Associates, In-House Counsels & Advocates

The single most important trait to have for young legal professionals is self-belief, There is no alternative to self-belief. Starting from his aspirations as a scientist, detouring into management, and eventually finding his true calling in law – “An In-Depth Conversation with Rohan Kusnur, AVP-Legal at Kotak Mahindra Bank”

This interview has been published by Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

Rohan, thank you for joining us. To kick things off, could you please introduce yourself to   our readers, highlighting key aspects of your professional journey and areas of expertise?

Hi! I am Rohan Kusnur. I am currently working as Associate Vice President – Legal at Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd. My professional journey has been very colorful with diverse experiences across different fields. In school, I wanted to become a scientist. The things that intrigued me about science were understanding natural phenomena and applying that knowledge for the benefit of mankind. After completing my B.Sc. in Biotechnology, I started working with a coaching institute as a branch manager. I also enrolled for my M.Sc. in Biophysics. By the time I completed my masters while doing my coaching institute job, I realized that I have a much better aptitude for management and administration than scientific research. I had considered two options while deciding my future career trajectory namely, MBA and civil services. I decided to go ahead with preparation for civil services as I always had a keen interest in current affairs and wanted to do something in public service. While preparing for civil services, I fell in love with the Constitution of India. After an unsuccessful attempt at the UPSC civil services exam, my love for the Constitution led me to pursue LLB. During my UPSC preparation, I built a good network of seniors who were preparing for the exam or teaching in coaching institutes. One of my seniors recognized my talent and offered me a teaching job. I started teaching at ‘Sankalp IAS’ institute on weekends along with my LLB. 

During my final year of LLB, I started interning at Bhave & Co. where I eventually joined as an associate after receiving my degree. I could continue at Bhave & Co. only for a few months as my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to manage her entire treatment protocol. Managing my mother’s treatment was not possible with a full time law firm job. Hence, I quit that job to start my independent practice. I was clueless about how to proceed at that point in time. Being a first-generation lawyer with a very brief experience at a law firm, it was very difficult to start. I just started sitting in the Bombay High Court Law Library hoping to network with other advocates and find some work. Adv. Rachana Chavan was kind enough to guide me in this anxious phase of my career. Soon, I built a good network and started getting small matters. During this phase, I advised a client with a tricky real estate matter, filed two writ petitions, appeared in a criminal matter, worked on a highly technical arbitration matter among other things. Independent practice gave me the time flexibility that I needed to manage my mother’s cancer treatment. By God’s grace, my mother fought hard and survived cancer. Towards the end of my mother’s treatment, I got to know about an opening in the legal team at Capri Global Capital Limited. Taking up this job would mean giving up practice and I was really enjoying my practice. However, since I started my career in law late, I didn’t have a lot of time to struggle in practice. I was already 30 years old when I completed my LLB and my parents were worried about the marriage prospects for their struggling advocate son. So, I decided to interview for the job and luckily, I was hired as a legal manager at Capri Global Capital Limited. That’s how my corporate career started. After 2 years at Capri, I decided to move to Kotak Bank. My current areas of expertise revolve around banking and real estate laws. 

Your journey from being an Independent Practitioner to the Associate Vice President at Kotak has been diverse. How did your early experiences in independent practice shape your approach to the banking and financial services industry, and what motivated your transition to an in-house counsel role?

It has been a wonderful journey. Situations in my personal life have prompted certain decisions in my professional life as I have described in reply to the previous question. When I started my independent practice, I was a complete novice. Although I didn’t have expertise at that time, I had the desire to work hard and succeed. You need a lot of self confidence to succeed as an independent practitioner especially in the early days of the career. You are still learning every day but you need to convince prospective clients to trust you with their matter. So, it was a very steep learning curve. This ability to work hard with self-belief helped me to make the transition to an in-house legal role. The transition to an in-house role was initially necessitated by the need for greater financial security but gradually I started enjoying my new role.

The personality traits required for success in independent practice are different from those required for an inhouse role. However, the fundamental values don’t change. You need good people skills in both roles. Networking is the cornerstone of success in both roles. You need to anticipate situations and prepare. The difference lies in developing the skill of balancing legal risks with business growth. As an in-house counsel, you are helping your company to grow, while minimizing their legal risks. You can’t err either on the side of caution or be too liberal. Striking the right balance between the two aspects is the key to success in an in-house role.

Having held significant roles at Kotak Mahindra Bank, including Chief Manager and now Associate Vice President, could you share some challenges you’ve encountered in the banking and financial services legal landscape, and how you navigated through them?

When I started my career in an in-house role, I had very little knowledge about the financial sector. I was lucky to have Adv. Sujata Angadi as my first boss and mentor at Capri Global Capital Ltd. I knew the law but I didn’t know the nuances of the lending business. I observed and I learnt very fast. I was fortunate to have stalwart leaders like Adv. Muneesh Dhawan and Kaushik Chatterjee sir to inspire me. After I moved to Kotak Bank, I realized that the risk appetite of every company is different. My experience at Capri Global helped me greatly to navigate through Kotak. As I have stated earlier, the real skill to develop is understanding the risk appetite of your company and striking the right balance between business growth and legal risk.

