Sunila Awasthi: Passionate, Courageous and Exceptional Lawyer of 21st Century

AZB & Partners
Sunila Awasthi | Azb & Partners

Women have played an important part in the development of the legal profession. Female lawyers continue to battle for justice and pave the way for women in the field, whether it’s defending clients in court, representing companies, or delivering significant judgements.

Several female lawyers have made significant contributions to the legal profession. These outstanding female lawyers not only do an excellent job, but they also make a difference in people’s lives. Sunila Awasthi is one of the most well-known of these.

She is a Senior Partner at India’s top law firm, AZB & Partners. She is passionate about the rapidly growing field of gender-related workplace challenges.

Her firm, AZB & Partners, was formed in 2004 with the goal of providing clients with credible, practical, and full-service advice across all industries. It has offices in Mumbai, Delhi/NCR, Bangalore, and Pune.

Sunila’s experience includes advising on a wide range of commercial contracts as well as general advisory, with a focus on e-commerce, information technology, data privacy, and employment laws.

 Journey so far

After qualifying as a lawyer from the Faculty of Law, Delhi University, in 1992, Sunila joined Ajay Bahl & Co. This was the time of economic liberalization and the advent of foreign investment in India.

There were many firsts for Sunila in the firm – filing the first FIPB application and obtaining approval; working on the first transaction under the SEBI takeover code in 1997; creating contracts from scratch since there were no precedents!

The multiple joint ventures, technology license arrangements, and technical collaborations were across diverse sectors like automotive components, pharmaceuticals, alcoholic beverages, food industry, software, etc.

Despite not having computers or the internet, they were exciting times with so much to learn and create! Physical books were the only option with no online resources to help with research.

After working for seven years, Sunila took a break to do LLM from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia in 2000. After returning to India, she briefly joined J. Sagar & Associates. However, by 2003, she returned to Ajay Bahl & Co. which became AZB & Partners in 2004.

Why AZB & Partners?

AZB & Partners was a result of  merger between Delhi-based Ajay Bahl & Co. and Mumbai-based CZB & Partners. AZB is one of India’s most prominent full-service law firms, with offices in Mumbai, Delhi/NCR, Bangalore, and Pune.

It is well-known for its corporate advisory, M&A, dispute resolution, including tax litigation practices, and also reputed for its specialized advisory services in the areas of employment laws, fintech, technology laws, data privacy, tax – both direct and indirect, competition law, capital markets, intellectual property, private equity and venture capital, funds, private client practice, real estate, restructuring and insolvency, compliance and investigation including white collar crime, regulatory and securities.

The firm has a wide variety of international and domestic clients across sectors and industries with deep and long relationships.

While talking about the inspiration to venture into the legal space, Sunila said, “While studying political science honors at Lady Shriram College for Women, I wanted to do a course that would ensure a profession for me. Financial independence was a priority.”

“With no interest in science or commerce, many professions were ruled out for me! I had been exposed to law and the courts from a young age due to family litigations. I would end up reading a lot of legal documents and provisions. Being articulate, argumentative, and curious by nature, Law seemed like a natural fit,” she added.

Sunila summarizes the reasons for being in the same firm for so long as “the excellent work culture, ample opportunities to prove yourself, freedom to handle client relationships, work delivery and team management, but above everything else, the leadership of Ajay Bahl.”

Overcoming the Adversities

When we asked Sunila about the challenges she had to surmount while entering the legal space, she stated, “Because of my witnessing first-hand the delays and loopholes in the justice system, it was clear no court practice for me. The infrastructure of the courts was still very poor; lawyers, judges, court staff had apathetic approach and statutes were disregarded rampantly.”

“This scenario reaffirmed my passionate opposition to becoming a litigator. In 1992, my biggest challenge was to find a non-litigation role as ‘corporate law’ was unheard of! It was serendipity that got me placed at Ajay Bahl & Co, as it was looking for lawyers who didn’t want to go to court!”

When Sunila joined, the firm had 6 lawyers and today, she heads a team of 20 plus lawyers consisting of partners, counsels, senior associates, and associates. “It has been like growing up with the firm, like a second family!”

About the current challenges, Sunila shared, “Having entered the profession three decades ago, today I may not know them. But I believe there is too much focus on the external façade of the legal profession. Most get blinded by ‘brand’ names of law schools and firms – maybe law firms are to be blamed for this emphasis – it is misplaced and unnecessary.”

It depends entirely on the individual – do they have what it takes to become a good lawyer? No law school teaches you that. Money is the other aspect that gives a rose-colored view of the profession – high retainer ships paid to lawyers seem to have a magnetic pull!

The instant gratification era almost demands instant money and fame as an entitlement. Youngsters need to understand the sheer hard work, focus, commitment required, the daily grind that goes into achieving what is looking glamourous today – the absence of awareness of ground reality can pose a real challenge.

Dynamic offerings

When we asked Sunila about the specialized legal offerings, that she provides to her client, she said, “Today, my area of expertise is employment laws. However, I lead a team that provides general corporate advisory services, which could mean opinions and advice related to almost any law – whether it is data protection, e-commerce, legal metrology, drones, or even cryptocurrency!”

Three major practice areas covered specifically by Sunila’s team are:

  • Employment laws which are in the limelight due to proposed labor codes
  • Technology-related laws in areas of IT, e-commerce, fintech, cryptocurrency
  • Privacy and data protection.

“Thirty years later, I am again at the forefront of those areas of legal practice which reflect a whole new world – in India and globally!”

Impact of advanced technology

When we asked Sunila about the impact of technological advancement in the law space, she answered, “Unbelievable! I come from an era when today’s tools were unavailable, so it  changed the world drastically. Technology’s convenience and time efficiency to the legal profession is great. But it also brings access to ready-made answers that seriously impact real learning.”

Another major consequence has been pressure on turnaround time due to 24×7 connectivity – the expectation that the email or call will be responded to instantly adds to the stress. The Covid-induced work-from-home situation of the past two years has not helped.

An influential personality

Sunila’s extensive experience in advising clients on all kinds of problematic employee issues, including critical investigations in sensitive areas like workplace sexual harassment or misconduct by employees or tricky senior employee exits, while retaining objectivity and knowing the latest legal position, gives her an edge in her field.

Sunila’s pragmatic approach and feasible solutions within the legal parameters are recognized and appreciated by clients who want to be compliant as well as practical.

Opinion that matters

While advising the aspiring legal enthusiasts who are willing to step into the legal space today, Sunila spoke, “Be clear on what you want! Don’t get attracted by external paraphernalia! Focus is very important. There is no harm in wanting more, or less, if there is clarity.”

“Hard-work and dedication are essential for every profession, not only law, so that is a given. Personal growth is as important as professional. Being updated with what’s going on in the world gives one a different perspective, so it’s important for a holistic personality,” she further stated.

Indian Legal Space at present

Sunila also talked about the current scenario of the Indian legal space and said, “Potential for continued phenomenal growth. The great trend of boutique, or specialized firms is doing extremely well. There is space for much more, including foreign law firms!”

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