Sukriti Rai, associate at Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes
You were already a lawyer in India before coming to Paris. What made you change tack?
I had been an associate for more than 3 years at S&R Associates in Mumbai, working in capital markets, general corporate and related disputes before the courts in India. Interestingly, most of the contracts that I worked on while in Mumbai included references to international arbitration (at that point, the inclination was to rely on LCIA clauses), and yet that wasn’t something at the forefront of academic discussion at the time. So, I was curious and started asking questions: (i) why did the clients prefer it, (ii) how did it work concretely, and (iii) what was our capacity to assist them down the line? Two things that quickly became obvious to me were: (i) that this was a fascinating field of international law which I found intellectually stimulating and with wide scope of creativity; and (ii) I would have to leave India and gain international experience in order to fully apprehend it.
So did you also grow up in Mumbai?
No … I was born far away in Jalandhar, a relatively small city in Punjab in Northern India and moved with my parents to Chandigarh (capital of Punjab and Haryana) while still quite young for better education opportunities. So, Chandigarh is where I grew up, went to school, and law school before drifting towards Mumbai.
What was it like attending law school in Chandigarh?
I studied a five-year law course at the University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University in Chandigarh. The year I joined, it had been around for only six years, although you must bear in mind that Panjab University itself can be traced back to the pre-partition Punjab … to 1882. Given the legal institutes’ new set-up, the internship placement cell was not up and running yet and the students were left of their own accord to manage their co-curricular. In fact, not having a strict structure was a blessing in disguise that gave the flexibility to explore several areas of law. In that, I undertook several internships – starting with a Senior Counsel (equivalent of a King’s Counsel in the UK, and now a sitting judge) at the High Court in Punjab and Haryana, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to top-tier law firms in Mumbai.
Wait but you still have not answered my question about … why did you decide on studying law?
Well, I wanted to become a detective when I was a young girl but being a private investigator or detective was not a popular profession in India. In fact, I knew no one with this profile while growing up (or looking back – even now). Around the same time, my older sibling, who happened to be studying law at the time, spoke endlessly about his classes, landmark cases, related facts, and decisions from the Supreme Court of India… I think I was about 13 or 14 years old when I first saw a copy of the Constitution of India (in my brother’s collection) – and I was smitten.
If you did not know anyone who was a detective (or a private investigator), how were you inspired?
I thought I had dodged this one … (laughing) … ok I confess… I was a huge Nancy Drew fan and read every Nancy Drew edition available at the time in Chandigarh! [But obviously you are not putting this on record … are you?]
Ahaa! So why not criminal law, I would imagine a Nancy Drew fan would edge towards crime scenes…
I was of the same opinion back then. When I was working with a Senior Counsel, I encountered my first criminal matter. My senior was defending a man accused of demanding dowry and murdering his spouse. My assignment was to study the medical jurisprudence to determine the viability of a murder in the case, as opposed to a suicide and false implication of the client by design. While it sounds straightforward, the task involved looking carefully and repeatedly at the post-mortem report together with the photographs of the deceased at the time of death. Although I completed my analysis, I didn’t sleep a wink in those 5 days – I’d see the deceased’s face every time I’d close my eyes. That was the first and last criminal matter I ever worked on…
That is an interesting story … so then you stuck with civil work … until arbitration came along?
You could say that. I worked extensively on civil litigation matters that included, property, service, and inheritance disputes. But civil work was not all that I experienced – I felt very strongly about giving back to society and volunteered with several different NGOs throughout my five years of study. Although, it is a different story for a different day, but at one point in my life I wanted to start an NGO with a friend and my father (who’d recently retired then) – working on the issue of food scarcity by utilising leftovers from (famously sumptuous) Indian weddings.
Mumbai is a good distance from Chandigarh … what took you there?
Civil litigation before the High Court was exciting and I was lucky to have worked with a Senior Counsel who steadily encouraged women to practise law. He often said that “we need more women to stay in the system…” but my thirst for learning and exploring corporate law had the better of me. So, I left for Mumbai to train with a law firm. Not only did I get to experience large transactions worth billions of Indian Rupees, but also noticed the level of detail that was covered for a transaction, was very impressive and months would be spent working on a deal as opposed to the fast turnaround of cases at the High Court.
That sounds very different from arbitration…
Well, yes and no. While there are no arguments, hearings, and witnesses in transaction work but, it is still comparable somehow – there is attention to detail, deep investigation of facts and documents, extensive research, and who can forget the pressure (smiling…). Although, I did not work on arbitration matters, I did work on corporate disputes before the High Court of Bombay – which were as voluminous as arbitration can sometimes have the tendency to be.
And yet in all of that you wanted to study arbitration … and made the choice to go back to school, and go through internships once more…
Yes! It was the price to pay for my desire to keep learning (and quite a change of lifestyle for a while), but it was also exhilarating and full of enriching experiences! The first decision was applying to Sciences Po in Paris: most often (as you would suspect), Indian lawyers look towards the UK, which has a comparable common law system to India, and where the language is not a barrier. This was the well-trodden path, but I didn’t want to follow that pattern: I wanted more! The arbitration program at Sciences Po offered me a new perspective, a world-renowned set of arbitration practitioners and teachers, practical workshops at all the known law firms across Paris and finally, the chance to build my arbitration career in a truly global set-up. Of course, it also meant going back to student life for a year, working from a tiny room in Cité Universitaire, and navigating an entirely new country without any French under my belt. And, yes, becoming an intern again was a bit odd at first, but since international arbitration was a new domain, I kept my head down and focused on learning as much as I could at the time.
