September 1, 2021
“There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story. In using your authentic voice.” – Michelle Obama
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we are eager to share the Extra(ordinary) journey of Sherina Petit, LL.M,
Partner and Head of International Arbitration (Asia, Europe and Middle East) and Head of the India Practice (Global) with Norton Rose Fulbright. This year, India celebrated 75 years of independence from British rule, commemorating the nation’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1947. Sherina has roots in both countries, and she takes us with pride through her upbringing in Mumbai, India, following in the footsteps of the solicitor career journeys of her grandfather and father; which for her, began through pursuing her law degree in Mumbai, followed by London, United Kingdom. Sherina is a proficient writer and has won numerous awards; and she also holds several prominent external positions, including being on the board of the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA). Sherina shares with us what paved her successful path to becoming a Partner with one of the largest and most prominent law firms in the world.
“I grew up in Mumbai and attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary school, an all-girls Convent school,” she begins sharing. “I am an only child and had a very sheltered upbringing. My parents were also pretty strict, but when I look back it was a very good balance and a very happy childhood. My mother was a full-time mum, and she dedicated herself to bringing me up. I always wanted to be a lawyer and this was my focus all throughout school. My father is a solicitor and my grandfather was a solicitor, so I have grown up within the legal community of Mumbai. It was my father who said, ‘if you want to be a lawyer, you can’t be so timid and you need to start speaking up now.’ My earliest memories are of my childhood school, and then during the school holidays, going to my dad’s office and hanging out there. It was exciting because he made it fun!”
Sherina takes us through the education system in India that supported her choice to pursue a career as a Lawyer. “I did my schooling through a traditional route to qualify to be a lawyer. After being at a convent school, I went to Sophia College which was a girls college again run by nuns to pursue my Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Psychology and English literature. It was during college where I actually started to become more extroverted and blossom. I began taking part in debates and elocutions. My dad was my home grown elocution and debating coach. Gradually, I started winning competitions and representing my college and university! This is where I gained confidence and ultimately got elected to certain positions within college. Upon graduating, I joined Government Law College, which is one of the oldest law schools in the India. Most of the prominent lawyers in India have graduated from here including my dad and my grand-dad.” Sherina continued her personal growth and eventually became the General Secretary of the College (i.e. the head of the students union). “I am told that I was one of the first women to lead the students union but I can’t be sure! When I look back, it is hard to believe that someone who started out to be such a diffident child in school and who couldn’t fight her own battles, progressing to becoming the head of the Law School’s Students Union. I was humbled to be in the same college where my father had graduated because ultimately, some of the trophies I would eventually win had his name on it. And here, years and years later, my name was on it.”
“The first day of law school was also the first day of working with my father. At the time, he was a partner at one of the top law firms in Mumbai and this is where I first got to learn about international arbitration”. Sherina goes on to discuss her decision to leave hometown Mumbai, and pursue life across the ocean in the United Kingdom. “I always wanted to go abroad and pursue an LL.M. Following my third and final year of Law School, I got into the LL.M. program at Kings College in London. Amazingly, my parents who had given me roots had just given me wings but it was under a strict understanding that I would come home to Mumbai in a year and start practicing with my dad. However, London opened up a whole new world for me. I was suddenly entirely independent and exposed to so many varied people and cultures – a completely different exposure to what I had in India. One year was far too short and keeping the understanding with my parents at the back of my mind, I spoke to them to let me try to apply for a job in London. Their response – ‘if you get into one of the top 10 law firm’s you can stay for another year otherwise you are coming back home’.”
