Conversation with Hemant Sahai Managing Partner HSA Advocates

Conversation with Hemant Sahai Managing Partner HSA Advocates

Bar & Bench

Hemant Sahai founded Hemant Sahai Associates in 2003 and has over 20 years of experience. In this interview with Bar & Bench, he talks about initial years of setting up HSA, decision to leave JSA, his vision for the firm, pro-bono and expansion plans at HSA.

Bar & Bench: Initial years of setting up Hemant Sahai Associates. Successes and Failures.

Hemant Sahai: We have grown from a small firm of eight lawyers when we started, to being one of the larger firms in the Country with 10 partners and close to 60 lawyers. We have turned 8 this August.

We firmly believe that our journey has just begun and the best is yet to come.

During this journey we have had our share of successes and disappointments. However, as an organisation, we have learnt to celebrate our successes and to deal with our disappointments with stoicism.

We measure our successes by both external and internal benchmarks that we have set for ourselves. One of the manifestations of our success is the recognition that we have received from amongst peers and clients for the breadth and quality of our practice. We are consistently ranked amongst the top tier firms in our chosen areas of practice. This, to my mind, is the most demonstrable indication of our success and that too in a relatively short time.

Our stated mission requires us to not only create value for our clients, but also to enrich our work environment. Therefore, we also measure our success by the fact that we are today one of the firms of choice for professionals and we continue to attract the best talent.

Our leadership consists of a collegium of partners each with impeccable professional reputations and professional skills second to none. The partnership has the right balance of the wisdom that comes with age and experience, and the drive and energy that comes from the youth.

Our biggest disappointment was the inability, a few years ago, to convert a merger that we had attempted, with Paras Kuhad, into success. I think the initiative was ahead of its times, at least in the Indian legal market context.

Bar & Bench: Talk us through your decision to leave J. Sagar Associates and start your own firm.

Hemant Sahai: Moving on from my previous firm, of which I was a founder member and the Senior Partner at the time of my departure, was not an easy decision – not only was it an emotional decision, it was also a challenging proposition since it was the only place that I had worked in for over 12 years.

I grew with the firm and therefore, I have a lot to be grateful for. However, eventually, my decision to move on and establish a new firm was driven by my desire to chase a vision that had increasingly become alienated from my previous firm’s demonstrated vision. I was deputed to Bombay to set up the firm’s office from scratch and after successfully establishing the Bombay office, I moved back to Delhi. Three years later in the year 2003, whereupon I realised that I would have to set up my practice all over again. This in fact would have been the third instance in my career of setting up/re-establishing a significant practice – the first time in the initial years of setting up of the firm (JSA) itself and second time in the setting up of the Bombay office.

After much deliberation and some serious introspection, I decided to move on and set up my own firm and pursue growth somewhat “differently” from what was happening in my previous firm.

I have asked myself this question several times – “could I not have chased my vision in my previous firm?” the answer has always been – “perhaps yes” but doing it the way I eventually did has not only been more satisfying, it has also given me much greater control over my destiny.

I started working out of a suite at the Oberois in New Delhi on August 16, 2003. We established offices in Mumbai, Bangalore and a project office in Goa in November 2003. The rest, as they say, is history.

Bar & Bench: Tell us about your short-lived merger with Paras Kuhad. Reasons for both merger and the split.

Hemant Sahai: I think both Paras Kuhad and ourselves had attempted something that was bold and aggressive and was perhaps ahead of its times in the context of the Indian legal market.  There have been no mergers in India of two national firms of similar size and geographical spread. So far we have seen only smaller practices merging with larger firms or two firms that are geographically apart, merging in name yet maintaining their separate geographical practices and balance sheets.

The thinking behind our merger was to bring together two distinct skills that our respective firms enjoyed, and create a new firm into which each of us would merge our identities. There was an obvious synergy between Paras Kuhad’s very strong corporate litigation practice and our strong corporate, finance and projects practice, with significant scope for cross selling. Both Paras and ourselves entered into the arrangement with a lot of optimism and commitment to make it a success. However, as it turned out, unfortunately, there were other persons critical in the equation that were not committed to the merger.

Paras is a wonderful professional and human being and I continue to hold him in very high esteem. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond our controls, we were unable to take the initiative forward.

Bar & Bench: Recently, you rebranded the firm with a new identity as HSA Advocates. What was the reason for change in identity?

Hemant Sahai: The re-branding was one step further in what has always been my personal vision and philosophy for the firm i.e. “The Firm will Survive Individuals”. This philosophy has formally been incorporated into our firm’s vision.

When the firm was established by me on August 8, 2003, it was obvious that the firm would carry my name so as to capitalise on my personal professional goodwill. However, I had committed even then that I would convert the firm into a partnership within 3 years, which I did and work towards creation of a brand and identity that was not linked only to an individual. It has always been this underlying commitment on my part that has been a magnet for senior talent and which is why we have such a robust partnership structure comprising of eminent partners with demonstrated track records in their respective areas of practice.

