Stellar Women: Advocating for Your Team with Heena Bhambhlani

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Mila and I enjoyed our conversation with Heena Bhambhlani about her motivation for entering the legal field and how she is a fierce advocate for her teams. While based in Mumbai, Heena and her team handle e-discovery matters for EY’s clients around the globe. According to Heena, she lets the team’s excellent work speak for itself.

Check out this episode to learn about mentoring your teammates and how to champion your team’s work with clients—and throughout your own organization.

Heena Bhambhlani

Heena Bhambhlani

Managed Review & Functional Analysis Leader (Mumbai)

EY

Transcript

Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.

Mila Taylor: And I'm your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.

MR: Mila and I are here today with Heena Bhambhlani, who is the EYLMS managed review and functional analysis leader in Mumbai.

MT: Hello, Heena. Welcome.

Heena Bhambhlani: Hello. Thank you so much for that lovely introduction and for having me on. I personally have been a big fan of your work and your podcast. There are so many wonderful, inspirational women that you have covered in this series who have inspired me as a woman to be a part of this.

MR: We love that!

MT: It's an honor and privilege for us to have you on.

MR: Jumping right in, I know that you are a lawyer. Can you walk us through what made you want to go to law school and what interests you about the law?

HB: I don't think I’ve had any other aspirations than to be a lawyer. Maybe now that I think of it, I probably would have done better in fashion, beauty, or some such field but I guess that's a story for another day. For me, my dad is a practicing lawyer in Mumbai, India, and has been for the last 40 years. And like any other girl, I grew up idolizing him. For generations, the profession has and continues to be a hallmark of prestige. As someone who grew up witnessing her dad's professional success, there was an intellectual stimulation associated with the legal professional and an ability to help individuals, groups, and organizations with their legal problems. There was also a unique status that lawyers have in society, and the glamorous image that's often perpetuated of lawyers in black robes arguing in front of a judge or jury in the court of law. I think that those are the main reasons that I was always fascinated with being a lawyer.

MR: So, you are based in Mumbai. Can you tell us about the e-discovery market in India and in your experience, how have things evolved in this space over the last decade?

HB: e-Discovery as a term and/or a practice is something that is not as widely known in India. I first heard this term when I was interviewing for a job with a company named Pangea3 in late 2007. I was straight out of law school and I was facing a job interview for the first time in my life. I vividly recollect being extremely nervous and intimidated with the idea of getting into something so distinctive and unconventional. I had not imagined that 13 years down the line, e-discovery would become second nature and, in a sense, a way of life. Looking back, joining Pangea3, which is now a part of Ernst and Young, has truly been one of the best decisions of my life. I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunities that I have received to grow and evolve not just as a professional, but as an individual.

As someone who has been in the e-discovery field since the last 13 years, I feel that there have been two aspects that have been total game changers and have evolved the way in which things operate in this space. In my opinion, the first and the biggest game changer clearly happens to be the role of technology in this space. When I started working on e-discovery projects in late 2007, I started as a core reviewer and I would often hear my seasoned managers talking about the good old days of paper discovery where numerous boxes containing millions of documents were manually reviewed. I had grown up in a lawyer’s house so I was pretty much used to seeing huge stacks of files and court documents at home so I could relate a bit to what these managers were saying. I also worked on an actual paper review in 2008 where large boxes of documents were actually shipped to us in our Mumbai office from the US. Given these talks and limited experiences of working on paper reviews, deep down I felt grateful that technology had evolved at that point to have moved from paper reviews to electronic reviews on platforms like Relativity.

I then recollect how terms like artificial intelligence and predictive coding became common topics of discussion in 2012 and 2013. Change is often the most difficult and comes with a lot of resistance so understandably there was a lot of skepticism and perhaps some level of denial on how a machine could replace something that legal professionals were doing by themselves for so long. However, I was lucky to be a part of a trailblazing organization like Pangea3 that encouraged its employees to not resist change but be at the forefront of adopting technology that would ultimately only cement our position as the disruptors who would do their best to serve clients in the most sophisticated and efficient ways possible. I have witnessed a drastic shift in the way e-discovery projects are handled now versus how they were handled a decade ago—the volumes have reduced exponentially but the level of legal analysis and opportunities of partnering with our clients and platform vendors in offering a service that utilizes the best legal and tech minds to ultimately come up with an outstanding quality of work product with significant cost savings is great to see, especially when it successfully comes to fruition.

Advancements in technology in our space never ceases to astonish me—2020 has been a great reminder of that. A year where entire teams of tens and hundreds of reviewers on e-discovery projects are seamlessly able to work from home without any hindrances in the productivity and quality of the work product.

The second biggest game changer, according to me, has been the growing acceptance of alternative legal services providers like us that combine people, process, and technology to come up with the best e-discovery solutions for our clients.

