20 years of JSA: Conversation with Jyoti Sagar, Founder Partner

20 years of JSA: Conversation with Jyoti Sagar, Founder Partner

Bar & Bench

Jyoti Sagar has been practicing law since 1976 and founded JSA in New Delhi, in 1991. He is also a Senior Partner of K & S Partners. He talks about expansion plans and succession.

Bar & Bench: Talk us through your initial years of building JSA. What was it like in the 1991?

Jyoti Sagar:  JSA was founded on 1st November, 1991. That year was a turning point in the history of India because in July of 1991 the erstwhile closed economy started its liberalization.  Prior to that, the avenues for lawyers or the kind of practice that lawyers undertook, were very limited.  The founding of JSA coincided with that big change. Economic liberalization opened more avenues and new areas of practice for lawyers and law firms.
Starting out at that time one had to deal with logistics issues. For example, mobile phones did not exist and obtaining a landline was a big challenge as there was an extremely long waiting list. To beat that, I had to start my office from a single room in a South-Delhi Hotel (the Qutub Hotel), because that way I had access to a telephone through the hotel telephone board.  Proper office premises were not available at reasonable cost unlike today where you have commercial spaces – in Delhi and new emerging areas like Gurgaon. So after a month or so at the hotel, I set up a small office in a residential area.

As far as getting clients was concerned, there were two fortuitous circumstances. First, several of the clients who had used my services in my previous firm (Remfry & Sagar), were kind enough to refer their work to me. So after a few weeks of starting out, I had a regular stream of clients who had used me in the past. Second, the liberalization led to an increase in foreign direct investment and interest in India. We had many big and small foreign clients walk in through our doors, and we had a fair bit of work around FIPB approvals. All this helped JSA to start on a good note.

Bar & Bench: How did you take up law as a career?

Jyoti Sagar: I kind of made up my mind in the last few months of my final year in school. I had a choice of professions between law and architecture. If I had not been a lawyer, I would have probably been an architect.  I went on to do undergrad in Economics and then I pursued law.

In some sense I always knew I wanted to be in an advisory position and not a managerial position. Engineering and Accountancy did not really appeal to me so much. One of the inspirations was of course my uncle, Dr. Vidya Sagar, who is a lawyer. I was always interested in an intellectual pursuit of one kind or another. So those were the contributing factors in my choosing law. I have enjoyed being in the profession.

Bar & Bench: How do you perceive the whole story of JSA in the next 10 – 20 years?

Jyoti Sagar: We are trying to build JSA as an institution. We are attempting to create an organization which will outlive its founders and Partners. In the next ten to twenty years, the India story will be big and in that scenario law firms should have a good future. And we’d expect that JSA will continue to grow, continue to specialize in its chosen practice areas and become the finest firm in the country. We are putting in place institution building mechanisms, such as our ownership structure, our management structure and policies. That also extends to creating the backbone and infrastructure within the firm, along with processes and so on.

Simply, our story is that we are building a firm which is not driven by personalities, but is driven by institutional values, institutional processes and institutional excellence.

Bar & Bench: What is the secret behind the complete integration of your offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Bangalore?

Jyoti Sagar: A key element of our structure is that we are what we call “one nation one firm”. That means we do not have different firms with different sets of Partners at geographical locations operating under the same name. Some of the law firms are structured like that. But we do not have a Mumbai partnership which is different from a Delhi partnership or a Bangalore partnership. We are one firm with one balance sheet, one profit and loss account and the entire Partnership shares from the same kitty. We are fully and financially integrated. It is a seamless organization.

We don’t have a situation where various offices are competing with each other with worries and concern as to which office will undertake the work.  For example if we have something which comes into the Gurgaon office, which has a leg of the transaction in Bangalore or Mumbai, we do not send out our teams from Gurgaon to those cities and vice a versa. We will simply link-up with the other concerned office and access those resources. More importantly, a matter may involve various specializations which reside in a particular location or with a particular partner. Our approach to client servicing is a team approach and we have several assignments where either different locations are involved or partners with different specializations are involved to best serve the client. We are structured along Practice Areas – we have eight practice areas currently – with Practice Chairs who co-ordinate that practice area across offices.

The way we are structured helps in creating the culture that it is one firm. We foster relationships between offices and lawyers through events like our annual retreat or secondment programmes between offices. As I mentioned, on many occasions we have teams from other offices on a single matter working together, so all of that creates a better environment for integration.

Bar & Bench: Any expansion plans for JSA?

Jyoti Sagar: The firm has been growing over the years. It started as my solo practice and now we are well over 215 lawyers and consultants. Like any other organization, we look at opportunities to grow and expand. I can’t discuss any immediate plans in detail because some of these are on the drawing board. Expansion for the sake of expansion is not our goal.  If our clients have the work which will take us to a new location or we see a new location where we as a national firm should be present, then we will make a move. We do have a footprint across all those markets where we should be – and we are servicing clients in economically significant regions in the country.

