THE LAW IS A LADY
Her firm is the best in the country, her work hours the stuff of legend. ZIA MODY might be legal royalty; now she wants to use her brass knuckles to help the poor, and the rich. By Suprotip Ghosh
Anu Aga, chairperson of Teach For India, once needed a place to conduct a board meeting for the voluntary organisation. She called up Zia Mody, managing partner, AZB & Partners, a colleague on the board of Teach For India. Mody had a simple solution. She opened up her own office at South Mumbai’s Nariman Point for the board to meet. Teach For India is a voluntary organisation that gives privileged graduates the opportunity to teach the underprivileged.
Another time, Bain Capital was working on a major project for an international client in India. Mody was advising them. For two months, she worked on minutiae with the Bain management, be it early in the morning or past midnight, to ensure her clients navigated the maze of issues investors face in India. Many high profile lawyers wouldn’t do it personally, but not Mody, says Amit Chandra, managing director, Bain Capital Advisors. “Zia was clear that she wanted to get this done, and she got it done.”
Bain Capital is one of the world’s leading private, alternative asset management firms, with over US$70 billion in assets under management. Anu Aga is widely credited with the prowess of Thermax, a R 4,691crore engineering company that builds for the power sector. They are among many of Zia Mody’s clients who have over the years, come back to ask for help.
This personal touch, warmth, and genuineness set Mody (57) and her firm apart, both Aga and Chandra point out. It doesn’t matter whether the issue is of navigating a multi-billion court case, or of training teachers to interactively involve students in discussions on notions of equality, justice, honesty, integrity, fearfulness, fearlessness. Zia Mody speaks of “moral values infused through the system”.
Mody’s no ordinary lawyer; she is the daughter of Soli J Sorabjee, former attorney-general of India. It would be easy for her to pursue law in her father’s shadow, but she chose not to, says Aga. This shows in AZB’s prowess. She started a firm with 12 lawyers in the mid-’90s. Today, the firm she runs jointly with Ajay Bahl, Bahram Vakil, and Abhijit Joshi has 250 lawyers. Without doubt, it is one of India’s best legal firms, Chandra says.
Today, Mody wants to change the way India’s legal system functions. She says that India has, as a country, enjoyed litigation. “We like to fight.” But the flipside is the problem of long-drawn court battles, which can take as long as 10 years to resolve. This worrying trend is taking dispute resolution away from India, to countries such as Singapore and the United Kingdom, Mody says. Plus, it shows India in poor light.
“That cycle of 10 years, how do you crash it? How do you make it more effective, and more meaningful?” she asks. The solution is involving all stakeholders, including the government and the bureaucracy, in dialogues. But isn’t the government and bureaucracy really difficult to convince? That could happen, she says, but not everyone will be unappreciative. They themselves see the gaps in the system. The way ahead is to inspire. Not sack, but convert.
Take microfinance and the problem that it isn’t available outside a few states. Mody wants to work on making microfinance companies spread to hard-to-reach areas. There are problems of women’s education and issues of school curricula, for which she would like to travel in rural India. And then there is her Baha’i faith, that teaches equality of genders, where she wants to give more time. She says her impressions on working with public officials have changed after being invited to work with government committees. “It isn’t my way or the highway. It is a melting pot, it is consensus building. I learnt it over the past five to six years. I enjoy it,” she says.
It is this combination of factors that makes her currently relevant. “People like her are making sure that people outside India do not completely lose interest,” says Chandra. “The most important thing for me is that she can be trusted. Her competence is there, but I have faith and trust in her,” says Aga.
Mody’s friends speak of her sense of humour and her infectious laughter. They also say that her work hours are the stuff of legend. She says herself that she will message her secretary well past midnight to set reminders for the next day. But the most important ones she keeps with her as draft SMSes. When her daughter is working with someone Mody knows, she would call them up asking for feedback. Nothing is too small or too big. They’re just things to be done.