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Celebrity Lawyer Priyanka Khimani On Why Kindness Is Key To A Successful Career

Ekta AlrejaEkta Alreja  |  May 20, 2021
Celebrity Lawyer Priyanka Khimani On Why Kindness Is Key To A Successful Career

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Priyanka Khimani has long been the go-to lawyer for Bollywood’s A-listers in trouble. She may have an illustrious list of celebrity clients, but she remains the hero of her own story. Now the Co-Founder & Lead Partner at Anand & Anand & Khimani, she hasn’t had it easy. Raised in a Mahim chawl, Priyanka comes from a family that had limited financial resources. But she was a bright student who won several writing and theater competitions, wrote school plays, and won elocution contests. 

Priyanka was relentless and never said no to an opportunity. While she was dealing with a massive financial struggle, creativity was her weapon to create the career she wanted for herself. By 15, Priyanka wrote her first TV show, called Tamanna House, a thriller that aired on Zee TV. Unfortunately, while she was writing more scripts and forging her own path to success, her father passed away. Priyanka had to prepare herself to shoulder the responsibility of the family. Being the sole earning member, she hustled to make ends meet and made her decisions based on what could become a good source of income for her. She chose to study biotechnology while continuing her side hustle of writing for TV shows.

Law, she says, happened by chance. She was a bright student but her heart wasn’t in biotech. So seeing the trend at the time, she decided to study patent law and cracked admission in the Government Law College in Mumbai. And thereafter, her world changed completely. “It was as if the universe was conspiring to make something happen. I worked hard and did really well in my first semester.  And then I was like, okay, I can do this. I decided to pursue law because it could give me a steady income and I had serious financial issues at the time,” says Priyanka. There was no looking back after that. The ‘can-do’ attitude and the willingness to solve the most difficult cases with a positive outlook worked in her favour. The erudite lawyer then set the bar high for herself by representing high-profile cases from the entertainment industry. Priyanka treats every day as an opportunity to learn something new and it’s truly her grit and determination that have helped her succeed. That’s exactly why Priyanka Khimani is a perfect fit for our Women Who Win series. In a candid conversation, she spoke about her college days when she dabbled as an actor and a writer and working with celebrities. 

How do you begin your day?

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I like my mornings to be quiet and peaceful. I would never have said this before the lockdown. Now I like to begin my day with a workout—something simple like yoga on most days, and pilates once or twice a week. I keep the first two hours of my morning free of any calls and emails. I have an extremely stressful job. A large part of my job is to absorb other people’s stress and to help them deal with it. So I feel that if I don’t take that time to have a calm and organised morning, I’m not going to have the energy to survive the rest of the day. I usually have my day planned much in advance. It is just something I have to do to try and stay more organised. 

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far?

Setting up my firm and how it shaped up. The team that I have been able to build is amazing. They are all dynamic and young. I think very few of us are lucky to have that. 

Is there a mantra that you swear by in your personal and professional life?

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You have to be kind, gentle and respectful towards everyone you deal with, including those who are on the opposite side. Because life’s too short and the world is too small. I feel it  is an important professional mantra. Coming to lawyers, a lot of people think that you have to be argumentative and aggressive. But I have learned over the years that it is probably a recipe for disaster. When you act for a client, I am an extension of them. So whether it’s in the courtroom or on the negotiation table, I’m ultimately relaying what the client’s position is. So if I’m an asshole, I’m making my client sound like an asshole. And no one wants to deal with an asshole, isn’t it? There’s a big difference between being firm and being aggressive. That’s the professional work ethic I wish enough people can learn. The other thing I would say is to keep negative emotions out of professional communication. There is no recall button for the impression and taste it leaves. 

What is the best work-related advice that you have ever gotten?

The more clearly and articulately you learn to communicate, the less you feel the need to rely on emotionally expressing things.

You were 15 when you wrote Tamanna House and you also did a few modelling assignments. You are now an accomplished lawyer. Tell us a bit about your professional journey?

