Interviews

Nakul Bhatnagar, Senior Consultant, on recruiting for various roles in the legal sector in India and across Asia

Nakul Bhatnagar graduated from Cardiff University, U.K. in 2011. At present, he is a Senior Consultant at Aquis Search with responsibility for private practice and in-house legal recruitment services in India. He recruits for various roles in the legal sector in India and across Asia. He is interested in connecting with potential clients who have talent acquisition requirements and professionals looking for their next career challenge.

 In this interview, he talks to us about:

  • His experience at Cardiff University.
  • How interns can get positive feedback in limited time.
  • What law firms look for in potential candidates.
  • His advice on CV building.

Most of our readers are young lawyers and law students. How will you introduce yourself to them?

I am a lawyer by training and legal recruiter by profession. I was born and raised in New Delhi and spent almost all my life here. Post class XII, I pursued the B.Com (Hons.) course from Delhi University and after having dabbled in very different fields in the industry, I decided to pursue Law. I completed my LL.B from Cardiff University, U.K. in 2011 and after having worked with a few organisations (including a law firm and a trade law counsel). I made the switch to legal recruitment in 2014 and joined an Indian legal recruitment firm. I am currently working as a Senior Consultant with Aquis Search – Asia’s leading executive search firm with offices in prominent Asian cities. I focus on legal and compliance recruitments, across junior and mid-levels in India and the Middle East.The story continues…

Having done B.com, what motivated you to choose law as a career? Or did it just happen?

Doing law was a rather calculated decision for me and I believe I found inspiration to do law from the most unusual places. During my college days, I was actively following the Indian independent music scene and briefly performed in a rock band myself. Not to mention, I was a very confused child and tried my hand in so many different fields to try and come to a career conclusion – I interned in places like design studios, ad agencies and a music / events company as well. Post my graduation, I was pretty much convinced that I wanted to take up music management and for a year, I worked with a company which promoted independent original music, managed artistes and organized live concerts & festivals. During this time, I had the good fortune of interacting with musicians and a few lawyers who introduced me to several new concepts like Copyright, Performance Rights and Digital Rights Management. I was quite intrigued to see how the law worked with something as basic as a song or a performance. It was something that I never thought could work so well in an ecosystem that seemed completely disconnected. I started researching on what options I may have and I decided to try and pursue law. Not to mention, my father is a lawyer by training himself and always encouraged me to pursue a career in the field. Little did I know that the adventure was just beginning!

Describe your experience at Cardiff University.

The experience of studying at a foreign university was surreal. The methodologies, the faculty, course structures and support offered were very beneficial to every law student. Cardiff, being one of the top law schools in the U.K., was possibly the biggest learning experience for me. Constant development every step of the way, studying there made me the person I am today. Studying in Cardiff gave me immense exposure to global standards of legal education and a connection to a worldwide network of prominent lawyers. An additional advantage of studying there was that the University is recognized by the Bar Council of India and the transition of practicing in India was never tough. Many Indian students who graduated from there have moved back and are successfully practicing here (even as Partners at leading law firms).

How do you say interns can get positive feedback in the limited time they have?

Internships are probably the most valuable experience any budding lawyer can get. In one way or another, they are the stepping stones for a career in law. They show you the practical side of the profession and how the application of the law goes much beyond the course books.

Pro-activity is possibly the most valuable skill that an intern needs to posses. Try and be actively involved with the partner / associates that you are working under. Remember, they get interns every month and recall value is definitely scarce. You have to make the jump out of the page for them to remember you. Especially final year students; if you wish to work with the firm post law school, you will have to walk the extra mile for them to offer you a PPO or a recommendation.

Having worked in the legal recruitment industry what are the challenges you have faced?

Challenges are as wide in this industry as any other. The point of working in a niche can work as an advantage and a challenge as well. The advantage of being a lawyer has helped me work my way into legal recruitment. I can understand the work that one does and has done in the past and how that experience can work well for a potential opportunity that one may be looking for. It is of utmost importance for recruiters to look at both sides of the spectrum. One needs to understand the needs of the lawyer looking at a potential job as well as the recruiter, looking to hire talent for his firm. The gap needs to be filled perfectly or it could pretty much lead to issues for the firm, as well as the young lawyer.

Acquiring talent is a big task for any recruiter. Opportunities, whilst being seasonal, are usually always prevalent in the market. It is the right talent that can be scarce at times. Firms are usually very sure of the qualities that they want in a lawyer (law school, practice areas, experience wise). Getting them the perfect fit is the mark of a good recruiter. We have to remember that the level of trust, shown by a firm looking to hire and a lawyer looking to be placed, are utmost in a recruiter. Challenges are a part of everyday life but, just like any profession, they can be overcome.

What do law firms look for in potential candidates?

Here we go! (If I had penny for every time I was asked this question… you know how it goes.)

Let’s get it straight. Firms are looking for someone who is with them for the long haul. Period! Firms (especially the big ones) in India are built on the core values of their name and legacy. They are looking for professionals who can be nurtured into taking that name forward.

Professionally, the story isn’t very different from any other profession. A strong educational background, the ability to work hard and with a team, diligence, communication skills and of course, patience. The transition phase (especially the first 6-9 months) maybe tougher but the reward has its own charm.

Strong on technicals – the main point of focus. For example; a prospective corporate lawyer should have the acumen for numbers, financials and a strong eye for detail and along with this good knowledge on topics like Contract Law, Sale of Goods Act, Company Law, SEBI Regulations, FEMA, FDI Regulations etc. Similarly, a professional, looking to build a name in the disputes practice needs to be aware of everything around him in the legal environment. Be prepared with important sections of the CPC, CrPC, Constitution, landmark judgments and recent developments in the legal biosphere.

