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Fostering Diversity and Inclusivity in Workspaces: An Interview with Aparna Mittal (Batch of 2005)

This interview was conducted by Rhea Prasad, Sreedharan V (Batch of 2024), and Jwalika Balaji (Batch of 2023). It is a part of our #AltCareers Series.

Aparna Mittal graduated from Law School in 2005 and served as the SBA Vice-President during her time here. She went on to work at corporate firms like Luthra & Luthra and AZB till 2017, where she was a partner – Corporate/ Mergers and Acquisitions. In 2018, she founded the Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law. Samāna is a consultancy focused on equality, diversity, and inclusion with a special focus on empowering women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in a multidimensional manner. We asked her to share some of her experiences in her journey in founding a consultancy firm and how they can be applied to make Law School more inclusive.

Part I: The idea of Samāna and understanding ‘consultancy’

Q: As someone who worked at leading law firms in India for over a decade, what prompted you to switch gears and start an organisation like Samāna?

AM: Like many others, I started at a law firm after graduating in 2005. At that time, the legal industry didn’t have many entrepreneurs or people doing completely different things (as compared to recent times). I loved what I did at a law firm and felt that it was very empowering for youngsters. The learning and exposure was immense, and you weren’t judged for being young. You worked on transactions, start to finish, as if they were your matters from day one. But I think after 13-14 years of work, a couple of things happened.

One, I thought that I had hit a plateau of sorts. I had already been a partner for about 4-5 years by 2017. Even though I was working on complex cross border transactions, beyond a point, I felt my skills were not growing horizontally and it felt monotonous.

Two, given the hours we worked at a law firm, it felt like I was living in a bubble. Your interaction with people outside your circle tends to be limited. Everybody you talk to within your circle is talking about the same things. Mostly, I found people solely driven by certain tangible performance parameters set by the organisations, and not so much as by the zest for continuous learning and professional development. So, the level of disenchantment I felt became very high and I thought I really needed to revisit what I was doing.

That’s when I thought that I would take a break and go back to the drawing board. I had also observed a gap in corporate policies and culture in India. In 13-14 years of practice by then, I had never met an (openly out) person from the LGBTQ+ community in client meetings or M&A negotiations; and in fact, there were hardly any women. I was one of the very few women in the room in critical meetings/mandates. Jokes that mocked someone’s religion, caste, or community were commonplace; pejorative words aimed at the LGBTQ+ community were part of casual “banter”. There were glaring gaps in internal policies, processes, and core frameworks to address both workplace harassment and nondiscrimination. All that made me think about exploring the intersectionality of human rights and corporate entities, using the lens of gender mainstreaming, equity, and inclusion, across segments of diversity; perhaps using my experience as a seasoned advisor to now not only fix the culture but also progressively improve systems, policies, and overall frameworks to be more inclusive for members of the marginalized communities.

Q: Moving on to the consultancy process itself, what kind of work does it entail?

AM: Consultancy is not very different from an advisory job. You’re either bringing comprehensive solutions for an identified problem or maybe the problem is not yet identified and you’re tasked with finding it (and then addressing it). Similarly, even in gender or LGBTQ+ focused practice, the idea is seeing what is missing and then advising on how best to fix it.

Having said that, the difference is that in core corporate law practice, there is an underlying law or an underlying statutory framework for a penalty or some kind of repercussion, whether monetary or otherwise which you can leverage to push for compliance and progressive change. Whereas with equality or D&I focused practice, which I engage in now, a lot of times there is no granular law to link the problem. Though the Constitution talks about equality and nondiscrimination in path-breaking ways, the micro-enunciation is often missing, resulting in gaps in enforceability in the private sector. This absence of a legal grounding impacts your ability to push for progressive change and often you have to first create awareness and thought leadership to step forward and commit to inclusion (and inclusive workplaces) in spite of the gaps in the law.

For instance, paternity leave. Caregiving is a job that both partners need to do but there is no statute to mandate paternity leave in the private sector in India. So, this becomes a vicious cycle. Companies will give paid maternity leave because it is legally mandated (and in any case the overall number of women in the workforce is, relatively speaking, lower). But once you advise them to provide paid paternity leave (of at least 1-2 months) for men, who constitute the majority of the workforce, and that too when not legally mandated, the company is unlikely to listen to you. So you have to find a good reason to convince them to actually do it, which I think is both the challenge and fun in this practice.

