Neha Thakur is a graduate from NLIU,Bhopal (batch of 2007). During college, she was quite active in co-curricular activities and has excelled in them. She has also managed to pursue Diploma Course in Corporate Law offered by ASCL, Pune. Soon after graduation, she worked at Vasan Associates for a short period of time and thereafter switched to Economics Law Practice. She has also worked at Ernst & Young. Currently, she works as a Senior Associate (indirect tax) at Luthra & Luthra Law Offices.
In this interview she talks about:
- Specializing in Indirect Taxation
- Working at Vasan Associates and ELP
- Being a Senior Associate at Luthra & Luthra Law Offices
How would you like to introduce yourself to our readers who are mainly law students and lawyers?
Destined to be a lawyer, is how I see my life in retrospect. I have been fortunate to have worked under some outstanding lawyers who guided me through my career so far. It’s extremely important to define what you want in life in order to draw a path to achieve it. My first stint as a legal trainee was at Yahoo!India’s Bangalore office where my mentor Mr. Amitabh Lal Das gave me some of the most important tips to make the right decisions regarding my career path. My first legal engagement after law school was with Mr. R. V. Prasad (Vasan Associate) whose impression as a professional on me will continue for a life time. It was under him that I’ve learnt the most important lessons of life, to never compromise with principles and be very professional in your approach to work.
What brought you into studying law? Was it fate or planned?
As I earlier mentioned it was destiny’s play, supported by some favourable turns in life. I started my career much before I actually got through law school. Being a second generation lawyer, I used to visit my father’s chambers regularly and was engaged in some or the other work by his colleagues. This resulted into an early orientation in the field of law. My mother believes in aiming for the moon as even if you miss you’ll land among the stars. She inspired me to take the entrance exam and was the push behind the decision to make a career in the legal field.
What were your areas of interest during your graduation? How did you go about developing expertise and knowledge in these areas?
My exposure to tax laws was due to the fact that my father is a tax advocate. Although he practices Direct Taxes and I practice Indirect Taxes, my inclination was always towards tax laws. However, IPR laws did interest me. During my college days I’d done an internship with Kris & Kolloth, Bangalore which is an IPR firm and it was a great learning experience. Subsequently at Yahoo!India I had some more exposure to IPR laws. However, as luck would have it, I got internship opportunities with LKS Bangalore and Delhi office thrice during my 5 years at Law school and it set the path for the future in tax. I also did a diploma course in Corporate Laws through ASCL, Pune.
Right after graduating, you worked for a year at Vasan Associates as an Associate and then joined Economic Laws Practice as an Indirect Tax Associate. How would you describe you experience at both these places?
My mentor at Vasan Associates, Mr. R V Prasad is a practising Advocate at the High Court of Karnataka at Bangalore and deals mainly with tax laws. His systematic litigation strategies make him an outstanding lawyer; my foundation in the profession was laid during my tenure with him. It’s very important to have a good mentor in the beginning of one’s career as that characterizes your entire professional life. His approach towards clients and cases is focussed and his emphasis on efforts to excel in one’s subject was a lesson I’d learnt under him.
I continued to be a part of the litigation team at ELP which furthered my inclination into litigation. It is thrilling to argue your own case. It was a very exciting phase; ELP is one of the market leaders in the field of tax and has a great team to work with. Their knowledge base helps you to learn the subject better with each passing day.
After one and half year of work as an Associate at ELP, you joined Luthra & Luthra Law Offices as Senior Associate (Indirect tax). What qualities do you think helped you to achieve this status?
Each firm has set parameters for each role. For example, for the position of a Senior Associate the person should have certain relevant work experience, then again relevant work experience may or may not include your independent legal practice. It all depends on the firm’s policy. So essentially it was the relevant experience because of which the firm decided that position for me.
What’s a typical day at work like? How can one gain expertise in Indirect Tax? What does it take to be a good Indirect Tax lawyer?
Well, I’ve done a mix of litigation and advisory from Indirect Tax perspective. Both are a different ball game I must confess, although the common string to sail through is regularly updating your knowledge in the field. Once the clients develop a relationship with you as their lawyer, they do not always restrict themselves to ask questions related to your expertise. To a tax lawyer they might ask something to do with evidence law, you are the go-to person for them and you have to obtain answers. My first read at Vasan Associates was a book on human psychology as recommended by Mr. Prasad, which I realise was the best first step taken. In this field we have to understand the human psychology since you are dealing with them at all levels, be it your clients, colleagues, judges, staff etc. You cannot afford to lose patience with clients in a service industry. I would highly recommend all new lawyers some good reading before you start in the profession, it’ll take you a long way. Always remember “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.
