Abhinav Bhalaik, Partner at Algo Legal shares his view on founding law firms, working with startups and serendipity.
This interview has been published by Isam Kabir and The Super Lawyer Team. The Interview was taken by Priyanka Cholera.
1. What pushed/led you to pursue a career in the legal field?
For me, it was more of an accident than anything else. I was playing professional sport so it was a tossup between carrying on with that or maybe doing something in academics. I was almost slated to study economics at Delhi University and I had written a few law school exams. Back in the day, we had individual exams for law schools instead of the CLAT. When I got into NLU Jodhpur and was also on the waitlist at NALSAR, someone told me that it makes more sense to do something professionally and if you’re really passionate about economics, there would be plenty of opportunities later. We had a double honours option at law school, so I majored in economics and law. That’s how law school happened and one thing led to another.
2. Please tell us about your experience at NLU Jodhpur. Few people know that your batch was one of the first five batches to graduate; can you tell us how your alma mater contributed to your success in your formative years?
I look back to my law school days very fondly. It was challenging back then but when you’re younger you have a lot of energy and you can rough it out. Initially, we never had a hostel to live in within the campus of the law school. I remember we were staying in a guest-house in the city which was actually a lot of fun because there were no hostel restrictions, so we could go out, explore the city and sleep late. It was challenging in a lot of ways; from our first moot court participation to our first moot court win as a university, setting up the editorial board and setting up various committees. At the same time, we had Dr Mitra, who had set up NLS and then joined NLU Jodhpur. He was a stickler for academics and inculcated in us a stringent academic discipline. However, he was extremely student-friendly and supported us in whatever we wanted to do. So, we never felt the paucity of funds. But I think it was a very collegiate working environment between the faculty-led by Dr Mitra and all of us.
3. It is also known to us that you were offered a Training Contract at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a leading Magic Circle law firm. Could you tell us a little more about the opportunity and what were the factors that helped you bag this job?
Back then we were applying to some of the United Kingdom-based firms. Being one of the initial batches you have to figure things out yourself. I went through the interview process and got selected. In fact, I was even slated to go and start my training contract. But it was during the time when the global financial crisis happened due to which most UK law firm training contracts were delayed. But that’s also when I had the opportunity to meet my first partner who I worked under. He was formerly a Freshfields attorney and had just returned to India to set up Platinum Partners. So, I guess, things just have a way of playing out.
4. Your first job after graduation was with Platinum Partners. Did you find yourself in a similar situation as 2020 graduates, given that 2009 was a period of recession as well?
My graduation batch was an exceptional one. I have batchmates who are IAS and IFS officers and also a lot of us today are partners in leading law firms across India. So, academically it was a very sound batch and most of us had worked very hard and had extensive internship experience. The people we met during our internships realised that recession or no recession, we were a bunch of students who are hardworking and maybe fairly capable. So, a lot of us got good opportunities despite the recession, but there was a fair number that did not. Once the economy started getting better, although a lot of them started out at places where they ideally wouldn’t have wanted to, because they were good at what they were doing- hardworking as well as resilient, they all landed up where they wanted to be in some years.
5. Please tell us about your role and responsibilities at Platinum Partners, especially being part of the firm in the initial years?
I think I was very fortunate to have started out in a small team. And being a part of the initial bunch of lawyers, your level of exposure and the level of training is at a different level. I ended up working with someone who had more than twenty years of experience than I did. So the learning is huge and you are also challenging yourself every day. Also, I was fortunate because my first partner was a very nice person and a very hard taskmaster. He focused on training us and developing us as lawyers. And by default in a smaller organisation, you have responsibilities. Whether it is bringing together a library, interviewing students in law schools for internships or fresher associates, or even handling business development. So you do have a lot of exposure on the non-client side of things. Also on the client-side of things, you are thrown in the deep end much sooner and though you have a senior looking after you, you are told that you have to swim by yourself.
6. In 2017 you moved to Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. What were the new responsibilities that you took on as a partner? How did your journey so far prepare you for this?
I was not made a partner directly. There was a three to four-month period during which I was as an of-counsel. So, the way I worked at Platinum and the way I work today, I don’t personally believe too much in designations. All law firms have a designation to make people feel good about themselves. I think your growth as a lawyer and as a professional depends on the level of responsibility you can take as you go about with your work. So after five or six or seven years if one is competent, well trained and can take responsibility, whether you are a principal associate or an associate, it is all just a nomenclature. My training and experience were a lot better than the one that you get at larger firms because in bigger law firms you are initially lost all over the place and you’re mostly working with seniors who are at best three or four years more experienced than you. So I think it was the technical and non-technical training that I received at Platinum Partners which did wonders for me. And as I said, if you are ready to become a Partner, you don’t have to be called a PA or a SA beforehand to become a Partner. If given the choice, to go back and redo, I would never pick a big firm to start out with because the quantum of learning is way better in smaller ones. So, I would always pick a small firm to work with and a good senior to learn under. And I think that is the absolute key.
