“As digital transformation takes the center stage, the generalist vs specialist debate is taking a definitive turn”- Rai S Mittal, Senior Partner, TITUS & CO., ADVOCATES

This Interview has been published by Pragya Chandni and The SuperLawyer Team

You’ve had an impressive journey in the legal field spanning over three decades, with experiences ranging from trial court practice to senior partnership at leading law firms. What initially drew you to pursue a career in law, and how did your early experiences shape your path?

To tell you what drove me, or what motivated me, to pursue a career in law can be an obvious answer but still it requires a bit of self-reflection. My passion for law and interest in becoming a lawyer came largely from it being intellectually challenging. I was perhaps also passionate about legally connected issues during my school and college days. My father being a lawyer and my interest in watching movies and reading crime fiction also contributed a bit in my desire to become a lawyer. Moreover, to be honest, with little understanding of science and lack of interest in accounting and management professions, I was left with just a few options and law was one of them. 

I’m normally quite a private person, so my journey as a lawyer wasn’t quite easy. As a ‘baby’ lawyer, I worked across many different areas of law. I was fortunate enough to have some amazing experiences very early in my career on a variety of issues including family laws, labour laws, consumer laws, criminal laws, revenue laws and property matters. While the thrill of being in district courts of my small hometown and learning so much in one go was amazing, it just wasn’t the same as practising in a large city in a professional environment with matters having substantial stakes. I then moved to Delhi and have since then practised all kinds of business and corporate laws across different practice areas. 

Your expertise encompasses various legal domains, from dispute resolution to intellectual property rights. Could you share a pivotal moment or case in your career that significantly influenced your approach to practicing law or shaped your specialization?

During the initial years of my law practice, I got an amazing opportunity to work on a complicated matter which required substantial skills in a variety of laws including intellectual property laws, trade and contractual issues, criminal laws, foreign collaboration laws, government policies and tax laws as well as skills in court litigation and arbitration. It is then I realised that complexity requires teamwork and collaboration. In order to manage client matters effectively and efficiently, lawyers have to utilize a more diverse group of skills and people. What is also clear is that teamwork and collaboration require heavy doses of trust and shared responsibility. Furthermore, working on this case and many other interesting assignments of different nature ensured that I enjoy offering a range of diverse skills and an intelligent mix of knowledge from a variety of disciplines. 

As a seasoned business attorney, you’ve worked extensively with multinational corporations, navigating complex legal landscapes across different industries. Could you elaborate on a particularly challenging situation you encountered and how you successfully resolved it?

Another challenging work situation I encountered during the initial years of my career was when I was assigned a client project with tight deadlines and high expectations. There were several experienced legal teams working on the assignment for different parties from different jurisdictions including India, UAE, Japan and Mauritius. As someone lacking experience, I somewhat struggled with interactions and communication, which made collaborating with diverse teams a bit challenging. However, I soon recognised the importance of effective teamwork and found ways to navigate this situation. To overcome this difficulty, I proactively communicate my needs and concerns to the client and different teams. I asked for clear guidelines and expectations, ensuring that I had a clear understanding of my role and responsibilities. By focusing on my individual strengths, such as attention to detail and problem-solving abilities, I was able to make valuable contributions to the project. This experience taught me the importance of open communication, seeking support when needed, and the importance of meeting small deadlines to meet the primary deadline. 

Your track record boasts a high success rate and a remarkable ability to manage legal affairs with a commercial mindset. How do you balance legal intricacies with strategic business objectives to deliver optimal outcomes for your clients?

We live in a world of strategic compliance – or as I like to call it, “Winning at Business Without Landing in Jail.” Gone are the days when legal compliance was seen merely as a back-office function. Today, it is recognized as a key player in shaping business strategies. This shift is partly driven by the increasing complexity of regulatory landscapes across different jurisdictions, especially for global businesses. The rise of technology, data privacy concerns, and the dynamic nature of international trade laws further complicate this scenario. 

At its core, strategic compliance is about finding a balance. On one side, there are the business goals – growth, profitability, market expansion, and innovation. On the other, there are legal and regulatory requirements, which can often seem like barriers to these objectives. However, instead of seeing these groups as opposing forces, we should focus on integrating compliance into business strategy, thereby enhancing, not hindering, the pursuit of business. 

In my view, compliance shouldn’t be seen as the party pooper showing up after the decisions are made; it’s part of the party-planning committee, and we need to ensure that the business goals don’t end up with a noise from the legal department. Ideally, in the world of strategic compliance, it’s all about making the law work for you, not against you.

Throughout your career, you’ve demonstrated exceptional leadership skills by managing teams of attorneys and fostering a collaborative environment. What strategies have you found most effective in leading legal teams, especially in high-stakes situations?