Also as you move up in your career, responsibilities increase, you need to watch your act as you’re grooming your juniors. Setting a good example as a lawyer is something all of us should maintain to have a better professional world. As an indirect tax practitioner a lawyer’s competition is mainly with the Chartered Accountants, who are very thorough with their knowledge in this field as they put in long and hard years to be the professionals they are. The only way we stand on the same footing is by systematically updating yourself on a regular basis. Read the relevant journals; stay aware of the recent judicial precedents and statutory procedures. Make networking your strong point, knowledge acquired should be put to use by practice.
What has been your strategy to deal with errors and mistakes? How would you advise a young associate to deal with them?
The best thing about mistakes is that you can correct them. It goes on to show that you made an effort in the first place. So have a positive outlook, perspective matters a lot. Consider every error as a step forward and you’ll be better with each one of them.
What changes has being a Senior Associate brought into your life? Do you ever feel that there is excess of work load on you? How do you manage to strike a balance between your personal and professional life?
Growing up professionally ensures that you are at the middle of the pyramid and have a team which helps you with matters. Delegation is possible at this stage and also you start getting a better grip on your domain and take less time to complete a task. We start grooming the young lawyers at this stage while still trying to get better ourselves. This stage is hectic and requires a lot of multitasking since you are in the middle of a lot of change at all levels. To be very honest, the personal life definitely takes a hit being a legal professional. Being in client service industry wouldn’t be any different. My suggestion is to be mentally prepared and make the most of your initial years and make a strong base for yourself while you are free of personal responsibilities. Lawyers across the globe work long hours (Harper Lee and John Grisham would agree). By this I’m definitely not suggesting that you do not socialize. Networking is an important aspect of our profession, we cannot survive in isolation. Manage your time well and make time for people who matter, it keeps you sane.
Tell us about a case that you are particularly proud of. What steps do you take to prepare for a difficult case?
The burden of Indirect Tax is ultimately borne by the end users. The seller adds the tax to the goods and every unfavourable order adds to that cost. So every favourable order makes me proud to have saved some cost for the common man i.e. us. In my limited tenure so far while there are several matters worth being mentioned, the one which is in my recent memory is that of Mumbai International Airport Ltd. (MIAL). On behalf of the client we appeared along with Senior Adv. Mr Sridharan before the Customs Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal (CESTAT). The point of contention was whether Service Tax is applicable on the development fees collected by MIAL as per the statutory requirement under the Airport Authority of India Act. Development fees is the amount which the passengers pay for the future development of Airport facilities, it may be used for construction of another terminal after a decade. It is in the nature of statutory fees therefore levy of Service Tax on this fee will essentially mean tax on tax and extra cost to the passenger. The final decision is pending and therefore we cannot discuss it any further at this stage. Everyone who’s spent even one year more than you in the profession has something to learn from. Be a sharp observer and try and learn as much as you can. There is always a better way to staple papers, prepare paper books, drafting, dealing with clients & officers of the department and doing research for the matter. While appearing with seniors just by observing them or reading judgments in cases argued by them, you may learn immensely.
You must have guided several interns. How would you say that an intern can generate a positive feedback in the limited time they have?
Put yourself in the shoes of the counsel who’s delegating work to you, while they entrust the research they expect you to be sincere and responsible. If I work with an intern I want to believe every word they tell me about a particular topic, I believe they have exhausted every possible source of information and I will not have to confirm facts. There are no short cuts in life. You are a crucial resource for the counsel as an intern, you save them time with accurate information. Before you start, ask as many questions as you want, understand the point well, make notes and do an exhaustive job. Be responsible with the work which has been delegated to you, don’t abandon the counsel uninformed. There are so many times that interns do not count themselves as a vital part of the system and tend to be careless. This often results into double efforts both of the counsel and that of the intern.
You have excelled in your academics, interned at top-notch Indian law firms. Do you ever feel that you missed out on the fun part of your college life? Could you tell our readers how you managed to excel as a law student and enjoy your college life?
I believe that I had all the fun I could in my student days. I participated in all extra curricular activities, internal moots, mock UN, world youth conference, was an active member of ATHENA (the culture cell of NLIU). I do not think I missed upon the fun part of those times. I didn’t lose focus of what I wanted at the end of those five years and still had a gala time. My internships were in cities I hadn’t been before like Bangalore. And I loved exploring it. Take your internships as a learning experience both professionally and personally. You explore a new place and make new friends, so you should consider yourself lucky. It’s the perspective which matters.
What would be your message to our readers who are budding lawyers and law students?
It’s a great decision taken to be a part of the noble profession. Reading is an integral part of our field, and by reading I don’t mean legal reading alone. Keep your knowledge updated in the area that you practice primarily. General reading, autobiographies such as “Roses in December”, “Before Memory fades” are great for insights. Groom yourself well socially, it’s a service industry and we all need to keep improvising. I wish luck to all of you.