Prof. Dr. Umakanth Varottil is an Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law at the National University Singapore (NUS). He is an alumnus of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, graduating in the year 1995. Soon after graduation, he joined Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A. Shroff & Co. (AMSS), where he soon saw promotion to the post of a Partner. While at AMSS, he was ranked as a leading corporate/mergers & acquisitions lawyer in India by the Chambers global guide. He then went on to complete his Masters from the New York University School of Law (NYU) in 2007, and then his Ph.D. from NUS in 2010. He has since taught on a visiting basis at the Fordham Law School, New York, University of Trento, Italy, and at various law schools in India. He is the recipient of several academic medals and honours. At present, he is an Assistant Professor of Law at National University of Singapore (NUS).
In this interview, he talks about :
- His experience and journey from an Associate to a Partner at AMSS;
- What made him leave AMSS for a life in legal academia;
- His experience at NUS and NYU;
- His PhD on the role of the independent directors in corporate governance;
- Life as a Professor at NUS.
How did you decide to study law? Were any of your close relatives lawyers?
Since my late father was a lawyer, I was exposed to the legal profession from an early age. However, it was only after high school that I decided to follow his footsteps and take up law as a career choice for myself.
How did the opportunity to study at NLSIU, Bangalore feel like? Do you recall your first day at the Halls of Residence? Would you like to share any observation/memory from those days?
Securing admission into NLSIU Bangalore at that time was an entirely different ballgame from what it is today. At the time that I joined the law school, it was only two years old, with a great amount of uncertainty as to what lay in store for its students and graduates. Nevertheless, we were fortunate to have an eminent legal personality in the form of Dr. Madhava Menon at the helm of affairs, who led an able and dedicated team of law professors, which left no doubt in my mind that our professional future was not only secure, but also promising.
Some of my early memories relates to my initiation into the study of law, which revolved around analysing various social issues from a legal perspective, and debating them in hope of arriving at a solution to real world problems. As any student would experience in the first year of law school, there are no definitive answers to questions or problems, and each issue is capable of being viewed from multiple points of view. Added to this was the Socratic method of teaching adopted in the law school, which tends to confound problems in the minds of students than to clarify or resolve them. It is much later that I realised that this phenomenon was by design, and not an accident. As I was a resident of Bangalore, I did not stay in the Halls of Residence. Since NLSIU was still in its initial stage of establishment and hostels were yet being constructed, residence on campus was not compulsory. As it turned out, most of us “day scholars” spent long hours on campus, which helped us partake in the community aspects of law school.
How did you always keep ahead of your batch as a student at NLSIU? What would be your message to those people who never score much but do well at internships and moots?
In describing academic life in an Indian law school such as NLSIU, I have previously used a metaphor, which is that it is like playing Test cricket. Student life involves sustaining oneself over a five-year period with equal energy and drive, and the ability to handle countless exams, assignments, presentations and other commitments that law school demands, not to mention co-curricular activities such as moot courts, debates, and the like. Hence, it involves a great deal of patience and perseverance. I must add that I have been enlightened about these characteristics more as a matter of hindsight, and it is not as if I designed and implemented any specific plan or strategy while in law school.
For the lack of any alternative methodology for assessing the competence and capabilities of law students, grades do continue to matter a lot. But it is also important to develop an all-round personality, which can be attained through co-curricular activities. While performance in law school (academic or co-curricular) matters to some extent, it often tends to have a limited bearing on one’s professional progress and success, which might depend on other factors that a graduate may imbibe after law school.
Have you been in touch with your batchmates? Is it true that all graduates from NLSIU do extremely well in their careers? Do you find differences between graduates of NLSIU, other NLUs and other premier law institutes?
Apart from imparting legal skills, NLSIU helped me forge very strong relationships with a wonderful group of batchmates (as well as seniors and juniors), which I continue to cherish to date. It is true that the NLSIU alumni network is a tight-knit one. In fact, my batch is celebrating its 20th year reunion at the end of this year, where we will be spending a weekend together along with our families.
While there could be some differences between the graduates of NLSIU and other premier law institutions in India, I do not believe that they are significant. Ultimately, the top students from all of these institutions form part of the same crop, and have been successful in similar ways. It might be the case that more number of students from some law schools may have demonstrated a higher performance compared to the others. Over the years, I have developed professional relationships with graduates from several law schools around India. In my view, while the institutional quality and background are important, it is the capabilities and determination of individuals that matter more.
You joined AMSS early on as an Associate. How was your journey from an Associate to Partner? Was it mostly about legal knowledge, or did it include business development as well?
