#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Sheila Ahuja, Allen & Overy
In this #10QuestionsWithMaxwell interview, we feature Sheila Ahuja, a partner in Allen & Overy‘s Global International Arbitration Group based in Singapore and Co-head of the firm’s India Group. She is also a member of the Maxwell Steering Committee.
Sheila has advised on a wide range of arbitration matters, both commercial arbitrations and investor-State arbitrations, as well as arbitration related court matters. Besides Hong Kong SAR and Singapore, her experience spans most of Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Mainland China, Japan and, in particular, India, where she spent six months as a Consultant with Trilegal in 2011. She is a Solicitor Advocate, with Higher Rights of Audience before the Senior Courts of England & Wales and the Courts of Hong Kong. She is enrolled in the Bar Council of New Delhi and is also qualified to appear before the Singapore International Commercial Court. She regularly sits as arbitrator, and more recently, as presiding arbitrator. Sheila has particular experience of complex commercial disputes, disputes arising from joint ventures and distributorship arrangements, disputes relating to complex financial products and energy and infrastructure disputes.
In this interview, she shared the most memorable arbitration or dispute resolution matter she had been a part of, mentors or influential figures she looked up to throughout her career, 3 fun facts about herself, and more.
Read her full interview below:
Q: How did your journey in international arbitration start?
A: I participated in the Willem C Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot, but I didn’t realise at the time that I enjoyed arbitration and put down my immense pleasure of that experience down to the lovely host city, Vienna. Four years later, I attended an ‘introduction to arbitration’ talk at Allen & Overy, and I was fascinated by the concept and the choice of seat questions where we were given different flags representing different seats and had to put up the flag we thought most appropriate for each question – that led me to push for a training seat in arbitration. There were no more flag games (rather unfortunately) but it all worked out in the end.
Q: Without sacrificing confidentiality, could you share with us the most memorable arbitration or dispute resolution matter you have been a part of?
A: My most memorable matter was the first one where I was lead advocate, appearing before a prominent English judge, a prominent Indian judge, and a prominent Singapore silk. I remember every time a Tribunal member paused my opening to ask me a question my face froze (I have been told my facial expressions give a lot away). What saved me is that the dispute turned on an interesting point of law and I had actually been through every authority with a fine tooth comb, so I could answer every question asked, however granular. Since then my advice to budding advocates is prepare, prepare, prepare (and try to conceal your facial expressions!).
Q: Looking back on your career, what has been your proudest achievement?
A: My proudest achievement is when I saw my first very trainee making partner. It really brought it all together for me, and why I am doing this.
Q: Contrary to the previous question, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career thus far?
A: My biggest challenge was coming back to work after having my twin girls. I reassess that decision almost every month (and seven years in, the answer is still the same).
Q: Do you have a mentor or an influential figure that you look up to throughout your career? Share with us.
A: I have never believed in putting all eggs in one basket, and the same applies to mentors. There are a few people I have looked up to over the years, and learned a lot from in terms of legal experience and also life experience. A few I want to mention are Iain Milligan KC, Harish Salve KC SA, Judith Gill KC, Matt Gearing KC and my dear former colleague Frances van Eupen who lost a battle with brain cancer and who not a day goes by that I do not think of.
Q: How might younger legal practitioners best position themselves in the current market? Please share some advice(s) to aspiring individuals who want to pursue a career in ADR.
A: The market is getting increasingly competitive, but opportunities are also growing. I would say three things to aspiring individuals: (i) think hard about how to articulate why you chose the career you did, (ii) consider how to demonstrate that you bring something different to the table, and (iii) do not give up easily – there are numerous paths out there and one of them is meant for you and you need to believe it for your path to be presented to you.
Q: If you weren’t in your current profession, what profession would you be in?
A: I would be a court interpreter (just like my father was, even though I don’t speak as many dialects as he did).
Q: How do you find time for your personal commitments or to indulge in personal pleasures?
A: If you wait till you can find the time, you never will. You need to make time for it. I do that by putting block-out times in my calendar for things I really need to keep myself happy (a hair cut or a drink with a good girlfriend), and then I have three specific personal commitments who take it upon themselves to remind me to make time for them: my two daughters and puppy. All other things then just have to wait.
Q: To know more about you on a personal level, share with us 3 fun facts about yourself!
A: I came second in the International Cluedo Championships around 20 years ago (it was the start of my discovery into my problem solving skills). The first prize was a trip to New York, and I was one turn away from winning it and the MC said: “The winner is “x” and if “x” gets run over by a lorry then Sheila goes to New York”. That comment also made me realise the extent of my competitive streak (no, I did not get him run over by a lorry so I could go).
I was once part of an Indian musical – yes, dancing and acting and the whole thing!
I am as Cantonese as I am Indian. My idea of a wonderful Sunday is a dim sum lunch, followed by listening to Hindi music at home in the afternoon while we all read or play a board game (you guessed it, Cluedo!).
Q: Lastly, how would you describe Maxwell Chambers in 3 words?
A: One stop shop.