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An Incredible Journey

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An Incredible Journey

...through the Vance Center's South African Visiting Lawyer Program

incredible-journeyOne year ago, Dhineshree "Dhiny" Pillay was working at a small law firm called Ganie & Company in Pietermaritzburg, in the region of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where she was born. Of Indian descent, Dhiny and her family are part of a sometimes overlooked group, comprising about three percent of the country's population, that has suffered greatly from the effects of apartheid.

Dhiny had never been on an airplane, and much of what she knew about the outside world she had learned from television shows. Growing up, she had been particularly fascinated by "Matlock" and "LA Law," which ignited her interest in the legal profession and led her to the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, where she received her LLB. With her obvious talents and passion, Dhiny was offered a position at a large law firm in Johannesburg, but for personal reasons she wasn't ready to move, so she turned it down.

And so, at age 27, while she maintained the dream of one day working in a big firm in a big city, Dhiny put it out of her mind and busied herself with her many responsibilities at Ganie & Company, which was essentially a two-person firm (which made Dhiny "Company").

One day her boss, Mr. Ganie, showed her a notice in De Rebus, a South African legal magazine. It was for the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice's South African Visiting Lawyer Program, which brings talented South African lawyers from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to New York City for a year to work at major law firms and corporate legal departments.

After allowing herself a brief moment to imagine actually practicing law in New York City, Dhiny dismissed her chances. How could a small-town lawyer in Africa, whose practice consisted mainly of collections and government work, be considered qualified to practice commercial law in New York? Seeing it as a lottery-like long shot, Dhiny waited until the last minute, only finishing her application at the insistence of her boss, who generously supported her dream of one day practicing in a big city firm. Fate seemed only to confirm Dhiny's skepticism; on the day of the deadline she found the local post office inexplicably closed, and her email program refused to attach a file. Finally, she sent off her application, put it out of her mind and went about her business.

Then one day a letter arrived inviting her to an interview in Johannesburg. Vance Center Executive Director Joan Vermeulen recalls Dhiny as being "poised, calm and cool, and she handled the interview perfectly."

Dhiny closes her eyes, smiles and shakes her head when recalling how it felt to be accepted into the program. "I don't think anyone can possibly imagine how surprised and happy I was," she says. Taken by at least some surprise was Mr. Ganie, Dhiny's supportive boss, who had come to rely on her so much that he exclaimed, "What have I done?!"

Weil, Gotshal & Mang es Meets Dhineshree "Dhiny " Pillay

The plane ride was nothing compared to the New York City subway, which Dhiny hopped on to Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP her first morning in the Big Apple.

For Dhiny, even more exciting than being in New York was finally being in a big firm, and it exceeded her expectations. She quickly learned about working in groups, delegating and networking. She learned to find work and ask for it. She was fascinated with the culture, the dynamics and all the different kinds of people with different personalities. "Some are easy to work with, some you try to avoid at all costs!" she says with a disarming laugh.

Dhiny is effusive on her mentors at Weil. Mona Al-Sharmani, a senior associate, showed her the ropes. Ellen Odoner, who has mentored all four of the South African women who have been placed at Weil, introduced Dhiny to her fellow partners. And Chris Aidun, a partner in Weil's private equity practice, inspired Dhiny's choice of practice area: M&A, or, more specifically, the Deal. "I love negotiation!" Dhiny says. She said Aidun was an "amazing mentor" who taught her the art of negotiation, describing him as "calm and collected, but he gets his way."

Of Dhiny, Aidun says, "It has been my privilege and pleasure to have the opportunity to work with Dhiny. She brought a keen intellect, enthusiasm and interest to our Private Equity Group, working on several leveraged buyout transactions. Dhiny has grown tremendously as a lawyer in the past year and we have come to rely on her thorough, thoughtful work. We will miss her not only for her contribution to our practice but also for her friendship."

The Journey Continues

Overall, Dhiny attributes her success to her mother, uncle and aunt, who all helped raise her after her father died when she was still a teenager. "It was not easy for my mom, but she is a strong, resilient woman who is my foundation. I aspire to be like her one day," says Dhiny.

Today Dhiny is well used to planes, having jetted to Paris, Rome and London, where a courtship begun in South Africa was negotiated into an engagement to be married. Her year in New York at an end, Dhiny has decided on her next stop, and she seems excited yet calm and collected about it in her own way. Like Pietermaritzburg and New York City before it, Johannesburg will soon be coming to terms with Dhineshree "Dhiny" Pillay.

This article originally appeared in the City Bar's monthly newsletter, 44th Street Notes, in October 2008.