Chaitanya Ramachandran graduated from National Law School India University, Bangalore. After graduation he worked with Clifford Chance LLP before choosing to pursue an LL.M at Stanford Law School.
He specializes in Technology Laws and is currently an Associate at AMSS, Delhi. Chaitanya is an active member of internet institutions such as ICANN and ISOC and sits on various IT focussed committees of Indian industry associations including CII and ASSOCHAM.
In this interview he talks about:
- LL.M at Stanford Law School
- Working at Clifford Chance LLP
- Specializing in Technology Laws at AMSS, Delhi
What brought you into studying law? Was it fate or plan?
It was probably a bit of both! I do come from a legal background –my parents are lawyers, but there were absolutely no expectations growing up that I’d join the “family trade”. They were quite happy for me to explore all my options. S
o in the summer following my 10th boards, like most kids in my school, I gave serious thought to studying for the engineering entrance exams, because I’ve always been interested in science and technology. But I quickly realized that I didn’t want to sign away two years of my life for the engineering lottery. And I had become increasingly interested in the law, both through speaking to family friends who had been admitted to the 5-year law schools, and because I had been closely following debates in the media over the controversial laws of the time (like the Prevention of Terrorism Act).
So by the time I started the 11th standard, I had more or less decided to take the law entrance exams (there was a separate exam for each law school at the time). And once I made that decision, my family was very supportive.
How did you fare in academics at NLSIU? Would you say a great CGPA is a necessity to kickstart a good career in the legal profession?
I’ve always been interested in a pretty broad range of things, and although doing reasonably well academically was always important to me, I was never overly obsessed with grades, certainly not at the expense of other, more important things! I wasn’t at the top of my class by any means, but I wasn’t at the bottom either. I was deeply involved with extra-curriculars, especially quizzing, which is something I’ve done throughout my life. NLSIU has a great quizzing tradition, and it was amazing to be part of that tradition and of Bangalore’s quizzing scene. I also did some research and writing in areas of law that I’m interested in, like intellectual property. And I was involved with the Indian Journal of Law and Technology as well, which was a great formative experience. So I’m probably biased by my own experience, but I think that having a well-rounded CV with decent grades tends to open up a broader and a more interesting range of career options than having amazing grades but a thin CV.
Tell us something about your LL.M year at Stanford Law School. How did this influence your career?
My LL.M. year was great! Stanford is the perfect place to study technology law, because – apart from being a top-notch law school – it’s located right in the middle of Silicon Valley. Stanford and Silicon Valley have a decades-old symbiotic relationship, which the law school is very much part of. As a law student, you also have the option of taking classes (including for credit!) in other disciplines, such as engineering, computer science, or even music (all of which I did). Another great thing about Stanford is that there is a seemingly endless procession of bona fide Silicon Valley legends visiting the campus and giving talks. It was always fascinating to hear about their work, career paths, future plans, and views on the tech industry. As far as influence on my career is concerned, SLS gave me excellent grounding in various emerging areas of technology law and policy (many of which I now work on), and access to a professional network that is second to none.
Before joining Stanford Law School, you worked at Clifford Chance LLP. Which events led to your induction into Clifford Chance?
It was a number of things, really. This was in 2007, before the financial crisis really hit, and many large global law firms were expanding rapidly at the time. Clifford Chance was one of the firms that visited our campus, and I found their presentation very interesting. The training system at London firms appealed to me because it lets you sample 3 or 4 different practice areas, including the possibility of an international secondment. Apart from that, I had always wanted to experience living and working overseas. And because I was also considering applying for an LL.M. down the road, I knew that a couple of years of work experience at a top firm wouldn’t hurt!
Tell us a bit about work culture at law firms and LLPs in United Kingdom. How is Clifford Chance different from an Indian LLP in terms of their working?
