“In the realm of M&A, negotiations are the crux, and the art of negotiation is something we can never hone enough” – Archana balasubramanian, Founding Partner of Agama Law Associates, Unveils a Decade-Long Legal Odyssey.

This interview has been published by Namrata Singh and The SuperLawyer Team

What prompted you to do Law? and then, what prompted you to move to corporate law? And at the end in the whole journey. What made you establish Agama Law associates?

The question of why law has always intrigued me, dating back to a remarkably early age of around 12 or 13. At that point, my understanding of the legal field was limited, and there were no familial ties to the profession. Nevertheless, something about law captivated me deeply. As a voracious reader during my childhood, I found the prospect of a career where continuous learning was inherent and extended throughout one’s professional life to be highly appealing.

The realization that law touches every aspect of life dawned on me as I grew older. Unlike professions such as medicine, pharma, or engineering, which often specialize in a single domain, the legal profession offers a unique insight into multiple facets of life. Whether practicing medical law, which requires a profound understanding of medicine, or delving into criminal law, where a high understanding of criminal psychology is crucial, the multifaceted nature of law continues to be a source of excitement.

Moreover, my enthusiasm for law extends to the generalist role I currently embrace. In a landscape where specialization is often emphasized, my passion lies in exploring diverse areas of law. This inclination was evident from an early stage, a decision supported by my father. This generalist approach allows me to navigate through various legal territories and maintain a broad perspective, which I find both stimulating and fulfilling.

Reflecting on my journey, the inception of my legal career was marked by this passion and a commitment to continuous learning. It’s a journey that has been shaped by a love for reading, an excitement for the multifaceted nature of law, and a deliberate choice to remain a generalist in a world that often leans towards specialization.

My legal journey commenced under the mentor-ship of a senior counsel, renowned as the leading shipping lawyer in the country at that time. The realm of shipping law was exceptionally thrilling and lucrative, akin to a gold mine in the legal landscape. Although disputes were relatively scarce due to the industry’s prosperity, my exposure was comprehensive. From witnessing ship arrests to navigating shipbuilding contracts, the experience was enlightening. As junior members in a senior’s office, understanding the intricacies of queuing matters and gauging the dynamics of working alongside a seasoned professional fueled my desire to explore beyond the apparent tip of the iceberg.

Subsequently, my journey led me to a solicitor setup, where the practice encompassed both litigation and non-litigation matters. This phase afforded me a diverse range of experiences, delving into project finance and mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Engaging in IPO-related work and handling white-collar matters in the court provided a well-rounded exposure. Frequenting both Criminal Court and the High Court for writ petitions enriched my understanding of legal processes.

Transitioning to a role at AZB marked a grounding experience, characterized by the demanding quality of work and the competitiveness inherent in the firm’s culture. The challenges posed in managing time constraints and a myriad of responsibilities served as a valuable learning curve. This stint prompted a process of unlearning certain approaches, fostering personal and professional growth.

My inclination towards connecting with people on an individual level led to the establishment of Agama. Originating in a single room, this venture symbolizes my quest to reach out independently and make a tangible impact. The journey, from the initial mentorship in shipping law to navigating diverse legal landscapes, has been characterized by continuous learning, adaptation, and the pursuit of meaningful connections.

Your experience spans various sectors, from manufacturing to healthcare. Is there a specific industry that you find particularly intriguing or challenging, and why? And how do you break the boundaries and enter that challenge, because this is for the ones who are entering this amazing field of law as you mentioned.

For lawyers, such as myself, who adopt an industry-agnostic approach, the legal landscape presents a diverse and expansive canvas. Personally, I’ve been fortunate to accumulate a wealth of varied experiences across different sectors. Among the most dynamic and engaging areas of law today is the realm of general corporate law.

Within general corporate law, several sectors stand out as particularly exciting. One such burgeoning industry is logistics, encompassing a spectrum of aspects, from real estate to road and vehicle-related laws. The logistics industry has witnessed remarkable growth, with emerging players like micro-mobility companies and port operators contributing to its dynamism. Advising clients in this field involves addressing a wide range of issues, including labor matters, especially those with an IT-centric focus. Additionally, logistics offers opportunities to provide counsel on data protection and navigate complex cross-border challenges. The sector also presents instances of high-quality arbitration, especially concerning transport, customs, and international trade.

Another compelling and niche area that is currently witnessing the development of legal jurisprudence is the regulatory framework surrounding renewable energy. In this domain, there are relatively few lawyers in the country specializing in this evolving field. Personally, I have been privileged to work on projects related to renewable energy, particularly in assisting a client in setting up solar farms in India. This experience has spanned a broad spectrum, involving M&A, regulatory compliance, and labor issues, making it a truly comprehensive and rewarding endeavor over the past one and a half years.

