Rekha Rangachari im Portrait
„Let’s move forward together as a global community.“
Rekha Rangachari, Executive Director of the New York International Arbitration Center, ArbitralWomen Board Member, and Racial Equality for Arbitration Lawyers (REAL) Co-Chair, outlines her path to International Arbitration and the ideas and goals for REAL.
Rekha, you studied law at the University of Miami School of Law. Why did you choose law and why Miami?
I was raised with storytelling, narrations of Indian mythology kept alive generation to generation through memory and oral recitation, each iteration nuanced by the style of the storyteller. Add to this my stint as a professional Indian dancer and I knew before long that I wanted to be a storyteller. The legal overlay came later, through exposure to international law and theology while at university. I am ever impressed by the combination of forms, substance and style charting a path forward that must be grounded in facts, details, and the law to be most impactful. Miami was an opportunity to explore a gateway city to Latin America and have the closest bilingual education in the U.S. in lieu of relocating to Latin America or Spain. Opportunity combined with good fortune at Miami opened doors to coursework in international arbitration taught by the best legal minds, encouraging us to push the cross-border boundaries as we explored international disputes and arbitration. A fabulous, whirlwind adventure.
After finishing law school you worked for several years at the International Centre for Dispute Resolution (ICDR) and thereafter at the American Arbitration Association (AAA). Why did you start your career working for arbitral institutions?
I wish I could say there was a big plan of going first to an arbitral institution to best understand the process. Truth be told, I graduated during the financial crisis and believed, after interviewing across various industries in law, that the people I met at the AAA-ICDR would be impactful to my future. I spent those first years toiling over procedural rules tethered by national law and nuanced by party autonomy with a multicultural team of case counsel who each improved my analysis on international business allied with cultural norms. In turn, these colleagues became some of my dearest friends to date. Opportunity came knocking again to expand my leadership within the institution on the domestic side, and I was ready. Aligned with the commercial New York leadership, we made it a goal to know the breadth of our stakeholders through coffee and speaker invitations to hosting informal salon dialogues on hot topics and key issues. In turn, we began to improve the system by listening to counsel, tribunal secretaries, and arbitrators and to build and highlight the talent pipeline by meeting with leaders of affinity bar associations. Equally important, we met with our colleagues across the arbitral institutions to ensure we were collaboratively and collectively getting it right in New York.
After working for AAA you became the Executive Director of the New York International Arbitration Center (NYIAC), your current position. Considering your current and previous positions, what do you like most about working in domestic and international arbitral institutions and organizations?
I believe many of us are in this niche practice because of our appreciation for international law and the protections or freedoms it offers to argue all sides of a case and consider all variables (jurisdiction, conflict of laws, or otherwise), to expand our worldview. While at the AAA-ICDR, I was approached by some Board Members of NYIAC to consider applying for the position. Although in close proximity to NYIAC for some years, I did not fully appreciate the breadth of what it offered the community. Temporal deadlines can be inapposite to our personal lives (even after extension), so I found myself compiling and completing my NYIAC application while on vacation, considering simultaneously what the next chapter may hold: leadership of a different element as candidate for a small but mighty nonprofit anchored by the best in practice; extension as a lawyer and thought leader to reach all corners of the globe; and mentorship to build a robust New York pipeline for the talent incoming to our first-rate law schools. All of these elements and many more came to fruition by serving as Executive Director of NYIAC. It has been and remains an incredible experience to steer this ship on behalf of the community that fuels it. #NewYorkStrong
In January 2021, you launched the non-profit organization Racial Equality for Arbitration Lawyers (REAL), aiming to achieve racial equality for arbitration lawyers. Diversity is on everyone's lips these days, and a wide range of deficiencies are being discussed across all industries under this heading. Would you like to tell us what you see as the main problem in the arbitration business when it comes to a lack of diversity?
