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Anand Prasad founded Trilegal in 2000, a firm that has grown to become one of the biggest in the country. In this interview with Bar & Bench, Prasad talks about initial years of setting up Trilegal, his vision for the firm, management decisions, pro-bono and expansion plans at Trilegal.
Bar & Bench: Initial years of setting up Trilegal. Talk us through the reasons for setting up Trilegal; the ups and downs, failures and frustrations?
Anand Prasad: At the time when we started most law firms were either family controlled or individual controlled. The law firms looked at your family background (who you were and where you came from) while considering your case to become a partner, I mean real partner with equity. A key reason for us to set up Trilegal was because there were no real partnership opportunities in the firms existing at that time. We thought that it was time to break out of the traditional mould and see if we can build a new age law firm. None of our families had any legal background and Trilegal is, therefore, a first generation law firm.
Looking back, I think if the Indian law firm market was developed i.e. if there were multiple firms where you could join and become real partners etc. then I am not sure, we would have set up our own firm. Since our markets simply did not have the opportunities, we decided to create an opportunity for ourselves and also create opportunities for others.There was also the hope that if we succeeded, then other similarly placed lawyers could be motivated to follow similar path and the Indian legal market would evolve into a more professional setup. When Trilegal started, we worked on some significant projects and deals including a large World Bank funded project for Power Grid. We also did lot of work for Petronet LNG. On the banking side, we started working for Standard Chartered Bank and Citibank. Those were our initial successes.
Along with our success, also came failures. For example, our efforts to develop relationships with some of the older Indian corporates did not succeed. Initially, the successes were fewer than the failures.That is how initial years were but it then worked well for us, because it allowed us enough time to focus on the work and train ourselves, get our systems right and move to better offices.
Bar & Bench: In less than a decade you managed to build a firm of international repute. What are the significant reasons for success of Trilegal?
Anand Prasad: I would say it’s a combination of being very client focused, creating a platform that gives opportunities to everybody in the firm, innovative legal/commercial thinking, working round the clock to deliver a good work product etc. A combination of all these plus the fact that we are extremely transparent and friendly in the way we function both internally and externally. Normally, it will be difficult for you to find a Trilegal lawyer and say that he is a difficult person to deal with. We come across as friendly people, easy to deal with and easy to interact with. Also, the fact that Indian economy is growing at the rate it is has contributed majorly to our success.
Bar & Bench: In late 2008, three key younger partners left Trilegal to start Phoenix Legal. How did it affect the firm?
Anand Prasad: There was an impact on the firm at some level because these three partners had worked with the firm from the beginning. Two of them joined in the first six months of the firm being in existence and one was a part of the team right from the beginning. They were actually so much a part of the firms thinking. At a personal level it was unhappy that they felt the need to leave. But it allowed the rest of us to learn from that kind of setback. When they left, certain clients that used to work with the now Phoenix partners moved with them. This, however, did not impact the firm at all. At this point in time, I can safely say that we evolved and have now emerged as a much stronger partnership and a much stronger firm.
Bar & Bench: How has the Best friend relationship developed with Allen & Overy over the years? Also, how has it been beneficial for Trilegal?
Anand Prasad: It’s a very strong relationship, but not a hard relationship. I mean we are not bound to each other in a very hard fashion but the sensitivity with which we have constructed our relationship actually makes it strong in itself.
Trilegal benefitted enormously in terms of getting an international perspective on managing a law firm and understanding how a growing firm approaches different aspects of law firm management. This I say in the context that setting up a law firm and getting it going requires a host of organizational skills and abilities, in addition to knowledge of the law or business development skills. For instance, setting up IT, HR and financial systems is critical from a law firm management perspective.These processes are some of the softer elements of what go into making a law firm. We got a lot of help from Allen & Overy in putting together all these different kinds of systems. Of course, we worked together on some fairly significant transactions and that helped as well.
But then, when we got into the best friends relationship, we also lost a whole host of relationships with other international law firms.
Bar & Bench: Management decision making process at Trilegal and lockstep method of partnership.
Anand Prasad: We have no managing partner and no senior partner. The management method adopted by the firm is to manage through committees. Until now, members of the management committees are selected by consensus. If in the future there is a disagreement regarding constitution of a committee, there will be a vote. There are different committees appointed for different tasks. Over all there is one coordination committee that supervises the functioning of different committees and oversees everything. We try to make sure every partner participates in the decision making process.
A lock step system of profit share allows each equity partner to obtain an enhancement in equity, year on year, and ultimately become equal in equity holding to the founding partners. At the moment, it would take an entry level equity partner 13 years to get to the top of our lockstep. Such a system obviously will need commercial sense. Importantly, however, there is no equity stake reserved for the founders or members of their families.
There are pre-agreed performance thresholds decided by a partnership vote and a partner needs to fulfill those performance parameters to automatically go up the equity ladder. Nobody or no group of people can tell you that you will not move up the equity chain as long as a partner fulfils the performance threshold. So that gives the freedom and independence to the non founding partners. If you have a disagreement with a founding partner, you can actually express it without the fear that such dissent is a career limiting move. In Trilegal, you do not need to be subservient to anybody. You can get what is due to you as long as you deliver what is required of you in terms of the parameters.