In the context of fostering growth and cultivating relationships with clients, particularly within the framework of your own firm, could you share insights into how you went about establishing these connections? What strategies did you employ when encountering unfamiliar individuals whom you identified as potential valuable clients for your firm? Additionally, could you elaborate on the foundational values that guided your approach in engaging with clients and ultimately contributed to the development and current standing of your firm?

The foundation of any long term relationship lies in unwavering mutual trust and mutual value addition. For us, as lawyers, trust is given where we uncomplicate. If businesses can trust us to unwind the complexity in a stressful situation, as fast as possible, instead of taking them deeper down the web of intricacy – we have justified our existence. Navigating the intricacies of being a good lawyer revolves around a crucial ability: the aptitude to unravel complex problems and present them in simplistic terms, particularly from the client’s perspective. The foremost skill lies in understanding the client’s desires, pinpointing their current pain points, and crafting viable solutions.

Some of the most renowned lawyers often exhibit this proficiency, breaking down intricate legal matters into comprehensible points for their clients. The challenge arises from the fact that clients may express their problems differently due to a lack of legal understanding. Lawyers need to bridge this gap by deciphering the true legal issues beneath the client’s articulated concerns.

Ultimately, being an effective lawyer hinges on a clear comprehension of what the client wants, an astute understanding of their present challenges, and the ability to provide feasible solutions. The task extends beyond legal expertise, requiring effective communication and translation of legal intricacies into practical and accessible terms for the client.

Certainly, the process involves two distinct facets: understanding clients and acquiring clients. Acquiring clients, relatively, is the more manageable aspect. It often necessitates showcasing one’s abilities, effectively communicating in the client’s language, and establishing a level of comfort that encourages collaboration.

In the contemporary legal landscape, companies tend to engage with multiple legal professionals for diverse needs, disrupting the traditional model where a single firm handled all legal matters. As a result, lawyers need to adapt to this shift and recognize that not every point of contact transforms into a client. Identifying whether a client is attainable, either from the client’s perspective or the lawyer’s, is a nuanced evaluation.

Understanding clients, on the other hand, delves into the core of their challenges and aspirations. It involves deciphering the key issues they face and determining whether the proposed legal solutions align with their objectives. The crux lies in comprehending what the client aims to achieve and guiding them toward feasible solutions. This task stands out as the most intricate part of the process.

While legal documentation and transaction structuring are essential components, they primarily serve as logistical elements. However the foundational value is to get at the core of what a business needs but is not able to put into words. The value is also to minimize logistical efforts, and hence costs, as far as dispensable without compromising on risk-protection. The true essence lies in grasping whether our efforts effectively contribute to realizing the client’s goals. Therefore, the key to success in the legal profession lies in the nuanced understanding of both acquiring and understanding clients, ensuring that legal services align with and contribute to the client’s desired outcomes.

Could you elaborate on how you navigate the delicate balance between intricate legal nuances and the broader business context when serving in an advisory role? Specifically, when recommending clients to others, how do you manage this equilibrium, considering that clients hold the reins in decision-making, and advisory services revolve around facilitating their processes and needs?

As an advisor, I have an obligation to multiple coordination points – the individual seeking advice, the organization the individual is representing, and then the criticalities that both the representing individual as well as the organizational governance may not have full awareness or understanding of and may not have planned to address, yet. It’s crucial to align these aspects. For instance, a client might approach us for a lease agreement, but upon deeper discussion, we may discover they lack essential commercial terms. In such cases, our role evolves beyond legal drafting, extending to advising on business risks and strategic decisions.

While some clients seek legal interpretations, others welcome comprehensive business advice. The distinction lies in understanding their specific needs. Some engagements involve academic legal exercises, while others delve into strategic business decisions. Being part of this decision-making process is equally enjoyable for us.

As an advisor, the key is intuitive understanding—discerning whether clients merely seek legal input or require a deeper exploration of their business context. This process takes time and builds on familiarity, similar to understanding friends. Ultimately, aligning with clients’ objectives is paramount in offering effective advisory services.

Your focus on process-driven risk management systems for startups is noteworthy. What key principles do you believe are crucial for startups to establish a sustainable foundation in terms of legal compliance?

Sustainable business foundations would involve managing foresight and mapping the pie that a business is trying to negotiate for itself, well in advance. In the sharply agile market that we are witnessing in all sectors thanks to tech advancement and artificial intelligence, a business that desires to sustain itself for any amount of term that is markable, the bare minimum requirement is to cover for risks and obligations that will flow much in advance. Mature entrepreneurs have that foresight to an extent, but fledgling start ups don’t. This is where our experience – and the systems and in-built processes that has led to within our advice – comes in. 

