Earlier this year, Burford invited Equity Project Champion Sophie Nappert—an independent arbitrator with 3 Verulam Buildings in London who is the peer-nominated moderator of OGEMID and ranked on GAR’s Top 30 List of Female Arbitrators Worldwide—to interview a woman lawyer she considers a rising star in international arbitration. She immediately suggested Saadia Bhatty, counsel in the international disputes resolution team of international law firm Gide in London.
Sophie and Saadia sat down in London to discuss opportunities and challenges for women in law. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Sophie Nappert: What do you find inspiring from a gender perspective, not only from your own perspective but from the perspective of your peers and generation in the arbitration field? You will have seen, as I have, certain men proactively seeking and attaching themselves to a mentor. Is this something that you consider important to you or your contemporaries?
Saadia Bhatty: It is extremely important for women cross-generationally to have mentors—to have someone to look up to and see what to become in the profession.
When you enter the profession, you are told that the ultimate promotion goal is to become a partner in a law firm. So, in the early stages of your career, when you saw women partners that’s obviously something to which you aspired. However, and as you progress through your career in a law firm, you see there are different layers of career satisfaction—that being a partner is not necessarily the ultimate nor the only goal.
People who manage to balance their personal life and professional life are what I consider inspirational. As a woman, there is this expectation of juggling between these two spheres. In that sense it has been an inspiration for me to see women who have had both a wonderful professional career as counsel, arbitrator, perhaps also as an academic, and who as human beings have been mentors to me because they also helped me see how they prioritised their personal lives.
Sophie Nappert: How well do you find that senior women in this profession respond to being mentors?
Saadia Bhatty: Women’s experiences differ across firms. There are some women (like some men) that are more willing than others to be mentors. I’ve seen both examples: women who are terrific and others that are not naturally good mentors. But is that a gender issue? I don’t know. In my personal experience, there have been men in my life in the profession that have been extremely good mentors and champions of promoting women.
There has been research done on a related topic at the Cambridge Judge Business School looking into whether there is a so-called ‘Queen Bee’ effect—whether having more women at the top has a negative impact on female junior associate promotion and recruitment. The researchers found that the more women there were in partner positions, the less likely female juniors were recruited. However, the conclusion was that it was not because the senior women didn’t help in recruiting or promoting female lawyers, but more that law firms were ticking boxes and feeling as though they have hit their quota of female partnerships and therefore not feeling the need to recruit or promote more.
I still see it as a positive that there is recognition now that work needs to be done not only putting women partners in place but also helping the growth of juniors so they become partners—which are really two different things.
Sophie, you worked as a lawyer for a number of years, then you became a head of arbitration at a big law firm and of course for the past decade you have been an arbitrator. How do you think things have evolved?
Sophie Nappert: This is a difficult question to answer because there is no tipping point, it’s the amalgamation of many factors coming together.
It is interesting how much emphasis you put on juggling work life and private life. Because certainly when I was coming of age in this profession, you just did not admit to having a private life and the impact that it had on your professional life. It was something that you took care of in your own time. Nowadays society has evolved.
Another factor that has helped is a loosening of law firm structure. Smaller outfits and boutique law firms have appeared. Partners in very big firms (male or female) saw that clients wanted another model. I think this naturally responds well to a woman’s way of seeing the world. The realisation that there is another way of winning business apart from spending time at cricket matches or on the golf course—not that women do not do that, but traditionally they were ways for men to cultivate business relationships with other men.
I think the biggest change for women was their willingness to actually say “I don’t tick all ten boxes, but I tick eight, so I’m going to put myself forward”. (Men don’t think about this in the same manner, they go for it even though they tick three boxes.) Growing into this ability to put yourself forward has been an important factor for me as an arbitrator. For example, there was no template for my transition—I was in my early forties, relatively young, no one did it at that stage in their career and precisely because of that you become something interesting for the market. That realisation was a gamechanger—the fact that you are different can be an asset.
Saadia Bhatty: Could you elaborate on the “difference” point. What do you think made you interestingly “different”? Was it the fact that you were young or a woman? That you were more available or that you had different views on things?
Sophie Nappert: Being a woman was not particularly an asset, not in the way that it is today where you have initiatives like The Equity Project and The Pledge. It’s now almost unthinkable and certainly looked upon very badly to have conferences dominated by all-male panels.
But to come back to your question—I have grown up in big structures my entire career so all of a sudden to decide to become an independent arbitrator was a strange concept. It took me a long time to get used to and comfortable with the idea. I approached people in the field whom I trusted and said, “I’m thinking of doing this but if you wouldn’t appoint me then I won’t. Tell me if I would be appointable and why”. Somebody said to me, and I will never forget this: “I think there is space for someone younger on the tribunal because obviously we look for gravitas and authority, but we also look for someone who reads the papers, arrives prepared and has the appetite to get to grips with detail”. I would never have thought of doing it any other way, but the fact that perhaps the more senior arbitrators were appointed for other reasons than being completely on top of all the technical stuff and they needed someone who could bring that energetic approach to the table—that made me change my mindset and say, “Okay what I can bring to this field that complements what is already there?”
Saadia Bhatty: I think there has been generally speaking a realisation that diversity (with a big D) is important in itself for decision-making, whether that’s gender, racial or as you said generational diversity.
Read more of "Q&A: Sophie Nappert and Saadia Bhatty":
Part I • Part II