Her Forum is a platform and community for women in law. Their aim is to build a strong community to foster networking, meaningful conversations and peer-to-peer learning.
The Women in Law Series by Her Forum on Lawctopus is a series of interviews with leading female lawyers. Her Forum has interviewed several of India’s finest female lawyers on their platform, which we hope will inspire the journey of other women.
The second in this series is the interview with Nandini Khaitan. Ms. Khaitan is a partner in the Dispute Resolution team of Khaitan & Co., and is currently based in Calcutta. She did her LLM from Columbia Law School, and has represented clients in the Supreme Court, Calcutta High Court and Bombay High Court amongst others.
Excerpts from the interview with Ms. Khaitan have been reproduced below.
Watch the full interview HERE.
Question 1: You were the first woman in your family in 90 years to join the law profession. How did that come about? How did you make that decision?
“I sort of grew up just thinking that I wanted to be a lawyer.
I had no idea why I thought that. I was in lower infant when we were asked to draw you know what we wanted to be when we grow up—I drew a black robe and my teachers thought it was a witch’s cloak. And I was like no, that is a lawyer’s robe.
I mean I can’t give you a reason as to what made me think that. It was just something I wanted to do since childhood. I guess I grew up seeing my dad, my grandfather and uncles (we all live in the same house) stepping out in the morning in their black jackets so I think it kind of grew from there”
Question 2: There are so many more women lawyers, women in law school. But, the issue still lies at the top where there are still a very few number of women in the top positions.
I’m wondering if you see this changing? And if you have seen whether at your time at your firm or other firms where people are making structural changes to help that change in the future?
“To answer your question, it has got to do more with the number of women who were studying law earlier and the number of women studying law now.
As the numbers were much smaller, the infrastructure was not around to accommodate the flexibility that was needed for women sometimes.
Many women tend to leave the career mid-way for family obligations and then they don’t tend to come back. Some do come back but a lot of them don’t. So the problem was the retention at the top level because not many women carried on with their career graph.”
“As far as changes within the system is concerned, I think that just in terms of the fact that there are more women working now, more will get promoted, more will make it to the top. It’s just sheer numbers.”
“The Maternity Act in India is one of the most progressive with 26 weeks of paid leave. Work from home has become an absolute reality thanks to the lockdown. But even earlier on law firms, at least, were giving that flexibility to women for some days. Things are only on the up and rise so it’s going to get better.”
“There is a study that showed only 15% of the top management of law firms were women. That’s changed, that’s definitely changed.”
Question 3: Have you ever felt there is an ecosystem where you need to prove yourself a lot more even though you may be working as well?
“You know one of my uncle’s had told me this story when he started off with the firm and his father was the partner. He didn’t get work for a good year. He just wrote articles to get his name out.
Whatever he did was somewhat on the lines of pro bono—writing articles and giving lectures to be known. I think those things happen to a lot of people and not just women.
But yes, having said that, Zia did have that struggle. I mean I have heard that as well. Definitely women do find it difficult to get work day one because they tend to not be taken seriously.
The trouble is also when women are leading matters, that is also when they face trouble. It is not just when they are starting out because the clients are used to men in leadership positions. That’s when it becomes even more difficult. I have had situations where people have asked me if the senior partner is joining in. But you learn to just take it with a pinch of salt and move on. At the cost of repetition, it is the cost of not seeing many women”
“Personally if you ask me I have not faced this. But, I have faced this in another way. Calcutta, for example, has conferences in the night. 9pm or 10pm or midnight. I don’t want to be out that late on the road. Those are challenges which are specific to a city. But it is a roadblock for a woman. She wouldn’t want to be out that late. And if you don’t give her the job because you don’t want her out that late as a team member then you are depriving her of a good matter.”
Question 4: Since you are into litigation, although it is your work that should be of primary importance, a lot of women have been told how to dress, probably not to wear as much makeup, or leave their hair open. I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on this?
“I think let me start off by saying it is good that you said it is a litigation related question because the corporate firm culture does encourage women to be themselves to a large extent.
As far as litigation is concerned, I can share experiences that have happened with me over a period of time. I worked in Bombay for 10 years and I used to wear skirts and go to sessions courts which are criminal courts. And I used to be sitting on the same bench as under trials and convicts in my skirt. So I would have men staring.
I can say whatever that this should not be happening but it was happening. I wasn’t comfortable with it. I didn’t want to be stared at. So I had to change my way of dressing. I started wearing pants and salwar kameezs and all of that. I did it because I wasn’t comfortable being looked at in a certain way. There have been a lot of women who have held their ground and worn what they were comfortable with.”
