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Nandan Kamath, Founder, LawNK, on building an illustrious career in Sports Law and IPR and being a Rhodes Scholar

Nandan Kamath traded his dream of being a professional cricketer for a life in law, and since then, there has been no looking back for him. A graduate of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in the year 2000, Nandan has been a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship. After completing his BCL in Law and M.Sc. in Economic & Social History from Balliol College, University of Oxford in 2002, he went on to pursue his Masters in Harvard Law School.Soon after graduating in 2003, he joined as an Associate with Davis Polk & Wardwell, where he worked for three years. On returning to India, he founded his own law firm, The Law Offices of Nandan Kamath (Law NK), which is one of the leading law firms in the country in the field of Sports, Media, Technology and IPR Laws.

With this interview, he opens up to students about:

  • The importance of hard work, dedication and discipline in the field of law;
  • His dual Masters in law from Oxford University and Harvard University;
  • His experience of working at an international law firm;
  • Working in close connection to a field close to his heart – Sports

 

You are a law graduate from NLSIU, what motivated you to pursue Law, especially from NLSIU?

I was a law student by chance, rather than by design.  In my teenage years, I was a sportsman first, and a student next.  I had my eyes set on a professional career in cricket, and chose my pre-university college purely on the strength of its cricket team.  The first time I heard of NLSIU was when they sent a volleyball team to participate in our college sports festival, and I remember seeing the players’ jerseys and only thinking, at the time,that N-L-S-I-U was quite an odd jumble of letters put together. The next introduction to the law school was when the college cricket team I was on, ended up playing against (and beating) the NLSIU team. As thoughts of needing a proper college degree began to loom, I heard from a classmate about the NLSIU entrance test. Being interested in word games, puzzles and logic, I thought it would be an interesting experience for its own sake. I looked over a couple of past test papers the night before the exam, took it, and surprised myself by making it through. Although things were certainly not as competitive then as they are now, getting through the entrance exam convinced me that I might have some aptitude for the law. At least the examiners thought so!

 

Tell us about your time at NLSIU, what were your career plans after graduation?

Life at NLSIU didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start. Dr. Menon made it very clear at my entrance interview that I had to choose to either pursue cricket or law studies (but not both), as the institution only had space for full-time students with strict attendance requirements.  In the pre-IPL days, the odds were stacked against making a career out of cricket, so it wasn’t really much of a choice. Having made that trade-off, I put my head down and took my academics quite seriously for the first time in my life. It seemed like the right thing to do – to make full use of the opportunity if, in order to pursue it, I had given up something I was good at and enjoyed.  I found that the institution was an excellent place to become aware of various national and international issues.The regularity of project work and exams enforced a level of discipline which I was quite happy to adopt. At the same time, it was quite challenging, in various ways, to be at an institution with students from all over the country, each asserting and debating different identities, perspectives and ways of thinking. It gave me a broad and useful platform in the study of law and people in general.  I also met some of the smartest people I know during my five years there. In terms of career plans, I was fortunate to be selected for the Rhodes Scholarship at the beginning of my final year, so my immediate plans were made for me.

 

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After Graduation you went on to pursue BCL from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Please tell us about the course and your time at Oxford.

The BCL was a very rigorous, jurisprudence oriented course, and the academic standards were very high. I did courses on intellectual property and transnational commercial laws.  The perspective was very different, with the focus being on why laws are the way they are and how they have come to be, rather than the descriptive study of the law I had been used to. It needed a fair bit of adjustment to think more analytically and to have an opinion and a view on the law, rather than being required to know what it was. In my second year at Oxford, I did my Masters in economic and social history with a focus on the history of networks and technologies, and found it very interesting. Overall, my time at Oxford was idyllic with a great mix of sports, social and academic activities.  I met an internationally diverse group of people during my time there, each person with multiple interests and skills.  My time at Oxford broadened my perspective and my horizons, both socially and academically.

 

You did not end your academic streak at Oxford, but went further and pursued LL.M from Harvard. What was it like to get into, and study at Harvard Law School?

I applied to Harvard Law School after having completed my BCL, so that probably strengthened my application. Being at Harvard Law School after two years at Oxford involved moving from a multi-disciplinary social setting, to the company of hundreds of highly-charged law graduates,most of whom had never stood second at anything they had done. It was a very competitive environment and not particularly easy going. Nonetheless, I found the LL.M. was very helpful as preparation for law practice.The weekly reading load was huge, and overall, the courses were intense and challenging (befitting the atmosphere). I found the analytical frameworks used by the teachers quite fascinating and very practically relevant, whether it was the economic analysis of law, legal realism, or anything else. It gave me a new lens to look at the law with, and added nuance and process to my thought process.

