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Smashing the ceiling

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As one of few female Asians to run an international law firm in London, Pavani Reddy has risen to the top of her profession. She speaks to Duncan Wood about the challenges of being made partner before the age of 30, taking on troublesome cases, and breaking the glass ceiling

One of the foremost Asian women lawyers in the UK, Pavani Reddy’s journey to managing City law firm Zaiwalla & Co was a challenging one. ‘It was tough to begin with, both socially and culturally. I studied and qualified as an advocate in India, but I never practised there,’ Reddy explains. ‘I actually went to the UK for my LL.M, although I never embarked upon it.’ Reddy instead secured an apprenticeship with Zaiwalla & Co in 2003, and never looked back.

I think things have changed for the better since the time I decided to pursue law. More and more women are pursuing law as a career option today. Just from my own experience, I see far more ethnic minority lawyers in court today than I did back in 2003

Pavani Reddy

Zaiwalla & Co was established by international lawyer Sarosh Zaiwalla in 1982, the first Asian to set up a law firm in the City. It specialises in international commercial arbitration and litigation, with a diverse client portfolio ranging from multinational companies and overseas governments to property magnates and ship owners. The firm has acted for several high-profile figures, including the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

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Pavani Reddy

‘It was a fascinating experience to come to a jurisdiction which is very well-known and respected around the world,’ Reddy recalls. ‘I had to work hard to understand the law here.’ Reddy was keen to specialise in international arbitration, and quickly found herself noticed by Sarosh Zaiwalla. ‘Only six months after qualifying, I was working on really big cases.’

Quickly making a name for herself, Reddy became partner just two years after qualifying. Reddy concedes that such a meteoric rise would be much more difficult in a larger firm. ‘Being in a small firm does have its advantages – whatever you’re putting in gets noticed far more easily – but I did also work extremely hard in those two years. I think Mr Zaiwalla was judging what my key strengths were, and didn’t want to lose me, which really motivated me to succeed.’

Being made partner while still in only her mid-20s brought its own challenges. ‘Foreign clients would ask me in meetings when the partner would be arriving. You can’t blame them – on serious cases, they were accustomed to dealing with senior people. But once I started talking about serious issues, their concerns would fall away because they could see that I was giving them quality advice and knew what I was talking about. If there were any client issues as to my age, they didn’t last long when they saw results.’

In 2007, Reddy was made managing partner of Zaiwalla & Co, taking over the reins of the business from Sarosh Zaiwalla – another significant career leap after only four years as a solicitor. Reddy learned the ropes on the job, and as a salaried partner already had a good grasp of the firm’s finances. ‘The big challenge was ensuring that the firm continued to run profitably. I had to change my mindset to continually think about how to bring more business in,’ says Reddy.

It’s clear that Zaiwalla remains an instrumental force in Reddy’s career. ‘He has been a great mentor and believes in equal opportunities for men and women,’ remarks Reddy. ‘I think fairly early on he knew he wanted Zaiwalla & Co to survive him. He didn’t see the business as a one-man show, and so I’d like to think it wasn’t too difficult handing things over to me.’ Reddy manages the business on every level, but she asks Zaiwalla, now a senior partner, for regular feedback on the key challenges and issues faced by the firm. ‘Fortunately, we haven’t really disagreed on much. On occasion, we have been proved wrong and he’s been right – that just comes from experience.’

Today, Reddy heads up the litigation team, handling multi-million pound arbitration and litigation matters involving energy, commodities, shipping, construction, company disputes and commercial issues. Her clients have included large Iranian private bank Bank Mellat and UK property tycoons Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz. How does Reddy balance the running of the business with a prolific caseload? ‘Managing a firm on its own is a full-time job, but there is a lawyer inside me who doesn’t want to rest,’ she says. ‘It’s very important to have my own caseload, as otherwise you lose sight of priorities.’ Zaiwalla & Co takes over a lot of cases from bigger firms midstream, so it’s essential that she takes an interest in all cases the firm handles. ‘Most of these clients have been dissatisfied with the partner-level support they were getting at their previously-instructed firm, the fee, or the way their case was handled. When we take over a case with high levels of client dissatisfaction, it’s really important that I analyse the case, and spend a lot of time with the client to understand their concerns. If I don’t understand the case, I can’t really handle the client.’

