Team Educality had the privilege of interviewing one of India's leading corporate commercial lawyers over a cup of coffee at his office in Delhi. The interview was taken by the founder of Educality, Mr Ashwin Madhavan.
Below is the interview.
1. Your career spans more than two decades. How has the experience been like?
I started practising in 1994 when corporate practice was at its nascent stage. Only students from NLS, Bangalore were perceived to be groomed for corporate practice and other college students were thought fit enough only for litigation practice.
My journey has been very eventful, full of excitement and fun like a roller-coaster. I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with some of the living legends in our profession. Being listed among them by IBLJ (in India’s Top 100 lawyers) last year came as a surprise and welcome recognition.
Being in the profession provided me the opportunity to work and interact with the world’s best professionals, travel to many countries (as a Chevening Scholar and otherwise for business), witness best practices across the world and make so many good friends.
I have been a very simple person throughout knowing only how to initiate and cultivate relationships and delivering value to the clients, giving them more than expected. This has kept me in good stead on my own and I share good professional relationships in more countries that I can remember or count. Today, with the worldwide goodwill I enjoy, am not dependent on a Big firm tag to generate business or survive in this big legal world.
2. In the past ten years, law has become a popular career path for many young students. According to you, why has this happened? Do you believe that law as a profession in this country can withstand such a large influx of young law students into its fold?
Indeed, last decade has been very eventful. We have seen setting up of many quality law institutions throughout the country. In addition, success stories of eminent lawyers in business newspapers and magazines, their views and interviews in print and visual media have enhanced the glamour quotient of the profession. Therefore, the perception about the profession in the eyes of parents and students have changed dramatically.
However, there is always a flipside. Too many institutions without good faculty and infrastructure are not a healthy sign for the profession. Many institutes are only degree fetching vending machines. To be a successful professional, one needs a decent grooming and knowledge. Education for the sake of collecting fees and giving degrees is no good. Unless the mushrooming of sub-standard institutions which do not have good faculty, no infrastructure, no imparting of knowledge, no emphasis on making their students employable is curbed, we could see deterioration in professional standards and ethics. I urge the Bar Councils to be stricter with the eligibility norms for new institutions.
As far as influx of new professionals is concerned, India still has a huge amount of untapped potential and there could be opportunities for us all. However, not all students can be subsumed in Indian Magic Circle firms. To my knowledge, there are 1,300 law institutes in India, which could be passing out 1,00,000 students a year. Top 10 Indian laws firms employ around 5,000 lawyers and cannot take more than 500 freshers a year. While it may be everyone’s dream to work with biggest firms in India or abroad, it may not come true for majority of young lawyers on day one. The parents and students must recognise this fact and then only decide on law as their preferred choice as a career.
3. We are witnessing a huge shift in the corporate legal sector. There was a time when only a few family run law firms were in good business, but of late many young start up law firms like yours are opening and prospering. Do you think that small law firms can survive the cut throat competition that is prevalent in the corporate legal sector in India?
Ans: True, legal profession in India has become more inclusive, democratic and professional. Besides the oldest law firms which were traditionally family run, new generation firms are also making their mark. Only those who adapt with time, survive and thrive. There cannot be a better example than Khaitan & Co. among the old firms. On the other hand, among the new firms, you have Trilegal, giving every other firm a run for their money.
Today there is scope for firms of all shapes, sizes and specialised practice areas to operate and grow. Legal practice is still relationship driven by and large. The clients who wish to work with us come to us irrespective of our brand name, team size, infrastructure and so on – their only concerns are timing, quality and pricing -the order of these concerns may be different for different clients though!
Along with big law firms, mid-size and boutique firms survive thoughout the world. These firms are run mostly by professionals who have been partners with big firms and have an entrepreneurial bug or their own client base (same is the case with me). Therefore, the clients are assured of the quality of service (rendered by same / similar professionals) at a fraction of the price it would need to pay up at a big firm. Small and mid-size firms have cost advantage due to less expenditure on software, business promotion, seminars, award functions, sea-view offices, etc. which can be passed on to the clients. An additional advantage is that smaller firms can dedicate their best people even to smaller deals and transactions. Thus, clients looking for value-for-money proposition prefer to do business with small and mid-size firms.
