In this edition of the Working Title series, Bar and Bench caught up with Naga Lakshmi Bhagavatula, an Indian qualified lawyer who is currently a legal professional in the United States.
Lakshmi is a Kuchipudi dancer who has performed over 600 stage shows in India and in the US and runs a dance academy called Purna Mudra, where she trains children as young as 3 years old as well as folks over 50 years of age.
Most recently, Lakshmi got her short story "Vaaruni" published in 'Kaleidoscope', a collection of short stories that feature 22 Indian writers. The book is published by Inkspire Press.
Having worked as an in-house lawyer at Infosys for close to three years after graduating from ILS Pune, Lakshmi did her LL.M. in Business laws from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and shifted to Seattle in 2016 to restart her career as a legal professional in the US.
In conversation with Bar & Bench, Lakshmi speaks about why she chose law, how she balances her many hobbies and interests with her legal practice, and much more.
Edited excerpts follow.
What made you choose law?
I chose law at a point in time when I knew I did not want to do Engineering or Medicine. I was really interested in Journalism, but it didn't feel like the right time to pursue it as a full-time vocation. I decided that I can always have it as a part-time engagement if I continued to be interested in the field. So I chose law because it was closer to what I would be interested in exploring.
How did you manage to find time for your varied interests and hobbies during law school and once you stepped into the profession?
I studied at ILS Pune, which was one of the best decisions I took ,given the amount of time and space it gave me to do what I wanted to without feeling the pressure to follow the crowd. I was not much into moot courts, and that gave me time to pursue dance, which has always been a continuing interest for me. I knew my priorities all along and was also fortunate to have gotten the chance to give dance performances in and outside Pune as well. Out of the many months of vacation we had as students, I always made sure to intern only once for a month during the summer of each year. The other time was dedicated to dance; so I did only 5 out of the customary 10 internships that everyone else had.
My internships were calculated moves and deliberately diverse so I could gauge what it would be like when I began working after graduation. So I worked with an NGO, a lawyer, at law firms and in-house at Dr Reddy's. My in-house experience made me gravitate towards wanting to join a company as an in-house lawyer so I get the time to pursue my other interests. Infosys was always among the foremost of companies I wanted to work at as a lawyer. Since I had all weekends to myself, it gave me the chance to do whatever I wanted, as also being able to do what I wanted to during the evenings after work.
How was your experience at Infosys?
It was great! I wouldn't have wanted to start my career in any other way. Initially I was on an amazing rotation period, where I got to work in all the sectors of the business verticals like in the Corporate team, Contracts, Insurance, IP, etc. After 3 months of working in each department, I could choose which department I wanted to work with, based on my interest. That was a great opportunity for me as a fresher right out of law school. I really enjoyed my time working in the Contracts and Compliance departments. I worked with the Chief Risk Officer, and the EU and US Contracts team, among others. If one ever gets to be in a rotation program in the early years out of law school, definitely opt for it. It gave me immense clarity on why I chose what I am currently engaged in.
How is working as an in-house counsel in India different from being an in-house lawyer in the United States?
I did my Masters in the US - that gave me the confidence to come back here and figure out what I wanted to do. When I moved to Seattle after marriage, I aspired to be with Amazon, since it is headquartered in Seattle. I figured Amazon has a position for a Contract Manager which was similar to the Corporate Counsel profile I had at Infosys. Since my time in India was very limited, I may not be in a place to compare, but I think the kind of autonomy I had on work was more in the US than in India. So it was more a cultural difference than anything about the legal profession.
Take us through the inception of each of your hobbies, and also about your debut on Amazon Prime.
This is my most interesting topic [laughs]. I started dancing over 30 years ago. What started as my mom's dream became my passion. I used to dance every day till 12th grade. When I shifted to Pune for law school, there was some inevitable break in dance class, etc. But I still managed to keep at it during all the months I would go back home. When I moved to Bangalore, I didn't take any classes. I was still practicing dance and giving performances whenever I had the chance. So my breakthrough in teaching dance happened when I moved to Hyderabad, where I taught about 10 children in my apartment. That was a great start and I am still in touch with those students.