 

How do your dual Masters in Law help you in your current work profile? Do you plan to go for any further studies?

I believe that one’s law studies and degrees are only as valuable as the lawyer they produce. My studies have certainly given me a lot in terms of perspective, ways of thinking and analysis, and that is very valuable.Other than that, I don’t think the tags of being from a particular university help me that much in the work I do, other than perhaps leading to a (rebuttable!) presumption that I am not completely inept.  As for further studies, I think the phase of my life involving formal academic study is probably behind me –I can’t really see myself going back to the classroom, exams and dissertations. But I’ll never say never – I may just surprise myself if something really excites me.

 

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Given your academic record, were you ever interested in pursuing an academic career?

I do enjoy teaching a few classes here and there, alongside my law practice. However, pursuing an academic career was never on my agenda.  I didn’t feel I had either the intellectual firepower, or the patience required to master an area of law sufficiently to teach it repeatedly, consistently and engagingly.

 

After your LL.M from Harvard you joined Davis Polk, a global law firm.How did you get recruited there?

I had met one of the senior partners of the firm during an internship in Mumbai at ICICI Bank,while still in law school, and had managed to stay in touch. A few years later, when I finished at Harvard Law School, I got back in touch, was called for an interview and made it through the process. It wasn’t a very hot job market at the time and I consider myself very lucky to have got the opportunity.

 

What is it like to work in a big and global law firm?Please tell us something about the kind of work you did there.

I worked for three years at the California office of Davis Polk in the intellectual property and global technology group.  The work involved intellectual property and corporate advisory, especially in relation to mergers and acquisitions, and capital markets transactions.  It was the perfect first job for me.  It was challenging both substantively and in terms of work hours and it forced me to up my game, and push my limits. I found a number of mentors among the partners there.  The importance of attention to detail, personal responsibility for (and pride in) work product and client orientation were my main takeaways. I also saw that it is possible to create an open, friendly and informal work environment without compromise on work product and quality standards.

 

You left Davis Polk after three years, what were your reasons to do so?

When I started my studies abroad, I had set myself a target of being back in India in 5-6 years.  The end of this period also coincided with some plateauing in my learning and it was becoming clear that the big law firm trajectory was not the best one for me. I left Davis Polk after a brief stint in Hong Kong and Mumbai,and moved back to my hometown Bangalore, where I wanted to live and work.  I didn’t have a specific work plan but was happy to put down roots and figure things out.

 

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You set up LawNK – The Law Offices of Nandan Kamath after you left Davis Polk, what was the motivation behind going independent?

My father is a Chartered Accountant who started his own practice from scratch, worked hard, and succeeded off his own steam.  Watching him from close quarters helped me recognise the many advantages of independence.  It also inspired me to chart my own course, without too much fear or doubt coming into the picture.  Having the opportunity to choose what I was going to work on was a big luxury, and I was determined to work in an area I loved – sport.  With a view of working on sports law, I went about meeting a number of athletes, coaches and others working in the nascent sports industry.

Every one of them made it quite clear that there was little value a lawyer could add at that point, given the lack of structure and professionalism in the field.  That feedback temporarily set back my plans to establish a sports law practice. I involved myself in other ventures in sport and athlete representation, which gave me a ground level view of issues Indian athletes were facing and the state of play overall.  Over time, I started getting requests for legal assistance from others who were making their way in sport business and I began advising them as a sole practitioner.  The game changer came in 2008 with the IPL. The professionalization of sports through the league brought sports contracts into the mainstream in India.  This is when things took flight, and the firm has grown organically since then.

 

LawNK – The Law Offices of Nandan Kamath specialises in Sports, Media, Technology and IPR Laws.How did you build your client base, especially since you spent your formative years outside the country?

Over the years, our clients have found us rather than the other way around. A well-defined focus in terms of practice areas, and a team that is knowledgeable and passionate about the work, are our greatest strengths.The client base has built through word of mouth, and it is not something I have ever actively worried about. We focus on our work, and know that interesting work will find us when the time is ripe and the opportunity is right.

 

You are also a Trustee at GoSports Foundation.Tell us a bit about it and your role therein?

GoSports Foundation (www.gosports.in) is a non-profit that I co-founded in 2008. The organisation’s vision is to empower young athletes and enable them to achieve their Olympic and Paralympic dreams. Being quite aware of the state of Indian sports, we started GoSports Foundation to contribute our bit to the growth of an athlete-centric sports ecosystem in non-cricket sports. Our quest is to bring professionalism and positivity into athletes’ journeys and to ride with them through ups and downs, providing financial support, mentorship, access to expertise and career advice. As Managing Trustee, I play an active role in the administration of the organisation, and support the executive team wherever needed in the programmes. It also provides me the opportunity to work with our Board of Advisors, which comprises of Abhinav Bindra, Rahul Dravid and P. Gopichand, in thinking about Indian sport and making meaningful interventions.  It is work that I love and an organisation I am proud being a part of.  I have met fascinating people along the way, and my work with GoSports Foundation has opened doors to a wide variety of experiences – from hosting a TV sports show, to designing national talent support schemes, working with childhood heroes, being on selection panels and drafting state sports policies. While it is often challenging work and requires lots of self-belief, I have received far more from it than I have given.