I therefore, do not see an immediate threat to smaller firms.
4. The Indian Government is quite keen on opening up the Indian Corporate Legal market, by allowing foreign law firms to enter India. Are you in favour of foreign law firms entering India?
Ans: We are already working with many international law firms on inbound and outbound international transactions without being exclusively tied up with any firm.
I am not sure how many of them would have substantial business in India to warrant them to open an office in India. The biggest international law firms would tie up with big law firm by joint ventures or buyouts.
The competition from foreign law firms may make Indian law firms more alert, systematic and professional.
We are happy to cooperate with foreign law firms, whether they have a presence in India or not.
5. Your law firm Corp Comm Legal has recently opened. Where do you see your young firm in the next five years and what are the practice areas you plan to focus on?
After spending 23 years in the profession, I was itching to provide a cost effective and a more accessible solution particularly to small and mid-size clients, whether in India or abroad.
We are headquartered in New Delhi with associate offices in major Indian cities. Besides, we are part of an international boutique law firms network without exclusivity.
We are currently focussed on domestic and international corporate – commercial transactions and advisory. Besides, we have partners having substantial experience on international litigation and disputes resolution, IP and other practice areas. There are huge opportunities in the new Insolvency and Bankruptcy code, which we would like to tap.
We would prefer to grow organically, brick by brick. We haven’t specified a particular number of people or turnover as target. The only targets are that we should be growing and we should be improving as professionals becoming the first choice of our clients for legal assistance. If we can stick to these basic rules, I feel the rest will follow.
Another aspect is that while do not wish to be among the biggest firms, yet we wish to be recognised among the best. Pursuit of excellence is more important to us than other factors or sheer numbers.
6. Your first book titled Drafting of Commercial Agreements has recently hit the book stands. Could you elaborate on what the book focusses on and who would be the target audience?
I always used to struggle with drafting of contracts in early stage of my career. Additionally, whenever I interacted with the student community, there was a grudge that no book lays down basic rules for effective agreement drafting. One only learnt by hit and trial method. Most of the old and current books on the subject teach legal aspects of law and provide obsolete and redundant drafts of agreements. Additionally, these books are very bulky and perceived to be very serious affair, so no one dare touch them.
Therefore, I felt the need for bringing about a simple, easy-to-understand, step-by-step handbook for law students and young professionals (lawyers and non-lawyers). The book is written in very simple language and it should make the job of any draftsman or reviewer quite easy as to how and what to write or review in an agreement. To my knowledge, there was no book of its kind in India so far.
7. Your first book is getting good response. Could it translate to you authoring some more books?
I have been writing on LinkedIn for last two years. Besides, some business websites republished some of my articles.
All this while, I have had offers to write on corporate law subjects, be it company law, contracts, SEBI laws, Startups and so on. I have not been able to devote time to writing due to my engagement with big law firms. Now that I am out of the rat race, I think I can afford some time to share my knowledge with students and professionals.
I am in talks with some publishers and some more titles should follow in next couple of years.
8. Online Legal Education has started to pick up pace in India, what do you think, should be role of online legal education companies that are trying to establish a foothold in India?
The advent of online legal education is a welcome step. If affords the students utmost flexibility in terms of pricing and timing of education and ability to learn from best faculty from different institutions.
Again, the emphasis here should be on quality education and not the number of certifications you offer. The companies in this sector should engage with seasoned academicians and practising professionals to enhance students’ skillsets. It will not only enhance students’ knowledge, but will also make them more employable. There should be a decent mix of short term and long term courses, which students can choose depending upon their interest areas. Further, affordability is another important aspect in India – majority of students come from a middle class and poor background, so companies should create such content that can be sold on an affordable rate with more focus on volumes.