Inclusivity in institutions and processes

Q: What parameters do you use to assess an organization and how do you come up with specific solutions that work for that organization?

AM: My idea for inclusion (and inclusive workplaces) goes beyond mere quantitative factors or commercial (performance) indicators as I believe in a comprehensive and holistic evaluation. This is based on both qualitative and quantitative parameters (devised by me) which range across internal policies, processes, frameworks, infrastructure, and the culture of the organisation; and creating strong frameworks for anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, capacity building, and affirmative action.

As part of my advisory work, I ensure that I am provided 360 degrees’ feedback across the multiple stakeholders at an organisation. Those insights are closely integrated with the solutions we provide to the organisation based on our assessment of their response to the parameters and the specifics of the organisation (including sector, size, and stage of growth).

That’s a skill I picked up in law school – to hear and address multiple perspectives on the same issue/problem. When I was the Vice President of the Student Bar Association (and had been CR for 4 years and part of multiple committees) I realized the need to be the bridge between the student community and the professors in some way, helping them understand each other’s perspective, talking to them without compromising the other’s position, and yet finding a win-win solution for all.

What I learnt early was that sometimes people are not doing something because they want to discriminate or they want to make life difficult for somebody. Often it’s just a matter of people not knowing the other perspectives or not realizing the impact of their behaviour (or decisions) – more so as these had been made with no stakeholder input. It’s very similar to what we need for good lawmaking – there has to be a connection between the law and the lived experiences of the persons it aims to positively impact. The idea is to bring different stakeholders together, learn from them, and then creatively develop solutions to supplement best practices developed by us based on our experience and credible research.

I think if you can bring this culture, where you focus on data and objective information, and supplement that by collaborative thinking – where you don’t delegitimize either side of the story, and try to work something out by saying ‘let’s talk; let’s go back to the drawing board and just scientifically and collectively work this out’ – that’s the kind of thinking we all as lawyers need to do as well.

Q: What are the learnings here for law students?

AM: I think as law students, we are often caught up with the letter of the law and not the other aspects of it – like the context in which the law was made or the impact law has in ushering in progressive change. I am reminded of one of our professors at NLS – the first few classes that we had with her, she made us explore concepts of objectivity and critical thinking and how different schools of thought impact law and policymaking (and often to the exclusion of other perspectives).

I think the law isn’t always perfect as it’s a dynamic process of lawmaking and law reform. As lawyers, it’s important to contribute to lawmaking and law reform. We need to reflect on where the law needs to be changed or where the law has become outdated. We can’t other the law and the lawmaker and say, “oh you made a law, now we don’t know what to do with it.” We have to work together to find constructive and workable solutions to address the gaps and ambiguities.

One of the key skills to master is the ability to think critically; to apply a fresh mind and a fresh lens to what has been done on autopilot or customarily before, perhaps for years. I don’t think “questioning” should be seen as challenging someone or used with pejorative undertones but rather as something which is enriching because you’re taking real live examples and seeing if it works for everyone in the current context.

We also need to make the law accessible – both in terms of language and simplicity.

Q: This problem of inclusion and diversity has been cropping up a lot lately at Law School. There are a lot of issues when it comes to things like mooting or committee selections, where English fluency or knowledge of popular culture are seen as some very important parameters. There is always this bias where you feel that the gatekeepers are looking for people from a particular background.

AM: Something that I learnt in Law School (again) is that the more diverse and vibrant the community is, the richer your experiences and learnings are. When I was in law school there was one academic block, and all activities happened there – from classes to library; from computer lab to all events and programs; from debating to Pictionary; from quad parties to even waiting in queue for your turn for a viva or project presentation.

There was no technology access and internet in the hostel rooms when I was in Law School, so you had to come to the acad block and quad for everything! The best thing was it also made sure that you were interacting with more people – there was a sense of familiarity and community. As it was inherently such a diverse community and you interacted a lot more with everyone, it reduced the ability to ‘other’ somebody. I personally believe that a lot of learning happens outside the classroom. I would think that the more you interact with people, especially outside the classroom, those barriers which come in the way of really knowing your peers and batchmates would reduce.

