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  • “Why is Gender a Form of Diversity?”:Rising Advantages for Women in Global Indian Law Firms
  • Swethaa Ballakrishnen (bio)


Following market liberalization in 1991, the Indian legal profession has had more demands for cross-national legal services than ever [End Page 1261] before.1 One of the ways in which the country has responded to this new work and clientele is by reorganizing its professional spaces in new, competitive ways. On the one hand, there has been a burgeoning of new, elite law schools that train young lawyers in comparative, cross-national law and include rigorous clinical curriculum.2 At the same time, there have emerged, especially over the last decade, a hoard of new legal organizations that deal primarily with transactional corporate work for large global and domestic corporate clients.3 These big law firms have [End Page 1262] expanded and grown institutionally in many unprecedented ways,4 but a striking feature of their emergence—even in the largest and most prestigious firms in the country—has been the growth and success of their women lawyers. For instance, last year, Amarchand Mangaldas, the largest and, arguably, the most influential of these big law firms,5 promoted thirteen senior associates to partnership, 70 percent of whom were women.6 In a similar vein, the other leading firm, AZB and Partners, co-founded by Zia Mody (the country’s leading mergers and acquisitions (M&A) expert who was recently cited on the Forbes list of Asia’s Fifty Power Businesswomen)7 has a gender composition of “about 50 percent,” with women rising in partnership tracks with more regularity than ever.8 A large part of this explanation is that a majority of women—and associates in general—who work in these firms are graduates from the country’s premiere national law schools,9 which [End Page 1263] select incoming students using highly-competitive entrance examinations,10 graduating as many women as men from their rigorous five-year undergraduate curriculum. But it is not only overarching numbers that make this emergence of potentially gender egalitarian workspaces promising. Preliminary interviews suggest that women in these big law firms11 are not discriminated against or disadvantaged as compared to their male peers in that they receive similar organizational rewards (pay, promotion, client attention) and interactional status among clients, peers and superiors alike. This is an intriguing finding in that it does not correspond to mostly gender-disadvantageous accounts of women in high status professions universally,12 nor in the legal [End Page 1264] profession specifically.13 What is more, these interviews suggest that women lawyers in these firms—and in other senior positions in firms like this—are almost oblivious to the possibility of their gender being salient in their workspace.14 In a more specific context, we know from contemporary comparative research that the Indian legal profession is more resistant to feminization than its global counterparts,15 and even exaggerated Bar Council of India Admission figures suggest than only about 10 percent of India’s legal population (estimated at about 1.3 million) are women.16 It is within this framework of hostility for equal [End Page 1265] gender representation that it is salient for India’s big law firms to be institutionally capable of fostering gender-neutral advantages for their female associates. My research attempts to preliminarily navigate this new territory of innovation and formal equality within the Indian legal profession. Using in-depth interviews (of at least an hour) with women in senior positions at these global law firms, as well as informant interviews with several other prominent male and female lawyers in the profession more generally, I attempt to ask: (a) How do these women consider the salience of their gender within these big law firms? and (b) If it is indeed the case that these women do not experience the status of gender as we would expect, what factors makes gender relatively nonsalient to these women professionals and the organizations that employ them?

To help unpack these broad questions, in my interviews with these women in high positions within these big law firms,17 I was interested in how gender interacted with their experience at different levels of...


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pp. 1261-1289
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