N.S. Nappinai is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India, and the Founder of Cyber Saathi. Her website can be found here.
Shilpa Jain: You have had such a wonderful and illustrious career. With so many accolades and recognitions. Thought we would keep it simple for the benefit of our young and aspiring women and benefit from your successful journey.
Shilpa Jain: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in law? How did you go about pursuing it?
N S Nappinai: In 7th grade, we were asked to write about our career aspirations and my submission was of being a litigation lawyer. I still recollect my class teacher being very appreciative of my language and writing skills after we presented our papers and asking if it was just something I wrote or I actually wish to become a lawyer. I replied with absolute conviction that this was my career path and I will be pursuing it. Gladly I have resolutely stuck to this path over the decades.
Though almost three generations up to my grandfather’s generation were all lawyers, with my father’s generation moving away completely, I was effectively a first-generation lawyer in my family. I understood the advantage one gets from being exposed to practical experiences and hence around the age of about 19, I undertook internship with a very senior and renowned criminal lawyer in Chennai. This internship of three years (from my 3rd year of my 5 – year course) defined my approach to the practise of law.
SJ: Upon achieving a law degree, what are the various avenues one can pursue?
NSN: Law students today are spoilt for choice. When I commenced practise (in 1991) you had the broad classifications of litigator or corporate lawyer and under litigation there were the traditional fields of practise of civil, criminal, corporate, tax etc., These were still broad categories that gave opportunities to the practitioner to take up a wide array of cases.
I have always been intrigued by sunrise sectors in law. Even in my time, practise in the field of Intellectual property rights (IPR) was still a relatively new. Similarly, a delineated specialization not only in criminal law but of corporate criminal law or handling white collar criminal cases was relatively new. I opted for specialization in criminal law with special focus on corporate / white collar offences and also in IPR prosecutions. This paved the way for my specialization in cyber laws thereafter.
Today, opportunities abound but the very wide scope of niche specializations causes confusion for students. Ideally they ought to experiment first with multiple streams of specialization and then opt for that which drives them most. Also, there is no reason to fear being stuck in a rut. What every student ought to learn is the modalities and methodology for practise of law and then their opportunities are limitless. They can choose to be litigators, corporate counsel, assume roles in law firms, academia or in legal writing. There is also a new trend for lawyers in policy making.
SJ: When does one choose specialization during the tenure of their degree?
NSN: Degree programs vary. Whilst choosing a specialization forms part of the curriculum even of the most archaic programs, the same is invariably a choice of convenience and not of passion, though there are some exceptions.
I did law to practise criminal law. My conviction on this was strong and I defied resistance to this idea to carve out a niche and long-standing reputation for my expertise. Yet, when circumstances warranted it, I experimented and acquired other specializations.
Choice of specialization and the time of deciding the same are therefore not sequential or systematic processes. Identifying one’s passion; having the conviction to follow it despite obstacles; being resilient and upskilling based on evolving opportunities and integrating initial passion to bear on evolving opportunities will also help in developing a sustainable successful career.
SJ: You run Cyber Saathi, which is a not-for-profit. Can you elaborate what does this foundation do?
NSN: I was probably one of the first to specialize in cyber laws. I was also one of the first to contribute to capacity building in cyber laws and cybercrimes across judiciary, police, armed forces and industry. The idea for ‘Cyber Saathi’ germinated during my Chevening Cyber security program in 2016. It took a while to take wings due to my prior commitments but from 2019, I started the process for implementing it.