Sherina recalls applying to over fifty jobs, and the emotions she experienced with each rejection, and how humbling those moments became for her. “Receiving many emails stating, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We will keep your CV on file.’ was hard. To understand that you can be rejected by anyone and everyone strengthens you and I have actually kept some of those letters to always keep me grounded. But, I refused to give up and continued to apply. At that time, in the year 2000, coming from India, there wasn’t any proper guidance on how to write a CV or cover letter or frankly on how to apply for a job – everything wasn’t on the internet. It is so much easier and accessible now and I can see the difference in the applications we get from Indian students today. With all the rejections, I ultimately packed my bags to return to Mumbai and my parents came to pick me up in London. We decided to take a short holiday to Spain where I had logged in to check my emails at a café and could not believe my eyes - one of the firms, Linklaters (one of the top 5 law firms in the UK), that I had applied to, was requesting to interview me. We flew back to London immediately, and my dad walked me through sample interviews, as I prepared for mine.” Sherina recalls this moment fondly, thinking of her father standing with her outside the building of Linklaters, in awe of the size of the building that was very different from the Mumbai firms. “Three interviews later, Linklaters offered me a training contract. It felt just too good to be true and I still think about it today because I was able to negotiate with them to cut short the usual two year training into one year. The only down side to this was that instead of spending time in working in different sectors (like banking, dispute resolution, corporate) I was only to sit within project finance – a field of law I had never done before. By this time however I was just so excited to have got a toe hold into the system that I didn’t care about any of the down sides. This is where I began my professional journey in London and used the year to also qualify as a solicitor in the UK.”
Sherina discusses the challenges and opportunities that brought her to Partnership today. ”I hated project finance and although my projects’ colleagues will not forgive me for saying this, I found it deadly boring. I had to take a hard look at my career at the time as otherwise I would have got slotted into the market as a project finance lawyer and there is nothing worse in doing something day in and day out that you don’t like – just because of the firm you work at. I wanted to pursue international arbitration (one of my LL.M. subjects) and it was a senior colleague at Linklaters that told me about a position available at Shearman & Sterling, one of the top law firms particularly for arbitration, stemming from the United States. A few gruelling interviews later, I was thrilled when I was offered the job as a first year associate. So, I switched from project finance to international arbitration, and spent six fantastic and adrenalin filled years working 18 hour days representing the world’s largest banks and companies in their multi-billion dollar disputes.”
“It was during this time as a junior associate that I thought I would play to my strengths of being Indian in a foreign country, and create something no one else in the firm had – a practice targeting multinational companies in their in-bound and out-bound transactions and disputes relating to India. The management of the firm supported me on this – it worked for me both professionally and personally, and it was my way of ensuring that I could keep going home whilst being part of a global network.” Sherina beams, but with humble pride. “I was already six or seven years qualified as a lawyer, and I had set a goal in my mind that I wanted to be a partner by the time I was about 10 years qualified. In my mind, to get to this goal, I thought it better to be at a top UK headquartered firm which also had an India practice. As luck would have it, Norton Rose Fulbright at the time had hired as the global head of arbitration, a senior practitioner, Joseph Tirado, who was very well known and respected in the market and who was looking to expand his team. A few interviews later, I had an offer letter in my hand. It was too good of an opportunity to say no to! Norton Rose was already a large U.K. headquartered firm with several offices in Asia, Europe and the Middle East and was expanding globally rapidly.. It already had a good reputation in India and was interested in growing this practice. I worked with a great group of partners and a wonderful team. And it was here that I thought, ‘If I want to make it to partnership at this firm, I once again need to distinguish myself from the others” – and my distinguishing factor besides my arbitration practice was the India practice that I had started to build - very simply, no one is going to be able to understand India, its work culture and people better than an Indian so who better than me, who has grown up within the Indian legal circles, to build that practice and try to excel at it. I was lucky at the time to have finally found a mentor in Joe Tirado and two years into my tenure, I was placed on the grueling partnership track (which takes a year). I still remember very clearly the call from the Chairman of the firm inviting me to join the partnership – it was simply one of the best days of my life”.
We discuss mentorship, the hardship and the growth opportunities that are not always readily or easily available through the journey to partnership in law firms. “I have a lot of people to thank along the way. It would have been impossible to make it without a mentor and having people who believe in you and your practice. I guess it would have been easy to throw in the towel at any of the three firms I have been at. Each were tough, with long hours and immense pressure. I remember my parents saying, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself? You’re working 16 to 18 hours a day. Come back home.’ I think it was just the excitement and the adrenalin and with each new case the immense experience. I was working on some of the biggest and most confidential deals in the world! Most of all, it was the sense of achievement – knowing that I was doing this on my own, but with amazing parents that would be there to pick me up if I failed..”