I began my stint at Kotak as a legal manager where I was assessing the title of the properties being offered for mortgage against different types of retail loans like housing finance, loan against property and working capital. Kotak is great at nurturing and developing talent. I was soon promoted through the ranks and given charge of a team for supporting the primary market sales team in housing finance. The primary market sales team builds relationships with different builders and developers for sourcing housing finance business directly from the developers. This reduces the cost of customer acquisition and improves the margins of the company. I was also designated as a legal deviation approval authority for taking informed calls on some legal deviations in the interest of business growth. I was also granted rights to give final legal approval for disbursement of loans in housing finance and loan against property up to a certain loan amount. In each of these roles, I come across various challenges which I navigate with the help of a great team. 

Let me illustrate the balance of legal risk and business growth with an example. While assessing the title of builders for approving real estate projects, we sometimes come across pending litigations on project land. We need to approve projects in order to help the primary market sales team to source home loan applications from those projects. A practicing advocate will simply highlight the pending litigation in their title report and we know about the doctrine of lis pendens under the Transfer of Property Act. However, as an in-house lawyer, it is our job to assess the real risk of the pending litigation and advise the business leadership accordingly. We cannot theoretically apply the doctrine of lis pendens and reject everything. The skill lies in differentiating between real risk and theoretical risk. Once we highlight the real risk, the business team is in a better position to make an informed decision.

In Kotak Bank, there is excellent support from the leadership and a wonderful work culture. This helps me in performing more effectively.

You have a background in biophysics and biotechnology. How has your scientific education shaped your approach to legal problem-solving, and do you find any parallels between the two fields?

My scientific education has helped me greatly in legal problem-solving. I would like to share one of the famous quotes of Albert Einstein. The great scientist had once said, “Education is training of the mind to think”. Every discipline of learning imparts a unique style of thinking and problem-solving to the learner. My scientific education helped me to develop very strong logic and reasoning skills. This greatly helped me in shaping my legal career. I had to simply apply the same style of thinking to law which I learnt while studying science. Further, scientific education also teaches you the importance of research. Good research skills are very important in both science and law. 

Your career involves a mix of corporate legal roles and teaching civil service aspirants. What motivated you to engage in coaching, and how does teaching law influence your own understanding and application of legal principles?

Of all the different things which I have done in my career, I have enjoyed teaching the most. I have loved teaching since the time I was a student. I have always helped my friends in understanding certain concepts which I understood better. I believe that you develop a better understanding of the subject every time you teach. This happens because you think about how to help the students to understand some concept and in the process, delve deeper into the subject yourself. Also, when the students ask you questions, you are prompted to think in a different way about the same subject and thereby your understanding of the various aspects of the subject is enhanced.

When I was teaching Indian Polity to civil service aspirants, I had a peculiar challenge. I was teaching the Constitution of India and how it is applied in the functioning of Indian democracy. My students came from diverse educational backgrounds like humanities, commerce, management, engineering, medicine, law etc. I had to ensure that the law students don’t get bored and other students are able to understand the concepts. This greatly improved my communication skills and understanding of legal principles.

Legal practice often involves intense scrutiny and attention to detail, especially in areas like title flow for mortgage creation. How do you manage stress and maintain accuracy in your work, and do you have any unique methods for unwinding after a challenging day?

I am a family man. There is no greater joy than spending time with family. I have a wonderful 5- year-old daughter. She takes away all my stress every day when I return from the office. I have a very supportive life partner with whom I share all the highs and lows of my day. This helps me to unwind and relax after a challenging day. I love listening to music and watching web series in my free time. Proper relaxation is very important to recharge your batteries and perform your job accurately. 

On a lighter note, outside of your professional life, do you have any hobbies or interests that you are particularly passionate about? How do you strike a balance between your career and personal life?

I love food and frequently visit different restaurants and street food joints to explore newer tastes with my family and friends. I love hanging out with friends. I have a keen interest in personal finance. Apart from law, understanding the art of investment in equities is one of my passions. During my civil services exam training, I developed an interest in macroeconomics. I have built upon that knowledge over the years. I like to explore correlation between macroeconomic events and investment opportunities in the stock markets. I read a lot of finance related content and follow many experts in my free time to enhance my knowledge and skills. Investment is an art of predicting the future based on current data. I get great intellectual satisfaction from this activity. It is up to us to strike a balance between career and personal life. One should never forget that a successful career is just a part of a happy life. Happiness should be the ultimate objective

Considering your journey, what advice would you offer to young legal professionals entering the banking and financial services industry, and what skills do you believe are crucial for success in this field?

The single most important trait to have for young legal professionals is self-belief. There is no alternative to self-belief. Out there in the professional world, people will believe in your skills only after you have successfully demonstrated your skills. When you start a new journey, you don’t have any track record. You have to back yourself completely to succeed. Once you develop this self-belief, the next step is to have a vision and commitment towards that vision. To succeed in the banking and financial services industry, you need to understand the needs of the industry. There are a wide variety of legal functions that one can perform in an in-house role. Title related due diligence is just one of the functions. Likewise, if you wish to develop yourself as a practicing advocate catering to BFSI, you can perform a wide variety of functions. 

The most important advice which I can give to young legal professionals is to not be rigid about specific areas of work or practice. Don’t refuse good opportunities just because it is not exactly what you wanted. Just start and learn along the way. Eventually you will find your niche area. Most young lawyers have preferences about areas of practice but nobody knows whether you will find meaningful work in those specific areas at the beginning of your career. Don’t say no to work. Take up the challenge and learn along the way. This brings us back to the most important trait to succeed which is self-belief. If you believe in yourself, nothing is impossible.

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