This interview has been published by Ayush Verma.
Please tell us about your journey towards the legal field. What inspired you to pursue law as a career?
It was by a stroke of luck that I ended up opting for law as a career. I was a science student while in high school and was preparing to pursue a career in medicine. One of the reasons for this choice was that in those days engineering and medicine were the obvious career choices for anyone who scored above a certain percentage of marks in 10th standard. People opting for other streams, even if they were genuinely interested in those subjects, were painted with a broad brush as being uncommitted.
However, after studying science for two years in school along with preparation for the pre-medical test, I realized that medicine or any other field in science was not my calling. I knew I had to reassess my career options and that is when one of my relatives sent me a prospectus of a famous law school, which had a couple of pages on career opportunities for lawyers. I then started reading about the legal profession and developed an interest and eventually decided to pursue a career in law.
Even though I had opted for law as a career, I don’t regret my decision to study science in school as it did prepare me for some rigour and hard work which goes a long way in shaping a legal career.
What type of co-curricular activities did you participate in during your time at Amity Law School? In what ways have the experiences at your alma mater shaped your career?
In the legal profession, the floor is too low and the ceiling is too high. If you are not doing well, you may find it difficult to sustain with even basic living standards. On the other hand, if you are doing well, you may earn more than celebrities besides the fact that the career span of lawyers is way longer than that of celebrities. Therefore, coasting along is not an option in this profession. From the beginning of my law school, I knew that in order to be successful, I would have to work hard and continuously push my limits. During law school, studying and writing exams consumed only a small portion of my time and more time was spent on co-curricular activities such as moot court competitions, writing papers and articles, attending extra courses and undertaking internships.
The biggest contribution that law school has in shaping my career was a good degree of flexibility which allowed me to participate in a number of moot court competitions, attend internships and undertake other co-curricular activities. Also, the encouragement and support that came from the faculty and the director of the law school was really helpful I believe this is one of the biggest reasons why Amity Law School, despite not bearing the NLU tag is still, churning out excellent lawyers, who you now see as partners in law firms, general counsels in companies and successful litigators in courts. Being located in Delhi NCR was also a big factor and allowed us access to courts and law firms.
What according to you is the relevance of internships in a law student’s career?
Law school curriculums have not kept pace with the developments in legal practice and there is a wide gap between the theoretical knowledge that students acquire in law schools and the practical implementation of that knowledge. Additionally, there is an unfortunate emphasis on rote learning and memorization in the Indian education system, due to which there are instances of fresh graduates lacking awareness and understanding of basic legal concepts.
Given the pace at which legal work is required to be done, the high pressure from the clients and the tight timelines, employers in the legal industry are often not inclined to train fresh law graduates from scratch. Therefore, there is an expectation from fresh law graduates to somewhat hit the ground running and demonstrate basic legal skills such as the ability to conduct legal research, use online research tools, understand basic legal principles and basic level English language legal drafting. In the absence of such a skill-set, it is often difficult for fresh law graduates to find placements and even if they do find jobs, it is difficult for them to acclimatize to the rigorous work environment.
Internships help bridge this gap as they not only provide the opportunity to experience the real work environment and learn the practical aspects of the legal practice, but they also push the interns to put in hard work which helps sharpen their skills. The mentoring and guidance that law students get during internships enables them to acquire the skill-set necessary for placement and further progress in their careers post law school. Internships also offer a platform to law students to demonstrate their skills and abilities and potentially score a pre-placement offer. This is especially important for students from non-national law schools which may not have robust placement mechanisms for their students.
Internships are great eye-openers and provide a massive opportunity to make course corrections for law students who have otherwise been coasting along in law school as they come to realise the huge gap that exists between what they learn in their law school and the skill-set they need to acquire in order to land up with a lucrative placement. Often the cut-throat competition amongst interns from different backgrounds becomes the driving force behind efforts that law students put during internships.
How and when did you decide to pursue a career in commercial transactions?
While I believe that every lawyer is a litigator at heart, there is a huge difference between how Harvey Spectre litigates in American courts in “Suits” and how litigation is conducted in Indian courts. Jokes aside, the Indian judicial system still has a long way to go, to acquire the quality and sophistication that you see in the judicial systems of some western/developed countries. Court litigation in India is more than just knowing the facts, understanding the law and nicely articulating your case before the Court. This, in my view, takes away the fun and discourages many talented young lawyers from pursuing a career in litigation. I was no exception.
A law firm environment (especially a transactional practice) comes across as a far more lucrative option given the sophisticated work environment and meritocracy-driven culture. The trigger for me was an internship at a big law firm that exposed me to the transactional practice at a law firm and there was no looking back.
What led to you joining Phoenix Legal right after graduation? Did you consider any other options at the time?
When I started my internship at Phoenix Legal, the firm was only 2 years old and was widely known as one of the most promising start-ups in the legal industry. The founders were former equity partners of Trilegal and had left to establish Phoenix Legal. The environment at the firm was full of drive and energy and it was already evident that the firm will grow and take its place amongst the top law firms in India, which it eventually did. The culture of the firm was meritocratic and everyone was goal-oriented and willing to serve their clients to the best of their abilities. Also, given the lean team structures, there was close supervision of work by the partners and it was an excellent training ground for young graduates. To me, it was a no-brainer that this was the place to start a legal practice and once I was offered a position in the firm, I did not consider any other options.
You have been associated with Phoenix Legal since the start of your career, for over a decade and got promoted to Partnership within six years of practice. How has your journey with the firm been, from starting out as a trainee to going on to become a Partner?