How did you end up at Shearman & Sterling?
Shearman & Sterling’s arbitration practice was well known all over, including in India and one of the first names you’d ever come across in international arbitration was that of Prof. Gaillard. So even before I had set foot in Paris, I was interested in working with the team at Shearman. In fact, one of the many reasons for picking Sciences Po was that I’d get to attend a class taught by Prof. Gaillard. So not only did I witness the breadth of Prof. Gaillard’s genius while he discussed his theory of arbitral legal order, but the program also involved a workshop hosted by the team at Shearman. This workshop was on “cross-examination of expert witnesses” hosted by Maude Lebois and mind you … it was not an easy workshop. We were required to examine an actual expert with over 15 years of experience in the industry who came down from London especially for it. The experience of attending Prof. Gaillard’s class was enough for me to apply for a traineeship at Shearman and after a rigorous interview process, there I was … a trainee with Shearman & Sterling for 8 months, starting in February 2020.
Yes! How did that go for you?
On my first day, I was tasked to help with a two-week investment arbitration hearing. Although, I couldn’t attend the hearing in person as I’d just joined days before it started, I was considerably involved with the day-to-day after-hours of the hearing. The two weeks passed in a blink with little sleep but engaging tasks. I later helped with correcting the transcripts and I know that sounds like a tedious job, but I couldn’t have enjoyed it more – Mohamed Shelbaya argued the case so eloquently yet so effortlessly. Once that finished, as you may remember in March 2020 France was put in a complete lockdown…
Right, how did that change the internship experience?
I remember, as soon as the lockdown was underway, the first thing that Dr Banifatemi and Prof. Gaillard did was to reassure the trainees. We immediately had a zoom meeting where they told us, “There is no need to panic … we are still going to work, just remotely instead … the clients are still here and there will be a lot to do.” True to their word, the workflow was steady and strong. So, I plunged into the work, and the only difference was that I also got to discover the French countryside, particularly Normandy, which is beautiful, setting up my remote office there while waiting out the Covid storm.
And then I understand that you decided to do study some more… Could you tell us more about your last challenge?
I had expressed my interest in staying with Shearman & Sterling, but I also wanted to capitalise on my common law background, so I decided to take the bar exam for England and Wales. In reality, in one of the meetings with Dr Banifatemi and Prof. Gaillard they encouraged me to take the English bar as well. It was a bit of a gamble, as it takes time to prepare and with my internship concluded … my French visa was soon coming to an end, but I took two and a half months to focus entirely on this exam. And you wouldn’t believe that just a few days before taking the first part of the test, I received a phone call from Dr Banifatemi, offering me the job! That must have boosted my confidence, as I passed the exam on my first attempt, and later went to London (despite ongoing travel restrictions and having to take many, many, many Covid tests…) to clear the second part and become a qualified solicitor for England and Wales, in addition to being a qualified lawyer in India. Around the same time, the creation of Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes was announced, which took me by surprise at first, but I was able to speak with Dr Banifatemi quickly and she told me that I would be starting with their new team instead.
You have been an associate with Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes for over a year and a half now. How has this modified your view of international arbitration? And does it satisfy your desire to investigate…?
Oh! Absolutely … you have to be curious about the case, its facts, the law that applies or could apply, the potential witnesses, and yes … you have to investigate in depth. International arbitration is a very creative niche in international law – you aren’t bound by strict rules that would apply in a domestic litigation and you aren’t completely without a structure either. Somewhere between the two, lies the entire practice and that truly is the beauty of it. At Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes, the creativity of international arbitration is harnessed – we are pushed to our limits to think out of the box, to find answers which would otherwise be ignored for being too difficult to pursue, and no two days look alike! It is a perfect place and practice for someone with a constant thirst to learn more.
Now that you have this experience, how do you see the development of international arbitration in India? Do you picture yourself going back and continuing your career there eventually?
While international arbitration is receiving the much-needed sanctity it deserves, there are still cases of inconsistent decisions by the Indian courts from time to time which turn the wheel back in time. Moreover, domestic arbitration appears to be a far more popular choice than international arbitration. Whether international arbitration would ever be practised in a truly transnational sense in India – I cannot answer that for you. The second part of your question is a tricky one, I am definitely interested in giving back to my alma mater some day in the future… I often think of when I was a student at Panjab University, and my perspectives on the world then, what I thought was possible for me in terms of career, and where I ended up going: I think eventually I would like to contribute somehow to my roots, although that remains part of a long-term project and not fully envisaged at this stage.
One last thing … what about giving back to the society?
That is something I am able to do right now with Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes. The firm believes in giving back and contributing to the society as much as possible. I am lucky to be already helping with a pro bono matter and I know that the firm intends to continue expanding its pro bono efforts in the future. This is something that has been and continues to remain of immense importance for me.
Interview by Lisa Vignoli