Becoming more effective in leading a team is certainly more of an art than a science. Often, it can also mean adapting to the team you have or the circumstances at hand. However, the key is to encourage collaboration across people, teams and departments. It is also important to set an organisation vision and communicate the big picture. 

What will you say on Client Retention vs. Client Acquisition? Where do you think that most law firms go wrong on this? 

A law firm’s past and existing clients are a huge asset to the firm, so it’s crucial to maintain a strong relationship with them so that they stay loyal and do not leave the firm. And yet most law firms, in particular small to midsize firms, spend most of their marketing budget on finding new clients instead of nurturing the ones they already have or had not too long ago. It is common knowledge that acquiring a new client can cost 5 to 10 times more than retaining an existing client. In my experience, increasing customer retention by 5% to 10% can increase profits from 25% to 100% in mid term. The success rate of selling your services to a client you already have is 50% or more, while the success rate of selling to a new client is just about 10% in most cases. There are some surveys which have found that loyal clients are 5x as likely to repurchase, 5x as likely to forgive, 4x as likely to refer, and 7x as likely to try your new offering, as compared to a new client/potential client.

What, in your experience, is necessary for a lawyer to stay relevant in the fast changing legal industry? 

The legal industry is on the verge of a major transition and it has in fact already changed a lot in the last decade or so, which is driven by the introduction of technology. The legal industry is changing because of the introduction of new innovations related to the industry and hundreds of new legal start-ups emerging every year. Today, machine learning is beginning to transform the legal profession in many ways but in most cases it augments what humans do and frees them up to take higher-level tasks such as advising clients, negotiating deals and appearing in courts. In machine learning, computers use an algorithm, analyze data, learn the pattern and glean insights from the data, so a lot of routine or easy work can be taken care of without much involvement of a senior lawyer. Without a doubt, the ecosystem will continuously affect the way lawyers are working and will work in the future. If lawyers learn legal management practice with the latest technology, then only they will be able to survive in the future. 

Another very important aspect is that the lawyers have to continuously update their knowledge in order to stay relevant. There was a time when lawyers could do well just by having knowledge of general laws of the land or by having understanding of traditional practice areas, like contract law, torts and civil and criminal procedures. That’s no longer the case in view of special laws and tribunals and specialised practice areas that are coming up very fast. 

Also, I have a strong feeling that lawyers who don’t add value to the client relationship won’t survive in an ever-competitive environment; they will simply become irrelevant. One should therefore be very efficient in delivering the outcome. So get better at management of client assignments. Give commercially pragmatic advice, not just advice that’s legally correct. Keep in touch with the clients regularly with helpful tips and advice, even if you don’t get paid for this. Pass on the knowledge you are getting about their business or industry. Understand clients’ businesses and the industries in which they operate so you can tell them of pitfalls before they arrive.

A Generalist or a Specialist: What’s the Best Fit for A Lawyer’s Career?

Personally I have always been inclined to offer a range of diverse skills and an intelligent mix of knowledge from a variety of disciplines. Hence, I have been a generalist lawyer by choice throughout my career.

Generally speaking, handling diverse roles provides generalists a good understanding of all the functioning parts of the business or industry. Generalists multitask and collaborate to tap into related domains when opportunities arise. This hones their ability to handle unique situations and formulate enduring perspectives. However, there is a limitation in as much as generalists aren’t sometimes that competent in niche projects. Moreover, there is a higher chance of their early burnout as they work across multiple teams and tackle a host of responsibilities, especially if they are in leadership roles. 

As digital transformation takes the center stage, the generalist vs specialist debate is taking a definitive turn. One should definitely ask oneself the following questions, amongst others, to gain a comprehensive understanding of one’s needs and goal: Do you like a diverse breadth of knowledge or do you prefer deep research on any specific topic? Do you change your career perspective often and prefer taking time to find the niche you are interested in? Or have you already determined your career trajectory? What kind of work ignites your interests and passions? Does it require you to hone different skills or demand specific subject-matter expertise?

What are the biggest challenges that the legal sector is facing or will be facing in the short to mid term? 

From economic pressures to cyber threats, lawyers are facing a number of challenges. The economy remains volatile in 2024, marked by ongoing geopolitical tensions. This is making clients even more price conscious when choosing a law firm. There is also an expectation for greater cybersecurity and verifications for online activity as law firms are wary of increased risks of cyberattacks. Most law firms are however yet to implement effective cyber mitigation strategies. Further, even though integrating legal softwares and systems is not a new challenge, it’s increasingly becoming important as law firms strive for increased profitability while improving client service and experience. Talent attraction and retention in the legal sector will also continue to be a significant challenge in 2024. 

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