Being Zia Mody

Being Zia Mody

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Several of India’s top business leaders – from Mukesh Ambani to Cyrus Mistry – have Zia Mody’s number on speed dial. As founder and senior partner of AZB & Partners, Mody judiciously divides her time between dispensing legal advice to India Inc. and scaling up one of India’s most profitable corporate law firms.


cover-storyLaw firms and luxury brands have one thing in common; they thrive on legacy.  Some of the nation’s most sought-after corporate law firms – like Amarchand Mangaldas (now split between brothers Cyril and Shardul Shroff) and Khaitan & Co –  have been in existence for over a 100 years now.

The cross-pollination this brought was tremendous and we set out to build a powerful legal firm.”  – Zia Mody of teaming up with Bahram Vakil and Ajay Bahl to form AZB & Partners

Then again, there are brands that break free from the clutches of ancestry and taste success, early in the game. A classic example being AZB & Partners (AZB), founded by Zia Mody. While it kickstarted operations only in 2004, within only a few years, it became the trusted partner of several Indian billionaires, aided by the rich expertise its partners had in the area of mergers and acquisitions law.

In the first year of setting up the partnership, AZB was brought in by Tata Steel, to advice on the US $500 million acquisition of Singapore-based NatSteel.  As Koushik Chatterjee, the then group executive director (finance) at Tata Steel admitted in an interview with Fortune India; Mody’s advice played a crucial role in seeing the transaction through.

Thereon, the firm stood at the forefront of some of India Inc.’s largest cross-border transactions. The firm advised Tata Motors on the acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover for US $2.3 billion in 2008; when Sunil Mittal was gearing up to buy the Africa business of Zain Telecom for over US $9 billion he turned to Mody; she was also the adviser of choice in the mergers of Carin-Vedanta, East India Hotels-Reliance and UTV-Disney.

Progressive moves to success

Over the last decade, Mody has managed several transformations at the firm, which made it nimble enough to grow successfully and stay on course to build a legal powerhouse.

As a first, AZB moved beyond just managing M&As to operating as a full service law firm with key practice areas in private equity, litigation, capital markets, real estate, regulatory, banking and finance and competition law. “A lot of these practice areas started off to support the M&A function. For example, we would take up litigation to support a case at hand. Today, it has become a major practice in itself. I think the biggest transformation for AZB was going beyond our M&A comfort zone,” explains Mody. Over the course of the last decade, geographical expansion became the other key focus area for the firm. From being a Mumbai-centric firm with 30 to 40 lawyers, at present, the firm has over 300 lawyers in various cities across India. “We are always on the lookout for brilliant lawyers who have a good reputation in the marketplace,” says Mody while elaborating that with the talent, newer opportunities have come calling. For example, currently, the firm also has a thriving venture capital practice; it advised Softbank and Falcon Edge Capital in the US $225 million investment in Ola Cabs.

Before any court battle, Mody has a preset routine. She gets briefed, debates the points of the case internally and is deeply conscious of what the other side should be thinking and doing.

The other transformation and perhaps, the most important, was positioning AZB as a brand versus relying entirely on its name partners – Zia Mody, Bahram Vakil and Ajay Bahl. The challenge for several law firms, world over, is that the firm often revolves around the brand and the connections of one or two name partners. To change this, Mody and team, carefully built practice areas with partners at the helm. For instance, the Softbank-Ola deal was managed end-to-end by AZB’s Bengaluru partners – Srinath Dasari and Nandhita Gopal. And, name partner Bahl, who runs the firm’s New Delhi operations, was the one who spearheaded the Bharati-Zain transaction.

In a day’s work

I first met Mody at the launch of KStart, the seedfund recently launched by Kalaari Capital. (Mody is one of the mentors roped in by Kalaari’s Vani Kola). I walked up to her to explain the vision for The Smart CEO and requested for an interview. With a warm smile, she agreed to meet me in her Mumbai office, a few days later. I knew I wasn’t going to get much time and I prepared accordingly. Mody was ranked No. 5 in Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women List and the magazine carried an elaborate feature on her firm. I also read about Mody’s childhood experiences in a wonderfully written book called Captainship (a book I absolutely recommend for its freshness of content and how the author has managed to gather the influence of ones’ childhood experiences on future business success).

I jotted down a set of questions, lighter ones so to speak, to understand the working style of Mody. Her answers were quick. It was almost like a rapid fire round that I wish I had gotten a hold of on video.

Take four

As Mody explains, her responsibilities can be broken up into four parts. First, there’s the judgment call where she steps in to help her colleagues out. “These are sort of in and out meetings,” she says. Then, there are several cases which demand her personal attention; she also plays a key role in managing the firm’s people, process and interaction of partners and finally, there is business development.