My early years as an associate at AMSS involved gaining experience in corporate transactions. I was fortunate not only to be working with a leading law firm in India and its managing partner, Mr. Cyril Shroff, but I was also the beneficiary of an unending flow of transactions following India’s economic liberalisation that witnessed several novel legal issues being considered in-depth. Of course, being made a Partner carries along with it, different demands, which include client management as well as human resource management (that takes a great deal of people skills).
You must have been very young as a partner. As a law student, it’s very difficult to imagine joining the ranks of a partner in just 5-6 years of work. What all does it take to become a partner?
At the outset, technical skills do matter, i.e. the knowledge of the law within one’s practice domain, which includes both substantive and procedural matters. In addition, skills such as conflict resolution, problem solving and acting as a “trusted” advisor to clients, are a hallmark of a competent partner. Then come other skills such as business development, human resources, and even financial management.
Is it possible for a person who is not exceedingly well versed with Business Development and is not good at drawing clients to get promoted to the ranks of a partner? Would it take more time?
It is ironical that while law schools teach the knowledge and skills pertaining to matters of law, the other skills, such as business development, are required to be developed by lawyers on the job. Some lawyers are excellent in technical legal skills, but they either do not have the capabilities, or are uninterested in the managerialaspects. In those scenarios, of course, there could be some constraints when it comes to promotion. Ultimately, this could depend on the policies of individual law firms. But, I do believe that there is always space for lawyers with good technical skills, and law firms and legal practices may ignore them at their own peril.
When did you actually find yourself getting drawn towards academics?
This is a question I get asked all the time. When I was at AMSS, Bangalore, during weekends,I used to co-teach a seminar course on Mergers & Acquisitions at NLSIU along with Professor M.P.P. Pillai. The discussions in class,surrounding the theoretical and policy-level issues on areas that I was closely connected with in practice, attracted me towards taking up a full-time career in academia. Although I embarked on an academic career with a view to teaching, I discovered along the way that substantial emphasis is also placed on research and publications. I enjoy this combination of teaching and research in the areas of corporate law, corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, and related subjects.
How hard was the decision of leaving a well-established career as a partner of the largest law firm in the country, to take a plunge into academics?
I was quite determined about embarking on a career in academia. However, given that I was leaving the profession after spending over a decade in it, many of my colleagues and friends felt that I was more likely to flirt with academia for a couple of years, and then promptly re-enter practice. But, that did not occur: I remain committed to the legal academy, and have not felt the urge to return to practice. At the same time, I continue to remain in touch with the profession through various means that helps me stay up to date with developments in practice.
How did you select New York University School of Law among others? Was it any specific combination of modules that attracted you there?
I chose the New York University School of Law (NYU) due to its focus on some of the key areas I was interested in, namely corporate, securities, and financial services law. Moreover, located in the heart of New York City, it also has access to professionals from leading law firms, accounting firms, and other financial intermediaries, who would often visit the institution to teach, and also to participate in seminars and conference.
What was your topic of research for LL.M? Why did you choose that subject for research?
Although I did an LL.M by coursework, I was required to write research papers on a couple of courses, which I found to be a valuable experience. In a seminar course titled “Topics in Corporate and Securities Law”, I wrote a paper on the role of independent directors in corporate governance. This has been a significant topic of interest world-over, not least in India. This paper also acted as a stepping stone for my PhD thesis on the topic subsequently at the National University of Singapore (NUS). At NYU, in another seminar course titled “Financing Development”, I wrote a paper on the use of the pari passu clause by lenders in sovereign debt documents, to block the debtor countries from making payments as part of a sovereign debt restructuring. This issue, as well, continues to hold sway till date, with litigation pertaining to Argentina under this clause making headlines, especially as they have been considered extensively by the US courts.
How do you recall the faculty and facilities? Which other universities would you recommend for someone who cannot make it to NYU?
I learnt considerably from my courses at NYU. Having practised Corporate Law in India for several years, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to compare the Indian law and practice, with those of other jurisdictions studied at NYU, including Delaware. Some of the professors and their teaching methodologies have had a significant impact on me, in that they have helped shape my own teaching philosophy and style.Apart from NYU, there are several other leading law schools in the US, UK, Singapore and Hong Kong, that have strong corporate and financial services law offerings.
How did you choose NUS for your doctoral research? Tell us about your Ph.D thesis. Why did you choose that subject in particular?
When I was at NYU, I came to learn a lot about NUS, as there was a collaboration between the two Universities for a joint LL.M programme. This was also consistent with my desire to stay in the Asian region, and closer to India. Hence, after consulting my classmate Arun Thiruvengadam, who was then teaching at NUS, I decided to apply for the doctoral programme there. As mentioned earlier, my PhD thesis dealt with the role of the independent directors in corporate governance, wherein I examined board independence in the context of emerging economies such as India and China, as it had previously been studied in the context of developed markets such as the US and the UK, where the agency problems relating to corporate governance were largely different. I chose that area in particular, as the concept of independent directors has confounded academics for some time now, with incomplete understanding of the utility of that institution in enhancing corporate governance. The concept continues to hold importance in India even now, with extensive codification in the Companies Act, 2013.