Bar & Bench: What is the vision of your firm? Where do you see yourself personally, 5 years hence and where do you see the firm 5 years from now?
Anand Prasad: The vision of the firm tends to be extremely client service oriented. Essentially money making is a high priority, but I think there is a larger focus on providing solid and good service to clients. So the intent is to do client deliverable in a strong fashion and to get paid for it in a fair manner.
I would put providing high quality legal services as priority number one. Second, I would say is to be an extremely profitable and well recognized firm known for its high level of integrity. We would also like to bring into the firm talented and driven individuals and pay them as well as we can.
The firm five years from now should have grown much stronger. If the legal market opens then everything might change, but assuming there is status quo on legal market opening, we see our firm having grown much stronger, much larger and a lot more profitable.
For me in five years, I might look to reduce my participation in the commercial venture that is Trilegal and do things that are socially productive and not necessarily money making.
Bar & Bench: Expansion plans for Trilegal
Anand Prasad: We have started an office in Hyderabad a few years back and a lot of effort is going in there to get it going. But no other real expansion plans at the moment. If some clients really want us to be in some place and they are very strong clients then we might follow them. Otherwise from an Indian practice perspective we are quite evenly spread and our network with Allen & Overy allows us to help clients in overseas jurisdictions. We would like to expand in terms of number of people in the firm and new practice areas and become stronger in certain other areas of practice. Those are definite plans.
Bar & Bench: Do you think entry of foreign law firms in India is inevitable? If so, when?
Anand Prasad: Trilegal is a strong believer in liberalization of the market. We believe that the market should be opened and expertise must come into India which should lead to significant improvements in the quality of legal services. There will be a diffusion of knowledge and expertise once the market opens up just like what happened to the Indian economy. Liberalization actually enhances the choice for the customers.There will be some firms that will die down because they are not able to match up the challenge but there will be other firms that will reform and become larger. So a client will have host of law firms that it can pick from which will improve competition and improve the level of service.
In terms of when it will happen, I don’t think it is going to happen in the term of this Government because the Government appears to be very weak at the moment and opening up of the legal market is possibly the last thing on their mind. It may be possible in the term of the next Government. I think the opening of the market is minimum of five years away.
Bar & Bench: As a firm do you have anything set for pro-bono?
Anand Prasad: We do lot of work which is pro bono. We have got one partner who is specifically designated as in charge of the pro bono practice. Other than that there are various people in the firm who do pro bono including me. When we record a time sheet, we have got something which says pro bono. The general thought is to give back to society to the extent you can without significantly affecting our commercial practice.
Bar & Bench: Talking about newer initatives by the BCI, your thoughts on the All India Bar Examination (AIBE)
Anand Prasad: I think any measure that the BCI takes to enhance the quality of lawyers is a good thing. I think there may have been variations in the standards set by different universities. Given that the AIBE is something that is across the board and everybody is required to step up to a similar standard. It’s a quality enhancer and so to my mind, it’s a good thing.
Bar & Bench: Your views on value of web-based legal news portals for lawyers and non-lawyers.
Anand Prasad: I think in our firm of 160 lawyers there might be a tiny minority that does not check out the legal news portals. My impression is that in student community, they are hugely popular. I think the legal news portals are very good thing because they bring a degree of transparency to an otherwise opaque profession. I think news portals allow the dissemination of information and news. It makes us more human and lends a face to an otherwise opaque name. I think the business of running news portals is going to grow significantly as the market becomes more sophisticated and it is one of the tools for the market to become more sophisticated.
Bar & Bench: On a personal front, talk us about why you chose law. Any mentors?
Anand Prasad: For me I would say it was a combination of an interest in Perry Mason and a matter of accident. I didn’t set out to become a lawyer but it was a matter of accident that I landed up practicing law.
In traditional sense, I didn’t have any mentors. I worked with a senior counsel (Dr. Ghatade) when I started off and then I worked with Gagrat & Co and Dua Associates for a while. At each of these there was a significant learning curve.
Bar & Bench: You are into yoga. Since when have you been involved? Other than this, how do you unwind?
Anand Prasad: Last few months I have not been as regular a practitioner. I have been doing yoga for few years now. There used to be a time when I used to do it 5-6 days a week, then it came down to couple of days a week.
There are combinations of things I might do to unwind. I could go and watch movies, I could take a long run, I could play with kids, hang out with pals, play some music. So it’s a combination of different things. There is no particular plan on how to unwind and it comes to you whenever you need to do it.
Bar &Bench: What are your thoughts on work life balance of corporate lawyers?
Anand Prasad: Corporate lawyers will usually find that work life balance is almost always tilted towards more work and less balance. If they constantly feel that they are grossly overworked, it means that they are not enjoying what they do and consequently to my mind they are going to stop being good lawyers shortly. The work life balance comes better when you also throw into the mix, “ambition”. So it’s a combination of ambition, work and life that makes for a balance.