Feminism India

Priyanka Madan on Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Priyanka Madan is a lawyer in London. She's been mostly independent from the age of 16 when she landed a scholarship to finish high school in Singapore. She returned to India after forgoing the initial plan of pursuing engineering to become a lawyer. In 2015, Priyanka graduated from the National Law School, Bangalore, and in 2016, she joined her first job as a corporate lawyer in London.

It all sounds easy when you say it like that, but only she can tell you about all the hard work that went into how she got to where she is. On our podcast, Desi Outsiders, Meenal and I interviewed Priyanka. This is her story.

M: Priyanka, please tell us a little bit about yourself, and tell our listeners about your career and where you are right now and how everything started off!

My parents were doctors in the Indian Air Force and so when I was back home in India, they used to move from one city to another all the time which is how I got to meet Ankita. We were posted in Trivandrum for three years and that's when I met Ankita in school. Soon after that, I moved to Bangalore. Then, I did my high school in Singapore after which I decided to pursue law.

So I moved back to Bangalore from Singapore to study at the National Law School, Bangalore. I studied law for 5
long years and got a job in my fourth year. Then, I moved to London to start practicing with a big city law firm.

M: And when you started studying in Bangalore, were your dreams and aspirations to move to London someday?

Oh God, no! I had no dreams and aspirations back then! If anything, they were to go out and play basketball. I was obsessed with basketball!

A: But like you mentioned, your parents were both doctors and if I remember correctly, your dad is a cardiologist and your mom as a cancer pathologist. And from the time I knew you, you were so studious that I always assumed that you would also become a doctor. Because you were not a normal kind of studious, you were a 'medical student' kind of studios. So how did you end up picking law of all things?

Oh, that's something happened when I was in my 11th grade in Singapore. I was always a science student but I dropped biology quite early on surprisingly so it's funny that you say I was a 'medical student' kind of person.
I studied Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, History, and Literature in Singapore and I realized in 11th grade that I absolutely hated Math. I love physics, physics was my favorite subject. I still love physics. But math and physics are kind of married and you can't really do one without the other. I'm not exactly bad at math, it's just that I don't enjoy it as much. So yeah, I had to then take a call on whether or not I actually wanted to study physics and there was nothing else that I wanted to study.

And at the same time, I had a teacher in Singapore who used to teach me the subject called 'General Paper' which was basically
their equivalent of English because you don't have an English-language subject which you study throughout but you have general paper. And you study about everything in that paper - law, society, culture, and it's basically like a general knowledge paper.

And this teacher used to be a lawyer and I found him very impressive. He was a great person to talk to, extremely knowledgeable, and it kind of just molded me into thinking that maybe I want to study law. And a decision was made.

M: Yeah, Priyanka, nowadays it's very different for kids in the 11th or 12th grade who are approaching university because now, people are influenced by so many more things like social media or the internet. Just generally, we have a lot more inspiration at our disposal nowadays so it must have been a bit different in your time when you just had your teacher to look up to as a role model.

Oh, yeah. It was a very different time and it was a decision that made my parents quite uncomfortable because it was a sudden career change. They always just assumed that I wanted to study science and that I would become an engineer.

A: Why exactly do you think they were uncomfortable?

Just because it's unfamiliar territory. I'm blessed to have liberal and very forward-thinking parents who never told me what to do. They've never told me that this is exactly what you must do with your life, they've let me explore and do things that give me happiness but they were just a little bit uncertain whether or not this would be the best choice for me.

From where they were standing, I had the option of continuing on that scholarship in Singapore for my university as well, and that too, in a good school. I could be studying Electrical Engineering which is, of course, a good deal. So my parents were just a bit concerned that I was going to throw it all away and come back to India.

So I had a deal with my dad that if I don't get into the best law school in the country, then I would go back to Singapore and study Electrical Engineering because he would not let me throw away such a brilliant opportunity for nothing.

It had to be the National Law Scool in either Bangalore or Hyderabad which are the two best law schools in India and he said, "Well, you said you want to study law, so you give it your best shot and I know you can do it. But if you don't make it, you are going back".

M: Priyanka, I am not aware of these schools in India. I don't know much about them so if you can just give me an idea of how competitive it is to get in?

When I applied, it was easier to be fair. You have the Common Law Admission Test which is a kind of essential JEE type of exam which you would appear for if you wanted to get into one of the IITs, for example. And there's a bunch of National Law Schools in the country in different cities. I think the top few are Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta, and Jodhpur. I think there are close to thirteen of them. Now, each of them takes around somewhere between 80 to 100 students every year.

A: And how many apply?

Nowadays, I think it's upwards of 60,000.

M: So you have to give an exam to get in?

Yeah, it's just one multiple choice paper that you appear for.

A: How long did you study for?

I actually had the advantage of time because when I was in Singapore, my school year was from January to December and this exam happens in May. So when I came back home at the end of December, I had around four or five months to just study for the CLAT and that's what I did.

