How would you define the term SuperLawyer? What does the word represent to you?
I wasn’t initially comfortable with the fact that I am being interviewed as a “SuperLawyer”. I don’t think that I have achieved something that is “SuperLawyer” worthy. Most of us will have work lives spanning for 35-40 years. Even after 10 years, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface and have a long way to go. I treat my profession as a component of my life (no offence to those who think of themselves as a lawyer 24×7, 365 days a year). Possibly, legal luminaries who have created an impact on the society or fellow lawyers are more suited to such titles.
Having said that, I do believe that there is a journey that is unique to every individual. I have mine too. My journey as a law student and a professional has been fulfilling and has had its own share of ups and downs. I feel that by narrating my journey and discussing my struggles at a personal and professional level, I may be of help to someone who is experiencing something similar or is looking for guidance or simply wants an assurance that they are on the right path.
Do you feel serendipity played a factor in your decision to pursue a career in law? On the other hand, did engineering not seem like a better fit for you as a science student?
I do feel that serendipity played a role in my decision to pursue law. While I must say that my decision worked out well, I didn’t really know what I was aiming to pursue in my professional life at the time of getting into college.
I don’t have a spectacular backstory on how I decided to pursue law. It wasn’t the case that I felt inspired after reading some book, or meeting a luminary in the field of law, or experiencing some event or tragedy. I finished school from St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, Kolkata, in 2006. In those days, the general trend amongst middle-class family kids with a science background was to pursue engineering or medical. The 5-year integrated LLB wasn’t as prevalent a choice amongst students as it is today. Thankfully, students these days are a lot more aware of other professions (including law) due to the outreach of the internet and the work done by organisations such as Lawsikho.
My initial goal was to pursue engineering and get into a top IIT. Unfortunately, my preparations took a hit when I contracted a severe case of typhoid in the 12th standard. As expected, my scores in the entrance exams weren’t adequate to secure a seat in a top engineering college. However, I didn’t want to drop a year to prepare for the next year’s entrance exams. My backup plan was to get into a reputed college and pursue an alternative stream that had good job prospects. Unfortunately (like most middle-class family kids), my decisions were driven more with the end objective of securing a decently paying job rather than choosing something which really appealed to me.
I had heard of the 5-year integrated LLB since NLS and NALSAR were growing in popularity and NUJS was coming up the ranks. The prospect of studying at home (at NUJS) also played a part in me deciding to appear for its entrance exam. Each law university had its own entrance exam in those days. I briefly took entrance exam coaching from a private tutor and went through some of the guidebooks. While I didn’t have much idea about NLU Jodhpur, I decided to appear for its entrance exam to practice for the NLS exam scheduled to be held a couple of days after the NLU Jodhpur exam.
I got through NLU Jodhpur and only managed to get on the waitlist of a few other NLUs. Though I wasn’t initially thrilled with the outcome, speaking to some of my teachers and school seniors allayed my concerns. NLU Jodhpur was offering an integrated B. Sc. LL.B. degree, which appealed to my science background, as well. My relatives were surprised when I told them that I was going to Rajasthan to study law. My family had to fend questions such as “why law?” and “why Jodhpur?”. While these comments created some initial doubts in my mind, I, fortunately, chose to ignore them.
How was your law school experience? Being an introvert, did you find it challenging to get through law school? How did you overcome the initial mental barriers linked with the preconception that “introverts aren’t best suited for a legal career”?
NLU Jodhpur’s first batch had just graduated the year before. In those days, the NLU campus wasn’t the scenic lush green campus with flower beds and so many buildings that you see today. When I stood in front of the college gate for the first time, I remember seeing vast expanses of sand and a few buildings in the middle of it. That sight was quite intimidating for a kid who had never been to a boarding school and had just left the comforts of a highly insulated middle-class environment in a city like Kolkata. My immediate reaction was to look at my father and wonder what I had done and where I had landed.