English and technology are similar in some ways, even as they open up the world and bring it closer, they also (still) exclude a lot of people. On one hand, there is the advanced benefit that technology brings by enhancing your ability to reach people but at the same time, there exists the ability to misuse or both unintended or intended exclusion of certain people. That’s where I think people who are devising systems or processes need to really see that while we are leveraging the benefit of a particular tool to achieve scale or efficiency, at the same time, we also have to use a critical eye to see who we are missing out and think from (and seek) multiple lenses and perspectives.

Q: Who would you say are your role models for working in an area like this and inspire your outlook, with particular reference to inclusion and diversity?

AM: I’ll be honest, I don’t have one or two specific role models. I think that learning comes from everyone, including those whose behaviour you don’t look up to.

With regards to the D&I space, in my last 2.5-3 years at Samāna I’ve met a lot of people from the transgender community, LGBTQ+ community, and women who don’t have the kind of privilege that many of us do and I think in some way, they all have become my role models. Hearing their struggles makes you question your own role and contribution. When I see how many people, with limited means, resources, and support, have done so much and in such wonderful ways, it inspires me to do more. What also drives me is that you can see how your work can truly impact someone’s life and their lived experiences and also positively influence companies to become catalysts of social change

Part II: Performance goals, taking the road not taken, and setting boundaries

Q: You spoke about the similarities and differences between working in a traditional law firm environment and working in a consultancy. What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to make a shift like that?

AM: The first thing is that regardless of where you’re working, before thinking of shifting, please believe in yourself and have faith in your abilities. There are multiple homogenous performance parameters stipulated by organisations – they may not actually be sufficient to assess the wide range of skills and abilities that people possess and hence should not limit you from exploring your full potential. Performance parameters such as how long it takes you to reach a particular designation may be good generic guiding posts but these should not be the only milestones one should consider. It’s important to focus on multi-dimensional and qualitative learning and skill-building.

I think deviating from the ‘norm’ is difficult because of the sense of judgment attached to such a choice. A lot of people laughed at me when I was starting Samāna. People used to call me and say, “Oh you have opened an NGO” or “hey what went wrong that you quit law firm partnership?”. I was quite surprised, actually disappointed at people’s lack of imagination (they believe any work in the gender/LGBTQ+ space has to be an NGO) and their outright condescension with career transition and engaging in an area that’s not transactional lawyering. I just find the trend of having ‘coolness’ associated with certain kinds of law practice really disturbing and elitist – more so when, ironically, we are in fact servicing the same (corporate) clients! Since this judgment (and often unsolicited remarks) remain almost inevitable, you have to develop a thick skin and carry on doing what you truly believe in.

The second thing is that everyone should have their own drawing board. Why am I doing this? What do I want to do differently from the multiple players in the market? What value can I add? What is my core idea, vision, and approach? If I have to tweak the same, I have to do it because I am convinced, not because others tell me to or it’s the norm. One example of this is when I started Samāna, a lot of my friends who were partners at law firms said, “Oh you’ve started this. Why don’t you get an advisory board?” And I was just not convinced with the idea of having an advisory board given this was then an unprecedented, upcoming, and niche area of practice in India and really, we were one of the first to set sail in this territory. I had a very clear blueprint for Samāna and I wanted to learn on my own – what works (and what doesn’t) and keep building learnings from our daily experiences (with clients and communities) into improving our services – both the range and depth. With God’s grace and a lot of hard work, things have worked out well for Samāna now and we hope to keep working tirelessly towards making corporate India truly inclusive for all persons from diverse identities.

The last point is that there are just no shortcuts. Entrepreneurship is a tough and unique journey. You have to decide what’s important to your plan, manage the entrepreneurial and financial risk and burden, give yourself enough time to develop and establish the practice, make decisions stemming from your own convictions, and most importantly, practice stellar professional ethics. Having said that, I personally believe that hard work, integrity, and working consistently with a good conscience can open doors for you and really help you create what you want to.

Q: Is running a company or working in such a field more difficult for women and queer people? Would you have any lessons specifically for women and queer people who face additional hurdles?

AM: Yes, it is more difficult, unfortunately. As a cisgender woman who has worked with the whole range of corporates, I really think that it is relatively more difficult (than for men). From what I am told by my friends from the LGBTQ+ community, it is far more difficult for them.

My advice would be that you have to stand up for yourself, reiterate the need for professional behaviour, refuse to be talked down to or belittled because of your age, gender or sexual orientation, grab opportunities (even create them where possible), and let your work quality do the talking.

