Travelers of Frost: Q&A with Sonam Taneja, a Lawyer turned Sports Manager and Food Safety Professional

 

Interviewed by
Deepakar Livingston, Advocate, Bombay High Court
Ritvik Kulkarni, ILS Law College 

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I. Why did you choose law? Did your parents/relatives influence you in taking that decision? Do you have a law background?

Even today, I am the only lawyer in my family. I was a science student in school and coming from a non-metro city, engineering was thought of as the obvious choice. Infact, I was repeatedly asked why I took up law despite being a good student. I enjoyed studying science when I got to self-study and stopped depending on tuitions, but, still there was something very unappealing and rather disturbing about the rat race to become an engineer. There wasn’t a lot of encouragement to play sports (cos those were make or break years of life mind you!). I enjoyed the logical approach of science but I entered into law by chance or mere gut feeling that it would be a good and it indeed was one.

II. You did your graduation from ILS Law College, how was the experience? What was the social and academic/educational environment like?

ILS was a very good experience, ‘intellectually stimulating’. Being from a science environment, initially I found it a bit tough to deal with theory subjects, but with support and inspiration from friends, I managd well.

III. What do you think is that the college contributed in developing your skills, personality and interests?

ILS was very different from many other law schools in the sense that after classes, one had the time and freedom to pursue interests and passions.  I had very limited experience in public speaking till school, which got bettered at ILS. Meeting people from different backgrounds and different parts of the country and outside, broadened my perspective which, I feel, is a very crucial part of college life. I am a firm believer that a lot of crucial learning happens ‘outside the classroom’ and I had a very good experience at ILS.

IV. As a law student, you actively participated in moot courts and secured the second position in the prestigious Bar Council of India Trust Moot Court Competition. You also came 1st in the prestigious Raghavendra Phadnis Moot. Tell us what importance you would like to attach to mooting in a law student’s life? How far does it help in academic life as well as in real life?

“Mooting helps in real life; but not absolutely”!

I think participating in moot courts can be a huge confidence booster in terms of facing judges and arguing and thinking on your feet while answering impromptu questions. But it does not help in academic life apart from the knowledge you gain from it, which one could gain by reading and writing as well. When I started arguing in the Customs Excise and Service Tax Tribunal (CESTAT), the mooting experience did help me but I wouldn’t say a lot. When I think of it now, in college, I was constantly trying to go out of my comfort zone and I think that’s what matters more. One could moot or not moot and still be an equally good lawyer. Most important is not to moot just because everyone is doing it and it’s considered cool. I’ve realized that the pursuit of knowledge should be sincere, whatever route you choose.

V. You have also interned at reputed law firms such as Lakshmikumaran&Sridharan(LKS) and AmarchandMangaldas. How did you like your interim association with these organizations and what value should a law student attach to internships? Should he religiously intern every vacation or do you suggest that they spend vacation in exploring their interests?

“For internships, all I’d say is – quality over quantity matters”.

That’s an interesting question and it reminds me of something I read long back. I’d like to quote it:

“In May 1954, 12-year-old M. Paul Claussen Jr. of Alexandria, Va., sent a letter to Felix Frankfurter saying that he was interested in “going into the law as a career” and requested the jurist’s advice as to “some ways to start preparing myself while still in junior high school.” He received this reply:

My Dear Paul:

No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man. If I were you, I would forget all about any technical preparation for the law. The best way to prepare for the law is to come to the study of the law as a well-read person. Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give. No less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music. Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and forget about your future career.

With good wishes,

Sincerely yours,

Felix Frankfurter”

Internships are important, but so is following and pursuing your interests and passion/s. For internships, all I’d say is – quality over quantity matters.

VI. You worked for few years in the law profession and is now into a field totally unrelated to law. So, what exactly are you up to these days and how did you end up there?

Presently, I work at the Centre for Science and Environment in the ‘Food Safety and Toxins’ Team. Prior to that I worked at Ashoka University in their Sports & Exercise Department for almost 2 years and before that, I worked at the Delhi Office of Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan for 4 years. I feel blessed to be able to pursue what I love.

VII. How much did you deliberate before leaving the firm and practice which you were into for four long years? What motivated you in the process? How did your parents react to this? How did you enjoy this new profession? How was your experience working with the students at the University?

I really love law and I think studying law makes you a much more aware person which makes you feel powerful. However, I had stopped enjoying my work for various reasons and it was a happy realization that only I could fix this situation. I got to know that a new ambitious project called Ashoka University was looking for someone to manage the Sports & Exercise Department and despite initial hesitation (more from a sense of fear), I took the challenge and pursued it. Again, I pushed myself hard out of the comfort zone and remember being really nervous meeting the Pro Vice Chancellor, but I got through. In short, my ‘pursuit for happiness’ motivated me to take the step. I have some lovely people as friends and they were really supportive and helpful. My parents were not comfortable with the risk but my brother and I were convinced that this was exactly the risk I needed to take, so we convinced them.

