Srinath Sridevan is the founding Partner of HSB Partners, Advocates & Solicitors, Chennai. Srinath graduated with a Gold Medal in Law from Madras University in 1996 and then went on to pursue his masters from New York University in 1997. After graduation he got an offer from Allen and Overy, London and started working there. Later he moved back to India & started out with a new Law office, named – ‘HSB Partners’ at Chennai in the year 2004. He possesses an experience of over twenty years in the legal Industry with specialization in different aspects such as mining law, arbitration, corporate law etc.
In this interview he talks to us about:
- Choosing law as a profession and his experience at New York University.
- His formative years as a lawyer and his time at Allen and Overy, London.
- Experience of establishing his own firm with his friends.
- Criteria for selection of associates while recruiting.
- HSB Partners and its rapid expansion.
What incidents, influences or interests prompted you to think of law as your career and what other options would you have considered for your career?
I am one of the fortunate people who came from a family of lawyers and therefore Law was something apparent to me since I was in school. I also had an interest in science and astronomy especially, and I suppose if I had not gone into law I would have gone into astronomy. I had studied BSc(Physics) before I got acceptance from Madras Law College.
Tell us about your experience in Dr. Ambedkar Law University.
See, that time it was Madras University it was not Dr. Ambedkar University. The college itself is a century old institution and therefore, the building is spectacular, the library has books which we only dream of. For example I have seen with my own eyes a two hundred year old copy of the Hedaya by Bailee, which was one of the most classical texts in Muslim law. But unfortunately the university suffered due to government laps and negligence. Therefore, classes were conducted in a haphazard fashion. In such a situation you are forced to learn for yourself and that’s what I did.
Could you tell us about your experience at New York University? What all were the differences that you found the Indian form of legal education and the other form of legal education?
Everything was different. I don’t even know where to start In the Indian form of teaching specifically at Madras Law College, the professor would come in, cover their portions and leave at the end of the hour. Some professors took a little bit more interest and tried to make the class more interesting, so it was only the frontbenchers who really gained anything, because we used to study out of our own interest, and also used to take notes in class. But at New York University, the scenario was completely different. The entire class was completely participative. The professor started a discussion and he guided the discussion. So, at the end of the hour the entire class would participate in the discussion. So as a result the entire portions were covered. And apart from that there would be seminars. So, in a semester you had one hour of discussion per week with a professor, where you would jointly research on some of the subjects. The amount of learning you got in these seminars was unbelievable. Of course, the quality of the professors at New York University was also very high. Some of the professors I learned from are known the world over. So, you really can’t compare the two. The experience at NYU was quite amazing.
You received a scholarship for applying to New York University. What factors should be kept in mind while applying for LL.M in different foreign universities?
First you have to look at what you actually want out of your LL.M. Students go overseas for masters degree for different reasons. Some of them are extremely focused and they see a masters degree as a stepping-stone for a further career progression. Some students do a masters degree simply because their friends are doing it. Some people do it because they want a year before the reality of life hits them. So, it depends on what you want out of it. Let’s take the first category, the people who are extremely focused. They need to think about what they want to do after their Masters. If one thinks of working at the UN or some international body, then you need to apply to those universities like George Washington, NYU, and Columbia etc., which have very strong relationships with international bodies. And if you do your Masters there, it is easier to get positions and fellowships from international bodies. So, that’s one. Similarly, if you are looking to work at a law firm in the US, then you should look at the universities in those states of the US, where you are permitted to take the Bar exam with just a masters degree. So, for example you choose a State like New York, or California, where you actually can consider taking a job after taking the Bar Exam in the US. In the UK, you have to look at the universities that give you best access to QLTT.
The second and third categories of people are those who are going for an LL.M because they can, or because they want to discover themselves, or something like that. They need to choose a city that enables them to enjoy life there to the fullest. If funding is an issue then you need to choose the universities that are really rich and which are able to give large R.A.s and T.A.s or fellowships.
You have interned at Deacons, a foreign law firm and you have been an associate at Allen and Overy. How your experience there was and what differences did you find between foreign law firms and Indian law firms?
I was very young when I interned in Deacons, so everything was new to me when I was there. So, on a couple of occasions, when I got to work directly with the partner that was like a high for me that lasted for the entire day. Therefore, since every experience was new, the internship itself was an eye-opener for me. What I got out of it I cannot say but it was a life changing experience for me. You learn how large these firms are. I was three years into the profession when I got an opportunity to work at Allen and Overy. So, I was more settled and I had clearer legal views. At Allen and Overy what interested me was my access to global transactions and global working practices. So, I learnt a lot there as well.