Having taught at many universities in India, how would you compare it with the facilities and environment that NUS provides you? Do you find stark differences in administration between Singapore and India?
NUS provides an excellent environment for both teaching and research. It has a diverse faculty and student body. While the LL.B students are mostly from Singapore, the LL.M students are from several countries around the world (including from far-flung areas such as Latin America), which makes teaching here truly global. There are indeed perceptible differences in the administration between Singapore and India. For example, the law school at NUS is situated within a larger University, which is over 100 years old and therefore endowed with significant experience and resources. On the other hand, the leading law schools in India are standalone establishments that are relatively younger, with greater flexibility in determining their own destinies.
Is it possible that you may come back to India to teach? Do you look forward to that in near future? What all could probably could be the impediments, if at all you wished to come back?
Of course, it is hard to make predictions for the future, but for the present, I offer short courses and guest lectures at various Indian law schools each year, which I thoroughly enjoy. Even though I am currently based in Singapore, I continue to remain closely connected with Indian legal education.
What subjects are you currently teaching? What are your current research interests? Have you involved your students in your research?
At NUS, I teach three courses. One is Company Law, a compulsory course for LL.B students, that involves teaching Singapore law, which is similar to Indian company law at a broad level (with both Singapore and Indian having originally inherited English company law), but with significant differences when one drills down into the details. The other two courses I teach are upper-level electives, namely Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) and Indian Business Law. Elective courses are attended by third and fourth year LL.B students as well as LL.M students.
My research interests are also on similar lines as my teaching. While my work is comparative in nature, I focus considerably on the laws of India and Singapore. I do involve research students in my work. While most of the research assistants tend to be NUS students (both LL.B and LL.M), I also often avail the services of students across various Indian law schools, particularly when the research material for a project is mostly available in India.
Having won quite a few awards and honours for academic excellence and teaching, what would be your message to young professors?
An academic career in law is an exciting one. It provides considerable freedom for young professors to delve into areas of their interest, both in terms of teaching and research. Several professors in India have established themselves as authorities in their respective fields, thereby garnering wide acclaim. They are also sought after by practitioners, policy-makers, and the Government. They have accomplished this through extensive research and publication of their work in leading academic journals, as well as through op-eds in the popular press that ensure a wider reach. My advice to young professors would be to identify their interest areas, and then build up domain expertise in those.
Students often complain about high-handedness of faculty and administration in India, how do you propose we either find a solution to it, or change our own perspective?
As I have already mentioned, Indian legal education continues to be moving along a steep learning-curve. The experimentation that began with the establishment of NLSIU, continues in one form or another. Given this trajectory, the path is not likely to be smooth. It would be presumptuous on my part to offer any solution, as the circumstances are rather complex. However, the key would be for the administration, faculty and students to work collectively to address various problems that are currently being faced. To go back to an incident that occurred when I was a law student, a proposal by the administration to raise tuition fees at NLSIU was met with stiff resistance from students, resulting in a deadlock. However, following successive rounds of negotiations between students and the administration, an acceptable solution was found, and the institution marched forward. Constant engagement between various constituencies within the legal education sector would be the key.
Shifting to moot courts, how does one draft a winning memo? According to you, what is the difference between a great and an average memo?
A good memo is one that is well-researched and expressed clearly. The grasp of the writer over the subject matter tends to be quite evident from its content and form. A great memo is also one that is very convincing. Ultimately, even in practice, a judge would decide a case based on (among other things) the written submissions of counsel, which must be clear, cogent and persuasive (supported by authorities).
Do judges actually expect mooters to know everything about the law, or is there something else at play, as well?
Successful mooting involves a combination of factors. Apart from knowledge of the law relating to the subject matter of the moot, it is necessary to master the facts (which often form the bone of contention). Thereafter, it is necessary to logically structure the arguments, which must be presented clearly. More importantly, mooters must be prepared to wriggle themselves out of a situation when they are caught off-guard by the judges. They must be able to think on their feet. Patience is another virtue that would come in handy in such situations.
Lastly, what would be your message to people who want to take up a career in teaching?
According to me, the idiom “Those who can’t do, teach” cannot be farther from the truth. It is no longer true that teaching is the last resort for a graduate in India. The academic world has attracted bright lawyers, and several excellent law students at their very early days, who have indicated their interest in teaching,and followed their single-minded pursuit towards attainment of their goals. Hence, I would encourage law students to consider an academic career. From my own experience, I have found academia to be extremely enriching and fulfilling.