SRINIVAS KOTNI, FOUNDER & MANAGING PARTNER AT LEXPORT, FROM BEING A CS TO A CORPORATE LAWYER, ON ESTABLISHING HIS LAW FIRM AND SHARING HIS EXPERIENCE OF OVER TWO DECADES IN THE LEGAL PRACTICE
This interview has been published by Maaz Akhtar Hashmi and The SuperLawyer Team. The Interview was taken by Priyanka Cholera.
Did any particular incident, interest, or influence prompt you to think of pursuing law? What other options would you have considered for your career, if not law?
I am a commerce graduate from DU and have taught computer science and worked in the data processing department of a listed company. Although I enjoyed working in IT, I used to get stuck to my screen with minimal human interaction. I remembered the charming subjects of mercantile/business law and taxation law during my university years which triggered my interest in studying law. I thought a legal career associated with commercial enterprise would be tempting. As a qualified Company Secretary, I could appear before all tribunals and courts besides the High Court and Supreme Court. As someone without any legal background, I believe it was my destiny that allowed me to change tracks swiftly.
Reminiscing about your college days, are there any anecdotes you would like to share?
The jam-packed life became the norm for me. After my BCom and IT degree, I worked as a computer instructor. The same was true during my time as a law student when I used to work from morning till evening and then attend college. As a working student, I couldn’t take preparatory leaves for my exams, so I adjusted my timetable accordingly. I decided not to pursue academics after the age of 26/27. Even with a fear of burnout, I was willing to go the extra mile and become an able and self-reliant person. My CV was decorated with my working experiences and educational qualifications.
One should be abreast with what’s happening around. It will change the way you look at things, and the world will become a better place to live and work. I was never a textbook person; the course material was enough for me. People generally lose a lot of time in reading unnecessary stuff, whereas everything in the exams is based on the study material and past question papers and trends.
You had started your career as a professional working with management information systems, data processing and other company secretarial functions. Could you describe this transition from being a Company Secretary to a Corporate Lawyer?
During my CS, I learnt about industrial law, HR law, economic legislation etc., and this was the primary reason for doing the course. Although I was interning as a CS, I was still inclined towards the legal profession especially, because of the research, drafting and presentation aspects involved in law. The qualification of CS definitely helped me in developing a macro perspective on the legal field and familiarize myself with the legislative and legal ecosystem.
After spending half a decade at Lakshikumaran & Sridharan, you set out to establish your firm, Lexport, in 2000. How did your initial years in the practice shape your outlook? What were some of the challenges that you faced while setting up your firm?
This is a very nostalgic question for me. I was 27 and was determined not to approach the clients I previously worked with. I wanted to work with integrity. I was broke and did not have money in my pocket but had ideas and an utter zeal to do well.
When you start afresh, getting clients and work is arduous. The first problem was to reach out to clients. I decided to be patient, and with a chair, table, scooter and address I began my journey. Eventually, I started getting a few assignments and met people through events or professional conferences. I am a social person, so even if I meet people for a brief moment, I make sure to establish a connection. People’s perception is extremely important. If they find you competent, they would be more likely to offer you work.
Could you please share with our readers your journey of over two decades with Lexport. What piece of advice would you like to give to people aspiring to establish their firm?
I shaped my career in a manner that both my academics and professional experience would be used. I had 5-years of experience before starting Lexport, and in those 5 years, I have put as much effort as people put in 15 years. I gave my 200% to everything I did. At 27, even if you’re competent, you tend to get underpaid. Eventually, we get better at our jobs, build credibility and start attracting bigger roles. Whatever makes you happy gives you peace, and things that do not make you lose love for others are enough to stay happy. The monetary aspect of it is definitely important, but it isn’t something you should lose sleepover. A massive space with a good seating arrangement is unimportant since nothing would be enough, and people’s needs would never end. These days youngsters look at work commercially. I’ve seen some very bright people do routine/repetitive work for an extra buck at random places. While some are built for that field, others just chase it for money. It is about stability and consistency, so be there for 3 or 5 years, you will surely learn something. Money will eventually come and go, but satisfaction, pride and happiness will make you a complete person.
The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021, has been tabled and will most probably be taken up for discussion in the monsoon session of this parliament. What is your opinion might be some of the tax implications if Cryptocurrency were to be regulated and brought under the Indian tax regime?
Technology keeps on changing, starting from the earlier era until today; we have seen our lives changing in one aspect or another. Today, the IT revolution has emerged. Being from an IT background, I have seen the change from a dumb PC to what it is today. The concern here is data integrity, and it needs to be secured. Logically, you can only have physical security or some systematic security like passwords etc., and all these can be breached.
Before coming to the concept of Cryptocurrency, we need to understand blockchain. It is a distributed ledger technology, where your data is residing in bits and pieces in different systems and hard disks around the world and each bit/piece is pointing/cross-referencing towards the other thereby creating a web structure for a database. If you hack into one computer, you would not have access to complete data. So as a database, security and storage concept, I believe it is a path-breaking technology. Thus, many applications came based on this distributed ledger technology and finally the Japanese gentleman Mr. Sutaki I think used this technology for establishing a digital currency. There are several different concepts, it is just a digital currency, and the underlying assets are being traded against that currency based on its value. It is interesting to note that this currency is not physical. This is a logical currency residing in your machine.