The basic quality that every lawyer needs to possess (and I cannot stress this enough!) is the eye for detail in everything that they read or write. Till date, I have seen so many professionals who are not proficient with drafting and tend to omit so many errors; it’s possibly one of the biggest grey areas for any law firm looking to hire. You need to start from the bottom of the food chain everywhere. Your firm will want to know everything that you are capable of.

What advice would you give to law students / professionals interviewing for law firms?

The one piece of advice that would be the most important (for lawyers across levels);KNOW YOUR CV. Know every word of every line of what you have put on there. For freshers, your internship details are of utmost importance. Know the names of the Partners / Associates that you worked under, the teams, the kind of work and your involvement. For laterals, any transaction / matter that you worked on, your contribution to the same and everything that you have put on your resume. You need to have your CV on your fingertips; if it is on your CV, get ready to be questioned. Keep yourself abreast with all legal developments in the market, especially the ones with a connection to any phrase mentioned on your CV. Apart from academic qualifications; your extra curriculars go a long way in determining your achievements. Moot courts, debates and other activities are equally important to show your development during law school.

Apart from that, know what is happening in the market and of course, know the firm that you are interviewing with. You need to know details about key partners, latest deals and general structure of the firm as questions can be fired from any direction. You need to assure your interviewer that you are the right choice and your knowledge about the firm makes you want to be there. This is about going that extra mile to show your appreciation for their time and consideration. People always look for that spark that would separate you from the others. Be confident in what you answer and do not hesitate in accepting that you may not know something out of the plethora of questions, it is only natural. Be sure to tell them even if you don’t know or are unsure. Be sure to make a note of it and tell them you can research and get back to them with a sure answer. Surety goes a very long way. Be sure of yourself and what you know and you’ve already won half the battle.

What must a law student do to get hired in a top-tier law firm? Any advice on CV building that law students must keep in mind?

Before I answer that, we really need to address one thing for young lawyers and everyone else reading. The mentality of a ‘top-tier’ brand is changing in this ever evolving legal market of ours. Whilst top-tier firms still do rule the roost and deservedly so, many firms operating on a smaller scale (only in terms of number of people) are bringing in meaty work and good clients. These firms (bracketed as mid-sized or boutique firms) are coming up with a strong force and several of them have been started by and employ alumni from leading firms. In terms of quality of work, people employed and even pay-scales, they are very competitive with all other firms and will be a force to reckon with in the near future.

Let’s face it; cut throat competition in the market as of now, is more than it has ever been. With more than 70,000 lawyers graduating every academic year, securing an interview can turn out to be quite a harrowing process. Most firms hire graduates directly from campus or make offers to their star interns. Firms that do come on campus will look for someone whose CV jumps right out of the page to catch their attention. Hence, building a strong CV is the first stepping stone to this process.

On CV building, we need to remain concise. Academics are the foremost factor that people tend to look at on your resume. Your grades need to be consistent and will be considered on priority. Along with grades, a few other factors that may help go a long way:-

Moot Courts – The first insight into a Court environment, the basic reason and intention of organizing moots is to help students develop their research and oratory skills. You should try to actively be a part of inter / intra college moot court competitions. The skills that are put to task here are the ones you need the most in this profession and one can develop them very well.

Research Papers / Publications – Your knowledge on the latest developments in the profession are yet another tool in your artillery. Your knowledge on the information gathered here could easily be one of the biggest advantages in the interview

Organisational Skills –The committees that you were a part of during college, the activities that you took part in. These show a sense of team work which every young professional can use to his / her advantage.

How is the legal landscape in India changing viz a viz the talent needs?

The landscape has changed hugely over the past few years since I have been following it. People are beginning to focus more on the person, rather than their pedigree (which has always been the growing trend). Firms are seeing severe competition in the market and of course, last year was probably one filled with the biggest surprises (and shocks for some) in the industry. Reasons like these alone, are completely twisting the landscape. Since any change can be positive or negative, depending on the perspective, the industry has learnt to adapt with its growing needs. Firms are getting bigger, business is on the constant rise and people are needed. At this point of time, hiring at the senior level is becoming more strategic and there is definite preference for those having their own book of business and good reputation and relationships in the industry. Another interesting point to note is that, at the junior and mid levels, firms are also investing heavily in BD and internal trainings.

Lastly what are your plans for future? What advice would you give to law students wishing to work in the same sector as you?

After having dabbled in so many sectors myself, I feel I found my niche in the legal recruitment business. The plan is to learn and grow with the system which is growing every step of the way. I am glad to have found a platform like Aquis Search, as it is the only search / recruitment firm in the legal and compliance industry in India has with an international network – in both the in-house and private practice space. I am happy to be able to leverage my network and relationships to hopefully bring a positive change in the Indian legal ecosystem.

Guys, success and failure are a part and parcel of the game. Trust me, I’ve been there. Everyone is prone to mistakes and the best part is that it’s never the end of the world. Getting a law firm job or not shouldn’t be on your final list. The profession that we are in, is one of constant growth and learning. One literally can never stop learning here (even if it feels like things are stagnant). Keep making mistakes, learn from them, equip yourself better and move on. The recruitment business is on very similar lines. I feel that my experience in law practice has equipped me with the knowledge to be a decent legal recruiter. For anyone wishing to work in the same field, I’d only say that keep your eyes and ears open. Most importantly, build the best network that you can (a network is what makes or breaks a recruiter). You should enjoy being an all-round people’s person. The work is all about the trust that you gain with your clients and candidates alike so, keep the lines of communication flowing because after all, professionals are trusting you with their careers on the line.

Lastly, as a lawyer or a recruiter, never lose hope. Be confident in your professional abilities and start! The world is out there. Good luck!

 

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