Rahul Phukan graduated from University Law College, Bangalore University (2000-2005). At present, he is leading legal real estate (Legal Director/Head of Legal-Real Estate) and expanding stores across in India and other countries in South Asia and managing a team of experienced lawyers based on regional offices in India for the purpose of procuring, development, opening and operation of stores in India.
In this interview he talks to us about:
- His experience at internships.
- His career graph.
- Qualities that helped him to become the head of legal-real estate.
- Changes in life after becoming the head of legal-real estate.
How did you choose law? Did you always know that this was what you wanted to do?
I made up my mind to pursue law pretty early in life- may be around standard eight in school. There were certainly influences in my formative years from the family. The tales of my great grandfather being a pioneer in the field of law and one of the first Indian district court judge in north-east of India (Larger Assam State including East Bengal under British). There were lawyers in the next generation who were also academicians and experts. The generation after had my uncle who was a Supreme Court judge with whom I had spent quite a bit of time- I think enough time to get influenced and convinced! I remember, the family house in Jorhat, Assam, had a library- though I didn’t read much from there but just glancing through the books perhaps also left a mark and fascinated me. Having said that, no one in the family ever told me that I should pursue law, I think the influences were strong enough to shape my decision which my parents definitely appreciated and supported.
Adding to that, though I knew I would do law for sure, but what would I specialise in was something I was not sure of. But I still pursued it with an intention that I will explore and find my area of interest.
Tell us something about your college life. Which activities did you participate in? How did you go about developing expertise and knowledge in your areas of interest?
I am a proud alumni of University Law College,Bangalore. At college we had the liberty to participate in various moot court competitions which I thought was a great way to develop research and analytical skills. I also made it a point that I interned with various lawyers and law firms. I started my internship right from the second year in college. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with a leading national law firm after college each day. When I look back I realise that the internships which I did gave me a very practical overview of the legal field and by working on various subjects, I could actually test the water and decide what I wanted to do on a long term basis. Besides this, I also made it a point to visit courts every now and then and witness the working of the judiciary. I feel this is important no matter which field of law one chooses -at least to have some knowledge of the courts! As a student, one gets extremely inclined to certain subjects like IPR, Corporate Laws, Human Rights, etc. but it is the practical experience which helps one to decide where one’s interest lies and sometimes also to discover that the interest is actually on a totally different subject.
Apart from the extra- curricular activities, interaction with my teachers in class, discussion with peers and seniors in college were something which really helped me understand the legal field better and understand the practicalities. Academically, as a student I was one of the top five rank holders in the University.
While it is important to enhance expertise and knowledge, it is equally important to have a life beyond college, internships and extra-curricular activities. I continued doing what I always enjoyed doing i.e. play tennis and cricket, read books and listen to music and attend various concerts and events. The idea was to have the right balance of academics and life in general- making both enjoyable!
Many lawyers say that the first year after graduation is the most difficult year for young lawyers. How was your first year after graduation?
Yes, I agree for many the first year after graduation is a difficult year. There are numerous colleges in India where in the final year there is no campus placement if one has to opt to work for the corporate world or a renowned law firm.
For me there was a period of dilemma right around the time I was about to complete my law graduation and few months after. I was unsure on the course of action I should take, though I was certain that I had to work for a corporate eventually. I quickly learnt that to excel in any role I take up, it was important to understand and acquire practical knowledge in the field I like- so as to become an expert in that field. This is when I started applying for law firms as I thought that to learn or experience all verticals of law there is no better place than a law firm. I am glad I was retained by Fox Mandal & Associates as a trainee and for the exposure I got to various aspects of laws – which most certainly helped me shape my career!
What kind of internships did you do while you were a student? Any remarkable experiences during your internships that shaped your career choices later?
I must tell you that internships are as important as academics. The more internships or time you spend observing the legal fraternity, the easier it is to make career choices. It is like a discovery trip!
Right from the second year of college, I made it a point to do formal internships or just spend time every day with law firms or at an advocate’s chamber. My internships were mainly on corporate law practices including FDI, corporate compliance-labour laws and IPR. It involved civil litigation and real estate transactions. While interning with a law firm in Bangalore, I got the first taste of working on the real estate domain which I started to enjoy. What was fascinating for me was that the domain had variety of challenges on a day-to-day level. The number of legislations one is going through for any real estate transaction could vary with the location, ownership, etc. and each real estate project had its own uniqueness and set of challenges- I was intrigued!
You have a lot of work experience, from working at a vast array of places. Can you tell us a little about your career graph up to this point?
After college in 2005, I started as a Trainee at Fox Mandal & Associates in Bangalore. Fox Mandal as you may be aware is a full service law firm and hence as a trainee I was fortunate to work on the job with all verticals in the firm which was very intense and a great learning experience. During this time, I interacted a lot with various partners and industry experts to learn more and more about each work-stream practically.
