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Madhavi Divan is one of only three women to have held the office of Additional Solicitor General of India.
In this Women’s Day special, we asked her what explains poor women’s representation at the Bar, the challenges she faced as a young mother trying to establish herself in the profession, and more.
Was it always going to be the law for you?
Most definitely not. I come from a family of very diverse interests, but law was never in the picture. It was a shot in the dark, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I had never interned while at law school, never done any moots, and in fact, I never even entered a court room before I received my law degree.
I was fortunate enough to gain a place in Cambridge’s Tripos program, but if you asked me to get through a five-year program at one of the National Law Schools, I don’t think I would have made it through! It would have been much too much for me.
Can you tell us about your time at Janak Dwarkadas' chambers? What were some of the significant takeaways from your time there?
I was in Bombay interning at the offices of a family friend. He, however, one day, told me, 'You will get thoroughly bored here so I have spoken to Mr Janak Dwarkadas and I think you will benefit from a stint at his chambers'.
I didn’t know who he was back then. In fact, he wasn’t even a designated senior back then. He did have a thriving commercial practice. I told the family friend that I didn’t want to be at the Bombay High Court and was quite happy where I was; to which he said I have already called him, so the least you can do is call him and tell him you won't be turning up.
I therefore called him, but he was so busy that even before I could have my say, he said meet me at such and such time at the Bombay High Court library and just hung up, leaving me no option but to go.
In the first few months, we hardly communicated; he was extremely busy rushing from one court to another and since his chamber was under renovation, we had no place to go back to after court.
As far as takeaways go, I think being involved in conferences and sub-consciously learning the art of how to approach a problem was very important. I didn’t really think about it back then, but with the benefit of hindsight, I see what I gained from these conferences.
The other thing was drafting. I was reasonably good at it, so some work came my way and it was really challenging because these were pleadings on the original side, and therefore involved a lot of strategizing. It was fun to the impact of the backroom work on the outcome of a matter.
I also learned the rigours of written submission in that chamber.
All in all, I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with him; I consider myself his junior to this day.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a young woman in the profession?
For the first 20 of my 25 years at the Bar, my gender was my biggest liability. In the last five or so years, I think with things changing, it has become an asset. It arouses interest.
As a young woman at the Bombay Bar, I was told that I needed to be at the Bombay High Court library at a certain time in the afternoon, sitting at a certain table, because that was when clerks from law firms would come around offering small briefs.
There would usually be seven or eight of us at the table and very often I was the only woman. At the assigned time, clerks would come around, and irrespective of the order in which we were seated it would only be after all the men had said no that I would be approached, “as a counsel of last resort”.
Even to this day, I think things have changed little. I was addressing a gathering of women lawyers at the Bombay High Court a few months ago, and when I looked at a list of 60 lawyers who had applied for designation, there were only two women on the list.
I think this shows both the state of affairs and also a phenomenal lack of self-belief.
Even in my early days at the Bar, there wasn’t a single woman whom one could describe as a role model. All my role models were men.
"For the first 20 of my 25 years at the Bar, my gender was my biggest liability. In the last five or so years, I think with things changing, it has become an asset."
Three years down the line, I became a parent and three months later, I came back; and considered this very efficient turnaround time.
When I came back ,the briefs that I held - I didn’t have a lot of volume but I had quality - had naturally been redistributed to other counsel.
It took five months for a new brief to arrive, and I was there every single day, pretty much all day. I felt sorry for myself at the time, but looking back, I don’t blame the solicitors. A solicitor has to look at the interests of several different people, and if you had a choice why would you chose a woman who was beset with all kinds of domestic responsibilities?
What would advice would you have for a young woman who has just stepped out of law school and into the real world?
It is a competitive world and things are definitely harder for women, but I think things are getting better. However, tenacity is key, and women need to stay patient and hang in there a lot longer.
Also, one of the things that they don’t teach you at law school is how your gender will impact your profession, and I certainly had no inkling of this. I think mentoring in this area is crucial.
The challenges of juggling between career and a family is something which we as women need to talk about, and it is possible. I see a lot of women just fall off the ladder and opt out of the profession just as they are beginning to blossom, and this need not happen if they are given correct guidance at the right time.
Importantly, I think we should stop feeling sorry for ourselves because we are women. Your merit must speak for itself. I think the challenge out there, and the biggest test, is going to be whether women can in the next decade or so reach a stage where they become first choices for a briefing advocate. And for that to happen, you have just got to keep delivering every single time.
"The challenges of juggling between career and a family is something which we as women need to talk about, and it is possible."