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Raghavan Ramabadran, Partner, Service Tax & VAT matters, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan, on being a Chartered Accountant and Lawyer

Mr. Raghavan Ramabadran is a Partner at Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan. He currently heads the Service Tax and VAT practice of the Chennai and Hyderabad branches of LKS. He pursued a C.A. degree while simultaneously pursuing a B.Com course from Vivekananda College. His interest in taxation led him to join LKS after qualifying as a C.A. He further pursued a law degree from Law Centre II of Faculty of Law, Delhi University (“LCII”) while working at LKS itself.

In this interview he talks about:

  • The LL.B and C.A. combination
  • Pursuing a law degree while working
  • Work of a Partner of Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan

 

Where did you grow up and attend school? How did you decide to pursue C.A.? Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I did my schooling in Chennai. I belong to a family full of Sanskrit scholars. In fact, my grandfather is a President’s awardee for excellence in Sanskrit. As a kid I was taught Sanskrit and Vedas. I had in fact completed my Vedic education by the time I finished my XII standard. Though I was always good in Mathematics, Science was not a subject which interested me and hence I chose to pursue a career in accountancy and enrolled myself in the C.A. course while simultaneously pursuing my B. Com course from Vivekananda College. I was always interested in taxes and once I completed my C.A. course, I applied to L&S. After joining L&S I realised how important it is to learn law to fully understand and work in taxes. Mr. Lakshmikumaran and Mr. Sridharan were very kind to me and took me to the Delhi Office for better exposure which also enabled me to attend the evening law course in Delhi University.

 

After qualifying as a C.A., you joined Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan. How did you decide to join a law firm instead of practicing as a C.A.?

As I said, I was always interested in taxes and one of my friends (who is also a C.A.) had already joined L&S. So I knew it was a great firm doing excellent service in the field of taxes. Hence, the choice was easy. I had applied to the firm. I was interviewed by Mr. Lakshmikumaran. The interview happened over several rounds and I was also asked to present a paper on Transfer pricing and the GATT Valuation Code.

The firm already had the practice of hiring non-lawyers and therefore I was not an exception. Mr. Lakshmikumaran encouraged me to do law and explained to me how the scope of a C.A. is restricted as he cannot practise in High Courts.

I realised that though a C.A. can render excellent advice, it is ultimately a lawyer whom he has to engage to sustain his advice before a court of law.

 

What did your work profile at LKS consist of, before you were a lawyer?

I was doing a lot of drafting which includes opinions, replies, appeals, writs, SLPs, etc. I used to do research and brief seniors in matters. Study sessions are a part of L&S culture and I was a regular in attending those. I was initially absorbed in the Customs team of L&S. Later when L&S started its practice in VAT, I was moved to the VAT Team. I was working in the VAT team till I became a lawyer.

 

Tell us about your law school experience.

When I look back at my years at LC-II, they were perhaps some of the best years of my life where I came across many intelligent and dynamic batchmates. The professors were very engaging and the curriculum was rigorous and very demanding. Everyday offered a new perspective on one’s approach to appreciating the law. Whatever I say about LC-II and its quality of education and the faculty, will be very little as its reputation speaks for itself.

Perhaps, it would be interesting to mention here that the courses taught at law school helped me at the workplace too. At the time when the seminal BSNL case was being argued at the Supreme Court, in which L&S was substantially invested, I could appreciate and contribute to the table some of the finer aspects concerning the constitutionality of the provisions that were being debated upon.

 

Is there anything you would like to have done differently?

There is nothing that I would have liked to do differently. Looking back, I think what matters the most is how you allow the experience to enrich you and not overwhelm you. The sheer diversity of the people you meet and the insights you develop on life allow you to become a more practical individual, in a manner of speaking.

 

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How did you manage to eke out time for a regular three-year LL.B from LC-II while working at LKS? Please share with us.

If you don’t have time in the day, steal it from night. Needless to say, switching back and forth from office to college was a demanding affair indeed. The tight schedule would otherwise be a strain on a normal individual. But maybe, it was the hunger for experience and knowledge that kept me going those years.

The daily schedule involved coming in to the office by 7:50 A.M. From 8 A.M.-10 A.M. I would attend sales tax study sessions chaired by Mr. Sridharan himself. This was a ritual I stuck to for one and a half years, and it paid off greatly. Regular work would follow this until evening when I would scamper off to college and again head back to office to take care of pending work. Many a times, in fact most often, I would sleepover at the office lobby. Suffice  to say, this was occasionally tiring but never did I feel flushed or demotivated.