I continued as an Associate at Fox Mandal Bangalore and joined the real estate and infrastructure team. In the year 2009, I was promoted as a Senior Associate and subsequently, in the year 2010, I was escalated as the Group Head of the Real Estate and Infrastructure Wing at Fox Mandal & Associates, Bangalore. During the course of my retainer-ship with Fox Mandal, I was handling matters relating to real estate and property and had worked with various developers, Indian and international corporate/companies, financial institutions, property management groups/consultants, foreign state government/bodies. The matters mostly involved entry level strategy planning, due diligence, joint ventures, M&A, joint development, project construction and development, facility/built-to-suit campus development, pre/post lease/purchase/sale compliance & documentation(residential & commercial properties) and of course litigation and corporate law support.
Thereafter, in 2012, I joined Goldman Sachs in Bangalore as Legal Associate for the Corporate Real Estate Legal (CREL) and Commercial and Corporate Contract– Asia Pacific except Japan. My role in Goldman Sachs involved providing legal support to conduct real estate matters, e.g., real estate transactions including investments, capital projects, building operations, critical systems and infrastructure and was also responsible for periodic regulatory, corporate entity reporting and corporate matters related to real estate entities. Further, I did review and draft a wide variety of corporate services and other contracts including: events, travel, technology, consultant, tax & audit engagement letters, market data, subscription, employment, training, procurement and vendor contract and related matters and advised on matters, in collaboration with divisional and other specialist lawyers. Not to forget, my work also involved management of internal corporate authorizations and procedural matters and legal issues as they arise in day-to-day activities.
In December 2014, I joined Decathlon Sports India Limited as Real Estate Legal Advisor for the South Zone and later in September 2015, I took over as the Head of Legal/Legal Director- Real Estate.
You are the head of legal-real estate. What qualities helped you to achieve this status?
To start with, the most important quality is the passion for the field of Real Estate Law. The passion does drive me to learn each day and come back greedier to work for more. Of course, one has to be hard working and dedicated to ensure that each work stream is done with 100% commitment and integrity. There is no short-cut to gain practical experience, so the more one efficiently works on various fields with an open mind, the bigger the gain is in terms of experience. I also enjoy interacting with people and in that sense I am quite observant as a person too- this helps me a lot in business relationships and negotiations.
Right from my days at the law firm, I was leading a team- hence leadership and managerial qualities was a key quality as well. Today I lead a team of extremely able and competent lawyers at Decathlon. Also, the nature of work I do involves lot of decision making- hence I would say managerial courage is important too.
Tell us about the nature of work you are entrusted with at Decathlon Sports India Private Limited.
Decathlon Sports is one of the biggest sports retailers and is rapidly growing in India. I lead the legal real estate team at Decathlon. The team is primarily involved with the business and development team right from sourcing of projects to opening of stores in India. There is a variety of legal issues one has to go through including but not limited to property laws for any given projects and as you may be aware that real estate is a complex subject with laws varying from state to state.
I am also helping certain other regions in Asia for legal matter and store openings, has been one of my expertise.
What changes came into your life after becoming the legal director / Head of legal-real estate? How do you manage to strike a balance between your professional and personal life?
For me the change is not drastic- I still continue to enjoy the work I do like I always did. Of course, there is a lot more to handle now, but when one organises work based on the priority and business requirement with the support of an extremely efficient, competent and motivated team, the work flow can be channelized. Since, there is a variety of projects across regions; I do travel now quite a bit now.
As a young lawyer, it was difficult to manage the work and life balance as we all want to learn and excel quickly. As one grows older- and with experience it is easier to find that balance between work and life to sustain the career growth and to continue and keep the hunger to learn without risking a burn out. Therefore, dedicating time for the family and friends who are my support system especially on the weekends, doing things I like, playing sports when I can is something which really brings that balance. I am also a foodie who likes to eat and cook and I love travelling or going out for drives- I find these things really relaxing and refreshing. Without this facet of life, one cannot get the best out at the workplace- home is where the heart is as they say!
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to continue working as a real estate lawyer for sure. Perhaps, I would also like to stretch my wings to the other regions out of Asia- which I really enjoy. What would be also interesting is, apart from being a transactional and business lawyer, to go beyond legal aspects and contribute more to the organisation I am associated with. Definitely, the lawyer in me helps me to be that business partner and the risk manager!
What would be your message to our readers who are budding lawyers and law students?
From my experience, I would say that while it is very important to excel academically, it is even more important to experience the legal field from practical point of view. At the beginning, one has to be patient and must only concentrate on the learning and experience. While job tile and remuneration is important but it is not bigger than knowledge- so if a young lawyer is open to learning and only concentrates on harnessing his/her legal skills at the beginning of the career- I can assure you that job title and remuneration shall all fall into place on the long run. Efficiency in work, practical knowledge, transactional experience, managerial and decision making skills are few things no law school can teach!
Not to forget, while we are all focussed on our career goals- never stop doing things you like doing apart from work or studies or internships. The balance between hard work and life will make the journey complete and enjoyable.
My good wishes to all budding lawyers- the legal profession is seeing immense change and the younger generation is clearly blending in well and pushing the standards higher.
All the best and thank you for having me!