‘Cyber Saathi’ is an initiative intended to create awareness with a difference. It does not follow a typical pattern of ‘informing’ or ‘directing’ users to follow impossible ‘Dos & Don’t’s’ lists or preaching to the victims. Cyber Saathi empowers all users with knowledge of the threats and vulnerabilities of the cyber domain; it imparts knowledge of the laws and remedies available to users; and the means to avail of them. Finally, it also cautions against commission of cybercrimes and uses knowledge as a mode of deterrence. Through its initiatives, Cyber Saathi’s vision and mission is to ensure safety on cyber domains through self-help and peer mentoring. Its unique formulae is to prevent and protect through information sharing and leaving it to the listener to evaluate their options in an informed manner. The Cyber Saathi initiative also builds in the unique peer mentoring model, that draws on the persistent reality that a victim would invariably reach out to a friend for help (hence the name Cyber Saathi or ‘Cyber Friend’). Cyber Saathi endeavors that each person who has become better aware of threats, remedies and the process of availing those remedies is better equipped to become that Cyber Friend or ‘Cyber Saathi’. Cyber Saathi Foundation has therefore taken up the initiative of creating a team of Cyber Saathis across educational institutions, as its first flagship engagement, as millennials who understand the domain are best equipped to also be good peer mentors.
SJ: If one wants to mirror your career and aspire to become an Advocate of the Supreme Court, what would your guidance be?
NSN: Firstly, my aspiration was NOT to become an Advocate, Supreme Court of India. That is merely a tag line. My aspiration was to be an exceptional lawyer first and a jurist, who could contribute to ensuring ‘justice’ in legal systems. This aspiration is manifested through roles I undertake – being an Advocate of the Supreme Court of India is just one of them. I don many hats including as litigator, author, speaker and policy thought leader amongst others and each of these have the commonality of my passion for law and justice and are varied paths leading to the same goal – that of ensuring delivery of justice in legal systems.
My choice of Constitutional and Criminal law at the beginning of my career, contributions to training judges and police and also in policy making; and my move to the Supreme Court, as litigator are all not driven by nomenclature, positions I could get or titles. I believe that if we do our work well, outcomes including titles and positions will follow but if the focus is only on titles or positions, it can certainly not be achieved, as there would be no body of work to support the same. Goals and aspirations ought to be anchored in the work we undertake every day and its positive influence.
Given the above I would suggest to aspirants: To have a clear focus on the purpose and vision. At the cost of sounding cliched, it is very important to identify and pursue your passion. Knowing what you want to do and sticking to that conviction despite hardships that may come your way. This may also include some risk-taking and moving out of comfort zones. However, if end goals are clear then the path becomes easier.
My end goal was and continues to be my passion to ensure justice and I believe that each move and choice I took were driven by this clear focus on the end goal.
SJ: The path to your successful journey would have been wrought with challenges? Can you highlight a few and how did you combat them?
NSN: First generation lady lawyer, in a male-dominated stream such as Criminal law was in itself a challenge. Having built up a formidable reputation as one of the finest Criminal lawyers in Chennai, to move base to Mumbai and to start from scratch again; surprisingly meeting more misogyny in Mumbai than in Chennai; starting a practise afresh with no legacy support systems and with very little financial cushion were just some of the obstacles in a diversified path.
However, my inexorable yet simple focus on my passion, work and career made all other obstacles pale into insignificance. I believe that a problem is only as large as the focus we place on it. This does not mean we ignore them but that we should focus more on solutions. For instance, there was a very misogynistic Judge in the Bombay High Court. An open secret and everyone kept focusing on this. After spending a few days in his court, I noticed that he was one of the most fair and justiciable judges but with a very short fuse and one with little patience for poor performance. I can safely say that many of my successful outcomes came from this Court, as I realized that all that was needed was sound groundwork in my cases. Once I showed him that I was thorough on facts and on law and politely but firmly stood up to any attempts at bulldozing, I gained his respect and there was no looking back thereafter. Again, this was a person, who despite his visible manifestations of misogyny or bad temper never, to my knowledge, allowed these to cloud his judgment in the case or allowed it to affect a litigant. Hence overcoming gendered bias was not such a difficult task- it only took good homework and sound preparation.
Other instances are more insidious including casual comments in the guise of humor or mansplaining the case or process in open court, which undermines not only the stature of an Advocate but also the trust factor of the client in her. These happen from persons who would otherwise have a reputation of fair judges with excellent temper but with deep-rooted bias. According to me, these are the more difficult obstacles to overcome. Again, I overcame the natural erosion of confidence and self-worth that such instances cause and stood my ground firmly yet politely.
