Advancing to the higher echelons of BigLaw requires an understanding of how professional services firms work, writes Norton Rose Fulbright partner Madhavi Gosavi.
It was really hard to become a partner. I had to prove myself in every single deal I did. It wasn’t just a case of sitting there 16 hours a day and waiting to get promoted. It was also about gaining a grasp of the way deals work, understanding the clients and — just as important — understanding the people who are now my fellow partners. Learn what’s expected of you, and then behave accordingly.
My problem used to be over-confidence. I was totally confident, probably because I was too young to know what was out there. I didn’t get scared. Yes, that grated with colleagues sometimes. In the end a partner told me to dial it down. Ouch. I listened because I was so desperate to succeed that I took advice on board. Now I’m more tempered in the way I react to things.
That desperation to succeed came partly because I wanted to save face. I came to London, contrary to my parent’s advice, from a small Indian law firm to work as a paralegal at Wilde Sapte (now SNR Denton). I didn’t want to go back and fail. But I think my ambition stems from beyond that. I’ve been sharing my office with trainees for 14 years now. Some have that drive; others don’t. On the whole, it’s not about their background. It’s the individual personality that makes the difference.
It was at Wilde Sapte where I got the two best pieces of advice I’ve had in my career, from the firm’s then head of training: “You’ve got to dress like you work in the City and you’ve got to talk like you work in City.” No one would dare say that today. At the time I still had some very blunt Indian traits. For example, I wasn’t into saying “please” and “thank you”.
Having to change some of these things hasn’t meant that I felt discriminated against. In London I’ve never felt discriminated against, not on the grounds of my colour or gender. People talk about juggling motherhood and a career as being difficult, but having a child actually didn’t affect me at work. I took my six months maternity leave. With support from my husband, parents and childcare, I’ve been able to do it. It helps being able to work from anywhere today and broadband is the best thing that happened to me!
Do I still work as hard as I did when I was a trainee and an associate? Yes, but the role of a partner is quite different. In international law firms, lawyers can broadly be divided into grinders, minders and finders. As a trainee and an associate you are mainly the grinder. Partners have to do some grinding too. But they also have to develop relationships with clients — the minding — and of course bring in clients in the first place – the finding. Most partners do a bit of all three roles, not to mention the admin!
Like most corporate lawyers, this wasn’t my childhood dream. I got into law later, while studying it at university, and then, as a solicitor, I came to enjoy the feeling of seeing a transaction on which I was working come to fruition. That sense of achievement of seeing that an airport or motorway or deep sea tunnel come into existence is thrilling. But as a trainee — a junior grinder — sometimes your work can be dry. As I was closing one of biggest deals of my career, my current trainee had to sit there proof reading all the documents. But everyone has to go through that stuff as part of their development. I recommend keeping going and it only gets better.
Madhavi Gosavi is a partner specialising in infrastructure and projects in the London office of Norton Rose Fulbright.
The full ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series is here.