“Success in the legal profession stems from a keen desire to learn, coupled with patience and a supportive network of mentors and colleagues.” – Seher Ali, Partner at Antares Legal

This interview has been published by Namrata Singh and The SuperLawyer Team

Seher, could you please walk us through your journey from your early days in law to becoming a Partner at Antares Legal? What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started your career in law, and how did you overcome them?

I am a multi-generational lawyer and have been exposed to the legal profession from the time I was born. My grandfather and great-grandfather were both judges of the Supreme Court. It was assumed that I would choose a career in law and endeavour to follow their giant-size footsteps but it wasn’t until after I graduated from LSR, that I found my way to law. While in college, I was certain that I wanted to pursue journalism – I loved to analyse, probe, look for loopholes and write. When that didn’t work out, I shifted focus to law and these interests became strong research, diligence and transactional capabilities.   

One of the challenges I faced in my early days as a lawyer was likely a challenge faced by most young aspiring women lawyers at the time – being a young woman lawyer! It has been encouraging to witness the multi-fold increase of women in the legal profession in the last two decades, but when I first started out, being a woman, one had to be twice as patient and work and persevere twice as hard to prove oneself as a serious legal professional – especially in the litigation space, which is where I began. Clients would assume I was either the support staff or prefer to address my male colleagues even if I was the senior most lawyer in the room.  I had to resort to creative ways to appear serious and professional which ranged from donning sarees to sporting spectacles at a young age. With the boom in corporate law in the 2000s, perceptions began to change and I couldn’t be happier about it!

After having spent my formative years in litigation at Khaitan & Khaitan (erstwhile KJSV), I traversed to the corporate law practice at Dua Associates and Tatva Legal and gained significant  experience in M&A, PE, Real Estate, Debt transactions and litigation.

After having spent over 14 years at law firms, and despite having led teams in large and substantial  transactions, I felt needed more challenges, in a new  and different setting. This led me to the M&A team at Bharti. This gave me the opportunity of stretching my limits through a gigantic learning curve, with the sheer variety and volume of fantastic transactional work that can only come with working with a world-class global MNC. I realised however that I missed the satisfaction and fulfilment that private practice brought – the variety in client interactions, variations in work and challenges and establishing structure in chaos! Antares Legal happened to me at a time when I has started evaluating my next steps and searching for newer challenges.

Siddharth Bhavnani, Arjun Anand (my partners at Antares Legal) and I had known each other well for almost our entire professional careers, having worked with each other across various law firms. Under the exceptional leadership of Siddharth and Arjun, Antares Legal was in a short span already a name to be reckoned with for delivering quality driven and value based legal services. Collaborating with Arjun & Siddharth in the growth and management of Antares Legal was an opportunity and challenge that I embraced and transitioned back to private practise.

Could you share a bit about your experiences of managing a charitable trust and how it shaped your approach to law and community service?

Alongside my legal career, I also manage a family set-up, public charitable trust in Bihar. The proceeds to the trust are distributed towards various charitable purposes in and around Patna including scholarships to students in the EWS category, medical facilities, establishing and maintaining a legal and literary library, infrastructure for schools etc. 

Each lawyer has a moral and professional duty to serve the broader community. Engaging in community service, to whatever extent possible, is a manifestation of this  responsibility and an indicator of one’s social consciousness. I endeavour to provide timely guidance and support in community service matters and encourage all young lawyers to find time to contribute positively to society (in addition to their Clients!) through pro bono work and volunteer initiatives. 

With your diverse portfolio and responsibilities, could you give us a glimpse into what a typical workday looks like for you? What are some common tasks and challenges you encounter, and how do you navigate through them to ensure smooth operations and client satisfaction?

Timelines that run away from you because of matters that require urgent intervention on account of unanticipated crises at a Client’s end, are commonplace and arise almost every day. 

As an old school lawyer – I’m always taking notes and maintaining task sheets and to-do lists for each day. Effective time management, organization and prioritization is key and equally so is picking the low hanging fruits first! Naturally none of this is possible without my meticulous and trail-blazing team who ensure that each client is prioritised and the ball is never dropped!

While it is not possible to generalize a typical workday, I start my day very early by prioritizing the key deliverables, calendarizing calls and meetings and checking my emails/whatsapps for overnight developments. Delegation of tasks and responsibilities at the right time and to the appropriate resource is critical to achieving timely goals. Administrative tasks including timekeeping and billing also need to be attended to in parallel. At the end of the workday, I update my task sheet and set my tasks for the next day.

In your role at Bharti Enterprises, you led numerous high-stakes transactions across the group companies. Can you walk us through one of the most memorable deals you worked on and the challenges you faced? 

One of the most intriguing transactions was the demerger of the general insurance business of Bharti Axa to ICICI Lombard. In addition to analysing, reviewing and negotiating the various transaction documents which form part of the regular life cycle of any M&A, this transaction also necessitated applying for and obtaining varied regulatory approvals from CCI, IRDAI, stock exchanges, MCA, RBI and NCLT. The transaction kicked off right in the middle of the Covid lockdown with everyone working remotely. Despite innumerable work-life balance challenges, tech fatigue and childcare and familial responsibilities, each of the stellar teams and departments involved at Bharti, Axa, ICICI Lombard and all of the external firms involved, worked relentlessly, often until the wee hours, to keep up the momentum and ensure closure in record’s time.