In college, I was a part of Bharat Dabolkar’s play, called Carry On Heaven, where I was the main lead. From doing theatre, movies and being in the film industry, it was quite something. So yeah I dabbled in all of it. I never said no. Theatre led me to writing and that’s how Tamanna House happened. One thing led to another, I started writing, assisting more writers who were writing a lot of scripted and unscripted reality TV. I was studying biotechnology at the time but I was miserable. I was studying it because of family pressure, I was doing what I was expected to do. On the other hand, my heart was in different creative things.

Coming to law, that was completely by accident. During the biotech final semester, we had one small module on patent law and back then it was a huge trend. To practice patent law, you need to have a technical background. So I thought this is great because I’m not going to put all these years doing biotech to waste.

Ultimately choosing law as a career was because all of my decisions till that point of time were monitored by the fact that I had serious financial issues. My family was dependent on me. So I finally took up the job that I was first offered that guaranteed me a paycheck at the end of the day. 

There are a lot of preconceived notions when it comes to women lawyers. When you started working, did you face any hurdles?

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Yes, of course, it is an industry that is dominated by men and by people who are a lot older than me and other young lawyers. So you have both of these things as a big challenge. In my younger days, as a professional and even while setting up my firm, I don’t think I was able to dwell on it too much. Till the phase that they think that you are not relevant, it’s okay. But the day they realise that you are relevant or you yield some kind of power, that’s when you truly start to notice how deep-seated the bias is.

So what are you doing to ensure that your firm has a work culture that supports women?

I think 99% of my team is women. They are women who are extremely well qualified to do their jobs. In fact, I get teased a lot. A very senior partner of the firm asked me how I ended up hiring only women. It’s not intentional. It has just happened. I genuinely  also feel that women have a very strong work ethic. I have young moms who are also part of the firm and who are practising. So I think we are very conscious that people are not burning themselves out. In fact we had ‘work from home’ even before the pandemic happened. Unlike other firms, we don’t have this culture where employees need to take our permission to take leaves. We don’t cut salaries when people are on a holiday. There is no concept of unpaid leaves. I just feel you have to do all of that because these are the people who are spending a substantial part of their time helping me build this, right? And it just reflects. If you feel respected by your workplace, then automatically you will want to invest more in it. If I treat somebody like an employee then that’s it. It just becomes transactional.

Tell us something about your experience of working with celebrities.

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I have immense respect for the creative folks simply because I have been on the other side of the table and I have seen first hand that it’s not an easy job. It’s not an easy profession to be a part of, no matter what capacity you are involved in. From anyone, who is even a camera operator to a light guy to someone who is on camera, it’s just not easy. And because I’m empathetic to their cause is why it’s been a big reason for my success. And I get this feedback from my clients all the time. I respect their boundaries as celebrities and never tell them that I don’t care how it’s going to look but you have to do this. 

What is it like to be an entertainment lawyer?

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A lot of times people struggle to understand the role of an entertainment lawyer in this country. I get pigeonholed into thinking that oh you only do entertainment. Why are you not looking at a divorce matter? What do entertainment lawyers do? Logon ko nahi samajh mein aata hai. But my job is not just to look at your endorsement contract or your production contract. It is a lot more than that. You are helping a client plan for a bunch of other things—buying a team in a sport, getting equity in a company, getting a divorce, if  he/she is accused of an allegation, if they are involved in a public scandal. So I would not change a thing about what a great learning curve this has been for me as a lawyer. One day you are dealing with a criminal offence, the other day you are handling a big corporate acquisition, and the third day you are working with a great studio project—I think it’s amazing. You really have to be a dynamic person to be a lawyer.

In between your hectic schedule, how do you relax?

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Yoga. That’s definitely one thing that I love doing. I use that time to unwind. The other thing that has happened thanks to the lockdown, is that I have learnt how to cook and bake. I’m not saying I’m fantastic, but I’m obsessed with fitness and nutrition. Those who are close to me know that about me. So a big part of ‘me time’ is that I keep looking for a bunch of recipes that are nutritious and I try them out and I find it so relaxing. I enjoy doing that at night when it’s quiet.