I look around the room and I am ready for it. Ready to save our client some serious money by getting the Judge to stay the encashment of the client’s bank guarantees until the dispute is decided. The Judge / arbitrator sits languidly at the head of a long narrow table, old and white, with an indifferent expression on his face. The man who has the luxury of coming unprepared to a hearing like this and doling out decisions worth millions of dollars. The counsel on both sides will stop at nothing to please him (and he knows it) but he will keep up pretences of the highest professionalism so that he keeps getting appointed by the parties to resolve other commercial disputes / arbitrations.
The opposing counsel sit facing each other along the length of the table, each watching the other with hawk eyes. My boss and I are on one side and five men – some counsel, some client – on the other. My boss turns to me, ‘I will deal with the legal issues, you take the factual ones’. I nod without expression but my inner self has erupted into the Macarena. Yay! I get to speak! Ofcourse I am up for it. I drafted the 100-page Statement of Claim from scratch, I know each exhibit by the back of my hand, I spent hours putting together the compilation of past cases on the issue involved. I am feeling so grateful to my boss for throwing me this crumb! I know chances like these are hard to come by. Most seniors don’t permit their junior counsel to speak at hearings. You have to wait till you are grey to get a crack at it. I will make sure he will not regret it. I will ace the facts, we will walk out with the order we want, and this story will do the rounds of office till kingdom come. The young girl of thirty who defeated opponents twice her age, impressed a retired Supreme Court Judge and got relief worth millions for her client.
I am trying to keep a serious face as we begin arguments. My boss goes first, he speaks crisply and with impeccable clarity about the legal baselessness of threatened encashment. He is just about five sentences in when the judge stops him. The Judge turns to look behind him and for the first time I notice a thin, frail, woman with a notepad seated in the shadows away from the table. She wears a look which says she’d rather let the ground beneath her feet swallow her whole than be subjected to the gaze of the eight lawyers now looking at her. I wasn’t aware the judge had made arrangements to transcribe the hearing (as he should have done but as I simply presumed he had forgotten to do as is common in short hearings of this kind).
The Judge asks her, ‘have you written that down, Seema?’.
‘Writing sir, will take some more time’, she responds.
I roll my eyes. How silly of me to be so quickly impressed. Clearly she is not a professional stenographer but someone from the Judge’s staff who has been roped in at the last minute.
We wait in silence. She takes another minute and with a ‘done sir’ shows him what she’s got.
He sighs, ‘this won’t do…’. He looks around the room and rests his eyes on me.
‘You, can you transcribe while the other counsels speak?’.
I don’t miss a beat, ‘sure sir’.
So what if I am a qualified lawyer in two countries with a double scholarship from Cambridge and top-notch international experience on my CV. I am a young, well-dressed, well-spoken, girl. Nothing about my age, appearance or gender gives credence to my status as a ‘serious professional’. I cannot possibly have anything of substance to add to the hearing. That is for the grown-ups.
These presumptions were carved out for me the moment I became a lawyer and I have internalised them over the years. I am not at all upset about the Judge’s demand. I am in a room full of people of another gender and twice my age. I am feeling that I should justify my presence here with more than just my qualifications and experience. I am happy at being presented with the opportunity to do so by transcribing the proceedings.
‘If I may, Your Lordship, she is a counsel on this case. She will not be in a position to do this’.
What? Who? I turn my head to look at my boss who is seated beside me and is now addressing the Judge. What is the need for this? I wonder. This will just make the Judge unhappy and reduce our chances of getting a favourable order. He turns to me with a look that says, ‘let me handle it’ and I slink into my chair.
The Judge is visibly peeved, ‘I am not asking her for the moon, surely she can do a simple transcription’, he says. Condescending smiles everywhere.
‘Yes, she can, but she is here to represent her client not transcribe the hearing, which I am sure can be done by someone with lesser qualifications’.
The Judge snaps with impatience, ‘unfortunately we don’t have anyone with lesser qualifications’. More smiles. ‘We won’t have any transcription if she doesn’t do it. Are you happy with that?’
My boss pauses, and then, ‘it is not ideal, Your Lordship, but perhaps we could adjourn until tomorrow and find someone to do the job’.
Long, sullen, silence. The Judge looks threateningly at my boss. My boss avoids his gaze and focusses on some object beyond the table. His face bears no expression at all.
After what seems like an eternity, the Judge gives up, ‘alright, lets continue without transcription for now, we will cover some ground and leave the rest of the arguments for tomorrow’.
I can barely believe my ears. Did they really spend five minutes of precious hearing-time discussing me? Did the Judge really give in? Was I, a fledgling junior, worthy of the dignity of a professional?
If I wasn’t there I wouldn’t have believed it. After the hearing was over, my boss and I walked out in silence. I am sure he forgot all about it the moment it was over, but I relayed that short exchange over and over in my mind. This man had risked his rapport with the Judge, the outcome of his case and his relationship with the client to do right by me – a nobody, someone of no consequence in his life, someone he barely knew. And I had done nothing at all to stand up for myself. I was struck by his sense of propriety and shaken at the realisation that I had fallen prey to the very prejudices which were working against me.
Ever since that day, whenever I catch myself giving in to peer pressure or succumbing to societal notions of who I am or who I should be I take a moment to straighten my back. I go back to that hearing room in my mind and it pushes me to do what is right for me. After all, if he could stand up for me then, why can’t I stand up for me now? I am sure he had no inkling that his small resistance to a small injustice would have such a profound impact on my life. Then again, maybe he knew all along.