MR: As part of your role at EY and being leader in the space, you talk to law students about e-discovery and educate them that this is a field that does exist and there are opportunities here. Can you walk us through those conversations and why it is important to talk about e-discovery?

HB: I work closely with our recruitment team to absorb the best talent for our organization and in addition to regular interviewing sessions with potential candidates, this also includes yearly visits to several top-tier law schools all over India. Personally, I love the whole experience of visiting law schools and talking to young minds who have an abundance of passion, zeal, and vision to see themselves evolve in the legal field. It is astounding to see a lot of the law students: in their early 20s and at such a young age, they have several internships to their credit testifying to their varied experiences in different fields of law. It is truly admirable and heartening to see the clear idea of what they would like their career paths to look like. In terms of the introductions, we of course give them an overview of the organization in terms of what we do and our vision which is something that the law students like knowing about. Given that my talk track largely at these sessions revolves around e-discovery, I love to talk to them about my own personal experiences and combining them with experiences of my colleagues—accomplishments of my team members who were campus recruits from that very or similar other law schools and joined us a few years ago, the opportunities that they got by working with a firm like ours, and how well they did and continue to prove themselves. It is somewhat challenging because as I mentioned before, the term e-discovery is still a novel term for most law students. I think that giving them a holistic understanding of this field and giving a true picture of how a career in the e-discovery field may come across as a bit too niche but it in fact is not. The skillsets that one acquires by working on e-discovery projects are ones that are truly valuable in the longer run. A few examples of such skillsets are: as an e-discovery professional in my firm, one gets to work on some of the most complex litigations and investigations. One gets the opportunity to interact and work closely with the legal departments of some of the world’s largest financial institutions and law firms across the globe. One gets to work on large teams—sometimes running into hundreds of legal professionals on one project. The experiences of working with and managing so many legal professionals is always a fun challenge indeed. One gets to work on the operational side of the business—on metrics, finances, and numbers. There are travel-related opportunities to meet clients in person and the more unique opportunities around secondments. Me and a lot of my colleagues got to do all of this within the first five to seven years of our careers and I think that this kind of an overall honing of skill sets are truly things that very few legal professionals would get an opportunity to be a part of.

MT: Jumping onto the next question. Your team is comprised largely of women. So how do you mentor your team members? How can managers recruit and retain top talent, both male and female?

HB: My team is comprised of a lot of women. Mentoring is something that I continue to learn on the job by observing some of my own mentors and leaders. As clichéd as it may sound, I can't agree more when people say that they work for their managers more than for their organizations. I feel that it is vital to instill the right organizational values into the current and future managers and have the right checks and balances in place to ensure accountability at all times. When it comes to recruitment, most of the time it is involving candidates who may not necessarily have any previous e-discovery experience. In such cases, the emphasis is on strong legal and analytical skills, communication skills, and the overall attitude of the candidates that reflect commitment, openness, and flexibility towards learning new things. I think retaining top talent is at the forefront of different organizational initiatives. Those are driven by different things. But ultimately it comes down to the most important aspect of genuinely caring for the wellbeing of each employee. The beauty of long-lasting working relationships is based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust. Those are some of the best things that professionals can hope for. As I mentioned, I've been around for 13 years, so I have seen a lot of colleagues who have moved on and decided to do other things. And I think my emotional side does take over, especially with long-standing colleagues. But I have now realized that the best way to attract talent and good people is committing to them that you will help them grow. That means you'll get to work with some amazing people. But you have to accept that trying different things is what people do. In the end, the hardest part about being a leader is watching people grow and become great [and go elsewhere].

MR: For organizations, you want to pick one that has values that align with your own. But if you have teammates or managers that you don't jive with or you feel aren't invested in your growth, odds are that you won't stay there very long. So, I think all those points are really key to keeping your team members and recruiting new folks. Thanks for sharing Heena. Being a female leader in the space and coming out of law school as a young female professional, I think there's certain challenges we all face, whether we're based here in Chicago or where you are in Mumbai. Whether you want to share from personal experience or what you've seen, what are some challenges that you find female employees in this industry face and what tips would you have to kind of navigate those challenges effectively?

HB: Now, this is a question that definitely goes to my heartstrings. In my experience, I'm proud to have come across so many strong female leaders who have shattered the glass ceiling and who have been equally supportive of their male counterparts. I think as an Indian woman, given the augmented increase in the number of working women in India in the last 20 years or so and the financial independence that comes with this, things have changed culturally for the better. However, women are still often judged for what we do … for being ambitious, for speaking her mind, for thinking of herself as an equal, for the way she dresses. And then there are, of course, the day-to-day practical challenges in terms of restrictions with working longer hours, women’s safety, taking care of and balancing household and childcare responsibilities. Again, it's good to see that there are so many efforts and things are changing gradually and slowly, but they are changing for the better. As an organization, it is important to have a culture of inclusion that enhances the sense of wellbeing and belonging. They should have solid initiatives in place that address such challenges and strengthen the leadership by and the retention of women. These are things that could and are definitely helping us. Now on the personal level, I do my best to be as empathetic as possible and patiently listen to problems and use all the means that I have in order to minimize problems for my team. I do this by championing and encouraging them when they are in doubt and highlighting and socializing their significant contribution to make sure that we are celebrating their accomplishments. In short, the idea is to always be there for each other like we are with our own family. After all, we all work together in an organization as one big family.