B&B: Succession plan at JSA?

Jyoti Sagar: Let me put this in context. Our partnership is much more of an open platform. Admission to partnership does not involve goodwill purchase or capital investment by incoming Partners. The existing Partners cede equity in favour of the incoming Partners. We have chosen a system where new blood will continuously get introduced into the Partnership. As the firm grows and time goes on there will be a larger partnership. We do have a retirement age for all partners. Some may even leave earlier if they desire to pursue other interests like teaching. As Partners retire, the baton will pass on to the younger partners.  I would say that JSA is like a ship – we have our ports of disembarkation and embarkation but the ship continues its journey. We do not have any vested interests in the firm.  We are neither a family firm nor a firm controlled by one individual – it is owned by all but has no vested interests. We are a merit based collective and collegial partnership

We have an elected Executive Committee with members having specific portfolios or responsibilities. We have a Compensation Committee which determines the mechanism for partner compensation, while there are other positions like Practice Chairs and Sector Coordinators. Our Partners have diverse opportunities of participating in the management of the firm – in terms of pure management as well as professional practice management. We are equipping our younger Partners to take the mantle of leadership.

Thus the context of succession in our firm is somewhat different from the context of a family firm or an individual controlled firm. In our case it’s a much broader base. Our idea is that the leadership is collective and collegial with active participation of partners. Of course, this requires cultural grounding and maturity. Further, there is a structure of Chairperson of the Executive Committee and a Managing Partner to provide formal leadership in the firm. Our goal is of an institution that is self perpetuating with mechanisms that create leaders and leadership.

Bar & Bench: In addition to your role in JSA, you are also a Senior Partner in K & S Partners, a boutique firm specializing in Intellectual Property. How do you balance your dual roles?

Jyoti Sagar: My own areas of interest have been corporate commercial and certain aspects of intellectual property (IP) law for a long time, Before  1991, when I founded JSA, as a solo, I chose to  focus on corporate commercial work because I did not have the bandwidth to get in to the IP practice. In 1994, I co-founded K&S with a couple of other people. Our team included a few former colleagues from my old firm (Remfry & Sagar) who were IP specialists.

It was with some deliberation that we chose to create a separate IP boutique. One key reason is that the skill set and resources needed for an IP practice are quite different from a corporate commercial practice. For example, you would need far more paralegals; people with technical backgrounds; specific systems, data bases etc. Another reason is that the revenue model of a full service IP practice is very different. For example, a fair bit of work in an IP firm – what we call the prosecution side (which is filing of applications for registration etc for trademarks and patents) – is undertaken on a per piece basis. It is a volume driven work with a different revenue / cost model which typically results in a margin structure lower than that of a corporate commercial practice.

Combining an IP Practice with a corporate commercial practice thus puts the IP lawyers at a disadvantage and the dissimilarities of the two practices are difficult to reconcile. IP boutiques are common for this reason.

That’s how we do have two firms and yes for me to balance the two roles can be challenging. K & S Partners is a much smaller firm in terms of the number of lawyers and the number of Partners. It is about roughly one third the size of JSA.

Currently my role is of a Senior Partner in both the firms. I get involved in the external interfaces, internal management of the firms, mentoring, processes and dealing with partnership issues. I do have to devote my time on these issues, to both the firms. In both of the firms I have some lawyering to do, which I do enjoy. It’s like any other person, having more than one interest in life, you have to balance them out and that’s what I do.

Bar & Bench: You encourage your lawyers by taking them on an annual retreat and your firm has one of the lowest attrition rates. Your thoughts?

Jyoti Sagar: Traditionally, the Indian law profession has been litigation and individual lawyer oriented. The practice of law in a law firm environment is relatively nascent in India. A number of lawyers working together in diverse offices, is something which is relatively new. We still have to learn a lot on management of a professional firm. The real capital is not computers, furniture, or premises – the real capital  of a professional firm is  the human capital. The question is -how do we deal with our human capital?

Management styles can be very different and each one of them has its pros and cons. Management cultures with extensive controls, micro management, over processing, and in built tension points are there in the profession.  At JSA our attempt has been to provide an empowering, enriching and nurturing environment to our lawyers. And to actually create an environment where people are comfortable, they are happy and are looking forward to a Monday morning to come in to the office.

Our Managing Partner Berjis Desai, has a good expression for this, and he calls it the “Happiness Quotient”.  As professionals we have to work hard and we spend a lot of our waking hours in our work-place. You can have a work-place which is  tense, which is not very empowering and nurturing or you can have a work-place which is geared towards benefitting a certain set of people like certain individuals or family members or you can have a work place which is happy, where people believe they have a future and they have a career. For us it is the way we are structured and the way the Partners conduct themselves with their teams, the overall collegiality.  And the understanding that people have other commitments in life – be it to their family, to the society, or indeed to themselves. For example, there is no cultural expectation in JSA that to prove yourself as a great lawyer you should remain in office until 2 AM seven days a week; show up on every holiday, and take no vacation.

