Dhruv Suri graduated from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi in 2009. While in college he co-founded a student organization called United Students which initiated the Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo campaigns. He was invited by the then President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to discuss problems of OBC reservations after receiving his memorandum on the same. He has interned with AZB & Partners and Valeo, Paris. He received a PPO while interning at PSA Legal Counsellors where he was an Associate for four years before opting for an LL.M from Columbia University, New York. He has joined PSA after coming back from Columbia. He is currently a Principal Associate at PSA Legal Counsellors. In this interview he talks about:
- Studying law at GGSIPU, New Delhi
- Recruitment and work experience at PSA Legal Counsellors
- Masters from Columbia University, New York
As an introduction, please tell us about your schooling and how you decided to pursue law.
I was born and brought up in Delhi and did my schooling from Delhi Public School, Vasant Kunj. I graduated from school in 2003 and was unsure of what I wanted to do. So much so that my family registered me for one of the law entrance exams and I ran away to Mumbai with a friend for a holiday. Of course, that did not go down too well with my family after I came back. When I came back, I took admission in Delhi University where I studied English Hons. for one year. However, for that entire year, all I did was theatre and learn dance. My attendance at college was abysmal! In 2004, I was emotionally blackmailed by my mother to register for the law entrance exams once again on the pretext that I would be given a Maruti 800 to travel to law school and an increment in my pocket money. I fell for it and got an option to study at Amity Law School. Back then, Amity Law School was a building in south Delhi and did not have the atmosphere of a “campus” that I grown accustomed to in my one year at DU. So, I opted for the main Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University law school which seemed like a better option. Rest assured, I got no car and travelled 40kms a day in local Delhi buses. So, this is how my journey with law started- as a “victim” of emotional blackmail from my mother! J
You completed your law degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi in 2009. What activities were you involved in there? Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
The first few years just went by in trying to understand what law is really about. I loved courses like Legal Reasoning, Jurisprudence, History, and Contract law. I also loved mooting and showed up at any and every audition, whether I was prepared or not. I was also very active in the debating society and ensured that I participated in as many competitions as possible. Since our campus was fairly big and had lots of engineering and management colleges as well, there was always some event or the other taking place. By the time I was in my 4th year, debating became a source of extra pocket money. However, amidst all this, I was also focussed on getting good internships and a job. In fact, if there is any regret that I have, it is that all through my final year I worked after college hours, whereas all my friends were enjoying themselves, going for lunches, movies and ensuring that their last year as a “student” was memorable. When I look back, I could have probably worried less about my career and instead made the most of my final year at law school. Eventually we all had to work but I do feel that I missed out on some fun times with my friends.
You started a student organization called United Students. You contested the Delhi University elections and initiated the Jessica Lall and Priyadarshani Mattoo campaigns. Please tell us more about it.
United Students happened by pure accident. I was in the latter part of my 2nd year at law school when I met the other founder members of United Students at a coffee shop in central Delhi. I had always been someone who liked to initiate and take the lead in everything I did. The trial court verdict in the Jessica Lall case was out and I was having discussions and debates with people from all quarters about the merits of case, legal arguments advanced, etc. Some common friends connected me to like Aditya Raj Kaul, a young 17 year old (now a popular Times Now reporter), who had started an online campaign in connection with the Priyadarshani Mattoo case. Aditya and I realised how similar we both were and he introduced me to the other founder members. We were all passionate about bringing about a change and decided to collaborate. I think that really was the key reason for launching United Students. We wanted the organization to encourage young Indians, particularly students, to think and debate in a cohesive manner and take up issues of governance. The idea was to engage in discussions and debates, take an informed stand and then take steps on ground to the best of our abilities. I think the legal profession is somewhat similar. Discussions and debates are synonymous with research, which is very important to take a stand and advise the client. As I got busier with law and internships and all other members got more absorbed in their lives, the organization had a natural death. However, the entire experience played a big role in how I evolved as a person and it is something that I will always cherish.
Why didn’t you pursue a career in politics? Do you think you will enter the field again in the future?
I remember I was doing a shoot for a big news channel during the Delhi University elections and the spokesperson of one of the bigger political parties came to me and asked me to formally join them. I wonder how different life would have been had I actually done that! But on a serious note, I did consider pursuing politics more seriously but was equally eager to graduate and practice law. Who knows, one day I may actually be able to balance a legal and political career!
During your time at law school, you interned at AZB & Partners, New Delhi and Valeo, Paris. Please describe your experiences.
All my internship experiences were very rich. At AZB I did my first all-nighter and got a real sense of how corporate law firms work. The lawyers were extremely kind and I am still in touch with some of them. Valeo was great because I got to work in-house and attend lots of business meetings. I realised how a “business lawyer” (whether in-house or external) cannot give pragmatic advice if he/she does not have a sound understanding of the business. This was the biggest take-away from this internship and till date, I try and adopt the same approach while advising clients at PSA. Of course, I got to spend a little less than 3 months in Paris which was fantastic and the first time I stayed by myself. I made sure I saw every bridge, every museum and (almost) ever cafe and bar there.
You also interned at PSA Legal Counsellors and then received a PPO from them. What do the recruiters at PSA look for in potential candidates? How did you secure a PPO?
One of the most preferred modes of recruiting at PSA is to give offers to final year law students interning at the firm and then training them internally as they grow. The firm encourages building in-house talent.
