At Amicus Partners, one of the of my biggest learnings is that education and growth (personal and professional) need not always be a linear process. Nor are there always template answers and pathways for finding success.
And this is where the idea behind “The Alternates” came up – have people followed non-traditional routes to find success? And if so, what are the difficulties they faced, and what are the things they have learnt along the way?
In this edition, we get NUJS graduate (’09) Annie Philip to share a few thoughts. Annie is currently the Lead, Compliance and Regulatory Policy at Sahaas Zero Waste, a position she took up in 2018.
So, let’s start from the start? What got you interested in the study of law, and looking back, are you happy with the choice made?
I must admit that I was not one of those teenagers who knew exactly what they wanted to do after school. I was very certain that I did not want to do engineering or medicine. Oceans and forests held great interest for me but at that point in time, I did not know the careers that were possible in those fields expect the Indian Forest Service.
I was also interested in law and journalism and a big reason for that were books, movies and my idea of what lawyers and journalists do (because I didn’t have any real exposure to them). Finally, I gravitated towards law and wrote the entrance exams for NLS, NUJS and NALSAR. I did not get through any of them in my first attempt and my Class 12 marks were not particularly great either.
That, along with my naivety, led me to join Rizvi Law College in Mumbai for a year. While it was not the best decision academically, living alone in Mumbai at 17 and figuring my way in the city was an incomparable life lesson.
“While it was not the best decision academically, living alone in Mumbai at 17 and figuring my way in the city was an incomparable life lesson.”
Anyway, the next year I again wrote the entrance exam for NUJS, got through and here I am now. Looking back, I realise that a lot of what happened was a combination of circumstances and chance/luck and not just pure design. And I am definitely happy with the way everything played out, including Rizvi!
Again, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you think legal education shaped your perspective? Any aspects of education that you wish would change?
I think looking at just legal education would be too narrow a perspective. In hindsight, I would say living the residential law school life for five years, with the classes, projects, midnight conversations with college besties, moots, internships and generally, navigating through law school, played an instrumental role in what life after law school would look like.
Personally, I was lucky to be surrounded by friends who were unconventional and that helped me have a unique perspective. For example, one of my closest friends wanted to be a police officer since the day she joined law school and another one always wanted to work on human rights and with refugees. That led to a lot of conversations and ideas around civic responsibilities, ethics and how law could be used beyond just traditional careers.
With respect to our legal education, while there were some gaping holes, it made me realise the importance of research and having an eye for detail. It inculcated logical thinking and drafting and instilled the ability and confidence for clear communication.
“I wish there was more emphasis on social responsibility, empathy and the role that lawyers could play in bringing about positive transformations in the society.”
As for the things I could change – I wish there was more focus on practical learning rather than theoretical classes and rote learning (to an extent). I thought teaching assistantships was an incredible idea and it should have been extended beyond just one semester. Clinics were not given any importance during my time which is a pity because it could have been one of the most effective ways to understand procedural laws.
Finally and most importantly, I wish there was more emphasis on social responsibility, empathy and the role that lawyers could play in bringing about positive transformations in the society.
After graduating, you chose to work in a law firm, and spent a good amount of time there. What were some of the more enjoyable aspects of this line of work?
Contrary to popular belief about people who leave law firms, I did (mostly) enjoy my time in law firms (albeit the stress and hours), made some great friends and learnt so so much!
It cannot be denied that law firms attract some of the smartest minds in the legal fraternity, and therefore, being surrounded by them provides an excellent opportunity to challenge yourself, to keep acquiring new skills and learning more and more.
Plus there is something cool about knowing the shareholding pattern, funding details and internal workings of the companies that delivers your food, operates the cabs you ride, manufactures stuff that you see in supermarkets, operates the restaurants that you eat at etc.etc.
Now, to the more interesting part, before joining Saahas, you opted to travel for a long, long time. How was this experience? Any particularly fond memories that you wish to share of this time?
It sounds clichéd but the experience was incredible and life-changing. I travelled for almost 8 months across 3 continents and there was just so much to soak in! Apart from the sheer beauty and diversity of the places themselves, the travels put me in situations which were truly out of my comfort zones. And all those experiences really helped towards an immense amount of personal growth.
I could go on about the fond memories from my travels but I would say that every day I spent in South America was super special. Snorkelling with sea lions, turtles, marine iguanas, sharks (and pretty much, every other marine animal that one sees in Nat Geo) in the Galapagos islands, being lost amongst the Inca ruins in Peru, driving through the most hauntingly beautiful salt pans in Bolivia, walking through the Amazon forests, meandering through Laz Paz and Cusco, meeting the friendliest people along the way and eating some of the most delicious food I have ever had in life – each experience was exceptional!
“There are a lot of broken things in the world that can be fixed only if people from all walks of life start thinking and acting differently.”