7. After almost 4 years at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas, you moved to AlgoLegal as a Partner. What is your vision for Algo Legal, in terms of services and team building?
Seeing Platinum Partners being set up from scratch, I witnessed the entrepreneurial side of a lawyer. I was very clear that at some point in time I would do something on my own. I come from a business family so for me maybe things sit very differently. After I resigned from SAM, I was in the middle of figuring out what I wanted to do and that’s when we started talking with the few like-minded people who were in a very similar space in life. They were accomplished professionals and legal practitioners who were looking for a different challenge and we’re very focused on value addition to clients along with the use of technology in a big way. And fortunately for me, I had known some of them very closely and had worked with them in my earlier organisations. So things just sort of came together and that’s how it all started with Algo.
8. How has the ongoing pandemic served as a turning point in the M & A sector and law firm work culture? Do you believe law firms can adapt to work from home for the long haul?
I do believe that we will see a slightly modified working model. People have realised that we can do a fair bit of work not being in the office every day, but at the same time there is a big merit of being in office too, especially for young lawyers, because the training that you can have in an office environment is very different from what you can have on zoom calls. I think we’ll move towards a hybrid model. The pandemic has been challenging and people are going through a lot. But at the same time clients have been very accommodating. Although times have been difficult and challenging, we’ve seen people being extremely supportive. So I’m very thankful to my colleagues and clients. I think we have all stuck together.
We are witnessing a lot of M&A activities so the difficult part is executing so much work sitting at home. I have witnessed a fair amount of consolidation happening and when I say consolidation, I mean a lot of the smaller players are selling out to the larger players. So there is a lot of market consolidation taking place and that’s when M&A activity becomes fairly robust.
9. AlgoLegal has a particular focus on startups and in furtherance of that, has a free legal kit with important resources and documents. How do you think the Covid – 19 pandemics have shaped the business environment for such startups? The tech industry is seeing a boom; is this really a silver lining in the dark clouds?
At Algo, we have initiatives where we work with young founders who don’t have a lot of cash or resources. We do a lot of pro bono work. I think we are the only firm in India that is using tech the way we do. We did a very interesting series with NUJS where we were teaching technology and law as a credit course. So we try to do whatever we can. We believe that tech is going to be a big part of law firms going forward.
To answer the second question, it hundred per cent has. I would not want to call it a silver lining because a lot of people have suffered. But it has definitely given a spur to technology. It has put tech-forward by at least half a decade. And the toolkit is because we work with a fair number of founders and young people and we realise that while we charge our professional fees, it’s a small gesture on our part as a way of giving back to the community which has supported us a lot.
10. How do you feel about most startups suffering immense losses and raising humongous capital in the funding series; is it about being a unicorn? What is your take on it?
I think there are two models. There is the model that Zerodha has followed, where they have hardly raised any funds from investors. The other model is where people have taken a lot of funding. So I think the model where you take a lot of funding and become a unicorn, what the real aim is to hit a certain volume of sales. And to hit that volume you need to burn cash. I think everybody is banking on the fact that when you hit those economies of scale your profitability starts becoming better. Because what happens is that your cost beyond a point doesn’t balloon. So to take any company to a level where the economies of scale are keeping in, you need to have substantial funding. You need revenue so, you need to burn cash and to burn cash you need to receive money from investors and the moment you receive that money your valuation changes. And I think a lot of them are eyeing the IPO market because they intend to raise a huge quantum of funds from the public markets. What I will say is that it’s still early days in India. Ten years before, people wrote off these startups. I have been in conversation with people who said, “What is this Zomato? What is this Swiggy?” They made fun of these ventures. But I think the world is changing and it has played a big part in where these startups have reached. So it is a wait-and-watch, but I am very interested to see where it all lands up.
11. How has the pandemic that entailed lockdown impacted you personally and professionally?
Other than battling the virus personally and at home, it has not been too bad. It’s disheartening to see the number of people who have suffered personal losses. Beyond a point, you can’t even blame the government but I think that there has been a systematic failure and many deaths could have been prevented. We have lost some very capable people in the legal fraternity as well. So that’s sad and makes you think about what more one can do. At our firm, we are working on initiatives for our people where we can make them more comfortable; we make sure that topics like mental health are discussed, spoken about and not shoved under the carpet.
12. Any parting advice to law students and young lawyers on building a successful career in corporate law and how important are ethics in this professional pursuit?
The only advice I will give people is that you can listen to as many people talking about their experiences, but at the end of the day, do what works for you. Read my interview but, at the end of the day, there will be things that will work for you and don’t rely on any particular person’s experience. I think everyone’s life experiences are different and every person speaks for himself. Unfortunately, most people want their life experiences and advice to be held up very high but, I don’t really believe in that. My only advice is that if you like something, go for it and you will learn along the way.
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