender has been of no consequence to these mentors. My mentors’ acceptance of me as a lawyer, their kindness and constant encouragement are awe-inspiring. Despite a brief “roller coaster” period during June and July 2006, when I found myself in a professional maelstrom and lost an entire practice, I was able to survive and established my own practice in August 2006. I have drawn strength from such adverse professional experiences.
I have had the honour and privilege of briefing many eminent Senior Counsel in the Supreme Court of India, the Delhi High Court, and many other courts and tribunals in New Delhi. Briefing each of these giants in the legal profession is a unique learning experience and is deeply enriching and humbling.
Incredible things happen when we lift each other up. Starting a career as a junior lawyer in a large legal firmament of the legal community, it is amazing that when I recall my lonely journey into the unknown intricacies of the legal profession, there have always been my mentors to whom I have reached out for guidance and support, and, of course, my family, whose love and kindness have sustained me over the years.
The world of law is a veritable ocean and there are so many areas of law, both in terms of transactional legal practice and litigation that provide many more opportunities now to all lawyers, be they men or women. It has been my privilege and honour to have been exposed to a myriad variety of areas of legal practice both as a transactional lawyer and as a litigator in India and overseas.
If I have survived this profession it is because of these very brilliant lawyers and judges, both men and women, who, during the last four decades or so, have been overwhelmingly supportive, and equally so inspiring; indeed, it is so important that we recognise and respect the senior members of our legal fraternity whether these are men or women, including those who are our leaders in the Bar and of course our most distinguished members of India’s judiciary.
At the same time, I have professionally ensured that it is very important that we encourage our younger brothers and sisters in the legal community to face the challenges that confront them in the legal profession with courage, determination and strength, by mentoring them whenever possible, while maintaining the highest professional standards, whether this is in the field of litigation or transactional legal work.
The Bar too, I believe, has its own very critical role to play in the legal profession. The courts in India have been and are the cornerstone of our vibrant democracy.
From a professional perspective, I believe that the Indian courts provide the groundwork for every legal professional in India. Young lawyers can certainly benefit from what is currently a very vibrant and buoyant Indian legal profession and the best legal exposure can be gained by attending and participating in proceedings in the courts of law and arguing cases as well. Our Judges invariably encourage junior members of the Bar and this is what gives young aspirants the confidence to grow and blossom in the legal profession.
Of course, transactional areas of practice have their own advantages. There are so many opportunities for lady lawyers in the transactional world of law, as they can be in house counsel, or partners in law firms practising transactional law.
Women in the legal profession face many challenges in India. Once they qualify as advocates, they have a variety of choices: litigation in the Courts; transactional practice in law firms and/or as in house Counsel; joining the District judiciary as junior judges; starting a family and also continuing in the practice of law. Undoubtedly, they need to strike a balance between their professional careers and their personal lives. This is often the most difficult scenario which lady lawyers constantly face. I know many lady lawyers who have overcome all these challenges with their characteristic grace and dignity; there are other lady lawyers who are still confronted with these sensitive issues and are doing their best to deal with the scenarios before them. Ultimately, women have an inherent strength and an innate intuition; women are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives; they play many roles and are successful in each of them. We are blessed by the Almighty by many virtues and qualities and we bear each of our challenges with a smile on our lips and joy within our hearts and minds. Being a litigator or a judge or a transactional practitioner in the law is God’s gift to us; we must share our gift of the law and legal knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole and with a sense of duty and pride towards our very noble profession.
Based on my own professional experience spanning 41 years both in India and overseas, as a litigator and as a transactional lawyer, I humbly believe that the finest legal exposure is nurtured in the courts of law. The law is truly “in action” in the courts which are, after all, the “temples of justice”.
International and domestic arbitration is another field of law that has provided so many opportunities to lawyers in our country.
Pro bono legal work is a very important and sensitive aspect of our beloved profession. It also indicates that the law is based on humanity and sensitivity. These are qualities and virtues that are significant so as to maintain the highest professional standards. I have spent decades doing legal work gratis; this is another aspect that is worth considering during the course of our legal profession. This pro bono work has provided me a unique opportunity to represent my foreign client, in one of the world’s highest and most respected international entities i.e. the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights/Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), in Geneva, where I recently succeeded in an international case where the detention of my overseas client in India by the Indian Government at the behest of a third country, has been declared arbitrary; the WGAD has indicated in its recent Urgent Appeal to India that such a detention has violated international law.
A very strong family network has also enabled me to endure professional trauma and smile during the most difficult moments in my career as a lawyer. My parents and sister have been the pillars of my life and my career and have always believed in my quest for the truth and my courage to withstand all possible odds.
Losing my father on 15-1-2018 when he passed away peacefully at home after a brief illness, has been extremely painful. However, I hope I am able to continue to uphold the high moral and ethical principles that he so deeply cherished and ingrained in me since my early years.
Law can be a very fulfilling and intellectually satisfying profession. It governs every aspect of our lives and I am ever so grateful to the Bar and the Bench in India for giving me this unique opportunity. I also express my gratitude to my lawyer friends overseas for their constant support and encouragement.
I may be permitted to close this piece with a beautiful quotation from Edmund Burke: this, to my mind, epitomises and conveys a stirring message for International Women’s Day:
“It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”
† BA LLB (Hons.), University of Bombay, India.
Practising as an Advocate in the Supreme Court of India, the Delhi High Court, and all Courts and Tribunals in Delhi, India; Admitted as an Advocate on the Bar Council of Maharashtra, 17-10-1980, later transferred to the Bar Council of Delhi on 20-10-1997; Admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales on 3-3-1997; (since 2009, this qualification is known as a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales); Notary, Government of India, 19-7-1999.