‘I Had to Struggle’: A Cleary Gottlieb Partner on Her Journey

“Even when you don’t feel particularly brave, sometimes you just have to tell yourself to get on with it”, said Nallini Puri, an M&A partner with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, which she joined in 2008.

It is a piece of her mother’s advice which she says has kept her going through her journey in corporate law that has seen her qualify as a lawyer in India, New York and London.

Puri grew up in Calcutta with supportive parents, who she says filled her with confidence. And though Ally McBeal was a major influence on her to pursue a legal career, she said she chose the law because when she’s doing something difficult for the client “it’s like figuring out a puzzle and putting together the pieces”.

Her legal journey started at the National Law School in Bangalore, whose entry process was “pretty intense”. By 2004, she was working as an associate at one of India’s largest law firms, the legacy Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co which has since split into two major law firms.

She left home to complete her legal education, first at the University of Oxford and then at NYU’s School of Law, before deciding to set up her practice in London.

“With my Indian background, English law felt quite familiar, since the common law system is very similar,” she shared.

But with workplace cultures being so different around the world, Puri’s move came with its own challenges.

“I grew up in India and hierarchy is important there. Everyone knows their place in the system and you’re encouraged to stay within your place. When it’s time for you to move up to the next spot, then you do. There’s this feeling of ‘we respect our seniors’, which is wonderful. But it’s also the subtext that goes with it, which is that if there’s someone more senior, you defer to them.”

The move from India to the U.K. prompted a sudden culture shift came with its own struggles.

“When I moved here, I had to really struggle. It didn’t come naturally to me to speak out in a room where I was the junior-most and there were more senior people. I remember I used to have reviews and they would be like ‘your work is really great but we want you to speak up more often’. It took a little bit of mindset shift to be able to contribute in a collaborative way”, she added.

“Clients are spoiled for choice in this city. So you have to build up this other aspect of your personality, which is the social side. Growing up that wasn’t necessarily viewed as being important. I think that’s something I have to constantly work on.”

That was not the only issue Puri faced. She stressed how, “when you don’t see people who look like you in senior positions, you wonder ‘is this really a place where I’ll fit in?’ which is something that you have to make your peace with and fight against”.

She added: “You need someone who’s your sponsor to actively advocate for you and not just have coffee.”

Like many working women, Puri moved up the ranks while raising a family: “I was pregnant the year I was up for partnership in 2017.”

Reflecting on the experience, she said it led to her best on-the-job moment.

“At the time, managing partner Michael Gerstenzang walked into my office and said that my pregnancy was not a factor in this decision-making process, knowing I was worried about it. That year, the partnership meeting wasn’t in London but one of my partner sponsors left me a note that said ‘you are now the 1/200th owner of this firm.

“It’s all too common to encounter unnecessarily aggressive negotiations where everyone’s trying to outshine each other. I find that really draining”, she said, confessing that if she could instantly change one thing in the industry it would be this.

“I really enjoy the negotiation, my style is less confrontational or aggressive,” Puri said, emphasising the importance of being your authentic self at work.

“We had a senior partner in the office who was this really soft-spoken gentleman. He was incredibly clever but he would not be the one banging the table and making points for the sake of making points. It was very nice to be able to work with him and see actually how that style, which felt far more akin to my personality, was actually also an effective way in the city which can be stereotyped as being quite aggressive and hard and very alpha male. There’s space for everyone to do things their way.”

In terms of doing things her own way, Puri said that pulling all-nighters, though frequent in the M&A world, is not a sustainable way to work for her.

“There’s invariably an all-nighter on the eve of signing but if you’re doing too many, you’re not managing your team properly. No client wants a bunch of lawyers who are exhausted and cannot concentrate reviewing a really important document”, she said.

As a mum of two daughters—aged five and eight—Puri says unwinding does not exist for her but the family is a regular feature at Yo Sushi. She also sometimes drags her girls to vintage furniture shops in East London on the weekends.

Puri believes there is a lot to hope for.

“I guess a constant goal is to continue to be a good manager of people. I also want to continue to think strategically about the practice and what are we doing as a firm. I’d be so pleased and happy if I have even a small role in the next generation of Cleary lawyers”, she added.