“What I also figured out was that when we are in court we have 5 kgs of papers and are bending. And this and that. Dress comfortably. If you are comfortable in something, go for it. It should not be indecent in any way. And I think most of us are pretty sorted in many ways on how we want to be perceived so no one will go out and be over the top.”
“All that I would say in this regard. This is a tip in fact. When you go to court and when you are appearing if you make a mistake you don’t want to stand out. So, you know, be comfortable and do your best to be efficient in the way you are. If you are tugging your hair or pulling your skirt down you are not going to be comfortable.”
Question 5: I wanted to ask if there are milestones from your career that really stand out and come to mind for you?
“There have been various cases that have had various impacts and have been milestones.
Two or three come to mind immediately. The first is a trademark case that I did in the Bombay High Court. The law was something that had not been set before on service marks. Both, our sides and others, cited close to 150 judgments in total. And most were foreign judgments.
We won the case eventually. But, what i really learnt from that was how to look at judgments. Darius was leading us in that matter. The other side cited judgments which were very much on the point. He managed to distinguish them and show that they were not relevant.
So, what I really learnt as a junior was the importance of distinguishing judgments on facts. As a litigator, that is very important. And if you look at a judgment with a cool mind you can spot differences no matter how on point it looks. So things like that. So that case was very important for us. It was my first foreign client and it went on for a good six or seven months.”
Question 6: You’ve spoken about not taking yourself too seriously. What do you do to take your mind off work? Is it books you go to?
“I think all of us take time out. You can’t survive if you don’t. We love to complain that we don’t have time. It is more difficult for women with families and young children. There are no two ways about that.
It is a huge sacrifice for any personal time that they may have. At the end of the day we do survive because we take out time for ourselves. I love reading and so I take out a good amount of time every day to read. I have been coloring. These adult coloring books have become very popular, I have been doing it for 6-7 years. Yes, I have my hobbies outside work. I think most of us do. I think if you try to manage your time, it is very possible.”
Question 7: Is there anything you would like to say broadly for someone who is very early on in their career?
“This advice, if I can call it that, may seem very simple but it is the most important learning that I have. One of my seniors told me when I joined under him that his first job was to cut envelopes. He needed to do it properly so he did it with a scissor. The envelope had a receipt signed which got chopped off because he didn’t know better. And so they could not prove in the court when the document was received. And so he told me that no job is too small and everything is important in litigation. For that matter, anywhere. Learn to look at the smallest things because you are as strong as your weakest link.”
“I still look at pagination and photocopying and all of that. No job is too small. Everything is important. If it is your matter, you are responsible for everything.”
Question 8: Do you ever stop and think about your purpose at this point? Would it be to add value or a personal milestone or monetarily?
“It is quite serendipitous that you ask me this now because I hadn’t thought about it until a few months back. You know you get so caught up in the daily routine that you don’t sort of take a moment and pause and think. But this year I have with me because all of us have time.
We were having this discussion between a few partners. And you know what is important to me is that I should be a trusted advisor to a client. And if he/she has an issue, he/she just picks up the phone and calls. It is the proof that you have been helpful to someone in their lives. More than that is just a bonus.”
Question 9: I just wanted to ask you a few questions as a rapid fire:
- Who is your favorite woman author?
Ms. Khaitan:“I have a couple, like three or four, but to name two: (i) Jane Austen—I am absolutely in love with her writing; and (ii) J.K. Rowling because I am a Harry Potter fan.”
- What would be your favourite book of all time?
Ms. Khaitan:“It is a toss up between Pride and Prejudice and Perfectly Reasonable Deviations of the Beaten Track. It is an anthology of letters by Richard Feynman…”
- Your most inspiring fictional female character?
Ms. Khaitan: “In terms of movie, the role that Julia Roberts plays in Erin Brockovich. In books, I haven’t really thought this through. But, I think, the name that comes to me is Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.”
- Your favorite class that you took at Columbia?
Ms. Khaitan:“I was very lucky to be taught by Jane Ginsburg. She is the authority in the world perhaps, if not, America, on intellectual property. Her class on copyright and trademark was unbelievable.”
- Your best memory from your time in the US?
Ms. Khaitan: So I lived in this place called the International House which was a house for international students, though it did have Americans also. It had its own pub, own mess, libraries. It had its own park with a gazebo connected with a lawn. Every evening they would give out free food. And as students we could not afford much then. I-house really created an environment for camaraderie and for literally making friends throughout the whole world.”
- What keeps you motivated?
Ms. Khaitan: “That is a hard one. I think what keeps me motivated is that I have two nieces and I keep seeing what they are reading and learning. I think the world is so much of a better place than it was before. Slavery is abolished. Sati is abolished. There are women’s rights coming in. Women’s education is so important. I see the changes from my lifetime to theirs. Forget something that far. So I keep thinking things are only going to get better for all of us.”