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Vinati Kastia was recently named in India Inc’s Rising Women Leaders 2015, the only lawyer to make it to the list. Despite always wanting to be a lawyer, Vinati Kastia says that she hadn’t really planned a future in corporate law. As a law student and even after graduating, her ambition was to become a litigating lawyer.
Fate, however, deemed otherwise.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer. There was never a doubt.”
Barely ten years old, Vinati Kastia once wrote an essay in school declaring her ambition to become a lawyer.
“It was quite strange since I don’t come from a family of lawyers. In Ahmedabad, I grew up in a colony that had many lawyers with big houses and big cars (laughs). So maybe I was very fascinated.”
Eight years later, she ended up studying law at NLSIU in Bangalore. The 1996 graduate says that those five years were a great learning experience. In more ways than one.
“It was a different experience to live with so many people from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, different perspectives. It teaches you a lot. And you make friends for life.”
When she graduated in 1996, Vinati Kastia didn’t accept any offers made to her during campus recruitment as most of the positions offered were either in Delhi or Mumbai. She was then engaged to be married and both she and her fiancée had decided to settle down in Bangalore. However, when she graduated there were only limited options in Bangalore. She was amongst the very few from her batch without any job after campus recruitment.
It was then that she and her fiancée jointly decided to move to Delhi. He took a transfer from Bangalore’s Dua Associates to their Delhi office and Amarchand’s Delhi office was looking for someone to join their litigation team, so it all worked out well. In 1996, Vinati Kastia joined the litigation team at Amarchand Mangaldas. Less than two years later, she would make the switch to non-litigation.
Talking about the switch, Vinati Kastia half-jokingly says that the decision was more about her “blatant” lack of focus. In 1997, while part of the litigation team, she was asked to work with the corporate team on a big infrastructure project. Even after court resumed, she continued working with the corporate team. Soon thereafter, she approached Shardul Shroff, who convinced her that she should be doing non-litigation work.
“I think that was one of the best decisions that I have taken under his guidance. I have never looked backed since then.”
And she has no regrets.
She was made Partner in just seven years, and soon moved to a firm that was then known as Ajay Bahl & Co. Kastia says that this was the second career defining moment of her life.
Up for a new challenge
Kastia says that the initial few months at Ajay Bahl & Co. were tough, but also fun. The shift to a smaller firm meant a lot more work, and the excitement of working with a growing organisation once again.
“There was so much to do. I ended up working on so many different things. We were a much leaner organisation. I started working on tax matters, litigation, private equity, a lot of advisory work. While I was in Amarchand I had a fairly large team to lead and I think I could have easily headed into complacency.
So initially when I joined I had to prove myself first. It was a struggle but it was great fun. Once again, I was a part of a growing organisation. It has its challenges but it is also very exciting.”
Distinguishing between incompetence and discrimination
Our conversation veers towards the work environment at law firms and the increasing openness with which gender-based discrimination is discussed. On her part, Kastia says that she has never faced this kind of discrimination.
“I have worked in two organisations and both Amarchand Mangaldas and AZB & Partners are very women centric. So I have never faced any discrimination but I am aware that it does happen.
While I have never experienced any discrimination at my work place, I have to admit that the same may not apply when we step out to deal with the outside world. In my earlier days I did feel that some clients were a little dismissive of a woman. You had to sometimes prove a little more than your male colleague would have to. But if you are good at your work, sooner or later people get it. Women should be able to differentiate between competence issues and discrimination.”
Signature mantra – Keep an open mind
Ask her about her special traits as a negotiating lawyer, and she says,
“I always get into a negotiation with an open mind. I feel that the maximum learning we get is from our clients and people we negotiate against. So one has to walk into negotiations with an open mind. While my primary focus is always to protect the interest of my client, I do not like to adopt a style that is offensive or needlessly aggressive. Whenever I have been aggressive in negotiations I ask myself later if it was really needed. Sometimes it is needed but often I conclude that it isn’t. One should negotiate with the objective of getting the counterparty to think of you as his future lawyer. When I got this recognition, the first congratulatory call that I got was from someone I had negotiated against years back. This really meant a lot to me.”
Kastia says that to be a successful corporate lawyer, what you need more than anything else is an open mind. That and common sense.
“The law is something we anyway have to continue learning every day. But without an open mind and common sense, we won’t know how to apply the law.”
Ask her who her role model is, and Kastia says that she chooses not to have anyone specific as a role model.
“I do not have a role model because that’s really confining yourself. I do like to pick qualities from people that I come across, they could be older, younger, people in my team, or they could be clients or counterparties.”
When it comes to mentors, Kastia is quite clear that one of the people who have had a significant impact on her is AZB & Partners Managing Partner Ajay Bahl.
“I have worked a lot with him, learnt a lot from him. He is a friend, philosopher and a guide.”
Integrity above all else
After nearly two decades in the profession, Kastia does have some valuable advice for those in their early years at a firm.
“Every lawyer who enters a law firm from whichever law school, should enter on the basis that she knows nothing. Everything has to be learnt from scratch. If you come into a firm with a “know it all” mind-set, it’s not going to take you very far.
A positive attitude is very important. Integrity tops the list because as corporate lawyers you are dealing with very sensitive information, so you have to have a lot of integrity. And of course, hard work. However smart one is, there is no great future in this profession without hard work. With a positive attitude, integrity and willingness to work hard, even persons with average intelligence can really do well in this profession.”
A true leader
Coming back to her recent inclusion in the list of 25 rising women leaders, Kastia says that her team has played an invaluable role. And this is not an attempt at modesty, rather a reflection of what Kastia truly believes in.
“To be a leader – there are two sets of people that matter. One who have led you because obviously you have learnt from them and other set of people are the ones you are leading. This recognition is actually theirs.”