 

You have more than a decade of experience in handling litigation relating to Service Tax, VAT and other areas of indirect taxes before various forums. What were the differences in your experience as a CA and as a lawyer?

Completely different. As a lawyer, you can rely on yourself to sustain your interpretation. For a CA, there would be a two-step process to take a legal point across, one to the arguing counsel and the final one to the judge. Whereas for a lawyer, there is only one level to convince, the judge and not the arguing counsel.

As a C.A., our exposure to law was oriented to the extent of appreciating the application of the law. However, being a lawyer one can delve into the correctness, spirit of the law and formulate its ethics and justifiability. As a C.A., we could hardly acknowledge the fine line of difference between a rule and provision. While studying law, the questioning spirit came alive.

 

Currently, you head the Service Tax & VAT practice of the Chennai and Hyderabad branches of LKS. What are the best and worst parts of being a partner at one of the most successful tax law firms in the country?

The best part easily is the bench strength at the firm. A multitude of good clients, refined nature of the tasks, variety in the kind of deliverables, priority on ethics are some of the traits that would easily attract anyone to the firm. The knowledge chest that L&S has is in its people, be it in excise law or patent prosecution. Other than this, the resources in the form of a heavily standardized information technology system, books, journals, credible physical infrastructure offers one an experience worth its weight in gold.

The challenging part, and definitely not the worst part, is that the benchmark is very high. There are a lot of expectations to be met. Arguably though, this is something that is expected with the responsibility of being a partner at a leading law firm.

Pondering over mystical questions like “work life balance” takes a back seat as these are questions that I do not find myself philosophically qualified to answer. Other than this, there are always the clients who keep calling at unexpected hours, which is why I am always nervous whenever my phone battery runs out, lest I miss out on an important call. The work profile for a partner is expectedly very demanding as one has to always stay sharp and alert. But all of this being said, we relished it and continue to do so.

 

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What is a workday like for you? Has work settled into a predictable pattern or are there new challenges every day?

For a litigating lawyer, I can say that being officers of the court, we are at the mercy and behest of the court. There is no method to this madness, Ha Ha!

On a serious note, it is always unpredictable. Appointments given to clients during the evening materialize, but where I commit to a meeting during the daytime thinking I may be able to fend some time for it, such is never the case, Add to this the usual rigours of urgent briefs, shuttling between various courts. They tend to take a toll on the body at times.

The highlight is that being in L&S, repeat matters don’t come. The scope and dimensions of the work is new and it is a treat to get one’s hands on them. Challenging matters are a staple affair and therefore it would be fair to say that there is a negligible chance of having a predictable pattern in terms of work coming in.

 

How important would you say are business development skills at such higher roles in a corporate law firm?

Very crucial. Clients always have alternatives.

 

What do you and other partners at LKS measure success by? What must interns and attorneys at LKS do in order to get noticed and/or promoted?

Show spark. Season that with clarity of thought. L&S encourages an open-door policy and there is complete freedom to speak and express one’s views. The only touchstone that someone’s worth is judged by is sheer merit and hard work. We don’t expect interns and fresher attorneys to be ready for the work profile that comes with working at L&S. Which is why we lay emphasis on training in our daily class-room lectures. We encourage interns and juniors to bring fresh and novel thinking to the table. With commitment and analytical skills to show for it, success can definitely be achieved.

 

What advice would you give to law students who wish to pursue C.A. or, alternatively, C.A. students who wish to pursue law?

While you focus on your areas of interest, make sure you pass all the subjects. Ha Ha!

What I meant to say is that if you intend to be a lawyer in the future, pursue those subjects in CA in which you plan to make a living in. C.A. background for becoming a lawyer is very useful. Accounting knowledge and commercial understanding of the transaction are traits that come in very handy in both transactional practice and tax litigation. My view is that such an academic profile is a potent combination, especially when it comes to leaving a mark in the realm of commercial laws.

 

Lastly, what would be your advice to law students and young lawyers reading this interview?

What you learn as a student stays in your mind forever. It is important as a student to try and understand the basics of every subject. With experience, we realize that no law is difficult if our basics are strong. Great lawyers are those whose basics are phenomenal and they never commit mistakes in basics. Rather they win complicated cases with basics.

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