Breaking the mould: Shilpa Bhandarkar’s “wonderful and circuitous” journey to making partner at Linklaters

Shilpa Bhandarkar, who made partner in Linklaters’ most recent round of promotions, has had an extraordinary career to date, including nine different roles in the magic circle firm itself. Currently co-head of Linklaters’ Client Solutions and Innovation team, as well as CEO of its contracting platform CreateiQ and chair of its Generative AI Steering Group, Bhandarkar was previously Global Head of Innovation and in an earlier life practised law at Linklaters.

The first trainee to be recruited directly from an Indian university, and the first head of innovation, Bhandarkar talks to Legal IT Insider about her varied career, and why it’s key to have faith in yourself and the people around you.



I never set out to be a partner. I stopped practising law in 2006 and if my ambition was to make partner, I would have stayed on as a project finance lawyer. I have had such a wonderful, circuitous journey that has been rewarding and challenging – and has ultimately come together. You have to have a little faith in yourself and the people around you.  

I’ve had nine different roles in the firm, starting out as a lawyer in energy and infrastructure. I joined Linklaters because I wanted to build roads and bridges and power stations in emerging markets like India, and what brought me to Linklaters is that they have the best project finance team in the world. I moved to the India practice and was involved in working out what our offering was in India and how we would service our clients. It involved a lot of marketing and business development, which I realised I enjoyed more than being a lawyer. I went to do an MBA in the United States because I knew that I wanted to do something in the business world.     


The next stage of my career came about partly out of serendipity and partly because you make your own luck. Post MBA, I was meant to go back to India to build out my online Indian art business. But as luck would have it, I graduated the year Lehman went under and so decided to return to the UK instead. When I came back to London, I hadn’t looked for a new role, but Linklaters were recruiting for an India COO. I took that role and when it became more operational, moved to a similar role for the Africa practice.  

After that I left the firm, by which time I had two young children and it was driving me crazy having thousands of emails every day, so a friend of mine and I built a ‘Google Calendar meets WhatsApp’ app called Coo. Rather than having every parent putting the same date in their diary, we automated, for example, sports day or a trip to the science museum. It’s also a way of bringing parents together. When Coo was acquired by Classlist in January 2017 I thought, ‘I really like tech, or the power of tech, and I know legal services – I wonder if legaltech is a “thing”?’. I went into a stint at Lexoo that started as a mat leave cover and then lasted a year and a half.  

In the spring of 2018, I caught up with my Linklaters vacation scheme principal and now friend/mentor, Matthew Keats, who was one of the partner sponsors for what is now Linklaters Re:link. We brainstormed the design of contract lawyers’ platform, which is what Lexoo was at the time. We then got talking about my plans – I was in Amsterdam at the time and looking to move roles – and he set up a coffee between me and Paul Lewis, who was then on the Innovation Steering Group. We had coffee and the next thing I knew, I was in the interview process for the Head of Innovation in Linklaters.     

Since then, my role has changed every year. I wanted to do interesting work and I’m fascinated by the power of technology to add value to the way we operate – I’ve been lucky that the timing worked. You do make your own luck, but you also need opportunities and people who will open doors. I’ve had really good sponsors and mentors. Working in the City 15 to 20 years ago, if you were female, with a family and a foreign accent to add to the mix, even if you were good at your job and worked hard, there felt like a natural ceiling to what you could achieve.   

This sort of job is really hard, and you need support and people who you can call on. I have been lucky to be able to do that many times over the years. My role has always involved a lot of public speaking, which I really don’t enjoy. In 2018, my then manager introduced me to Marc Harvey – an amazing speaker and senior partner in the LAI practice – who has informally mentored me since. He’s helped guide me to finding my own presentation style, and in the process, also given me the confidence to bring more of who I am to work. Being able to be unapologetically myself at work is a big part of why I enjoy being at Linklaters as much as I do.  

Another example was during the pandemic, when I started working very closely with Doug Donahue and Deepak Sitlani, partners in our Derivatives and Structured Products team. I didn’t know them well at all and they saw me at my worst – low on sleep, high on stress, younger child often hovering in the distance. Working with them was a real eye opener. They set very ambitious targets but provided the support needed to achieve those. Suddenly caring responsibilities didn’t feel at odds with having a demanding role. It really goes to show the influence managers and leaders can have on their teams because if it wasn’t for them, I’m fairly sure I’d have conceded defeat and quit years ago. 

At the end of the day, I have a family with young children and have moved to multiple different countries for my husband’s career. I’m passionate about the fact that we need support to allow for dual career households.  

If there’s any advice I would give to those taking a less traditional path, it is to be excellent at what you do, and then keep learning and growing. It will come together in ways you cannot imagine now – just have a little faith in yourself.

My advice to twenty somethings is that you don’t have it all planned at a young age and your age and career don’t have to run in parallel. I don’t claim to be inspiring but what I’m proud of is that I have built a career doing really interesting work with people I enjoy working with, and it’s work that has an impact.”