Sunila Awasthi: Empowering Women in Law and Driving Positive Change Within the Legal Profession

In the dynamic world of law, women have long been trailblazers, breaking barriers and driving change in the pursuit of justice. From courtroom battles to corporate boardrooms, female lawyers continue to leave an indelible mark on the legal profession, shaping its evolution and championing the cause of equality. Among these distinguished legal luminaries stands Sunila Awasthi, a Senior Partner at AZB & Partners, one of India’s preeminent law firms.

With a steadfast commitment to excellence and a passion for addressing gender-related workplace challenges, Sunila Awasthi exemplifies the power and potential of women in law. As a seasoned legal practitioner, she brings a wealth of experience and expertise to her role, specializing in commercial contracts, e-commerce, information technology, data privacy, and employment laws.

AZB & Partners, founded in 2004, has emerged as a leader in the legal landscape, renowned for its comprehensive and pragmatic approach to client service. With offices in Mumbai, Delhi/NCR, Bangalore, Pune and Chennai, the firm has established itself as a trusted advisor across diverse industries, offering credible and full-service legal advice.

Making of A Corporate Lawyer

Sunila’s illustrious career is marked by her unwavering dedication to providing clients with strategic and insightful counsel and navigating complex legal landscapes with finesse and precision. Her work not only exemplifies legal excellence but also underscores her commitment to advancing gender equality and fostering inclusive workplaces.

As a trailblazer in the world of corporate law professionals, taking us back to the beginning of her journey and sharing the things that motivated her to enter the legal profession, Sunila says that due to personal experiences, her prime motivation was to be financially independent, especially as a woman. “Honestly, it could have been any profession!”

While there were no lawyers in the family, Sunila was exposed to lawyers and the Indian courts from a very young age due to her family’s involvement in litigation. She says, “Witnessing our judicial system up close was not a pleasant experience, so in hindsight, it was surprising that I chose to do law! When I qualified as a lawyer in 1992, I was only clear on one thing – I did not want to be a litigating lawyer! It was sheer luck that I ended up working for a law firm which wanted ‘corporate’ lawyers.”

Being Integral to the Firm’s Growth

AZB & Partners has emerged as one of India’s top law firms. Sharing how she contributed to her firm’s unstoppable success, Sunila says that her present firm came into existence in 2004 because of a merger between a Delhi-based and Mumbai-based law firm. “However, I have been associated with it since 1993, when there were only six lawyers. So, I have been an integral part of the growth journey since the beginning. I was fortunate to get a supportive environment at the workplace where the male boss’s messaging to the client that ‘this lawyer will do your work’ brooked no further debate on the gender of the lawyer!

To also witness merit, hard work, and commitment being rewarded irrespective of gender was very encouraging. It is immensely satisfying to actively integrate that into the organization’s DNA.

Significant Traits of an Outstanding Leader

Sunila’s powerful leadership style is often recognized as an inspirational force behind her achievements. When asked if she could shed light on her approach to leadership and team building within the organization, Sunila says, “To answer this question, I need to look back at some of the key drivers that seem to have worked quite well.”

The first is being passionate about what you do – if it does not give you the joy to do the work you are doing – most of the time, if not all the time – then you are in the wrong profession! The second is perseverance – it may sound old-fashioned, but patience and determination are critical if you want to go far! Finally, commitment – whether it is to yourself, your family, your profession, your job, or your organization – without commitment, you can be rudderless!

In building an excellent team, I always felt quite strongly about establishing a workplace environment which is conducive for:”

  • Free exchange of ideas – “What I refer to as ‘open door’ policy – being receptive to other’s point-of-view as well as being accessible;”
  • Mentorship – for your growth, be secure and confident enough to train the next-in-line;
  • Providing fair opportunity and resources to everyone – without fear or favour;
  • Gender neutral and without any bias in every way – whether hiring, retaining or rewarding;
  • Constructive feedback, including freely appreciating and giving credit where due;
  • Re-inventing yourself to keep pace with changing dynamics.

Apart from these, “I have been told that what differentiates me as a team leader is my higher EQ, and I think there could be some truth to it since many of my decisions relating to individuals are based on instinct and emotion.”

The Phenomenal Rise of Women’s Power

The essence of women’s leadership lies in disrupting norms. Sunila, too, believes that, in some sense, all women end up disrupting norms when they challenge stereotypes and push the artificial boundaries set up for them by our specific socio-cultural milieu. And only by re-drawing the already-drawn lines can a new picture emerge! “So I agree with the statement.”

A recent example of such disruption, which was absolutely phenomenal to witness, was in this year’s Republic Day parade, which showcased ‘woman power’. It exhibited the extent to which women in India have come front and centre in traditionally male-dominated areas such as defence services and law enforcement. “I am sure, globally as well, there are challenges faced by women, including those in leadership positions, but specifically in India, things seem to be moving in a positive direction, even if not at the desirable pace.”

When asked in her three-decades-long illustrious career what role technology has played, Sunila says, “When I joined the profession, there was no internet and hardly any computers! So you can imagine the steep graph of change propelled by technology that I have witnessed. I believe it’s a wonderful development since technology plays a pivotal role in enhancing efficiency.” But probably the biggest advantage of the digital age has been to level the playing field for those deprived of access to resources or constrained by physical limits – they can now leverage technology to learn, grow, and provide their goods or services, and only the sky is the limit!

A Different Take on Challenges

As a woman leader in the corporate law sector, when asked to discuss her share of challenges, Sunila says, “I have a slightly divergent view here since my experience has been a bit different! Like anyone else in the corporate world, I, too, have had my share of tricky situations or complex encounters, but I do not recall any instance of it being gender related, at least to my face!” 

“Having said that, I would like to share my personal views on this. It is not as if entering a conference room full of men and you being the only woman was not intimidating. At least in the beginning of my career.” 

“However, over time, I realized that it need not be looked at from a gender perspective at all. It was more about focus and confidence in your ability. If you did not let that fact (that you are the only woman in a room full of men!) bother you and focused only on the job at hand, the others would also ignore it. I believe people sense the energy you are feeling and emanating and treat you accordingly.” 

“Also, speaking up if you do face any issue is super important! If you want to bring your gender to the centre and convey that you should be treated differently, that could have varied responses.”

“However, if you are focused on your role for which you are present, i.e. as a lawyer in my case, a professional response all-around is highly likely. As the young generation puts it, it is all about the vibe you generate!”

Finally, when asked, looking to the future, what her vision is for unleashing the potential of women and what she would like the young women of today, in any profession, to aspire for, Sunila says, “Women are already unleashing their potential – I only wish to see it spread more and at a faster pace! Aspirations are very individualistic, but my only suggestion would be to do whatever you want with passion, perseverance and commitment – rest will follow.”

A Bright Future Ahead for Every Woman

In this era of rapid change and evolving legal challenges, Sunila Awasthi stands as a beacon of inspiration, empowering women in law and driving positive change within the legal profession. Through her leadership, advocacy, and unwavering dedication to justice, she continues to shape the legal profession’s future and unleash the full potential of women in law.