That was one part of the story and the other one was realising how many places I visited in South America had the same issues as India – poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, exploitation, dysfunctional systems etc. However, like in India, these issues and circumstances didn’t seem to affect the warmth, friendliness, resilience or happiness shown by the people there. These experiences undeniably fed into a growing awareness in me that there are a lot of broken things in the world that can be fixed only if people from all walks of life start thinking and acting differently.
How did you land up at Saahas? What is the kind of work you do here, and what aspects of it do you enjoy the most? What is a typical day (pre-COVID) at Saahas like?
When I left AZB, I knew I was going to work on some aspect of the environment – that love for forests, oceans and everything they hold was not dimmed by all the years in a law firm! So the initial leaning was towards biodiversity conservation. However, during my travels, I was truly exposed to scale of the waste crisis, especially in South America. The sight of plastic bottles during hikes in Peru or tissue paper in the Bolivian salt pans– some of the remotest corners of the world, bothered me so much.
Once I returned to India, I started reading and understanding more about the waste crisis. It fascinated and scared me at the same time. Friends and family joked that it took a sabbatical and travels to South America to understand that waste is an issue, especially with all the dumpsites in India! It was again a reminder how much law firm life keeps us in a comfortable bubble where we are insulated from some of the harsher realities of Indian society.
Anyway, in my readings, I came across Saahas Zero Waste, an organisation which is doing some incredible work around holistic waste management in Indian cities. I wrote to them regarding my interest in working with them and a month later, I took the plunge into this new unknown sector. That was February 2018 and since then, each day has been a learning experience.
My work at SZW is a mixed bag! I do regular corporate law work such as compliance, review of contracts, documentation for our impact investment etc. But the more interesting part of my work is working with governmental authorities in making policies and laws on waste management, conducting workshops and training sessions to build their capacities, visiting waste processing sites and landfills in different parts of the country and doing practical research on the issues relating to waste. It is also one of those sectors that has you segregating waste manually from dustbins at a cricket match and then taking you to conferences around the world. It is this diversity and flexibility in work along with the opportunity to make small differences in the bigger scheme of climate change and environment that I most love about my work.
When making the choice to move to Saahas, how did you evaluate the financial repercussions of such a move?
My assessment of the financial repercussions has been called irrational by some people! Sometime in my 5th year at AZB, I started to think more deeply about purpose of work, personal contribution to society and the ability to make unconventional choices. That was also the time I started considering at what number (of savings), would I consider leaving a law firm and the great deal of money that it provides. My colleagues and I actually played a game in office and everyone had such wildly differing numbers. That was my first realisation that there is no right number and a decision like this was very personal and had to go beyond factoring just money.
“There is no right number and a decision like this was very personal and had to go beyond factoring just money.”
At year 8, I did a review of my savings and figured that the amount seemed decent enough to be a financial cushion in case of any emergency. I should also point out here that I was also single and asset-free and incredibly lucky to not have any loans, financial responsibility towards family and other liabilities. This meant that my decision could be entirely based on the lifestyle I chose to lead after leaving behind the corporate law firm world.
I took a massive hit on my salary moving to Saahas (I earn a 5th of my last salary at AZB!) but I have never felt that I have compromised on my quality of life. I make smarter and more sustainable choices about what to buy, how much to eat and drink at restaurants/pubs, what assets I want in life, letting go of super luxuries etc. I don’t want to sound like those lifestyle gurus but still – the change in lifestyle made me more grounded, de-cluttered my existence of unnecessary things and truly opened my eyes to what I really value in life.
“I don’t want to sound like those lifestyle gurus but still – the change in lifestyle made me more grounded, de-cluttered my existence of unnecessary things and truly opened my eyes to what I really value in life.”
Do you miss law firm life?
I have been asked this question quite a lot! And every time I make the effort to think about it a little before rattling off an answer which confirms to my choices and how work for me now is far more socially and environmentally conscious.
But to answer the question, I don’t miss the life. I am really grateful that I started my career in law firms but leaving when I did, seemed right and everything since then makes me very glad for the new chapter in life.
Lastly, any advice for today’s law graduates on how they should make their own career decisions?
I have a bunch of advice actually because there is no one size fits all in this case.
We live in a world which really allows us to be innovative with the work we would like to do. So, take that risk to try out what you truly like. And don’t worry if things don’t work out, a law degree is a fantastic safety net and you can always come back to more traditional careers.
“Social media makes it seem that everyone should have a passion and they should whole-heartedly follow it! Reality, however, is often different.”
It is also completely okay to work a job which you moderately like and gives you time to explore other facets of life. Social media makes it seem that everyone should have a passion and they should whole-heartedly follow it! Reality, however, is often different. A lot of people don’t have that all consuming passion; the practicalities of life need to be considered.
Therefore, don’t pressurise yourself or feel inadequate if this passion seems to be absent and you choose to have a ‘regular’ job.
The important thing to remember is to continue being socially, politically and environmentally conscious and not let apathy set in.
Finally, I would say that it’s never too late to do what you truly believe in. And there is rarely a straight path to where you are meant to be, so meander and explore. And never forget to enjoy every minute of that meandering and exploring!