My law school journey wasn’t a joyride as it may have been for some others. Some individuals adjust to a new environment a lot faster than others. It won’t be incorrect to say that I took about three out of my five years to fully adjust to a new city and college and “figure things out” (probably the longest amongst my batchmates). I had my own set of struggles with adjusting to a new place and life in a residential university. While I eventually learnt to figure these issues out, I realised that it is a process of self-discovery that everyone has to go through at their own pace – and there are no prizes for figuring things out sooner. In the process, it is easy to fall prey to frustration and agony if you feel that you are unable to adapt quickly or are unclear on your future goals.
I am an introvert. I didn’t really know what it really meant to be one until a couple of years earlier when I took a Myers Briggs personality test. It changed the way I perceive myself and helped me understand myself better. Introverts are often passed off as “shy” or “socially awkward” in our society. I used to feel like a fish out of water in college. I could not explain why I didn’t feel the urge to hang out with people more often (even with a familiar bunch of people) or was not very outspoken in my surroundings. Being an introvert does make the process of adjusting to your surroundings difficult. But I promise you – things get better with time.
Good public speaking skills is an added advantage to every lawyer. However, it doesn’t mean that students who have initial troubles in developing these qualities cannot succeed in the legal profession. This is a misconception largely owed to how the legal profession is portrayed in movies and pop culture. I have come a long way since my initial years of college in terms of the manner in which I conduct myself. While I had my share of low points during my college and professional life, I feel that preparing well and visualizing my professional conversations made me a more confident individual. Finding my interests outside studies/work, pursuing co-curricular activities and learning new things unrelated to work also helped me immensely. At a more personal level, learning to do things without expectations and practising philanthropy (by conduct and not just economically) helped me find inner peace and gain more positivity. I also had some good mentors and teachers who helped me throughout my personal and professional journey.
In retrospect, how would you describe your initial years at Luthra? Being a young lawyer, how did you balance work and personal commitments?
I did several internships while in college and wrote publications in order to make my CV more compelling. For me, everything I did was about trying to get a decent job at the end of law school and find financial stability. Unknowingly, I became a part of the rat race without actually learning how to apply the knowledge in practice. It was only when I joined a law firm that I realized that this was not even the tip of the iceberg. You have to unlearn and relearn everything that you have learnt in law school, from a fresh perspective, once you join the profession. Of course, that does not take away the basic fundamentals of laws that you learn in law school – which are extremely important for any professional.
I joined a private equity and M&A team at Luthra. When I joined, we were a team of four. Within 6 to 7 months, two colleagues (including a senior) left the firm. All of a sudden, I was reporting to the partner directly and handling client-facing work. The next year, our team recruited two more junior colleagues. I was given the responsibility of mentoring them even though I was only a first-year associate.
The advantage of this set-up was that I wasn’t a mere cog in the wheel and was fully aware of what was happening on a transaction. I was also shouldering administrative duties and playing a managerial role while working with my junior colleagues. At times, junior associates who are a part of larger teams may lose sight of the main objective of an assignment because they aren’t being tasked with the execution of the assignment from the beginning to the end. Hence, even though I was part of a small team, I was getting direct exposure to big transactions. There was one instance where I was given a document to negotiate when I didn’t have any prior experience with negotiation. My partner encouraged me to list out the discussion points and practice what I was going to say before him prior to the negotiation. This experience was definitely a turning point in my career and made me a more confident individual. Despite these positives, there were some drawbacks and sacrifices of working in such a set-up, such as working long hours, working on weekends, losing out on social life or not being able to pursue interests outside work.
We are looking a decade back, from being interviewed for Luthra during the campus placements and to the firm as a partner. How has this journey been for you?