When startups seek advice, we often encounter two distinct types. Firstly, there are mature entrepreneurs who have prior experience in the field and are advancing their ventures. Dealing with them is relatively straightforward as they possess a solid understanding of the workings, time-frames, and compliance risks. They proactively ask the necessary questions, making the consultation process smoother.

On the other hand, there’s a different category of startups – those with innovative products or disruptive ideas seeking funding and eager to establish and run their systems. Handling these startups requires a unique approach. With mature entrepreneurs, conversations can delve into advanced levels, as they are already aware of the eventual need for compliance. In such cases, simplifying their journey is achievable by providing checklists and connecting them with essential professionals like company secretaries and chartered accountants. We have a well-established network of professionals with whom we collaborate, facilitating these connections.

For the latter type of startups, there is a need for a more persuasive approach. Convincing them of the importance of compliance is crucial. As legal advisors, our role primarily involves guiding them on compliance requirements rather than directly handling compliance matters. By effectively communicating the necessity of adherence to regulations, we aim to bridge this understanding gap and help them navigate the intricacies of legal compliance. Ensuring success in the startup landscape today is imperative, especially considering the vast reach of the Internet. I recently came across an intriguing insight in a doctor’s room that resonates with this—suggesting that if you trust Google for health advice, you might as well ask Google to cure you. In today’s digital age, startups often grapple with misconceptions, and my role involves investing time upfront to dispel any misinformation and guide them in understanding the landscape.

One key area I find crucial is steering startups towards sustainable investments. Beyond mere compliance, many startups, in their early stages, inadvertently sacrifice significant equity and rights. The true victory, in my perspective, lies in assisting startups to secure sustainable investments that will propel the company forward without compromising its core interests. This involves strategic steps to avoid pitfalls and foster the company’s long-term growth.

In my experience, every startup journey unveils distinct challenges and perspectives, which continually enriches my understanding of the dynamic startup ecosystem. It’s fascinating to approach each situation with an open mind, as the nuances and intricacies vary, offering fresh perspectives and learning’s with every new collaboration.

Mergers and Acquisitions form a significant part of your practice. Could you share a memorable experience or deal that posed unique challenges and how you navigated through them?

The turning point in my approach to M&A came when as part of one deal, I had said a big unequivocal “No” on behalf of our clients to one of the deal terms. The counter-party, a significant figure in a large group, was humble and kind enough to not come back aggressively to that position but encourage a dialogue. Which is when it really sunk in how much more are we as “facilitators” instead of hurdles, on deal making, as lawyers. And the art of negotiation is something we can’t ever have honed enough – there’s always some new interpersonal aspect to learn about. Despite his stature, he was kind and humble, encouraging a dialogue to resolve the issue. Such experiences reshape one’s perspective, emphasizing the importance of effective negotiation. Therefore,, when it comes to mergers, the crux, for me,  lies in negotiations. This has been the most significant learning for me over the past decade. Working with an entire team provides a certain level of comfort due to the presence of seniors and super seniors. However, the true learning comes from actively negotiating a transaction and seeing it through, which I believe is a crucial skill for lawyers. My advice to young professionals is to actively seek opportunities where they can lead or negotiate transactions rather than being a part of a larger team.

In our practice, we have instilled this philosophy from the beginning. Regardless of their seniority, all associates are encouraged to actively participate in negotiations and discussions. This exposure ensures that they grasp the context of the deal and understand the dynamics involving clients and counter-parties.

One challenge in today’s M&A landscape is the post-deal closures, especially in mergers. While closing the deal itself is significant, the groundwork post-merger is equally crucial. Nowadays, many companies handle this in-house or enlist the help of consultants, making it essential for lawyers to understand the entire process.

Lastly, for young professionals aspiring to excel in M&A, I recommend dedicating effort to understanding the regulatory landscape. Regulatory filings, particularly under the Competition Act, offer a unique perspective. Arguing why a particular combination is not detrimental to competition provides valuable exposure that significantly enhances one’s understanding of M&A in the Indian legal context. If time permits, M&A is an excellent avenue for learning the diverse facets of law.

Your contributions to various publications and your recognition as a thought leader reflect your commitment to sharing insights. What motivates you to contribute, and how do you stay ahead in an ever-evolving legal and business landscape?

Lawyers often claim they don’t read enough due to the fast-paced nature of the legal landscape. However, staying ahead requires continuous reading, networking, and engaging with the legal community. Isolation isn’t conducive to legal work; interacting with peers, meeting business professionals, and fraternizing with others are essential for effective practice.