A lot of my really good friend from University were actually appearing for their 12th standard boards at the time and also studying for the CLAT. They didn't have that kind of time so I was lucky.

A: But surely, it must have been really difficult and frustrating at the same time to just focus all your energy for close to five months on just one goal.

Oh, yes! My dad jokes about it all the time. There were times when he would just come into my room early in the morning and I'd be sitting on the floor with my book in my hands, rocking back and forth, studying, just memorizing everything I could. I was just obsessed with the test. I really wanted this.

I had a personal agenda to get into Bangalore as well because my boyfriend at the time was in Bangalore and I'd been dating him for four years. And you know how some teenage minds think! Anyway, it turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me because it motivated me to study like nothing else would have. And I'll always be thankful to him for that.

M: You were completely focused and determined just for that one thing so what did you think every day when you woke up? How did you make sure that you weren't distracted by other things?

I don't know, actually. I think it was just honestly the circumstances that made me so determined to to do that because I knew that I was desperate to stay on and study law. I didn't have the option of studying law in Singapore because they have weird requirements to get into law school over that. And I wouldn't have made the cut. So it was just so many different things! I didn't want to study a subject which I knew I would be terrible at, and I didn't want to go back to Singapore either because I didn't enjoy living in that place for more than two years. I thought it was a little bit too closed off.

I wanted to be closer to home. I just wanted to go back to Bangalore because it was the city that I spent the most amount of time in. I also had a point to prove because my parents were anxious and I didn't want them to be. I wanted a good career for myself as well. Moreover, I've always been quite independent and very career-driven

M: What do you think you would have done if you hadn't gotten this place in Bangalore?

Ah, for a brief time I hadn't got this place in Bangalore. My rank put me on the waiting list for Bangalore when the first list of students came out. I was amongst the first three ranks to get into the second best school which is Hyderabad, and I would have been more than happy to go there! But I didn't make the cut for Bangalore for the first few weeks.

I still remember that moment when I got my results. It was in the middle of the night because the rank list comes out in the evening but the college-by-college list comes out later that night and it was at one o'clock in the morning when the list was finally published. And I saw it and I woke my parents up to tell them I didn't get into Bangalore. Then I just kind of cuddled up in between them because I was so upset.

But things work out. I have no idea how this worked out but the stars aligned in my favour!

M: It's really interesting because it just seems like you were in a sort of do or die situation right from the beginning!

Ya, in a way, that's a good thing but you have to remember that a lot of my do-or-die situation was self-imposed. It wasn't actually like I didn't have options it worked for me because I work best under pressure. But at the same time, I don't want to put the message out there that you must always put yourself under that kind of pressure because for a lot of people, having a good plan B is actually a great thing because your plan B option is wonderful too.

A: So you got into your dream school and I remember talking to you in 2015 around the time of my wedding and you couldn't attend because you were in Paris for a semester. How was that experience?

Those six months of my life, that's a time that I will just never forget. I got the opportunity to go study at a school which is one of the best political science universities in the world - all of their Prime Ministers and politicians were used to go there. It's right in the middle of Paris and we run an exchange program with them and I got to go with my best friend from University, and we spent six glorious months in Paris together. Everyone thought it was our honeymoon!

We studied, but because it was the last six months of university, we didn't really take the most challenging courses but courses that we thought would expand our horizons and would be a little bit more relaxing in terms of the content. So, for example, one of my courses was called *Television and the American Dream which turned out to be an incredible course! And the mandatory viewing for that course was watching the first season of Mad Men

M: And your parents were okay to send you to far away Europe?

Oh, yeah! They've been used to me just living outside the house from the time I was in high-school.

A: But is it really common for students from your university to go on these exchange programs to universities abroad? Does everyone go or do only a select few end up going?

So, in a batch of 80 or so students, I think maybe 10 or maybe less than ten go. But I don't associate exchange with merit. I associate it more with whether you want to go on an exchange or not. Of course, merit has a role to play so if you're not performing well at your university, then no one would encourage you to spend six months in another college. So you do have to have good grade and everything but a lot of people don't want to go on an exchange program, and a lot of people can't afford it. When I went, I got a scholarship. For any exchange, you don't pay for the tuition but when we're just living in
Paris, it's expensive. But I was lucky enough to get a stipend scholarship which afforded me this experience.

M: And with just one year left for your graduation, you landed your first job in central London. Is it very common for kids from your college to land similar roles all the time?

I wouldn't say it's uncommon just because going to a good law school in India will afford you the opportunity to apply for these jobs, so I think what happened over the last few years is, firms in London have recognized that students who go through the five years of law back home in India actually have a sound understanding of the legal system just because there's no way you can come out of it without knowing and without being good at your subject. So they started picking up students from the top law universities and it's a recent trend but if you are good at your job and you have good grades, then you can apply for positions in London law firms. You can come here and do an internship. They'll evaluate you during the internship and then at the end of it, they can offer you the same training contract that they offer anybody else who wants to join the firm.

M: And what about you other classmates? Where are they now? Are they also in other parts of the world?