One does hear that in a professional’s life work-life balance is a myth. We are seeing that young lawyers do have other interests beyond just the practice of law and they do care about work-life balance.  As said before, we provide an enabling environment for our people to accommodate the diverse pulls and pressures on their time. We enable them to work offsite and remotely; we do suggest to our people that taking vacation is a good thing – to recharge and rejuvenate. We do not have requirement of thousands of billable hours. As a firm we realize that we have to serve our clients well and also give space to people – it is not that one is at the cost of the other. How you look at this is really a cultural thing.  Some may say that we have a “soft” approach, but we are comfortable with our model which says we are a nurturing, enriching and happy environment.

Bar & Bench: Why no two family members, can work in JSA?

Jyoti Sagar: It is one of the fundamental pillars or foundations of the firm that we are not a family firm. Nobody in this firm is related to anybody else in the firm through familial ties. We don’t have spouses, children, parents, or siblings in the firm. We have chosen this model quite deliberately because we started with the premise that this is going to be a firm which will be a collegial firm. It will be driven by merit of people.  Genius would matter and genes would not.  Relationships between professionals in a firm are complex enough and if you add a familial relationship, another layer of complexity is added.

For example, take a case of two Associates who get married. We have nothing against the institution of marriage, all we tell them is:  two of you decide who will stay and who will go, because the two of you can’t be in the firm as a married couple. We don’t tell them who will stay and who will go. Just play the scenario in the case of a couple who stays on in the firm and one of them makes it to a Partner and one of them remains an Associate. If you have performance or disciplinary issue with the Associate, then are you going to ask the spouse of a Partner to leave the firm? How will you deal with it?  So we try and keep life simple by saying family is family and profession is profession – keep the two apart. Any mix up would only lead to creation of vested interests.

Families are welcome in the firm on special occasions.  We have annual family retreats at each of our locations – usually offsite, where people take their families along.

Bar & Bench: Which areas of law, interest you the most?

Jyoti Sagar: I have always been more of a corporate lawyer. My involvement in litigation is only at a strategic and analysis level including briefing of Senior Counsel in specific cases. On the corporate law side, my own areas of interest include foreign investment, joint ventures, and M & A. And on the intellectual property side, areas of interest include trademark licensing and, franchising, exploitation of intellectual property, and complex issues of IP law which could even involve patents though not the technical side because I’m not someone with a technical background.

Bar & Bench: Your mentor?

Jyoti Sagar: There is no single mentor because in various spheres of your life and activity there could be various different people who are an influence. As far as legal profession is concerned, there are a few people who have been a great influence in my life.

My uncle, Dr. Vidya Sagar is one of them. I had the opportunity of working with him for over  19 years. Three years as an apprentice (I studied law in the evening classes and worked in the day in Dr. Sagar’s office) and sixteen years as a lawyer. Articulation and writing skills and art of handling clients is what I learnt from him.

Another partner in my uncle’s firm – Mr. Amar Raj Lall (now a Senior Partner at the IP firm Lall Lahiri & Salhotra) was a great influence. I had the privilege of working very closely with Mr. Lall for over a decade. He was a person who taught me to get in to detail and depth of a matter. He would say, “Assume nothing, see it for yourself”.

Another person at Remfrys that I worked with for many years was Mr. J.K. Kaul.  He was very good in terms of analysis and application of mind. He was very much of an old school person – who believed that the best way to learn was to find things for yourself. We didn’t have the instant nirvana of the internet those days and digging up the law was hard work. He was a great guide in how to go about research.

Bar & Bench: How do you unwind and what interests you, other than law?

Jyoti Sagar: I have some work that I do with a couple of NGOs, and that’s a bit of a diversion for me. I am a Trustee of Genesis Foundation which assists in providing life-changing and life-saving medical assistance to orphans and under privileged children; I have been engaged in the activities of Deepalaya – which is engaged, amongst others, in running schools for slum children.  We have a society here in Gurgaon, which is concerned with local civic affairs and I spend time in its activities.

I like listening to Hindi music from the late fifties, sixties and seventies, and I’m fond of Sufi music. I like watching a film, once in a while. I like reading short stories and news magazines.

Bar & Bench: How do you maintain your personal work-life balance?

Jyoti Sagar: I think it just depends on how you want to treat yourself and how you want to treat life. If you believe that there is life beyond your professional work – you will find time for it. It’s about prioritizing and how you want to carve out your day. It’s all about your world view.  There are some people who are complete workaholics and they love it and its okay for them. You just have to choose your own path. The bottom line is happiness.  Life is short, so the quest is to find happiness as you define it.

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