My professional journey has been fulfilling and has changed me for the better at a personal level. I have learnt to identify my strengths and translate the same into my work product. My analytical skills have greatly increased. I am also able to contribute to commercial aspects of a transaction, a quality that my clients appreciate. As I mentioned earlier, learning to swim at the deep end of the pool really helped me get early first-hand experience of the skill sets required in the field. The downsides were that I didn’t have much of a life outside the office in my growth years – hence my social life suffered. Whenever someone asks me about how it is to work in a law firm, I tell them that while the job is rewarding in various ways (including financially), it no doubt has its cons and is a tough one to stick to. For this reason, the rate of attrition in law firms is also quite high, and burnouts are quite common.
While compensation is important, I don’t believe that people stick around in an organisation only for money or out of a sense of loyalty. They have to feel a sense of fulfilment. They have to feel valued and comfortable in the work environment. A firm or a brand name may go to the extent of assuring you of the kind of work you will get or the compensation levels. But it is never the assurance of a great work environment or culture – which is driven largely by the people in the team that you are a part of. It is therefore important for a good leader to possess empathy and good interpersonal skills.
I stuck around at Luthra because of a positive team and office environment. I was given the freedom to grow as a professional. I made some of my closest friends in the firm. My superiors and co-workers have always been approachable enough to discuss work and personal life. I felt that I was levelling up and learning something new. It will be incorrect to say that I didn’t have my fair share of disappointments in my professional journey. Every professional in a law firm is bound to face these moments of doubt when they start questioning whether they want to continue in the firm or not. However, overall, I am grateful for the journey and what I have managed to achieve.
You mentioned that you had to compromise on social life early on in your professional life. Do you believe that socializing today is more about networking than it is about interacting with others?
I don’t think that professional networking can be equated with socializing. I treat networking as part of my job, which may create opportunities for me or my firm in the future. I never paid attention to networking until I started working. Fortunately, people today are a lot more aware of the concept of networking and why it’s essential. In a week, I try to set aside a few hours to make new connections, reconnect with old ones, or read something that a connection has shared on Linkedin. Networking definitely helps every professional, and one should start as early as one can, but I feel that it’s not the most crucial requirement for a law student. Networking is a continuous process. Even if one is not good at networking initially or has started late, one can always catch up.
In your career, you have played a key role in various transactions for brands Burger King, Starbucks Corporation and many more. Is it a milestone to represent big names that also hold a personal value as a consumer for millions? How do you keep the team spirits elevated and make a positive environment to work on high-stakes deals?
No offence to those who feel otherwise, but I feel we corporate lawyers don’t get as many opportunities to make a difference in society as compared to litigation lawyers. While M&A, financing and IPOs form the backbone of a country’s economic activities, I personally feel that a corporate lawyer will not get the same level of satisfaction that a litigation lawyer will get after having successfully filed/argued a PIL or having secured justice for a victim.
But while working on transactions especially involving consumer-facing parties, one does feel special. When I look at a Burger King restaurant or a Starbucks cafe today, it does bring a smile to my face. It is a representation of a tangible result of the work that I did on the transaction and gives more meaning and a sense of purpose to what I do.
As regards your second question, I try to inculcate and build a positive work culture as the leader of my team. I detest toxic work environments and gaslighting. Unfortunately, these are quite common in a lot of workplaces and can be detrimental to a person’s self-esteem and career. People often underestimate the impact that their words can have on somebody. While I understand the need for a person to be strict with their co-workers, bad behaviour cannot be tolerated. Unfortunately, I have heard of or come across individuals in the profession who are impatient, yell at their juniors or send obnoxious emails to them when they make mistakes. I understand that it is not easy to always maintain one’s calm amidst work pressure, but one can’t treat their team in such a way. You have no right to yell at your colleagues, especially when you haven’t made an effort to educate them and explain their shortcomings. That’s your job as a senior or as a leader of the team. A lawyer’s ability to empathize with others is crucial for their growth. Everyone is built differently, has different strengths and weaknesses, and is motivated in different ways – and a team leader needs to identify that.