Yeah, some of them decided to do Masters so they've gone to Oxford, Cambridge, Yale etc. Most of them are back home in India with either Indian firms or they are litigating with some senior advocates in Delhi or Bombay.

M: Priyanka, obviously we know the legal system in India has its own flaws so as a lawyer now, even from London, I'm sure you hear or read about a lot of stories about cases in India. Does that burn a fire inside you to think that you can maybe use your skills in India? Have you ever thought about going back home to practice at some point?

Not really, and this is a horrible message to put out there and I know a lot of
people will vehemently disagree with this but I feel like I cannot do anything to change the legal system unless the change happens at a larger level, a more systemic level. I feel that as an individual lawyer, especially a
female lawyer back in India, there are still way too many hurdles that I would need to overcome. It's not easy being a female lawyer in India. I mean, things are changing and there are a lot of seniors who are very accepting and will put forward good female lawyers and press them to progress their careers. But generally, it's still an old men's club so it's difficult to establish yourself. Especially in the litigation circles, it's very difficult to establish yourself.

But I've not really planned out my entire future so I have no idea what's going to happen two years now but right now, I'm happy London and I enjoy the work.

A: So, right now in London, you sometimes work really late hours. I mean, there have been times when I've texted you and you would tell me that you were in the office till three in the morning and that you went back home to change and shower, only to be back at your desk at 6 a.m again. So you work your ass off all the time! What motivates you to work so hard?

Well, the first thing that riles me is that the really late nights don't happen that often. It happens once in a while but that's also only if you're preparing for a big case or a big closing. But it's quite exhilarating when you have so many people in the team who are who are working together and it's kind of like a team bonding exercise. Also, everybody is busy and everybody is working towards a deadline but I think it helps that you're single and young and when you first join, you have enough fire and passion for giving your everything to your work. My work is everything to me and I have no problem saying that. I think when you are young and you are by yourself in a city, work should be a big priority because that's why you're there. And this is not something you do forever but these are the years to establish yourself.

M: Do you have any other hobbies outside the work?

I do! I quite enjoyed music so I play the guitar and I sing. I also enjoy reading a fair bit.

M: You've also traveled quite a lot as well, haven't you?

Yeah, well that was mostly when I was doing my semester abroad in Paris. I traveled a lot and then since coming to London, I've tried to travel whenever possible by taking trips here around the UK.

M: What's your favorite place so far?

My favorite country would be Portugal and my favourite city actually would be Prague. I had a great time in Prague. My best friends and I walked all over the city. We went to some of those really good pubs and it was fantastic!

M: Priyanka, you've traveled about and moved around so much.How much of an impact do you think that's had on your life generally?

One of my colleagues says that the best way to know what unites human beings is by going to a country where nobody speaks your language because you realize how much you have in common with other people even when you don't speak their language. And you realize how basic things still remain the same but at the same time, the culture is so different, sights are so different. So travelling has affected me a great deal and once you travel a lot, you get bitten by the travel bug so that's happened to me too.

A: If your parents are listening to this episode right now, they would be so proud of you! And I've known them and always seen how close you are to them. You talk to them all the time. I'm sure there must have been something in your upbringing that made you the person that you are today. So could you share at least one gem of wisdom or advice that was given to you by your parents?

The most important one would be to never settle. They've always wanted the best for me and they've always pushed me to get what I think is the best for myself as well. So every time I've made a life choice, the first line of questioning has always been - do you think this is the best for you and also do you think this is the best that you can be?

So that's what the message has always been. And if I say yes, then they're very happy to let it go. And this is not just about my job, my career or my studies. It's also my personal life choices. They ask - are you happy? If you're not happy then, don't settle. There's no need for you to.

M: And finally, what advice would you give someone who wants to follow your footsteps and become you?

I'd first of all say don't be me, be better than me. Also, trust your gut because that's what I did when I was younger in terms of my career choice or just with cities I wanted to go to and what I wanted to study. Go with your instinct. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. So there's no point investing time and energy into that. Life is just too short to be spending time doing things that you don't enjoy.

A: Priyanka, you grew up in a normal working-class home and you had hard-working parents. You made the best of every opportunity in front of you and you relentlessly worked hard to get to where you are now. There are a lot of kids and even adults out there who like to blame their circumstances for everything that happens in their lives. People tend to believe that only the rich kids can get a good education, and only they can do well for themselves. That only the rich kids can go to a good university which could lead to a job like yours in London. But you're just a normal girl who's different from others because she's very hard-working.

I understand that people blame their circumstances but at the same time, I don't want to take away from the fact that as far as my education and my life is concerned, I'm still quite privileged in the sense that I've been blessed with very understanding parents and I've had opportunities a lot of people might not have. But yes, you still can make something of yourself outside of your circumstances.

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Ankita Narayan

Edinburgh, Scotland | http://ankita.ink/

I'm a blogger, podcaster, wife and feminist. I record snippets from my life on my blog, tackle social issues on my podcast and work with my team of fellow feminists in this space.