Ms Anuja Pethia is the founding partner of Swarnim Partners and Associates and an Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court of India. She is the Standing Counsel (Jr.) for the Income Tax Department and Panel Lawyer for the State of Madhya Pradesh before the Supreme Court and an Ex-Bureaucrat.
Her area of expertise differs from criminal law, consumer litigation, and family law to Intellectual Property Rights, insolvency, cyber law, arbitration, etc. including workplace equality law as well as anti- sexual harassment laws. Here, we had a conversation with Ms. Anuja Pethia on her journey so far from being a government servant to a litigation professional.
1. Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself, and your first few years in this profession.
I started my journey in the legal profession after completing my BA LLB (Hons.) from the National Law Institute University, Bhopal (NLIU) in 2013. Afterwards, I obtained my LLM degree in International Crime and Justice from the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), Turin, Italy and graduated-cum-laude. Upon my return to India, I cleared the All-India Civil Services Examination in 2015 and joined the Government of India as Assistant Director.
As a civil servant, I was part of the Indian Corporate Law Service (ICLS) under the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. I was posted at the office of Regional Director (North Zone) in New Delhi, where I gained valuable exposure and experience over a rewarding two-year tenure.
Starting from December 2018, I have been actively pursuing my legal career as a practitioner and managing my law firm i.e. Swarnim Partners and Associates since the past few years.
My initial years were a significant learning curve, transitioning from a law school student to a civil servant to a legal practitioner. During this time, I focused on building a strong foundation in various aspects of law and honed my research and advocacy skills. It was a period of growth and development that laid the groundwork for my career in litigation and dispute resolution.
2. What qualities of who you are today have you inherited from your time in law school?
NLIU played a very important role in shaping my character, professional ethos and work ethic. What I remember most of all from NLIU was the competitive nature of the degree. The college is full of very bright and highly motivated students who are keen to make a mark in the legal profession.
A competitive and intellectually stimulating environment really shaped my work ethic. NLIU helped me develop a strong foundation in law and played a crucial role in my metamorphosis from thinking like a lay person to thinking like a lawyer.
3. Can you share with us your experience thus far working in various fields of litigation?
I was fortunate to get the opportunity to work at the chambers of Ms Vanshaja Shukla who is an NLIU alumni and an Advocate-on-Record. Since she is the Standing Counsel for the State of Uttarakhand, I got to work on a wide variety of matters touching upon every aspect of government functioning.
I strongly feel that in the initial phase of one’s career as a litigator, the office that one works at plays a very crucial role. At this stage, by getting involved in assisting a senior, the junior advocate learns the skills of advocacy through observation. With experience, one gets an opportunity to trust one’s own judgment which gives a young litigator confidence in one’s own abilities. This confidence in one’s own abilities and the experience, gained over time, is crucial in success as an independent litigator.
Over my professional journey, first as a junior and now as an independent litigator, I have gotten opportunities of working in various fields of law, including service law, consumer law, taxation, land acquisition laws, commercial/contractual matters, criminal matters and constitutional matters, among others. I have also developed a keen interest in the domain of insolvency and bankruptcy matters.
This diverse experience has enriched my understanding of the various legal domains and allowed me to adapt to different challenges. Representing clients in the Supreme Court of India, and various tribunals such as NCLT, NCLAT, and High Courts has been both professionally rewarding and personally fulfilling.
4. When do you think a law student should decide on a specialty or professional path? What qualities should one cultivate to become a great litigator like yourself?
While I am proud of what I have achieved so far, I feel that I still have a long long way to go to even come close to my heroines in the profession such as Justice Leila Seth or Justice Hima Kohli. Additionally, it is my mother who inspires me the most.
I feel that it is not appropriate for a law student to “choose a specialisation” as a law student. There are too many accidents of chance that will end up determining what field a person ends up working in. Take my own case as an example, I completed my master’s in International Humanitarian Law, whereas my current practice does not touch upon the field of my specialisation in any manner. With some patience and hard work, one can become a specialist in any field of law.
Any time that I am confronted with a new field of law and feel intimidated, I think back about my time in law school, where I actively took part in moot courts. Each moot court problem I encountered, would be about a niche field of law that was completely unknown to me. However, through focused preparation and hard work I would be able to master that field of law in a relatively short period and even had some modest success in the moot court circuit.
As a lawyer one needs to constantly upskill and learn. In my opinion, the most important skill for a lawyer is what the Germans call Sitzfleisch or “sitting flesh” i.e., the ability to sit for long hours in a chair and keep going at a problem till you figure it out. That apart, law is common sensical and anyone can figure anything out with basic legal training.
As a student, work on developing your legal acumen and aptitude. You can then seize on any opportunity that comes your way and become a master.
5. What experiences shaped your interests into the area you are currently practicing in?
As I said before, my field of practice chose me and not the other way around.
I decided I had to become an AOR, when I was practising in the Supreme Court. I think it is a very important certification for a litigator since it is a recognition of one’s skill set by the Supreme Court. I remember wanting to become an AOR as soon as I came to know about it. I was fortunate to realise the dream in July 2022.
I think one should always be ready to take a roll of the dice whenever any opportunity arises. As a young litigator, especially a first-generation litigator, one cannot pick and choose opportunities or reject an opportunity because it does not relate to one’s specialisation.