Congratulations on being in the Forbes 100 Power List of 2020 and securing M&A Deal of the year (Premium) by Asian Legal Business Awards, 2020 (Thomson Reuters). What value do these titles hold on the personal and professional front? Are these a parameter of success or a checkpoint?
I feel that awards do add some value to one’s resume and does create a good impression on a client, especially when they haven’t previously worked with you. I won’t downplay the value of such awards because it does feel good to get recognized. However, they are definitely not a measure of one’s success or quality. I have been on the side of things far too often where I have felt that I haven’t received the recognition that I deserved. So if you haven’t received an award, it doesn’t mean you are not deserving. At the same time, I will never take any such recognition for granted. At the end of the day, what matters is when the client calls and tells me that I have done a great job.
What would you tell your younger self if you could go back in time and advise yourself about the journey ahead?
I would be less harsh and more forgiving on myself. I would take better care of my health and well-being. I would stop putting added pressure on myself to achieve things by a certain time frame. The society sets expectations that we have to achieve certain things by a certain age. We fail to realise that there are no prizes for achieving things earlier in time. I would encourage myself to read more, learn a new language, take more interest in sports and things other than studies as there is a lot more to life than studies and work, and such pursuits help develop positivity.
What are a few qualities you look for in a prospect when making recruiting decisions?
Due to the kind of competition, we have in our country, the interview or selection procedure must be completed in a short period, and it may not always be an accurate representation of a candidate’s quality. Many people don’t realize that the competition is tougher in the field of law because, unlike medical or engineering, where there are more jobs and opportunities in a year, the intake in law firms throughout the country is comparatively quite low.
I personally feel that the interview process is not the most accurate judge of a candidate though we try our best to be as objective as possible in the evaluation. For all that you know, the candidate may be having a difficult day or is generally nervous because of the pressure of trying to create an impression on the interviewer within a short span of time. Unfortunately, we have to assess what is in front of us. Personally, I would prefer to evaluate a candidate during their internship and make recruitment calls on the basis of the same. While I would definitely look into a candidate’s knowledge of basic fundamentals of law, I would also look at their ability to apply legal principles to fact situations or think through a particular problem and provide a solution using logical reasoning, even if they are unaware of the relevant law. The ability to articulate one’s thoughts efficiently also counts. During internships, I generally lookout for candidates who are able to grasp the research problem well, ask the right questions, and provide a concise and well-researched work product. Lastly, I also look for candidates who are hungry to learn and take the initiative or think out of the box to find a solution to a problem.
What do you hope our readers will take away from your experience?
A couple of learnings and self-realisations that have helped me in my journey:
- Not everyone is built the same. You don’t have to be harsh on yourself or question why you behave a certain way. I suggest that everyone takes out a few minutes and attempt to take the Myers -Briggs personality test (online). The feeling of being more connected with yourself is beautiful and empowering.
- Don’t pile up expectations on yourself or beat yourself up for not achieving them. Be easy on yourself and learn to forgive yourself for things. Everyone has their limits and weaknesses, and even I do.
- We don’t realize the impact our words can have on other people. Be kind to others.
- Share and give more. To the extent feasible, talk about your failures so that others who are battling similar issues can have a better life. Be grateful to your mentors by mentoring someone else. And do so without any expectation.
- Never fear asking for help. At times when you feel that no one is around to help you, you will receive help from unexpected quarters. I am a big believer in the quote from Harry Potter – “Help shall be given (at Hogwarts) to those who deserve it“. I promise you that the good you do and the knowledge you impart will come back to help you when you are in need.
- On a more professional note, set your own goals and standards (and set them high) and try to meet them instead of trying to imagine what standards your senior expects of you and trying to chase such standards. This will lend a sense of positivity to your approach.
- Self-evaluate yourself every six months to see if you are learning anything new or doing the same task faster or better than you did before.
- Develop your interests, whether they are related to or unrelated to your professional life. Engage in creative pursuits outside work whenever you can.