I had to nonetheless discontinue that class while shifting to the US. So it was only once my dance teacher found me ready to teach that I started taking classes, since it is a big responsibility to teach the right thing. Even after shifting to the US, I always knew that I had to also settle with my dance classes. If getting a job was a priority, starting dance class was equally important for me. I started teaching a small group of 4 students at a temple nearby even before getting settled with my full-time job. I now have my own academy called Poorna Mudra - School of Kuchipudi Dance, with about 50 students. My evenings are dedicated to taking classes.
On the acting front, it was a beautiful opportunity that knocked on my door when I moved to Seattle. I love to do anything that is in the space of performing arts. There are a bunch of extremely passionate folks I am surrounded by who are great at film production, acting, etc. They make me feel that there should never be a point when you have to leave something to pursue an offbeat opportunity. It was when I bumped into a couple who were engaged in film and web series production, that I first featured as a guest actor in a web series. This eventually gave me the opportunity to feature in a web series of my own called Ruk Ruk Rukmini Rusarusalu, with 8 episodes released on Amazon Prime pre-pandemic. Being in Seattle, there are a host of events that take place for artists; this gives me the opportunity to network and host some events as an emcee.
Did you ever feel like you were compromising on your hobbies, given how demanding the legal profession can sometimes get, or vice versa?
I don't want to say I'm not devoting time to my hobbies 'because of' my profession. That would be an excuse for not putting enough time. Right from my Amazon days, I have come to know that if you are sure of what you are doing and put those priorities out there, you generally will not get push back from your workplace. Even at my interview stage, I would with pride share my many hobbies and also some links to my dance shows, etc, and I always carved out the time to pursue my interests. So long as you get the work done, you should be given the freedom to do whatever you want outside of work. So my legal profession never came in my way, or vice-versa. I am even thankful that I was always associated with workplaces that never made me compromise on what is so important for me.
I was always sure dance was not to be my sole bread earner - my teaching dance is also to keep my interest in the art form alive. So I keep it to the extent I can, without overburdening myself. So all in all, there was never a conflict between my time as a legal professional and as a dancer, actor or blogger.
What has it been like over the last 2 years since you became a mother?
Nothing for me as a person has changed. Motherhood has definitely taught me a lot, especially in terms of balancing better with my child, my legal profession and other activities. The sense of responsibility and trying to manage things in such a way where I don't get overwhelmed has increased a lot. I need to fill my cup before I nurture my child, so all that I do for myself is equally important so that I am happy. I am glad places are opening up now, so my child gets to see me taking physical classes, attend my dance shows, etc. I don't want her to grow up with the belief that home is the only place to be and that one can do multiple things at a time. So for me, it has been about being able to pursue what I want and think beyond motherhood so that I don't lose myself as a person.
What advice would you give lawyers or law students who want to pursue their passions?
We are all first presented with an opportunity to choose and list our priorities with work and our varied interests. The legal profession is such that you can choose to specialize in one thing right from the beginning. For example, in law school, I had an option to either fill my CV with 10+ internships in 5 years or stay calculated and balance my duties and interests. Even after starting work, the rotation program at Infosys gave me the opportunity to explore different teams and choose my area of preference at work.
So for law students or fresh graduates, after you enter the profession, while making a choice between in-house and litigation, think what you want to do and figure out how to prioritize. If you feel like working in a law firm would demand more hours from you, which will not allow you to pursue other hobbies, you can cut it out. But you will also invariably cut out on the salary that you could potentially get at a law firm. So balancing and prioritizing what you want is important.
When I made the decision, I was aware that I wouldn't earn as much or my career progression would be slower as compared to if I chose the law firm path. But dance has always been a priority for me, so it is best to prioritize and make peace with your priorities.
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