In terms of recognitions, accolades, and awards, one values recognition for their writing. Encouraging everyone in the company to write, regardless of seniority, expands minds and provides a broader perspective. Writing on various subjects not only benefits the company but also enhances the individual’s understanding of the overall legal landscape. It is most satisfying being approached for stories on POSH and labor-specific law over the past ten years by leading magazines. This recognition, despite not being a senior labor lawyer, is particularly meaningful.

It would do well to acknowledge the significance of industry magazines and editorial efforts, such as IBLJ, for recognizing lawyers. This recognition makes younger lawyers feel like a vital part of the legal community and boosts morale, especially when attempting to create something parallel to established setups. The credit goes to those in editorial roles who contribute to highlighting the achievements and perspectives of lawyers outside the traditional legal hierarchy.

Your recognition as a finalist for “Woman Lawyer of the Year 2023” and other prestigious awards is impressive. How do such recognitions impact your approach to your work, and what advice do you have for young lawyers aspiring to make a mark in the legal field?

Personally, every morning when I wake up, the motivating factor is knowing that clients rely on me. There’s nothing more inspiring than the realization that I can contribute to their businesses. Additionally, my team is waiting for me each day, and our discussions about ongoing issues drive me to be there for them as we work to advise clients. It’s a dynamic mix of client needs and team collaboration that fuels my motivation.

Speaking of recognition’s, it’s a relatively recent trend. When we left law school, there weren’t as many accolades for lawyers. While I value these recognition’s and they undoubtedly make one feel good (who wouldn’t want to be called a top lawyer in the country?), it’s crucial for young professionals to understand the importance of building their CVs continuously. Every task, from writing an article to advising a client, should be documented. Keeping a record of your learning experiences allows for recollection when needed, whether for award submissions or networking. This proactive approach helps people remember you, and at our firm, we ensure everyone records and reflects on their work regularly. It’s about considering what could have been done better, what went right, what went wrong, and identifying areas for improvement. In the fast-paced world, reflective practices might not always be feasible, but being mindful of this can significantly contribute to personal and professional growth, fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment.

In an era of increasing data concerns, you’ve been actively involved in data protection agreements. How do you assist clients, especially those in software creation, in navigating data protection compliance and mitigating associated risks?

In today’s globalized business landscape, privacy has become a crucial factor due to the vast amount of data available to businesses. The handling of data is emerging as a key cost-driving factor, influencing how companies operate. For instance, there is a shift towards keeping data within specific geographical boundaries, like storing Indian data in India and EU data in the EU, driven by government directives, especially in developed countries. While some governments mandate these practices, in India, it’s often seen more as a compliance requirement.

Our approach to reviewing data protection agreements or privacy documents varies based on the client. With Indian clients, we emphasize the need for compliance, advising against drafting anything they can’t adhere to or might require additional funds for compliance. Privacy is considered non-negotiable, and non-compliance, especially for European clients, can result in significant fines. We often assist clients dealing with European parties but processing data in India, guiding them through transfer impact assessments to ensure compliance.

The introduction of the Data Protection Act (DPA) is expected to enhance the infrastructure for protecting citizens’ privacy. However, we acknowledge that the existing Information Technology Act and rules, if implemented effectively, could serve a similar purpose. Enforcement, though, remains a challenge due to the complexity of procedures, such as involving the cyber cell or the legal system. With the DPA, many principles are being codified into law, reflecting legislative intent. While this might not drastically alter the groundwork for companies, it does offer more avenues for data subjects to seek enforcement.

Beyond your professional achievements, what personal interests or activities contribute to your growth and well-being outside the legal realm?

I believe, like many lawyers, I do face challenges when it comes to taking care of my health. I wish I could prioritize my well-being more and achieve a better balance. However, what takes up the majority of my time is my family, as we have a fairly large one. Balancing work and family is a constant challenge, but we make efforts to promote healthier eating habits within our family.

For me, mental well-being is crucial, considering the demands of the legal profession. Small things at home can become sources of stress, so learning to switch off when at work and using tools like reminders helps manage personal commitments. Technology, in this sense, plays a significant role in helping me stay organized, reminding me of tasks such as buying a gift for my son.

While it’s challenging, I’ve learned to establish boundaries between work and home life. Despite the difficulty in today’s fast-paced world, I make an effort not to work when I’m at home. Being part of a family of professionals, with my husband also being a lawyer, helps create routines that prioritize family time, especially on weekends.

Achieving this balance is different for everyone, and I acknowledge that it’s not an easy task. Personally, I wish I could find more time to read nonfiction, as I used to read several books a year, and now finding time for even one or two is a challenge. However, it remains something I’d love to prioritize in the future.

Get in touch with Archana Balasubramanian-

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