I think the biggest difference is in the size and scale of the large UK and US firms. The big London firms are very much focused on international (rather than domestic) transactions and disputes, so from day one, you’re in the position of lead counsel on huge cross-border matters. You’ll find yourself working with local offices of your own firm around the world as often as you work with outside local counsel, if not more so. And because these firms are so large and so old, they have very well-established and time-tested ways of doing things. For example, your career path is mapped out very clearly and precisely – when you reach level X, you can take on a certain role. By comparison, the legal services industry in India is still at a very early stage in its development. This does have some advantages – for example, things like higher responsibility and client contact can come at a much earlier career stage for enterprising juniors in India.
Currently you are working as an Associate at AMSS. Please tell us about your induction into the firm.
Because I was looking to build my career in a very niche field, I wanted to make a very considered decision about where to work after my LL.M. I had been speaking to a few firms in Delhi, but what really drew me to AMSS Delhi was the very forward-looking vision the senior management had for developing the technology practice. Rapport is also important when you’re interviewing with firms, and I just felt that I gelled well with the AMSS team.
You have specialized in Technology laws. What made you interested in the same?
Well, I was interested in technology long before I got interested in the law! I remember as a kid waiting impatiently for the beginning of each month so I could go to the newsstand with my father and get the newest editions of all the computer magazines (this was pre-Internet!), which I’d pore over for hours. My grandfather is a retired railway engineer, so maybe genes played a part in my fascination with technology. But I didn’t want to take the engineering entrances, one of the reasons being that very few people who studied engineering in India seemed to end up in engineering as a career! It almost seemed like an obligatory first step towards finance or management. So law school it was!
Soon after I got into NLS, I learned that law has a major role to play even in the technology industry. There were quite a few people on campus around that time who were interested in this law/technology interface, and we even had a journal (the Indian Journal of Law and Technology) which was in its early days. It seemed like quite a natural thing to do to combine my interest in technology with what I was studying, and so the first step I took was to try and get on to the IJLT editorial board in my second year. Fortunately this worked out for me, and it was a great experience because we had some really good submissions coming in at the time. I found all of it absolutely fascinating – everything from patent law to online piracy, from cybercrime to the (still very much unsettled!) debate about whether cyberspace is borderless and how to regulate it. And even though “technology law” actually consists of a huge number of sub-disciplines, one thing most of them have in common is that because technology evolves so rapidly, there’s really no way of predicting what legal issue is going to come up next. The breakneck speed of innovation is really what makes this such a dynamic and interesting field of law.
Tell us about the nature of work you’re entrusted with and what’s a typical day like?
As clichéd as it sounds, there really is no such thing as a typical day! My practice is primarily advisory in nature, so I deal with all sorts of legal questions from my clients. My core practice areas are IT and telecom law. Apart from advising my own clients, I also often work with other teams on both the dispute resolution and transactional sides when they need to deal with a technology-related issue. And because issues arise so quickly and unpredictably in the tech industry, your day often pans out very differently from what you expected that morning!
How do you say one can gain expertise in Technology laws? What does it take to be a good Tech lawyer? How do you say a fresh graduate can work on building these skills?
I think the most important thing by far is a genuine passion for the industry that you’re serving, which, first and foremost, involves closely following industry news and analysis on a day-to-day basis, even outside work. That, combined with a solid grounding in whatever black-letter law applies to your field (whether it’s copyright or patent law, telecom law, IT law, or anything else) will put you in a good position to understand your client’s problem, and then work towards resolving it in a way that furthers your client’s objectives. So, as in any other area of commercial law, it’s really a question of informing your technical knowledge and skills with commercial awareness. You can start working on your legal knowledge right from law school by paying special attention to technology-related subjects (typically the basic and advanced IPR courses that are taught in law schools, and any relevant electives that might be offered in your law school) and seeking internships with specialist litigators, technology practices within law firms, or legal departments of tech companies. Commercial awareness is a never-ending pursuit – it’s something to be worked on day by day through your career!
How do you keep yourself abreast with latest industry news and trends?