I also want to know all I can about how her management style has evolved over the years. She says, “I’d like to believe I have become a lot calmer. My reactions were a lot more intense when I was young. I think I have become less neurotic,” she says with a hearty laugh. Make no mistake, the calm is not to be mistaken for a lack of ambition for AZB. “We want to become the powerhouse of Indian law firms both in terms of people and quality,” she says while adding, “We do understand that the opportunity to do good work is often more important than money.” I throw in a question on whether high-technology is going to impact the future of law firms and pat comes the response. “People say artificial intelligence is going to change the way we work. I haven’t seen it yet but I am sure it’ll come. It’s inevitable.”

It’s not hard to predict that the best advice Mody has ever gotten has been from her father, Soli Sorabjee, who also happens to be one of India’s greatest lawyers and the former attorney general of India. “First, you’re an officer of the court. The client comes second,” she states from memory. Living by this statement is something she does ingrain in her colleagues at the firm.

The draw to ethics is also possibly why Mody fondly recalls the Public Interest Litigation cases she fought for Bombay Environmental Action Group against fraudulent builders, early in her career. “We used to argue ourselves without senior lawyers and it was a lot of fun,” reminisces Mody.

Before any court battle, Mody has a preset routine. She gets briefed, debates the points of the case internally and is deeply conscious of what the other side should be thinking and doing. While on the topic of court battles, I ask her about managing ones’ emotions in the middle of a tightly fought case and she advises, “You just become objective.

You never manage your emotions because you always want to win. Over time, you learn to rationalise it better. Bad facts make bad law. You can’t change the facts. As you grow older, you simply realise, someone has to lose and you move on.” Mody believes that, as a trusted adviser, it is crucial to be a great listener. “You must be inclusive and carry people along with your thought process. It’s important for you to have the ability to change your view,” she opines.

Life before work

By all accounts Mody had a privileged upbringing. Her dad, of course, was her legal inspiration, while her mother was instrumental in ensuring that Mody took her career very seriously. In her narration for the book, Captainship, Mody explains the meaning of the word ‘Zia’. It means radiance and Mody says her parents probably loved the idea of light and its transparency. Naturally, they advised Mody to “never lie, never cheat and never climb over someone else to win.”

Mody’s tryst with the law began at Selwyn College, Cambridge post which she pursued her master’s in Law at Harvard Law. Thereafter, she passed the New York Bar and went on to work for Baker & McKinsey, one of the city’s premier law firms.

Back in Mumbai, Mody worked with Obed Chinoy, whom she regards as one of her key mentors. A few years later, she started her own practice, before merging with Vakil in 2002 and Bahl in 2004. “The cross-pollination this brought was tremendous and we set out to build a powerful legal firm,” she says.

As my interview with Mody draws to a close, I ask her if she sees herself as a businesswoman or lawyer and she simply says, “50/50.” I assume this is with reference to how she divides her time between dealing with cases and building her firm. However short my interaction with this formidable woman, I was inspired by the humility and simplicity of a leader; being a lawyer or businesswoman remains secondary as this is someone who has achieved a whole lot without ever forgetting the basic laws of life.

It’s a big deal 

AZB & Partners is among the country’s top-3 corporate law firms and, probably, the most sought-after for mega mergers and acquisitions

  • Bharati Airtel’s US $9 billion acquisition of Zain Telecom’s Africa business
  • Tata Motors’ buyout of JLR in a US $2.3 billion transaction
  • Fortis Healthcare’s acquisition of Parkway Holdings for US $685 million
  • Tata Steel’s US $500 million acquisition of NatSteel
  • Cairn-Vedanta merger
  • Disney’s acquisition of Ronnie Screvala’s UTV
  • Softbank’s investment in Ola

Outside of work

Zia Mody is sharing her experience with “big business” to nurture, mentor and give back to India’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

  • She’s a mentor at KStart, seedfund part of Kalaari Capital
  • Angel investor in a few technology startups including beauty products startup, Nykaa

She has authored the book – 10 Judgments That Changed India

Prem Sivakumaran is co-founder & CEO of Growth Mechanics, a leadership and entrepreneurship-focused business content company in India. Growth Mechanics publishes The Smart CEO, a publication focused on enabling peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among C-level executives and board members. The platform reaches over 1.2 lakh CXOs across its website, app, print publication & CEO Round Tables, and has featured on the cover India’s leading business leaders/founders from Infosys, Mindtree, Tata Sons, ICICI Bank, Biocon, Yes Bank and several others. In addition of Smart CEO, Growth Mechanics also organises the Startup50 Conference & Awards, an annual event to recognize India’s top 50 startups every year. Startup50 Alumni include Freshdesk, Oyo Rooms, Urban Ladder, Capital Float, Paperboat Beverages, among others. Growth Mechanics’ primary business model revolves around linking CXOs and Brands around engaging content and has worked with India’s leading companies including Mahindra Group, Godrej & Boyce, BASF, Airtel, Tata Docomo, Fiat, IDA Ireland, Yes Bank, Prestige Estates, Frederique Constant, Indian Terrain

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