You made a transition from an in-house role at Bharti Enterprises to a law firm environment at Antares Legal. How has your experience in corporate legal departments influenced your approach to practicing law in a firm setting?

I had worked in law firms for over 14 years when I made the transition to Bharti. But when I returned to private practice, I carried back with me a wealth of practical experience and commercial insight which I never knew I needed.  The importance of understanding not only your Client’s products/service offering/business and relevant industry dynamics, but also anticipating potential risks in a timely manner and advising on practical strategies to mitigate them effectively, cannot be underscored enough. 

In-house counsels are typically weighed under with day-to-day assignments and responsibilities and tend to lean upon their external counsels for crisis management and response efforts during emergencies, like significant claims/litigations, criminal proceedings, product recalls, regulatory enforcement actions, and other incidents that could pose significant legal and reputational risks. 

The ability of the external counsel to take charge of such situations including providing strategic oversight, inspiring confidence through inter- personal communication skills and their ability to effectively collaborate across the various departments and functions of the Client is what Client finds most valuable. 

One of your notable achievements includes advising on a significant debt market deal recognized at the Asian Legal Business Awards. What were the key strategies behind the success of this transaction?

During my time at Bharti Enterprises, I had advised on the issuance of secured perpetual securities of USD 1Bn by an offshore Bharti Airtel WOS. This transaction was globally acknowledged as one of the leading debt transactions of the time and was felicitated with the Best Debt Market Deal of the Year 2020 at the Asian Legal Business Awards. Another transaction, whereby Bharti Airtel raised USD 3Bn was reportedly the largest ever dual tranche equity and FCCB offering in the Asia-Pacific and largest QIP ever by a private sector issuer in India, was recognised and felicitated by IBLJ as a landmark capital markets deal.

These mammoth transactions necessitated intense engagement and coordination with various internal teams, departments, group companies, external domestic and international law firms, underwriters, BRLMs and other agencies within extremely tight timelines.

As someone who has navigated through various law firms and corporate environments, what do you believe sets Antares Legal apart in terms of its approach to legal practice and client service?

The team at Antares Legal has extensive experience and has recognized achievements in the areas of mergers & acquisitions, private equity, hospitality, real estate, and banking & finance transactions, and general corporate advisory. The firm also strategizes and represents clients on litigation matters before the Supreme Court, various state High Courts, District Courts, Commissions, Tribunals and forums on a pan India basis as well as in arbitrations.

We have tremendously high-quality work with top tier clients and have created long-standing relationships with our clients and other external stakeholders. This serves as testimony to our strong understanding of the legal landscape, and the ability to be resourceful and offer practical, innovative and business conscious solutions.

We prioritise the provision of quality driven and value based legal services to our Clients and which is why, though relatively new to the legal services space (having been established in 2017), Antares Legal has already developed the reputation of being a trusted advisor. 

Having worked in both in-house roles and at law firms, you’ve experienced the legal landscape from different perspectives. Could you elaborate on the differences you’ve noticed between these two environments, and how they have shaped your approach to legal practice?

Like most private practitioners, I assumed in-house would entail a slower pace with exposure to cookie cutter contracts and transactions. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I was part of the frenetic yet hugely satisfying M&A team at Bharti. Leading multiple transactions simultaneously – all set in different industries, regulatory regimes and jurisdictions, meeting the demands of numerous internal and external stakeholders, balancing legal and business priorities, crisis management, post-merger integrations and living with the transactions post-closing, are only some of the challenges I faced. It was these challenges however, which have helped hone my approach. The importance of understanding our client’s operations and internal dynamics, industry context and strategic objectives are crucial for providing effective legal advice and support. In addition to providing kosher and strategic legal advice, providing continual guidance on compliance gatekeeping and risk management, changing laws and best practices are vital to clients.

Outside of your legal career, you enjoy reading, volunteer work, and other pursuits. How do you balance your professional commitments with your personal interests?

Outside of my legal career and managing the Trust, I have two young, innately curious and free-spirited children, who keep me on my toes! I try not to miss any events they participate in, whether in school or outside. I also love watching movies with my family, and time permitting will also spend hours reading all types of fiction.  

The recent trends in technology and globalization have reshaped the legal landscape. How do you stay updated with these changes, and what advice would you give to aspiring lawyers entering the field today? 

The importance of continuous learning cannot be emphasised enough. I endeavour to stay updated on changes in laws, regulations, and precedents by attending seminars, workshops, and conferences and webinars. I love reading, and read all publications, journals, and newsletters about recent developments in my practise areas.

Aspiring lawyers must focus on developing a strong grasp of legal principles, research skills, and analytical thinking. Young lawyers should spend at least a couple of years in litigation practise – the experience they will gain will prove to be invaluable and form the bedrock of their legal careers. Also, begin your career as a generalist and thereafter follow your passion into your niche. If you like what you do, you’ll never tire of it. Young lawyers could also seek out mentors, who are willing to offer guidance and advice as they navigate their careers.

A keen desire to continually learn more, do more and be more with a healthy amount of patience will help position aspiring lawyers for success in the legal profession. Reinventing oneself on a regular basis will ensure one remains relevant. Lastly, surround yourself with people smarter than yourself – I’ve had the good fortune of being part of exceptional teams throughout my career and I attribute my success to them and my association with them.

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