Coming to the Indian law firms, in the last five years, they have got most of the good practices that these foreign law firms have. So, you have well established drafting and conveyancing techniques, clearer career paths for the Associates etc.
The Government of India is planning to allow foreign law firms to enter into India. Do you think the Indian law firms will be confronting to fight with the tough competition foreign law firms entering into India?
You, have to understand that you are asking this question to a law firm based in Chennai. I do not believe that law firms based outside of Delhi and Mumbai will be affected at all, because whoever is in Mumbai or Delhi will always need local legal support from a good law firm in Hyderabad, Bangalore or Madras. So I personally do not think that a law firm in Chennai will be affected at all.
Further, even as per what I have read, foreign law firms will be permitted to enter only for the purpose of advising on foreign laws aspects of transactions.
It is a general assumption that the fresher graduates have to struggle a lot during the initial years. What was your experience?
Look, you use the word struggle as something bad. From my first year, I spent all my free time reading Bare Acts and judgments whether I understood them or not. The first few months, especially the first three months, were quite boring and it was really difficult to sustain the interest. But at some point of time the interest kicked in. Once the interest comes in, it’s a matter of pleasure to keep learning. Even now when I am bored, I pick up a law book and read. It’s not a “struggle”. I find it very pleasurable.
What made you to venturing into a law firm than setting up an independent practice?
All the three partners at HSB are all the same age. We all hail from families of lawyers. After we finished our bachelor’s degrees, we all went to the US for our Masters’ degrees. I went to NYU, and my partners went to Northwestern. After we finished our respective degrees, my two partners worked in Chicago and New York respectively, and I went to work in London.
Over the next few years we kept in touch through e-mail. We were always talking about returning to the motherland and being with our parents.
By 2002, one of my partners, Harishankar, and I started a firm and we commenced working together.
By 2004, we spoke to Bhaskar and informally we joined together.
And on first of April, 2005 we formally united as HSB partners.
How was your journey during the initial days of HSB? Why do you think that HSB has won the best law firms award in the year 2012 in corporate and commercial laws?
These awards do not matter much. You can get one every year from someone or the other. I personally don’t give much importance to these awards.
The initial years were very exciting because it’s great to be working with your friends. There was a lot of sharing of knowledge. You know every day me Hari, Bhaskar and I used to discuss our respective cases. So, that was extremely exciting.
We also got to learn transition from being the sole proprietors of our family firms to actually being one single firm like HSB.
While hiring lawyers, what kind of skills you look for in their CV?
The first being the university where the candidate has studied; whether it is a recognized one or not. I look for academic scores.
Then I look for the places that this person has worked or interned at and the kind of work the candidate has done.
Most importantly I look at the extracurricular and co-curricular activities because that is the real test of character and if I see something interesting there then I usually invite the person for an interview.
What do you expect from a first year associate or an intern?
I usually take interns from their second year. I ask them minor questions to see if the candidate shows interest. If a candidate shows initiative, then I give more responsibility.
So from my perspective, I give as much work to a person as that person wants. Each person depending on how much interest they show can grow.
What do you find admirable in present generation of lawyers compared to that of your generation?
They are lot more prepared, prepared in the sense, bold and willing to state their opinions. For example: when I was in my fourth year of law school I don’t think I could have expressed my views as boldly and candidly as many of the interns do nowadays.
What is your thought about the traditional ideas of specialization in single core areas of law as opposed to the contemporary broader approach with wider field with multiple specialties?
I am biased because I myself have several areas of interest. So obviously I will say it’s better to have a broader field of knowledge. I don’t think you can be an effective lawyer if you know only one very narrow vertical.
You can be an effective lawyer only if you know the general principles of all laws and you have a very wide-ranging interest in other fields of life as well.
Do ever want to be a senior counsel or judge?
Senior counsel: Yes, that is something I would like. When, I don’t know. The rules in Madras High court for designation of lawyers by senior counsel have now been changed. Now, it’s only by invitation. So, that may arise if and when am invited.
Judge, probably not.
What kind of internship would you recommend for a law student to opt for, to start building versatility and a wide range of law that you are well versed with today?
I would recommend a litigation internship with lawyers or a firm that has a very substantial practice, that too when a court is in session. This is what will expose an intern to the widest possible range of laws in a shortest possible time. Unfortunately, most of the applications for internship are for the months of May and December when the court is not in session. So, those interns don’t get very much out of their internships. So to get the broadest ranging experience, I would recommend interning under a very busy lawyer or a very busy firm when the court is in session.
What would be your advice to the budding lawyers?
Nothing but Enjoy yourself.