Say you face a sexist remark as a younger female lawyer from a client and the senior from your team does not call it out. It can be initially overwhelming to deal with this yourself but you must try to find a way to call it out and address it. Build the confidence to have difficult conversations and define certain boundaries that clients, colleagues, and even seniors should respect. Over time you will also find your tribe, however rare, who share your sense of what’s right and wrong, who will help you stand up for yourself and give you good advice when you need it.

Q: In October-November 2018, there was this massive #MeToo Movement in Law School. The SHARIC code is considered inaccessible and many people aren’t happy with the mechanism. Given your experience in this field, what are some ways to create a safer space in Law School?

AM: These are very important points. There are three things I want to say. One, any kind of behaviour which demeans or humiliates anyone, whether it’s on grounds of caste, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or otherwise, is wrong and it should not happen. There should really be zero tolerance for such behaviour.

Two, there has to be a strong focus on creating awareness, helping people understand what is unacceptable behaviour in this regard, defining (and explaining) the values of the organisation to every member of the organisation, and constant reiteration.

The third thing is of course that there has to be a robust and unambiguous framework for inquiry, resolution, and consequences and this should work in a prompt, credible, and decisive manner.

Part III: Law School life – Gyaan and Memories

Q: Aparna, when you talked about your shift from your traditional law firm job to Samāna, you said there was a lot of judgement from your colleagues and peers and it was hard to create a space for yourself. That happens in Law School as well. How was your Law School experience in that regard and what advice would you give to students?

AM: Thankfully, while at NLS, I had a very supportive class and very good friends (and mentors) across batches, who cared more about qualitative and informed choices over customary paths. The focus really was to follow your own (diverse) aspirations and explore your skills and talents and not so much on quantitative outcomes.

My suggestion would be to take peer pressure with a pinch (or maybe a big bag) of salt. There will always be peer pressure, whether it is regarding mooting, the number of internships, or opting for traditional law firm jobs. Focus on quality and depth of learning and experience and try and explore your own aspirations, dreams, and potential with informed and balanced decisions and guidance. If you’ve applied your mind and have understood what you want to do professionally, which comes with a lot of deliberation, risk analysis, mitigation, and soul-searching, then you’re good to go. So, think out your plans, have a backup plan, and just sail with it.

Lastly, be kind to people. Everyone is trying in their own way and it’s nicer to be supportive of people’s professional endeavours than be condescending or unnecessarily judgmental.

Q: Finally Aparna, what are some things you loved about law school and looking back now, now can you tell us about your fondest memory from your five years?

AM: I had an enriching and overall good time in law school.

I think the student community then was quite vibrant and close-knit and you interacted with a lot more people and I had a lot of friends from across batches. Apart from the social aspect, there was a lot of multi-dimensional learning outside the classroom as well. If you wanted to discuss Noam Chomsky, you could sit in the quadrangle and chat with peers who were experts on Noam Chomsky. If you wanted to participate in a musical activity but you had no singing skills, you could still volunteer to organise the music fest! Or that the library was such a treasure –it’s quite difficult to find that range in one place.

One key aspect was that students could organise new activities and initiatives on their own, often with limited means but driven by sheer motivation and determination. This evening, my batchmates were reminiscing that the first edition of Spiritus was organized by them, the first Law School debate was started by them. There was always a role and space for everyone to get involved. I remember the flagship Le Gala and Strawberry Fields used to be on campus and the students did it all! That feeling and experience of collaborative work, boundless determination and the ability to pursue a dream or plan really is a confidence booster in many ways. Often to last you a lifetime!

Q: It’s really nice to hear this Aparna and we wish more people talked about how Law School was, so we can take some time to reflect and see why it’s changed.

AM: Yes, really just focus on learning, professional development, making friends and getting to know people. I think that each interaction and experience can teach you something. In my time at NLS there were no mobile phones (at least till my 5th year when some folks got them), there was no internet or data on mobiles or in your hostel room, and to make a phone call you had to queue up at that one phone booth which catered to 500+ students. Your lasting friendships often developed at the phone booth while waiting in line. My batchmate (and dear friend) Leah and I were part of the hostel General Welfare Committee (GWC) and it was often difficult to coordinate with the electrician (as there were no phones). So we kept a stock of spare tube lights in her room and the two of us would go and change the tube lights ourselves whenever someone needed a change in their hostel room and every time, we made a new pal! (laughs).

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