The moment Cryptocurrency emerged and people started honouring it, the countries were threatened, as their domain of monetary policy through their central banks was being taken away. Therefore, some countries adopted it, and some were skeptical. If you look at the RBI circulars, they are non-committal. They are neither saying it is illegal nor banning it. At the end of the day, the Government wants to regulate cross-border transactions and levy taxes.
In some countries, there are even ATMs where you can withdraw money from the cryptocurrency account. Therefore, formal and informal systems are shaking hands. In India, we should regulate this, but if we kill the idea of Cryptocurrency, then India would lag behind. In a global economy, you cannot do much, and if it’s a system or technology that has to work, it will work. If you want to regulate something, go for it. Nobody knows about its existence and true nature; it’s just an enigma. It is an interesting subject which is here to stay. The country should accept and regulate it but shouldn’t prohibit and/or over-regulate it. Don’t ban or prohibit the idea of Cryptocurrency because if you do so, people will move out. At the end of the day, what matters is whether we want to be a secluded economy or an integrated economy. Don’t kill the hen, which lays golden eggs.
Taking insights from your illustrious career in the legal profession, what is one essential skill or trait that you believe every lawyer should adapt to?
Make a choice and stick to it. We have a habit of over-thinking, and we keep on shifting, and eventually, we realize that the first thing we picked up was the best. Being ambitious is fine, but don’t be over-ambitious or impractical. Your skills are your driving force, not your qualification or what others are doing. Different people have different skillsets, backgrounds, tastes and professionalism, so never compare yourself with others. Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are and plan accordingly. You should learn how to communicate with people. Try to improvise your skills and then choose your subject area wisely. You will eventually come across an interest, which will become your passion. Otherwise, be a lawyer and do whatever comes your way. Don’t be rigid and try to mould your life in a positive manner by seeking and accepting good opportunities. There is a lawyer in every family; though it is good, there is limited scope in this area. You need to be good; otherwise, you will waste your opportunities.
How did your IT and other experiences come together as an aid?
As an intern in a law or consultancy firm, I was well acquainted with PowerPoint and other similar software back in 1995. Therefore, I could be involved end-to-end in every presentation and was even given the opportunity to present, keeping me much ahead of my peers as far as my learning was concerned. Furthermore, graphics and pictorial presentations helped me to explain complex matters with a small diagram, which would otherwise take a thousand words to explain. And back in the days, I could make such graphical representations even in respect of court matters. Furthermore, programming requires a structural and logical approach and is similar to writing a pleading, where you need to take step after step, first the title, then facts, grounds and finally the prayer. So that systematic approach helped me in my legal profession.
How do you ensure that your employee’s mental health is in check during this pandemic?
In the beginning, the lockdown was a little harsh since nobody was used to working from home. Some employees had issues coping up with the arrangement; therefore, we tried to fill the gap with happiness programs, made more interactions and even got a few motivational speakers. I tried to counsel a few who brought their problems to me, assured them that they need not worry, and asked them to discuss their difficulties. If people don’t confide in me, I wouldn’t be able to help, and therefore both the person and the work would suffer, hence creating an unhealthy and unhappy environment.
The pandemic has affected people, work, businesses, etc., around the world. How did you cope with the challenges entailed?
At the beginning of the pandemic, the entire workflow and money inflow stopped. Managing daily chores became an issue with people forced to stay at their homes. Fortunately, a couple of years back, we moved all our data to Microsoft one drive. We were also using software for workflow management. We replaced the desktops with laptops and had software packages, which helped us keep up with the assignments and meetings. After an initial 2 to 3 months shock, we got used to the arrangement. We weren’t using our office much and therefore shifted to our own premises to reduce infrastructure costs. Today we have a very flexible work policy, where people have to master their work, need to perform well and meet deadlines. Even the clients are happy to meet online, making it a very comfortable situation by working from home. People have to complete their assignments on time, and if there is not enough work, they can learn new skills sitting at home, which will help them grow in the profession.
Lawyers have to consider themselves as professionals first. They have to keep in mind the interests of the clients at all times and also keep abreast with new learnings every now and then. Their growth needs to be continual. If they are not working harder, their journey might be tough ahead.
What advice would you have for law students & young lawyers who want to set off in a similar direction?
Be very clear about your priorities. Pick a profession only if you are interested in that area, and refrain from showing off things. You should do your work passionately and sincerely and not just for mere name and fame. Do not rush after things because it takes time to become successful.
Work sincerely and inculcate good ideas into your daily life. Try to stay humble and grounded, as these will help you reach new heights. Overconfidence and overthinking kills people’s time and efforts. Set goals in life and work towards fulfilling them with your heart and soul. Things may take time to come on the right track, but nobody would want to lose you if you are good at your work.