We discuss the difference between working in India and the UK. “I can’t, even for a minute, say it was easy - every day was hard. What was really difficult to overcome was the way I had been taught to practice law in India – how I was taught to think, draft and analyze. It was completely different than what was expected in London. And, I wasn’t prepared for that. So I placed so much pressure on myself because partners were waiting for well written and analyzed drafts to be delivered to them. The way we are taught in India is very different - the drafting in particular is different. So, what I would do is I would sit and I would correct my own drafts. Then, the five hours extra that I would be working to correct my own drafts, I would obviously not record in the time recording system as ultimately one has to be seen to be as efficient as the others because the competition is huge. I would tell myself that this was towards my own professional development and commitment to becoming a better lawyer. I recall my first few drafts being returned to me with just red lines all over it! I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong because that’s the way that I was taught; and I didn’t realize that it was a completely different system and there were completely different expectations of what was expected of you. I think that was probably the most difficult learning curve for me. Switching and changing your brain to think very differently - which is the right system and which is not? It’s just two very different systems.”
We admire Sherina’s humility in her approach to professional development, and her focus in retraining her skill and ability to critically analyze in order to meet the requirements to practice law in a different country. “Change is good. I think that ultimately, if you don’t keep an open mind, change and challenge yourself, it would be difficult to succeed. I could have thrown in the towel and come back to walk a well-trodden path in Mumbai within a legal community that I had grown up in. But I knew I needed to challenge myself, and if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have survived this system. I would have never been a partner in a top global law firm. It is so important to adapt to the culture of where you choose to live and work, to enjoy what you do and to find firm friends. It’s all about balance. When I was receiving those red-lined drafts, that timid and diffident side of me came back again because I was no longer at the top of the tree that I had been accustomed to. Suddenly, I was back to blossoming.”
Recently, India celebrated 75 years of Independence from British rule. However, removal of the historical oppression and a lack of diversity continues to be discussed at firms across the globe, developing strategies and initiatives to fuel equity and diversity toward building cultures of inclusion. “Law firms are tough places and although they are getting better at diversity initiatives, there is a long road ahead. There are a lot of women who start out at a law firm but sadly very few make it to partnership. It is important for someone entering law to find a mentor who believes in them and pushes their limit, someone that they can talk to – about the ups but more importantly the downs”.
Sherina calls both Mumbai and London home, and takes us through what she appreciates the most living in the countries that have been foundational to her success. “What I love about living in London is that there is always something going on - it is a melting pot of different cultures, a food capital and offers ease of travel to various countries, particularly Europe. Upon finishing work on Friday night, I can still manage (in the pre-COVID era) to catch a flight to escape to a great European destination for the weekend. And then, return early Monday morning for work, going straight in from the airport! I love exploring the world and expanding my mind. Most importantly, the proximity of London to India has kept me close to home. I created and built the India practice both from a professional and personal stand point. Professionally, it made me differentiate myself from others and personally, of course, it allowed me to be home and have the best of both worlds.”
Sherina measures success in tandem, personally and professionally. “I don’t think you can have one without the other. For me, personal and professional success is very much interlinked. It is important to find the right balance between hard work, peace of mind and having fun. Most importantly it is impossible to achieve success without the right support system. To this end, I am blessed to have amazing parents and an extraordinary husband who are truly my north, my south, my east, my west…my working week and my Sunday rest. Each of them in different ways are my friend, philosopher and guide… and I owe them everything.”
Sherina’s journey is inspiring; she has persevered and achieved not only success through hard work and intelligence, but regular self-awareness by identifying characteristics she knew would be instrumental in her ability to lead the personal and professional life she chose to…successfully.
“I would hope that today, with social media, graduating law students work hard, understand their USP and reach out for mentorship. I would be happy to share with them the success I have achieved; but also the failures and difficult moments. But, I wouldn’t call myself anything but ordinary. I’m as ordinary as it gets. I am me. I am just an ordinary contented person…with a law degree.”
Sherina Petit, LL.M
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar Sharma
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