I remember that there was a time when I did not know anything about service law, however when I worked on a few matters I was able to get a hang of the subject. Till this day, the most fulfilling professional achievement for me has been when the Supreme Court passed an order directing the Central Government to reinstate my clients back in service 22 years after they had been illegally terminated. I never thought a service law matter would give me an opportunity to use my skills to make such a big impact in someone’s life.
Apart from that, my life experiences have also made me believe that employers need to do more to create equal and safe workspaces so that more and more women join the workforce. I am a certified professional in the law on prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. I have also set up a consultancy named Equal+, which helps organisations meet their compliance requirements under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act. I also serve as the independent external member on the Internal Complaints Committees of a mix of private and public organisations.
6. People, especially budding lawyers, are very vocal about equality and safety of women. What according to you are some common misconceptions amongst them and what are your suggestions to resolve it?
The field of law is still far from equal for women. For instance, just last month the Supreme Court had to come out with a handbook on combating gender stereotypes in the field of law to address this issue. Female litigators also face several hurdles that our male peers do not. These hurdles are the reason why women are underrepresented in the higher echelons of the legal profession i.e. as Judges in the constitutional courts and as Senior Counsels.
However, I strongly believe that women have come quite far from where they were just a generation ago. This is because of the trailblazing work done by female litigators of the previous generations. Female litigators of today truly stand on the shoulders of giants. Take for instance the story of Justice Leila Seth. In her autobiography, “On Balance” she recounts how even as a seasoned tax litigator with several years of practice, some of her clients would require her senior to sign off on her opinion because they could not trust a female lawyer. Fortunately, one does not face such issues today. There has never been a better time for a woman to join the profession, even as we have miles to go to achieve true equality.
7. Recently, Senior Advocate of Supreme Court, Indira Jaising wrote a letter to CJI flagging gender parity issues in the courtroom and in the Bar. What are your views on that?
Ms Indira Jaising is one of the most respected Senior Counsels in the country and her contributions in institution building are just as significant as her contributions to the development of law. She has also played a very big role in making the Supreme Court a better workplace for women.
I remember someone once told me that a few decades ago, female advocates who were trying to balance their law practice and domestic responsibilities had no option but to bring their children to the Supreme Court with them. However, the Supreme Court had no spaces where the mothers could leave their children when they were attending matters. Female lawyers used to sit out in the lawns in front of the court with their children. One cannot even imagine how they coped in the sun or on days that it rained. It was Ms Jaising, I am told, who took steps to get the first creche in the Supreme Court so that women could balance the demands placed on them with dignity.
I do not have count of how many times I have heard sexist remarks coming not only from members of the Bar but regrettably, even from the Bench. I distinctly recall a matter in one of the tribunals where the Judge told a party that had been less than honest, “Sir, you are pretending to be a wife, but in reality, you are a concubine.” I remember being stunned at hearing something so unacceptable fall from the Bench.
In another case, I remember the Bench asking a female homebuyer whether she had asked her husband or brother for investment advice before booking a flat in a now-insolvent real estate company. The woman informed the Bench that she was a widow and had booked the flat from her own savings without any advice. The Bench then told her that women are emotional and should always take the advice of male members of the family before investing.
Every female member of the Bar will have her own stories to tell in this regard.
Having said that, I believe that the Bar and the Bench are just a reflection of the society. One must be realistic and reasonable when it comes to such things. Outrage alone cannot achieve anything. Institutions evolve gradually and with time. I believe that things will improve further for women as more and more women join the profession.
Even though one does come across such instances, the legal profession has also given women the chance to shine. The legal service industry is constantly engaging with these issues. I know it fails women miserably at times, however, it also gives women never-seen-before opportunities to make a name for themselves as professionals. Just as I am aware that things are not as bad as they were decades ago, I am equally aware that they will be much better in the years to follow. I remain hopeful.
8. You cleared UPSC and had a job in the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. Then why did you switch to litigation which is not as secure as a government job?
While a government job does offer job security, my passion for advocacy and the desire to make a meaningful impact in the field of law led me to choose the path of litigation. The legal profession provides an advocate a platform for seeking justice, representing clients, and shaping legal outcomes. It is a career that allows me to apply my legal knowledge and skills in a dynamic and challenging environment.
While it may not offer the same level of job security as a government servant, the fulfilment and professional growth that litigation provides is immensely rewarding. I also like the freedom that comes with being one’s own boss, which is not there in a government job.
9. You manage so many things altogether from being the Standing Counsel of the IT Department to being the founding partner of Swarnim Partners. Please advise our young lawyers as to how they can manage their time and be extra productive.
Time management and productivity are crucial in the legal profession, especially when juggling with multiple responsibilities. My advice to young lawyers is to prioritise tasks, set clear goals, and create a well-structured schedule. Most importantly, keep your head down and work hard to develop your craft.
I recommend a continuous commitment to expanding your knowledge base. Given that the legal field is in a constant state of evolution, it is crucial to remain current with the latest developments and updates. Another vital piece of guidance for emerging lawyers is to exercise patience on their journey to success. Expecting immediate triumph in this demanding profession can lead to frustration. However, with unwavering dedication and persistent effort, they can gradually achieve their objectives and leave a lasting, positive imprint on society. Lastly, maintaining a healthy work-life balance is vital for long-term productivity and well-being.
10. Is there anything you would like to share with our readers?
The legal profession offers immense opportunities to make a positive impact on society. Never stop learning and evolving in your legal journey, and always uphold the highest ethical standards.