Phoenix Legal is one of the few law firms in India that is structured in a manner that is similar to how the international law firms are structured. It has an ownership model based on lockstep, which allows all partners to progress to the level of founders. The progression through the lockstep is purely merit-based and evaluation is based on several parameters which are transparent and well known to the partners. Similarly, decisions to hire new resources, internal promotions amongst the associates, and elevations to partnerships, are all purely based on merit and completely transparent.
The firm invests heavily in its human resource and works very hard to hire, train and retain the best of the lawyers. Our lawyers are closely monitored and work under the supervision and guidance of the partners. This is due to the firm’s partner-centric and partner-led service delivery model which requires a strong and committed partner involvement in all client work. The lawyers at the firm including the partners work very hard to maintain a high level of responsiveness and availability and provide top-notch quality of service to their clients.
Because of these factors, my journey at Phoenix Legal from being a trainee to becoming an equity partner has been somewhat challenging in terms of the time commitment and efforts required but at the same time has been very rewarding.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities in your current role as a Partner at Phoenix Legal’s Delhi office?
The primary responsibility of all partners is to service our clients. We work hard to ensure responsiveness, availability, and accuracy of our legal advice. Our partner-centric service delivery model means that all the partners irrespective of their seniority and experience are involved in work execution and take primary responsibility for service delivery to our clients. The other responsibilities as a partner include the building of teams, training junior resources, business development, and administrative matters.
As the Officer at the International Bar Association, what does your work entail?
I am currently the Treasurer of the Young Lawyers’ Committee of the International Bar Association (IBA). IBA is the most prestigious organisation of international legal practitioners and law societies formed in the year 1947. It has over 80,000 individual members who are international lawyers from leading law firms around the world and has over 190 bar associations and law societies from over 170 countries as members. Our job as the Officers of the Young Lawyers’ Committee of the IBA is to encourage young lawyers from various jurisdictions to join and get engaged with various activities of the IBA. We serve as the ‘entrance door’ for young lawyers into the IBA and put them in contact with the rest of the divisions of the IBA to become further involved. We also actively identify, discuss and promote issues involving young lawyers at the IBA.
With your rich experience of 10+ years in transactional work as well as commercial arbitrations, would you like to tell us about the ways in which India has shifted or evolved in these areas over the last decade?
Legal practice, like all other businesses, is always evolving especially with the advent of high-speed internet, mobile communication, and other similar technologies. The legal practice also evolves with the evolution in the client’s businesses and consequent changes in the client’s expectations.
There have been dramatic changes over the last decade in how legal practice is conducted in both transactional and arbitration fields. For example, on the corporate transactions side, due to the advent of high-speed internet and various platforms to aid online meetings, etc., most activities (such as due diligence, negotiations) for which lawyers used to physically travel are now conducted online from within our offices. Similarly, because of change in client’s expectations, the nature of work product has also evolved – for example, the clients now seldom expect their lawyers to prepare detailed findings based on due diligence reports (which was almost a norm in the earlier days) and want a significantly shorter list of only the red-flags or high-risk areas as an outcome of the legal diligence exercise.
Similarly, on the arbitrations side, Indian clients and arbitrators are now starting to adopt technologies like live and real-time transcription services which were earlier seen only in arbitrations outside India. These have the ability to dramatically increase the speed and efficiency of the arbitration process. Indian arbitrators/clients also prefer to adopt more practical and simpler arbitration procedures in the procedural orders as against the earlier practice of taking cues from the Court procedures which were often pedantic and impractical.
What is going to be the long-term impact of the ongoing pandemic on how cross-border transactions or international commercial arbitrations are carried out?
The pandemic has forced people to change the traditional ways of doing things and has somewhat fast-tracked the process of adoption of new technologies and innovative methods of undertaking the legal business. The virtual hearings in both Courts and arbitrations, I believe, are here to stay even post-pandemic. Similarly, virtual meetings and negotiations, instead of people traveling to conduct meetings and to negotiate deals or transactions, are unlikely to be discontinued post-pandemic. These new technologies and innovative methods have, in addition to allowing business continuity during the pandemic, improved both time and cost efficiency with which legal business is conducted.
What are some skills or characteristics that you look for while hiring juniors in your team?
The skill-set and characteristics depend on the level and seniority of the lawyer being considered for a position. A fresh law graduate is not expected to have the same skill-set as an experienced lawyer. However, factors such as good communication and writing skills, research skills, and understanding of basic legal concepts/principles are a must. In addition, I would look at the softer factors such as willingness to put in the hard yards, enthusiasm to do good work, hunger for success, interest in law and legal practice, and certain other personality traits.
As a young Partner at one of India’s leading law firms, what are the core principles that got you here? Is there anything in your checklist yet to be achieved?
I attribute my success to the mentoring and the training I received from my seniors at Phoenix Legal during the initial years of my legal career. A good boss and a mentor can go a long way in shaping your legal career and I was fortunate to be trained by seniors who were not only excellent lawyers but also took great efforts in training and mentoring their juniors. Apart from the mentoring and training, the core principles for any lawyer’s success are consistent and long-term efforts and hard work, enthusiasm and interest in law and the legal practice, desire to do good work, and willingness to take up new challenges.
On the checklist, all I would say is that I haven’t started ticking the boxes yet. There is a long way to go and this is just the beginning.
Any parting advice for young lawyers and law students looking to pursue a career in commercial transactions? What is the relevant skill-set they should inculcate during law school?
I don’t think there is one method to success. All successes in life are an outcome of a series of small positive actions that you take over a long period of time. Similarly, all failures in life are an outcome of small errors or omissions you make over a long period of time. The key principle, therefore, is a long-term consistent effort to do good work.
Never say no to an opportunity because you think it’s beyond your capabilities or you are too busy with something else. Don’t shy away from hard work. Stay enthusiastic about the work that you do and always keep pushing your limits. In the long-term, after consistent effort, you will be surprised by the successes that will start coming your way.