As lawyers, we are by trade elocutionists – for our clients, our families, and friends (given and chosen), our causes and non-profits, and everything in between. Why then in circles when discussing diversity, do we need to be reminded of civility? Why on this topic, or the broader topic of intersectional diversity, do we come to a world of segmented black and white devoid of colorful argument? Put another way, why in this tranche of discussion is our well-learned and honed art of lunge, parry, and riposte missing entirely? If we cannot find ways to converse, to advocate, and to disagree with distinction, we will forever be limited by our own conscious or unconscious biases. This will quell the formation of the best pathways and pipelines to be built with all stakeholders’ buy-in for evolutionary, ever-lasting change. Thank goodness for the leaders of the grassroots efforts that remind us about enacting change through dialogue and community, from ArbitralWomen to the ERA Pledge. I hope REAL takes shape much as these inspiring movements, with metrics in time to goal post, so that the proverbial needle revolves in time by automatic movement and precision.
Can you tell us more about the specific goals of REAL and your personal motivation for getting involved?
REAL launched on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, to anchor and inspire conversations on race and intersectionality in international arbitration and help chart the path forward for our global practice. Our activating chants include “access” and “advocacy,” and each has defined our inaugural year. Access to the international arbitration world, often defined as a gated club, to attend pay-to-play events on scholarship through the generosity of our supporters – with 70 scholarships awarded to date. Access as well to hold the spotlight and share experiences as a leader agnostic to years of practice in the field. Advocacy comes in turn through our Steering Committee, Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs, Ambassadors, and our many supporting arbitral institutions and organizations, to lead by example and ensure we learn by change as against standing still. We as an international legal community needed to open a window to conversations on race and identity, appreciating the success of windows previously opened on other definitions of diversity, including gender. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Let’s move forward together as a global community, and in moving forward, learn again how to have a bold conversation and share the mic. Consider joining REAL as member or ally and help us in the way you prefer to bring about awareness, empowerment, and in turn, change.
Creating a strong community is something that is always extremely important for achieving goals that move and change society. In your experience, what is key for creating a successful community enabling a movement and change?
Organization, patience, and acceptance. In first instance, organization to ensure each cohort has an identified role in lieu of a nightmarish cacophony of bodies unmatched to key objectives. Patience to know change does not materialize quickly, nor can you flip the paradigm on its head if you wish to stay within the practice. Last but not least, acceptance that few paths are straight and narrow, and rather, the topsy-turvy impacts on a project may benefit all for the better – building resilience, awareness, and shared construction experience.
What advice would you give to young female lawyers who want to specialize in international arbitration to successfully meet such challenges?
Actively seek out allies, mentors, and sponsors that you admire to learn from their journey. Write the email, make the phone call, treat for a brief coffee or lunch and ensure your ask in first instance is a light lift. Through time and commitment, offer to help on research projects and to organize events that spotlight the talent you want to see in our space. Appreciate that junior associates in time become senior associates, partners, and leaders in the practice that influence selection of key decision-makers and arbitrators. One day, that person can be you. Never forsake your voice.
EWe all have to deal with setbacks from time to time or fail now and then. What would be your best advice to deal with such failures?
Perspective defines all – success, roadblocks, failure. Pandemic times have sharpened our skills of resilience and pivots and we must rely on these especially in the tough times. To have the best evaluation of the situation (and make the best business case), try to silence the emotions and work logic: build a plan of action much like analyzing arguments from a case, all angles in play so you see the kaleidoscopic system in complete terms. Activate, piece by piece, each day leading to one small action that in time becomes one big change. Working through setbacks is like solving a puzzle, each piece counts to see the big picture.
Generally speaking, what drives you, and what values would you say shape your life the most?
I hold tight to the adage often repeated by parents to children, “Be smart and kind.” In our world, smart is a necessity, defined in myriad ways. Book smart and well-studied with the right credentials; street smart to read a room and know how best to execute the argument or pitch; and surroundings smart to adapt to multicultural clients, venues, and scenarios with agility and personal style. Unfortunately, kind is not always a consideration, but this quality distinguishes the good from the great. It encapsulates how your gumption aligns with your character, both necessary to be an evolutionary leader for future generations.
Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through and why?
I nominate Marielle Koppenol-LaForce, recently retired from Houthoff. She was one of my early mentors during my time in The Netherlands who taught me – through her tenacity of character, work ethic, and intellect – how to be a better lawyer with principle and purpose.
Thank you very much for this interview!
New York / Düsseldorf, 10 December 2021. The interview was conducted by Dr Ilka Beimel and answered in writing. Dr Ilka Beimel thanks Dr Graziana Kastl-Riemann for her support.
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