Tharani Dharmaraj also believes that skills shortage is the profession's biggest challenge
As a champion of cultural diversity and inclusion at Baker McKenzie, it’s no surprise that special counsel Tharani Dharmaraj would choose to spend a day with Michelle Obama, who Dharmaraj considers “a really inspirational role model for women.”
Dharmaraj believes that firms need to prioritise the development and retention of senior female lawyers, many of whom leave due to the difficulty of balancing work and family life. High turnover within firms have also created a skills shortage issue, which she considers to be the legal profession’s biggest challenge.
In this interview, Dharmaraj talks how lawyers need to develop soft skills, cultivating “unseen” talent and ascending to special counsel despite taking maternity leave and working part time.
What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?
I must admit that I did a law degree as I thought that it would give me options in terms of what I wanted to have as a career. I did a summer clerkship at Baker McKenzie and realised pretty quickly that being a transactional lawyer was what I wanted to do, and I have remained with the firm since then.
As an M&A lawyer, what I really enjoy is helping the client with working out the last few knotty issues to get a deal over the line and being a problem solver. You get to work with some incredibly smart and talented people, and you learn so much from them.
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
There's always a lot going on at Baker McKenzie. I'm part of the BakerDNA Committee which focuses on cultural diversity and inclusion and one of the current initiatives we are implementing is a mentoring program to develop often "unseen" talent. Given the prevalence of remote working and lack of face-to-face social interactions in recent times, I think these types of programs are important in developing and supporting young lawyers.
What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?
The use of global collaboration platforms for legal project management is great to have on large scale, multi-jurisdictional transactions to increase efficiency and quality.
What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
I was promoted to special counsel last year which I'm really proud of. It was tough to get there whilst having been on two 12-month stints of maternity leave in quick succession and working part-time over the past few years.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
As part of the development of junior lawyers, I think it’s important to put in more structured programs to develop the soft skills of lawyers, particularly in relation to business development.
Law firms should also focus more on developing and retaining senior female lawyers. You tend to find a lot of senior female lawyers leaving law firms because of the struggles of juggling young families with work, and I think it's important to provide support and try and minimise this in order to achieve gender diversity at the partnership level.
What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
I think the biggest challenge is the skills shortage, caused by a high turnover in law firms. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way in which people work and the need for flexible working arrangements. The challenge is to find the right balance between being able to work flexibly away from the office and having the in-person human connection in social interactions. If the right balance is not struck, it will further exacerbate the problem.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I'm looking forward to helping the transactional practice group expand our practice and riding the M&A boom and working on some exciting matters with clients.
If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?
I'd love to spend a day with Michelle Obama. She is a really inspirational role model for women and someone that I can relate to. I admire her work in relation to promoting education for young girls and championing gender diversity.