It is absolutely crucial to stay up to date with industry developments, but by no means easy given how fast the tech industry moves! It’s really a round-the-clock pursuit that consumes a good portion of my time outside work as well. The major tech websites and blogs are an obvious starting point, and this includes following them on social media where they break the latest stories. I also subscribe to tons of e-mail lists and newsletters. At work, I always review internal knowhow updates that have any relevance to the industry. And I have lots of Google Alerts set up at any given time, especially relating to my ongoing matters!
What are the primary professional ethics you follow while at work? What has been your strategy to deal with errors and mistakes?
Well, the basic ethical rules prescribed by the Bar Council are the obvious baseline. Over and above that, a good rule of thumb is that if something gives you pause to think twice from an ethical point of view, it’s probably for good reason. Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, especially as a junior lawyer, but every mistake is a golden learning opportunity – living through a mistake usually guarantees that you’ll never repeat it! I have learned that the best approach is to “own” your mistake, fix it, learn from it, and move on with a positive attitude.
Do you feel that higher education helps a person to have a successful legal career? What would be your word of advice to students who wish to go for higher studies?
The decision of whether to pursue higher education is very personal – it depends on variables like your planned career path and your area of interest within the law, among others. My advice to students who are considering further studies is to think carefully and in detail about why you want to study further. Have an idea of where you want to be in the future before you commit to an advanced degree. Do you want to specialize in a niche area of law? Do you want to go into teaching or research? Do you want exposure to a foreign legal system? If an advanced degree fits in well with your career plans, go for it. It’s also important to remember that you get as much out of an advanced degree as you put into it. With an LL.M., if you choose your courses intelligently, and spend your time sharpening your fundamental legal skills (critical thinking, reading and writing) and developing your professional network, it will play a much bigger part in taking your career to the next level than if you just do it for the sake of getting an advanced degree.
How do you find time for your activities with institutions like ICANN and ISOC, and various IT committees of India like CII and ASSOCHAM? What kind of work you’re entrusted with at the committees?
Part of it is in my job description! Our firm works closely with the major Indian industry associations, and we are often invited to participate in sector- or issue-focused committees in our capacity as legal experts. Apart from that, I’m fortunate to work with senior partners in my firm who are very supportive of my involvement with organizations like ICANN(which plays a vital role in Internet policy development).
Finally, I have a firm belief that, like lawyers in any other field, us technology lawyers also have a duty to use our skills for the benefit of the communities in which we live. The Internet Society (ISOC), which I’m proud to be a member of, is a global non-profit organization with local chapters around the world (including many in India), whose mission is to promote Internet access and usage. In India, barriers to access and usage have restricted the Internet’s role in social and economic development. If we can play a part – however small – in solving these problems, then that’s something worth making the time for!
You must have guided several interns. How would you say that an intern can generate a positive feedback in the limited time they have?
Come in with an open mind, and learn and absorb as much as you can about the office and its work in the limited time you have there. Treat the experience as a short trip to the “real world”, away from your classroom experience of the law. Be proactive, and if you’re interested in a certain type of work that the office does, don’t hesitate to ask if you can help out with it. Finally, don’t be shy about asking for feedback – it shows that you’re keen to learn and improve.
The question that whether one should specialise in a particular area of law or be more of a general lawyer often comes up before law students. What is your opinion on the same?
I’m a specialist myself, however I would say that it’s absolutely fine to spend some time trying out different areas of law and figuring out what interests you most. In fact, many law firms allow this through a practice area rotation system for new lawyers. There’s no need to be in a tearing hurry to specialize at the start of your career.
What would be your message to our readers who are budding lawyers and law students?
Like any other profession, law has its ups and downs. But these are pretty exciting times for the profession in India. A law degree is quite a versatile tool, so there are many exciting opportunities to be found even outside the well-worn “traditional” career paths for lawyers – don’t be afraid to chart your own course and take a few risks along the way. Make the most of your time in law school, but have fun too – these are your college days, and they won’t come back!