BY MONICA BEHURA IN THE ECONOMIC TIMES
Time was when women had no choice but to play Della Street to Perry Mason, but Street Legal has changed a lot in these last few decades, even in India Women are now leading practitioners in all fields of law, but some branches do see more women than others, such as corporate, civil and family law. Others, only the very brave venture into. Criminal law is one such. The pitfalls are many there, as women lawyers run the risk of appearing too ‘soft’ or too ‘vociferous,’ too aggressive, or not aggressive enough. Supreme Court lawyer Rebecca Mammen John was also thought to be not tough enough to handle criminals and the stress of the courtroom. “Eyebrows were raised when I chose to be a criminal lawyer but that’s where my passion lay,” declares John, 40.
“It’s all about the right representation of the facts, delivered with pure conviction in front of the judges and opponents,” says John, who started litigating in 1988. Just four years into her chosen field, she had a major breakthrough when she fought Harshad Mehta’s criminal cases in Delhi. “Dealing with the police and criminals is the biggest challenge as a woman in this branch of law,” she says. However, according to her, it is fascinating to see the various facets of human emotions unfolding through the stages of a criminal trial. “Corporate, civil and constitutional law cases just do not have the same human element,” says John, who believes that there has been an attitudinal shift in women choosing law as profession. She adds that the good news is “whether in the corridors of the court or in the trial room there is no glass ceiling for women any more!” Counting Ram Jethmalani as mentor, she has a slew of important corporate clients such as Coca Cola, Reckitt Benckiser, SAIL, and Ispat among others. When not in court she loves to decorate her home and spend time with her son.
Priya Hingorani, 42, took to constitutional law as a duck to water as law ran in her blood. “Since my parents were lawyers we always had dinner table discussions on cases. The difference they made to people’s lives, inspired me to work for those denied basic constitutional rights,” says Hingorani, the first woman honorary secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 1999 and its youngest vice president 2005. Her first major victory was the Shahina Bano case in 1991, about a woman who was forced into prostitution by her in-laws because she had given birth to a baby girl. “In numerous cases I fought, I found that the police were the culprits….As a woman, dealing with that was an ordeal,” says Hingorani, at present fighting for the 40,000 PSU employees in Bihar who have not been paid their salaries for a decade.
She has also fought for the rights of patients in Ranchi Mental Hospital who were denied basic medication. “It is a role-model hospital now. We made sure it is,” says Hingorani, justifiably proud of her achievements, adding, “If I hadn’t become a lawyer, I would’ve been an IPS officer….Or maybe a sportsperson, as I was a basketball star in school!” Equally courageous was the plunge taken by Maushami Joshi in 2001, as a newbie National Law School grad with a degree in international trade law. From 1994 India had been at the receiving end as countries filed cases against Indian exporters. India had not yet formulated trade policies and legal expertise in that field was scarce. “I was there at the right time at the right place,” says the 33-year-old who joined Luthra & Luthra as an associate. “This area was dominated by government officials or very experienced lawyers. Besides, very few law firms had started the practice so it was new and challenging,” says Joshi, recalling that dealing with ministry officials was the toughest part.
“At first nobody took me seriously: They preferred to talk to my male colleagues! I had to build rapport and convince them with my work!” Joshi ended up heading the practice in the firm, and has advised the government on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the EU, Japan and EFTA. Currently advising the government on WTO compatibility of customs seizures by Dutch authorities against generic medicines from India, she counts basketball as her stress buster.