The steady, inspiring rise of Zia Mody


April 8, 2015

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You’ve seen them at the peak of their careers — P Chidambaram, Dimple Kapadia, Rajdeep Sardesai, Shashi Tharoor and many more.

But what were they like when they were 25? What was India like when they were that young? And what can young India learn from their lives?

Shaili Chopra‘s book, When I was 25, traces the youth of these (among many other) successful personalities as they open up about the challenges they faced and the choices they made to reach where they are today.

In the following extract, Chopra narrates the steady and inspiring rise of Zia Mody:


Dealmaker or dealbreaker, Zia Mody is a quintessential workaholic, and thrives on long, busy days.

She is among India’s most prolific lawyers and a mascot for career women who pursue their passions despite familial responsibilities.

She believes nothing should come in the way of your ability to work and you should give it your best shot.

She is driven, honest, never ducks from hard work, and has to her credit some of the country’s top deals.

And this success has almost nothing to do with the house she was born in.

Former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee’s daughter may have chosen law inspired by her dad’s experience but Zia Mody is a woman after her own dreams and passions.

In a career spanning three decades, she has built a formidable reputation in corporate law and is known to clinch deals for clients when seemingly all hope is lost.

She is heard.

Her experience brings gravitas.

She engages with the young and the greyed with equal elan.

I am slated to meet Zia Mody in her office at Nariman Point in Mumbai and Zia arrives in an elegant pink outfit.

She is carrying a tiny box, which she unclips to reveal a lovely string of big pearls.

These are her permanent baubles, her fashion statement that India Inc has come to identify her with.

Her elegant dressing, razor sharp mind, and pertinent questions — these are the defining features of our meeting.

We are chatting over a cup of tea with jaggery, as she avoids processed sugar for health reasons.

The last decade, one can say, has been Zia’s.

She has occupied headlines for cracking big deals.

And behind the success is a story of remarkable grit and intuitive learning in India’s courts which can disillusion and dissuade any hot shot lawyer in a single day.

Dirty courtrooms, a male-dominated profession, tough colleagues and more.

‘Women were regarded as a mysterious exception, especially in litigation.

‘But things have certainly changed for the better,’ she recalls with amusement.

For someone who wanted to be an airhostess as a young girl, Zia’s twenties redefined her life and her career.

‘I have had an overriding passion and I loved the law.’

Mody’s early education was at Elphinstone College, Mumbai.

She went on to study law at Selwyn College, Cambridge University, followed by a Master’s degree from Harvard Law School in 1979.

She passed the New York State Bar examination, and qualified as an attorney in the State of New York.

As a dynamic leader, Zia has always encouraged young talent around her. She believes it brings her an added advantage, improves her team, and helps her connect and learn with the new generation.

‘There is a bounce in my step when a youngster wins an argument against me of a legal nature. I see it on a legal point, I learn.’

Zia Mody arrived back in India at 23 by when she had already spent time working with Baker & McKenzie in New York City.

‘There I was, one of many, getting honed and figuring out the skill sets needed to grow into a lawyer,’ she remembers.

‘My understanding was getting sharpened and I was doing great corporate work.’

But when she returned to India, Zia stepped into the real courts, in her black band and gown, dealing with cases on a daily basis compared with more research and case studies of corporate houses across deal tables as was her experience as a junior in the US.