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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Career advancement tactics for South Asian lawyers

· 6 minute read

· 6 minute read

In honor of May being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we offer weekly discussions about issues of importance to APA and South Asian attorneys, such as skills for career advancement.

From U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’s recent candidacy for president to Preet Bharara’s service as the U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York, recent high-profile South Asian lawyers are helping younger South Asian lawyers see themselves in positions of leadership and influence.

In fact, the representation of lawyers of South Asian descent has been increasing over the last decade, says Ritu Ghai, associate commercial counsel at Google and advisory board member of Thomson Reuters Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color.

From a cultural perspective, a career in law historically was not seen as a “respectable” option for most young people in the South Asian community. Instead, when many families immigrated from the region to the U.S., parents saw the medical and engineering professions as the better option for their children.

However, this perspective has changed over the last decade or so, depending on the family; and with the recent increase of lawyers of South Asian descent taking key public policy roles — such as candidates running for office, like Reshma Saujani and Surej Patel.

south asian lawyers
Ritu Ghai, associate commercial counsel at Google

These public figures also inspired increased political engagement from the South Asian community. For example, Ghai notes her parents were not very politically engaged as recently as the early 2000s, but when they see a South Asian running for office, “there’s something very inspiring to them about this, and they feel heard.”

Career advancing tactics

Before Ghai decided to enroll in law school, she did not have any personal family connections to the legal profession. In many ways, she had to figure it out for herself as a law student and then as an early career lawyer. Ghai started her career as a litigator at a law firm but after three years, she transitioned to an in-house role.

For South Asian lawyers that wish to elevate themselves within the ranks of the legal profession, Gjhi shared what she learned from her own successful experience:

Stay abreast of the business landscape — To learn about the business she was supporting, Ghai proactively reached out to more seasoned lawyers and more senior peers to see what had worked for them. As a result, she has been able to learn more effective ways to cultivate solid relationships as an in-house lawyer. For example, she uses Google alerts and LinkedIn to remain aware of her employer’s business and that of its competitors. Ghai says she uses the information she gathers to build connections within the business, often by asking questions.

Proactively build relationships with peers in the business — Ghai also uses the new information she’s found to forge connections with colleagues that are working in the areas of the company she wants to support. The new information gives her a reason to reach out and ask questions about what any new development may mean for the business. She has used these tactics over and over in an effective relationship-enhancing strategy.

Create your own seat at the table — Once she’s enhanced these internal relationships, Ghai does not wait around to be asked to join the decision-making teams or cross-functional advisory teams. Because of her actions, she creates the opportunity, which has allowed her to cast herself and her legal team as a business advisor beyond the legal help desk.

Ghai explains that young lawyers, when brought in on a project to advise on legal risks, should “just jump right into the documents that are provided.” Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity. Lawyers don’t “tend to take a step back and ask, ‘What are you really trying to achieve here?’ to make ourselves a part of the project. Understanding the overall business purpose of the agreement, matter, or project helps to grab your own seat at the table,” says Ghai.

Ask about the broader business goals — When being brought in to advise on legal risks, young lawyers should take the opportunity to ask, “How can I help in making this happen?”

In addition, when pointing out the legal risks, lawyers often have trouble suggesting alternatives without understanding the bigger picture. “Lawyers need to say, ‘Here are the risks I see. I don’t think the current path is a great idea, but here is an alternative path that mitigates this risk,’” explains Ghai.

Understanding the broader context upfront has been a successful strategy for Ghai because she has seen how a different team handled similar issues. “Bringing your past experience on an issue that is new to the business team has been really effective at deepening relationships in both in-house roles I have held,” she says.

Remain laser focused

Ghai says she centers her attention on what is truly high-impact and necessary in both her professional and personal lives. As parents to a toddler, both Ghai and her spouse needed to balance home-life with the need for both of them to show their commitments to their respective employers, especially since both were in the first year of new jobs. The experience made both extremely efficient, especially during recent stay-at-home orders.

Ghai says she employs maniacal prioritization on high-impact work instead of arranging her work-day around when work comes in. Indeed, this is something that lawyers can do no matter whether they are working in the office or remotely. If you are not sure what work is high impact, Ghai suggests reaching out to your manager for guidance.

Ghai also uses this tactic in her personal life, she says, adding she had been inundated with numerous parenting blogs suggesting creative ways to engage your children while staying home. She took those suggestions with a grain of salt, noting that her son does not need elaborate activities to stay engaged. “He loves his books, toys, and playing simple, funny games with us,” she explains. “That’s all I have capacity for right now, and that’s all I feel he really needs from us at the moment to stay entertained.”

Through her own proactive efforts, Ghai has forged her own path of success and hopes that sharing her experience with others, including South Asian lawyers, will inspire them to forger their own path to the top ranks of the legal industry.

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