I thoroughly enjoyed working at Ashoka University in the Sports & Exercise Department, I ‘unlearned’ a lot and had a lot of fun managing the Department, organizing sports events etc.

A major part of my work involved interaction with students, which was excellent and problematic both. Excellent because some of them are really inspiring students and problematic, because at work I am a highly private person by default. I had some very good interactions with some of the students.

VIII. You have also done some MOOCs on nutrition and cooking. Please tell us what you learnt and how these courses have benefited you in your professional and personal life? 

“what we get on our plates has a lot to do with politics, our colonial hangover and how the big corporates brainwash us every day.”

I read a lot about food, nutrition and related issues. I watched a few documentaries and did a few courses. What I learnt was much beyond ‘what to eat to lose weight and be healthy and become a better runner’ etc. I learnt that what we get on our plates has a lot to do with politics, our colonial hangover and how the big corporates brainwash us every day.

Personally, it made me more aware and healthier and professionally, I realized I was close to finding my calling and I started my pursuit.

IX. You have worked as a Senior Associate with a LKS. Please tell us your experience there and if you plan to re-enter the legal profession in the future. Do you miss your litigation days?

LKS is a pioneer organization and one of the best out there. It is a good combination of exposure, good mentoring, money and work life balance. I think that combination is hard to find at many other law firms. I don’t plan a lot, let’s see where life takes me from here.

X. How important is it for educational institutions to include sports in their curriculum? Should it be made compulsory for all? Do you believe that sports and fitness helps shape a child’s personality?

“We don’t realise the role that sports and fitness can play”

I can go on and on here, but I will control my emotions and keep it brief. I firmly believe that sports can teach you a lot that books can’t and sport or fitness should be made compulsory in schools and Universities. Students should get credits / marks for participation in sports. It is crucial because just working on a professional ‘neck up’ won’t work in the long run. With the huge burden of non-communicable diseases, what use would be those brains to our country when they get diabetes and hypertension etc., at the age of 40 or even earlier. We as a society are obsessed with studying, books and getting a degree etc., We don’t realise the role that sports and fitness can play in inculcating discipline, breaking gender stereotypes and help managing stress.

XI. Last year, you participated in the Delhi Half Marathon and finished 17th. How was that experience? Did you take any training for the run?

I don’t remember but I may have finished 17th amongst the women in my age category. I am not a competitive runner and I thoroughly enjoy running. Yes, I followed the training plan and advice by my mentor and Coach Dr. Rajat Chauhan. I fell ill 4-5 days before that run, but nonetheless, it was an amazing experience.

XII. You are presently taking an interesting course on the ‘Real Meal Revolution’. Tell us more about this course. Do you believe that nutrition is an integral aspect to our lives? How would you suggest this generation to keep up with a healthy diet and adequate exercise?

“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

This course is about a concept called ‘Banting’ which is a kind of low carbohydrate diet and is taught by Dr. Timothy Noakes, a sports medicine doctor from South Africa. It has inputs from celebrated chefs and famous writer Gary Taubes who explained his revolutionary theory on why excess carbohydrates make us unhealthy.

I feel very strongly about the politics that goes behind what we eat and being highly influenced by the work of food writer Michael Pollan (a journalist and Professor of Journalism at UC Berkley School of Journalism), I would like to quote some things he’s said which make the perfect advice on eating healthy and sustainably:

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

If it came from a plant, eat it, if it was made in a Plant, don’t.

WHO guidelines recommend atleast 150 minutes of moderate exercise in a week and I feel that’s really not difficult provided one wants to do it. Also, many health experts say ‘Sitting is the new smoking’ so apart from 150 minutes of exercise, we need to sit less and move more generally.

XIII. Do you think 5 years of law school restricts your mindset to stick to law all your life?

I think we ourselves restrict our own minds from doing and pursuing what we love despite hating our current job/profession and feeling miserable every day.

XIV. What is your role like at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)? We note that you are already in the organization for a month now, how interesting do you find it? How is the new job treating you?

AT CSE, I work as Programme Manager, Food Safety and Toxins. CSE has a long legacy of fighting for our environment (including food), the recent study revealing presence of carcinogens in bread and the famous expose of  pesticide residues in cold drinks were conducted by them. I have followed CSE intermittently for a very long time and have absolutely loved the work they do. I have just been here for 6 weeks and I look forward to work everyday. I am very positive that it will be an amazing experience.

XV. If you ought to give 3 pieces of advice to a law student or even a graduate seeking to explore his/her interests other than law, what would it be?

“It’s crucial to love what you do”

I am not sure if I can advise anyone, but I would like to share some things I have learnt:

It’s crucial to love what you do. If you don’t love what you do professionally but still continue, you get into the vicious circle of comfort (zone), feeling miserable, earning money but miserable again! That’s a very bad situation to be in.

Never get too busy to explore what you love. Who knows it might be your next profession.

Managing your time, how you like it, is very crucial.

XVI. How does one with similar interests that of you get in touch with you for some assistance from your end?

Just email me at sonamtaneja@gmail.com.

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