I believe that every obstacle physical or psychological needs this – a firm yet polite stance. For when we lose our temper or equanimity over injustice, gendered bias, character assassination, casual ‘jokes’ intended to decimate your stature and knowledge, to name a few, we also lose focus on the solutions. Internalizing your confidence and self-worth and turning your gaze to the reason for such unjust acts of others and understanding that it stems from their own insecurities and low self-esteem help immensely to overcome such debilitating obstacles to find your own path.
This again is one reason I am thankful for my innate passion and internalization of gauging my worth. For then, you do not seek validation from external sources. You willingly accept accolades and recognition but are not dependent on the same to boost your confidence or evaluate your self-worth.
SJ: Did you encounter a “glass ceiling” kind of a situation which restricted your growth?
NSN: I honestly do not believe that at any point of time in my career, I paid much attention to either gender or ‘glass ceilings’. I grew up in an environment that fostered equality. I chose specializations that were male-dominated and did so not to defy any norms but because they were fields I was passionate about. Even the obstacles identified above, I did not meet the challenge thinking of them as gendered issues but as those that any lawyer would have to face.
With respect to ‘glass ceilings’ my aspirations have no ceilings. It is a constant struggle, as old challenges to justice crop up persistently in old avatars or emerge as new and more complex challenges in this technology mediated world. I have not defined my life based on aspirations of titles or positions.
However, I am also not blind to the limitations of this male bastion – the low numbers in diversity at every stage, be it at the Supreme Court or lower judiciary level or nil to negligible representation of women in constitutional posts, despite India’s 73 years of Independence. The changes in these circumstances has been as glacial as the inexorable movement of law and its implementation. However, as with law, glacial or not, there is change and, in some instances, exponential change. I believe that it is only a matter of time when there would be gender parity in this ancient field also.
We see a lot of this happening particularly amongst law firm practise and corporate counsels. Litigation and the judicial system needs to catch up.
SJ: Would you like to highlight some of the things you have done differently in your career which has made you successful?
NSN: I do not believe in looking back with regret but in retrospection to learn and move on. I do not therefore regret any choices despite some having a huge impact on my trajectory.
One thing however, which I am not sure I would change despite hindsight but would like to caution other professionals in general and women in particular is to not strive for ‘being invisible’.
I was the master of it! I believed that ‘being invisible’ and keeping a low profile were virtues. And speaking about one’s self, of the work they were doing or achievements was a negative trait. The extent of restraints I placed on myself because of my misplaced beliefs is comical in retrospect.
Whilst it is good to be humble, today’s technology enabled world needs one to put themselves out there and speak out. This would therefore be my advice on doing something different.
SJ: Why is being financially independent important to you?
NSN: Financial independence cannot and should not be gender specific. It has to be imbibed into every single individual. Assumption of dependence on others; assuming ‘roles’ with respect to generation of income; claiming ‘rights’ over other people’s self-acquired legacies; are all crutches people use to avoid their own responsibilities. For women, it is just doubly important given centuries or possibly millenniums of gendered repression and bias. To have financial independence ensures a healthier relationship – it is not just about being relevant in case of problems and of course helps them to not tolerate abuse.
SJ: Any message to the members of Aspire for Her? And any message for the Foundation in general?
NSN: Aspire For Her has taken up a very relevant issue of helping and keeping women in the workforce. I truly hope that there is universal acknowledgment and implementation of inclusiveness in opportunities.
Question: One person, fictional/real and dead/alive that you want to have dinner with
Answer: Scarlett O’Hara
Question: A book on your career field that you would recommend to or readers
Answer: Vincent Van Gogh’s Biography. This was not about law but the passion of Van Gogh for his chose filed resonated with me. One of the earliest books I read, enjoyed and think back to often.
Question: 3 things on your bucket list
Answer: Contribute in law which makes a difference. Travel Across the World. Stay HappyJ