High-level client management is crucial for a boutique firm like Zaiwalla & Co. It is well-known for taking on difficult cases and getting results. Reddy cites how Zaiwalla represented Bank Mellat, Iran’s largest private bank, in its US$4bn damages claim against the UK government relating to sanctions imposed over the bank’s alleged connections with Iran’s nuclear programme. The sanctions banned the bank from trading with UK financial markets. The Supreme Court decided that the decision of the government to ban Bank Mellat was ‘irrational’, ‘disproportionate’ and ‘unlawful’, and ordered sanctions to be lifted.

‘The client’s previous team were not succeeding in the High Court nor Court of Appeal,’ remarks Reddy. ‘When we took over for the Supreme Court hearing, we turned the case around entirely in terms of its approach. It’s now come to be seen as a groundbreaking legal case due to the international impact of the judgments we won for our clients – with regards to employment discrimination law in the appointment of arbitrators and the legality of international sanctions law.

‘If you just agree with barristers all the time, you are just passing on their views to the client –there’s no innovative approach whatsoever. We do a lot of research and come up with a different approach to the case, on a point of view or a point of law, and find a barrister who agrees with us. That’s the only way the client gets value for money and a quality service at a partner level.’

While client satisfaction is clearly a major priority, Reddy stresses the importance of not overlooking her team: ‘Essentially, they will achieve the results for you.’ Zaiwalla & Co has lawyers from 10 different jurisdictions, and Reddy feels that such a multicultural, diverse team is a distinct draw for its international clients. ‘Obviously, there is a challenge for me in managing so many different backgrounds, but clients are more comfortable with us when it’s clear we understand and respect their cultures. That on its own puts us into a different league, I think.’

Transparency is crucial for effective people management and the ongoing development of the business, says Reddy. ‘What we do as a firm is not about any one individual. All team members must feel that they are part of the firm and have a stake in policy-making at every level – otherwise, they are just coming into work each day and then going home at 6pm. I ask for my teams’ views at every stage. If the issue is management or strategy-related, I may go back to Mr Zaiwalla for a last approval.’

With such a prominent international client base, is overseas expansion the next logical step for Zaiwalla & Co? Not necessarily, says Reddy. ‘I don’t see a particular advantage in the digital age of having an overseas office unless you practise the local law. The more offices you have, the more costs are passed on to the client, so you potentially lose one of your USPs: providing a competitive costing.’ That’s not to say an international office isn’t out of the question in the future, but Reddy wants the business to grow at a temperate pace. ‘We want to take it gradually, as otherwise we could lose our niche. Our clients come to us because we are boutique. You don’t necessarily have to convert that service into something bigger just for the sake of changing it; we have happy clients, a good caseload and a lot of work coming in. There’s no point in rocking the boat too much.’

There’s also Brexit. Considering the international dimensions of the firm, is Reddy concerned? ‘Obviously it’s going to have an impact – we haven’t worked out yet on what scale that would be. Some jurisdictions may want to invest in the UK depending on what advantage the UK is offering in terms of trade once it’s left the EU – that may generate more work.’

As an Asian woman who has reached the top of her game in a male-dominated profession, what does Reddy have to say about the gender gap and equal opportunities in the legal sector? ‘Certainly I think things have changed for the better since the time I decided to pursue law. More and more women are pursuing law as a career option today. Just from my own experience, I see far more ethnic minority lawyers in court today than I did back in 2003.’ As someone who has undoubtedly broken through the glass ceiling, she says: ‘As a woman, whether convincing a client or making a point in correspondence, I think you still have to work that little bit harder to get yourself noticed, but I was very fortunate to have such an open-minded mentor in Mr Zaiwalla.’

With her long and accomplished CV, and leading a City law firm before the age of 30, one wonders what else Reddy has left to achieve. ‘I still put a lot of internal pressure on myself to succeed, which drives me further,’ she says. ‘I feel that I have done only 30 per cent of what I want to do. As a lawyer, I would love to prepare my own arguments in court – I may go for higher rights of audience, but it’s a big piece of work. On the management side, I want Zaiwalla & Co to be one of the most multicultural firms in the City.’

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