 

Rahul Dravid on extreme left and Nandan Kamath on extreme right.

Rahul Dravid on extreme left and Nandan Kamath on extreme right.

Who form your clientele? Could you please share with us any representation you are particularly proud of having worked on?

Our sports practice advises a wide range of governing bodies, franchises, players and sports brands.  Cricket and football have been the primary disciplines but we are now seeing more in tennis, badminton and golf, and the new professional leagues are also mushrooming. Other areas of our special focus have been advertising and marketing laws, e-commerce, privacy, food and beverages law, and medical law. I am particularly proud of our team for being empanelled by the ICC as the official law firm for the Cricket World Cup hosted in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in 2011. It was a great honour and privilege, and watching India win the finals was the icing on the cake!

 

Do you think playing sports has helped you as a lawyer?

I have always believed that playing serious sport is excellent preparation for professional life. With the benefit of many years of experience now, I think this is even more so for the law.  Competitive sport provides early exposure to the adversarial process.  It also requires one to make real-time decisions based on dynamic, unstructured data –which is only possible to do competently if you have prepared thoroughly, and practised hard.  All this is not too different from law practice! Also, sport teaches you that although it is primarily your own individual pursuit, you are almost always playing in a context – representing someone or something else (a team, institution or even a country). Similarly, it is a client and/or a cause that makes one an advocate, and that is always good perspective to carry. Finally, you learn from sport that you are only as good as your last innings, but I’m going to ignore that for now because my last one was a duck.

 

Many of our readers would be interested in having a career in sports law and representing celebrity sport stars. What would be your advice to them?

If it is truly a substantive area that you are interested in, it is a field worth investing time and energy into.  The glory and glamour fade away quite quickly, so it is important to have the right motivations – that will help you stick it out through the early days and mature and stay passionate about and interested in the work.  Other than that, the best advice I got as a young lawyer was to become a good lawyer first before attempting to add any prefixes (such as ‘sports’ lawyer), and to focus first on learning the tools of the profession – in transactional law, that includes things like client communication, drafting, time management, multi-tasking,organisation, attention to detail, and finding one’s own methods and practices.  If you have built a strong practice toolkit, adding new substantive areas to the repertoire is actually not that difficult.  Sports law is not rocket science and it is an interest that can be pursued at any point by a skilled lawyer.

 

What do you look for when you hire lawyers to work with you?

We look for self-motivated young lawyers who have also demonstrated their interest in our practice areas.  Our firm has graduates from NLSIU, NALSAR, Symbiosis, ILS, GNLU and NUJS, so it is quite a diverse set.  A few have come through our internship process, which is a good outcome for all concerned.  I am very proud of the lawyers in our firm, and have enjoyed seeing them grow steadily as professionals.  From what I see, today’s young law graduates are better trained and prepared than I was when I finished law school.

 

Do you provide for internship opportunities? Where should a law student apply if he/she wants exposure in sports law?

Yes, we do have an internship programme.  We accept only one or two interns at a time to make the experience meaningful, so spots are limited.  It is a chance to give law students exposure to the types of work we do, and our work environment. There is an online form (http://www.lawnk.com/home/) that interested applicants can complete for more information on the process.

 

It is a dream to work in the subject we love for most of us. What do you have to say to those who didn’t end up doing what they love the most?

As one steadily moves up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (I told you that NLSIU left a lasting impact!), beyond security and the need for external recognition and validation, I feel that the journey ends up becoming about two things – the pursuit of mastery and the pursuit of engagement.  Mastery brings the joy of excellence; engagement brings the joy of working on things one cares about.  It is only the lucky few whose pursuit of both mastery and engagement unify in their daily work, or even converge on a regular basis for that matter. I feel the rest of us must remain open to tapping different and diverse outlets and sources if we are to simultaneously experience both of these pursuits.  For whatever reason, not everyone might get engagement with things one loves at the workplace. But it is still possible to find an outlet for this, maybe through hobbies, volunteer work or even by innovating within the limitations of the workplace.  Life is too short and you are already very fortunate if you know what you truly love!

 

What would be your parting message for our readers?

Have a clear career plan in mind, but leave enough room for chance to play its part. Also, stay open to being inspired.

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