Sushma Jobanputra, LLB 1988, Partner-in-Charge, Jones Day Singapore

On her continental lives, her list of ‘firsts’ and why Toronto is still her hometown

Sushma Jobanputra, LLB 1988By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Boon Chian

This Q & A is the complete version of the one that appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 of Nexus. 

Lucianna: You were born in Rwanda, grew up in India and Canada, worked in the UK and France and now you’re living in Singapore. What do you say when people ask you ‘Where are you from?’

Sushma: It’s still Toronto. We lived there from 1974 to early 2000—more than 25 years of my life. Many of my best friends are still friends I made in Toronto, in law school friends, during articling and otherwise. I go back every year to have New Year’s Eve dinner with the same people I’ve been having New Year’s Eve dinner with for the last 20 years.

Lucianna: What type of work is your firm’s Singapore office primarily involved in?

Sushma: There continues to be foreign direct investment into Asia and Southeast Asia, in particular.  There are also a greater number of inter-Asia transactions – Asian companies investing in businesses in other Asian countries.  Increasingly, there are outbound transactions from Asia into the rest of the world.  As companies in this part of the world grow and become more acquisitive, they are realising that need to have a presence in the US or Europe, in order to be truly global players.  

Because of its geographic location and excellent infrastructure, Singapore is a hub for doing business in Southeast Asia.  As a result, we advise on cross-border M&A and capital-raising transactions.  

With the growth of the Asian economies comes the need for more energy and infrastructure.  We have a great energy and infrastructure team which is kept busy doing deals across the region.

Then, as you can imagine, with all that cross-border investment into emerging markets, there are bound to be differences of opinion. Jones Day has one of the largest litigation practices in the world. We have taken advantage of that position and have a disputes team here. Singapore has also positioned itself as a hub for dispute resolution in the region.  In fact, it is now the third most preferred location for arbitration in the world. 

Lucianna: How does your background inform your current professional life?

Sushma: I think my familiarity with Indian culture, because my parents are from India and I grew up in a very traditional household, helps to some extent when we are doing business in India. Even though business is conducted in English, to be able to say ‘Hello, how are you?’ in the client’s native language certainly helps to break the ice.

 Although it’s not the sole reason for us getting a mandate, it certainly helps us get closer to clients in that social way. 

I think the fact that I’ve lived in different countries has made me less afraid of venturing into new cultures.

 Of course, each country here is so different from the other.  India for example is nothing like Indonesia but to be honest, going from Toronto to London was quite a cultural shift for me.

Lucianna: Really, how so?

Sushma: As the saying goes, “Separated by a common language!”  Going from Toronto and Osler, where I had spent 13 years and knew everyone, to an English firm of over 2000 people spread over several countries was quite a shock.  People would say I was talking with an accent (I was of course thinking they were talking with an accent!).  I would say things like, “We’ll quarterback the documentation for the other jurisdictions,” and everyone around the table would look at me like I had two heads.  Of course, things have changed since then.

Lucianna: What was it like working in London?

Sushma: Fun, challenging, probably the busiest years in London’s legal commercial history (from 2000-2007).  It was a time of great economic growth resulting in tremendous growth in the financial industry and therefore the legal industry. People were centering much of their activities for the region out of Europe, out of London. When we were younger, we used to talk about having done an all-nighter.  In those days in London, a “one-nighter” was for novices.  You were only a hero if you did a two or three-nighter.  The transactions were complicated and often had to be done in a very short time frame. I was also in a new place and had to get to know the city and meet people, make friends.  My husband was living in Paris and I was in London, so we had a transchunnel commute every weekend.  Thank goodness for the Eurostar.

Lucianna: How did it feel to become a partner at such a large and prestigious firm?

Sushma: Exciting! At the time I was asked to join the partnership at Linklaters, the number of women partners in large firms was quite small, let alone a woman from another country and of ethnic origin.  It never occurred to me to think about it until you step back and say, wow, that was quite something. I loved working there and the only reason I moved was because I had a client head hunt me into Barclays Capital. When I went to the bank, I was the first front-office woman managing director at Barclays globally. That was in 2004.

Lucianna: That’s not really that long ago.

Sushma: No, and I remember one of the women from HR calling me and she said, “I just wanted to say, I’m so pleased you joined.”

From law to investment banking – now that was a cultural shift!

All the changes in my career and living in so many places has certainly helped me adapt to Singapore and to understand that what works in one scenario, may not work in another situation and with other people. One day, I could be doing a cross border deal into the US where everybody knows the lingo, and the next day, I might be doing a first-time loan for a borrower in Indonesia and I have to explain what I think is standard documentation. So it’s fun – in a different way.

Lucianna: How would you like to see your office grow?

Sushma: The Singaporean legal market is quite a distinctive market. International firms can establish an office here but they can’t practice Singapore law unless they have been granted a licence to do so.   Of course, many international firms have an office here to facilitate doing business in surrounding countries such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, to name some.

About five years ago, the Singapore government allowed international firms to apply for a license to practice Singapore law and a few firms were granted the licence. They did the same thing again last year. Twenty-three firms applied for a license and early this year the Ministry of Law awarded four and we were one of the four firms that got a license.  So we are planning to increase our Singapore law capability. It will be interesting to watch the development of the use of Singapore law in international transactions within the Asian context because these days there are a lot of inter-Asia transactions.

Also the regulatory environment, not just in Singapore, but in other countries in the region, obviously plays a big role in many transactions because they’re all cross border. That’s an area that we’re concentrating on developing and growing.

Lucianna: You were named one of Asia’s top 100 lawyers in 2011. Do you see yourself as a role model for up and coming lawyers?

Sushma: I didn’t go through my career thinking about myself as a role model but women do come and ask me how I cope. I guess it gives younger lawyers comfort to know that women can be partners in law firms, get married and have kids and stay married and be happy.

 I have to say that certainly at Osler, when I was a young lawyer there, we had some amazing women partners and to me they were the role models. They were the first women to do so many things and we were lucky to have them ahead of us because we weren’t breaking through massive walls. We were just making the doors a little bit wider perhaps.

There is no way I could do what I do without having an incredibly supportive husband. We have a true partnership because he’s a banker and he also travels and has deadlines and understands the demands of my job. If I didn’t have his support, there’s no way I’d be able to do what I do.

Lucianna: Which professional achievement are you most proud of?

Sushma: I wish you had just said achievement because then I would have said my kids. On the professional front, the ability to adapt to whatever situation I’ve found myself in. It’s not really a single ‘achievement’ but generally, I would say having the courage to throw myself into the situation and the willingness to give it my best shot. 

Lucianna: What is your favorite airline?

Sushma: Without a doubt Singapore Airlines. When I go to all these chaotic places (I  spend a lot of time in busy, busy places like Mumbai and Jakarta), then I start walking down that bridge that takes me to my Singapore Airlines flight home, I can feel my stress level come down. Because I know there’s just a little bit of Singapore on that plane. I get on the plane and I’m happy knowing I am on my way home.

Lucianna: Where do you see yourself in about 10 years’ time?

Sushma: By a pool with a G&T. And still practicing. I really do like doing deals. I’ve been called a ‘deal junky,’ and I think it’s true. I love closing deals. I’m so happy when I close a deal and no matter how painful it was, there is so much satisfaction getting to the end of the line. I would like to continue to have that adrenaline high of closing deals, if I can.