In terms of how PSA approaches recruitments of potential candidates, I think it is more or less assumed that a first year associate will not know much about the law. However, she/he should be eager to learn and work hard, and also interact and work well in a team. PSA also believes that before becoming a specialist, it is important to be a good generalist. So, if there is a student who only wishes to work in the area of, say, capital markets or intellectual property or competition, PSA would not be the best place to work. Whereas if someone is keen to do everything and gradually pick areas of interest and focus on them, PSA would be an ideal place for them.
In my specific instance, I interned with PSA all through my final year at law school. While I was still an intern, I got actively involved in a big PE transaction. The deal was still ongoing when I graduated so I just continued working on it and did not stop. Slowly I got drawn in on a lot of other matters and before I realised, I had spent almost 5 years at the firm!
Upon graduating, you started working at PSA as an Associate. What was your work profile like?
Like I mentioned, at PSA, you do everything in your first year. So, my work profile was nothing different. I was actively working on a PE deal, but also assisting the senior lawyers in day-to-day corporate advisory, researching for litigation matters, working on intellectual property queries and even drafting board minutes and incorporating companies. Gradually the work becomes more sophisticated and challenging but the basic training I got in my first year continues to be invaluable and (I’d like to believe) set a strong foundation. Before I left for my LL.M in 2013, I was working on sophisticated M&A transactions, advising large conglomerates on complex legal queries pertaining to contracts, IP, tax, employment etc. and arguing matters before the Competition Commission of India.
After four years at PSA, you opted for an LL.M from Columbia University, New York. How did you secure your admission at Columbia? What was your specialisation?
So, Columbia and Harvard are two schools that I know do not offer a specialised LL.M. In fact, even as a matter of personal preference, I did not want to do a super specialised LL.M. The application process was exhausting and almost impossible to manage with long work hours. I took 10 days off in October 2012 to work on my applications and finalized as many as I could. Even the 10 days were not enough and I spent a lot of weekends on my personal statement and other school-specific essays that were required. Now when I look back, I am so glad I put in that effort because Columbia really is one of the best things that ever happened to me! Plus I got to live in New York which just takes the LL.M experience to a whole new level.
With respect to courses, there was a fair bit of flexibility so I made sure I had a variety on my plate. Some of my courses were “Strategic International Commercial Transactions,” “Financial Statement Analysis,” “Intellectual Property Drafting,” “Negotiations,” “Corporations,” etc. All of them were taught by top-notch professors who made studying such a pleasure, an area where, in my opinion, Indian law schools have a lot of catching up to do.
You also worked as a Research Assistant for Professor Anu Bradford in the field of antitrust laws. On what basis were you chosen for the project? How was the experience?
I have always been very interested in competition/antitrust law. During my first month at Columbia, we received an e-mail that Professor Anu Bradford was looking for LL.M research assistants to work in the field of antitrust law. I think I drafted a short cover e-mail and sent my CV within 5 minutes of receiving the e-mail. Professor Bradford called me for an interview and soon I started working for her. The experience was so enriching because the work she asked me to do involved coding antitrust laws of multiple countries (including India) and understanding key differences in how statutes are drafted across those jurisdictions with respect to restrictive agreements, cartels, abuse of dominance, etc.. The work gave me a deep and detailed understanding of antitrust laws. Plus, she is one of the most wonderful people I know and mentored me throughout the time I was at Columbia. I am just glad I got to work with her.
Is it better to pursue an LL.M right after college or after working for a few years?
This is a question that a lot of people aspiring to do an LL.M ask. Honestly, I don’t think it has a right answer. A lot of my friends went for their LL.M immediately after completing law school but I chose to go after gathering some work experience. Specifically for Columbia, which has an extremely competitive curriculum, it is rare for them to admit anybody with less than 2 years of work experience. Of course, there are exceptions. Based on my experience, I do think that work experience comes in very handy, especially when you are learning about a different legal system. You are definitely wiser and more mature to gauge concepts by linking them to your practical experience. Plus, you also tend to make a lot more of your degree by networking professionally, which, I think, can be challenging if you have never worked before.
Do you think the LL.M has improved your career prospects? Do you have larger responsibilities at PSA now?
The LL.M has definitely helped me a lot. If I had to point out one thing, it has made me surer of my work and more confident in my interactions with clients, both Indians and foreigners. In terms of my profile, I am now a Principal Associate at the firm and manage PSA’s start-up/PE/VC practice which is extremely exciting because I interact and work with dynamic start-ups and very passionate entrepreneurs. While I continue to do legal work, a lot of my time and energy is also spent on business development, which I thoroughly enjoy. So clearly, the responsibilities have increased and the concept of weekends has dissolved. I have to be on top of whatever I am working on all 7 days a week and I actually prefer it like that.
Lastly, what advice would you give to law students wishing to pursue a career in corporate law and considering doing an LL.M?
I would say that, make sure you do internships in law firms in your 4th and 5th year and be proactive when working. I enjoy working with interns who are eager to learn, proactively follow-up with me and don’t hesitate to take responsibility of their work. It is a good opportunity for you to demonstrate your attitude towards work. Also, be prepared to do any and all kinds of work. You will realise much later how the most minuscule things you worked on as an intern or first year associate come in handy during negotiations or drafting contracts. So, approach work with an open mind. Finally, if you plan to do a LL.M, my advice usually is to work for 2-3 years. It will really change your perspective and you will be able to make the most out of your academic courses and the overall LL.M experience.
In the end, I would just say that work hard but make sure you enjoy your student life as well. That time (unless you do your LL.M) will not return. Good luck!