MR: In a similar vein, in terms of people being more inclusive and understanding, something we talked about was that a lot of your clients or law firms that you work for are based in different geographies. And you mentioned when we talked about your Stellar Women nomination, you sometimes face the obstacle of being taken seriously, whether that's due to age or gender like you just touched on, or maybe clients are skeptical working with a team that's not in the same geography as them. How have you worked as the leader of your team to dispel some of your clients’ skepticism about working with teams across the world?

HB: For me, I love to talk about the success stories of my team. There are several times where our client contacts may be skeptical or cold—and understandably so, especially at the outset, of how people who are based in a different geographical location thousands of miles away in a different time zone would be able to pick up on the nuances associated with our complex work. The concept of legal service providers in the e-discovery space is in one sense still uncommon to several of our potential clients. Spending time in building relationships with the existing and potential clients, educating them on our capabilities, and patiently listening to their problems, being in sync with what they think and feel and not just what they say, connecting the dots in order to come up with the best solutions for them—these are some of the things that have really helped me a lot. Personally, for me, I have been a part of several meetings where I may be the only woman in a meeting room, so I may have to put in a bit of an extra effort to have my voice heard. But ultimately, I have found that the best way to tackle these obstacles is to let me and my colleagues’ work do all the talking. True grit, real substance, and the right attitude ultimately always shine through!

MR: Following up on that really quick, how do you get people to know your team is delivering excellent work? Is that something you advocate for or do you get others to advocate for your work? How do you kind of get that known? Because that's something that Mila, you and I have talked about in the past … finding advocates for your work and speaking out about your success.

HB: When it comes to being the voices for our work, we have our colleagues and counterparts all over the globe who have regular in-person touch points and meetings with our existing and potential clients. Then there are a lot of people like me who get travel opportunities to meet these clients in person or even if it's not in person, we have regular touchpoints, phone and video which basically aid in building relationships with them. And, every single time we work with a new client, we never work with the perspective of having a transactional relationship where some project has to start and has to end. The goal is always to have the client as a long-term partner. Currently, I can think of so many of our clients that we have been working with for an average of about five to 10 years. Some of these clients have been great champions of our work in terms of helping us when they meet with other potential clients and in several conferences to communicate about our services.

MT: Thanks for sharing that; I think what resonates a lot with me, having to leverage your existing relationships and not to be too shy to do that. I know that if Mary ever needed someone to reference her for work, I'd be more than willing to do it. And I think so many people in your network are willing to do that, whether it's customers or employees or managers—to pay it forward and do it for somebody else.

HB: And I personally feel that it is exactly because of this reason that it becomes even more important that we always think of building stronger and long-term relationships with everyone we meet in our journey. It could be applied to a client, a vendor, or a colleague. After all, it is a small world, and we end up meeting the same people in some way, shape, or form. The relationships could end up looking different, but the people remain the same. If you had a great relationship with them, it's only going to help you and it’s going to help them in the long run.

MT: Exactly. I couldn't agree with you more. Looking back at yourself as a law graduate in 2007, what advice would you give yourself? And what has been the biggest surprise throughout your career?

HB: I think that the biggest surprise for me throughout my career has been that I have discovered my own self in a lot of other ways as a person by virtue of my professional experiences. In that sense, it truly has been my first and only job and a life-changing job for sure. I think I've been able to apply a lot of these experiences to enrich and better the quality of my relationships with my family and friends. That has actually been rewarding. In terms of the biggest advice that I would give to myself, I think that would be to always, always follow my instincts. I think that there are often times where some arrangements may seem focused on people, but if they don't make you happy and they are not aligned with your long-term vision of learning and growth, then one shouldn't hesitate to walk away. You are your biggest commitment and the most important and lasting relationship that you can have is with no one but your own self.

MR: I love that and that reminds me of an interview we did recently with Maribel Rivera and she said, “You are the CEO of your life.” This was great and that's exactly what you just said.

HB: Oh yes, couldn’t agree more. You as a person are the one who takes responsibility for your own dreams. No one else is going to do it for you. So, whatever it takes, you are the one who has to be your own sunshine at all times.

MR: Thanks so much for joining today. It was so great to connect with you and get to know you better.

MT: Yeah, thank you.

HB: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on.

MR: And for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.

MT: And I'm Mila Taylor.

Both: Signing off.

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