Bar & Bench: What is the vision of your firm? Where do you see the firm 5 years from now?

Hemant Sahai: The vision of the firm is to be recognised as the leading firm; to be the workplace of choice; and the firm will survive individuals.

There is a lot of dynamism incorporated in the firm’s vision and we have the commitment of the entire firm leadership to make this happen. We are already recognised as the top tier firm in our chosen areas of practice and we are committed to developing credible and quality practices in other areas too.

It is our plan that over the next 3 years, we will double the size of the firm both in terms of number of lawyers as well as revenues. We will re-calibrate our expansion plans at that stage for the next plan period of 3-5 years.

In terms of areas of practice, we will continue with our current focus areas and strengthen each area of practice by the addition of new partners.

Towards achieving these targets, we have had 4 new partners join us earlier this year 2011.

We also have plans to continue to elevate quality lawyers from within the firm to partnership. We continue to explore avenues for organic and inorganic growth.

Bar & Bench: Expansion plans for HSA.

Hemant Sahai: We will continue to grow the partnership collegium by attracting the best talent from India and overseas. We expect to be around 15 partners over the next 3 years and ramp up to 20 partners in about 5 years. This is a manageable rate of growth. However, sometime too rapid an expansion can end up leading to fragmentation at the leadership.

As far as our areas of practice are concerned, we are today a full service firm and we will continue to strengthen these areas with specific focus on the financial services sector and capital markets in addition to our traditional strengths in projects and infrastructure.

We have been involved in some high profile and marquee deals in the M&A, Projects and Finance space. Some of the notable deals that we have been involved in include acting for: ICICI Ventures, in relation to the sale of 100 percent shareholding of Bremer Pharma GmbH; ICICI Ventures for sale of its shares in RFCL to Avantor Performance Materials (an affiliate of New Mountain Capital LLC), one of the largest PE divestments in the recent past; Deutsche Bank on its proposed structured equity investment in a leading power company; HDFC in it’s investment in Kaizen Management, one of the largest P.E. investments in the Education Sector; IDFC in the debt financing of a solar power generation project being developed by AES Solar (a US Company) in Rajasthan; Orient Ceramics Ltd., a listed company, on the acquisition by it of a majority in Bell Ceramics; Moserbaer in an investment of USD 100 MM by a P.E. Fund; Clinton Foundation, on its development of a Solar Park in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Bar & Bench: As a firm, do you have anything set for Pro-bono?

Hemant Sahai: Yes as a firm we do have a commitment to providing pro bono advice and we try and do our bit towards contributing back to society in the form of carving some of our time out for providing pro bono legal services. However, I am the first to admit, there is always scope for us to expand this portfolio.

We also support a small NGO called Universal Vision of India that has been working with dis-advantaged children in the field of education. We have supported a few other smaller NGOs too with pro bono advice from time to time.

We have also worked with foundations like the IIEF which has been active in the micro finance space and in that initiative; we have also interacted and advised SEWA.

Bar & Bench: Your view on entry of foreign law firms.

Hemant Sahai: I think this issue has been debated for too long and the only people opposing the entry of foreign law firms are the ones that have vested interests and the ones that are unwilling to change and democratise internal structures and those that are insecure about themselves.

We are confident about our own strengths and therefore, we are not opposed to entry of foreign law firms. I firmly believe that their entry will benefit true quality professionals. Therefore, while individual lawyers, including the younger professionals, will benefit immensely, some firms, as they exist today, will either need to re engineer themselves, or eventually cease to exist.

Not only will the foreign firms create a larger market, they will introduce systems, standards and levels of service that will force existing firms to professionalise and invest much more into the firm.

The current legal market is hugely skewed in favour of incumbents. This must change if we ever hope to compete with international firms on the world stage.

Bar & Bench: Your views on value of web-based legal news portals for lawyers and non-lawyers.

Hemant Sahai: In my view, web based information dissemination plays an extremely valuable role. For the reasons stated above, it is clear that any tool that empowers the relatively smaller and younger firms and professionals is to be lauded. The information age and its tools such as web based information providers are a great equaliser – the traditional and incumbent players lose some of their competitive advantage that they have by dint of their sheer size and allow smaller and younger firms to show case their achievements and consequently, empowers them.

Quality and expertise is not the exclusive domain of just the handful of large firms – the wealth of talent available in relatively younger firms is immense. The larger firms have financial and strategic muscle however, the web portals help level this out.

Bar & Bench: On a personal front, talk us about why you chose law. Any mentors?

Hemant Sahai: Interestingly, I come from a family of non lawyers – my father was an officer in the Indian Army. To be candid, law was not always my first career choice. I was always inclined to being an entrepreneur and in that context, I had wanted to be a management professional with plans to evolve into owning my own business. However, once I took up law while pursuing other options like Accountancy and CS, I realised that a legal professional had significantly greater flexibility in designing one’s career and it did not take me long to be convinced that law was in fact my calling in life.

Being a first generation lawyer, one assumed that a mentor was required to succeed – however, I never had that luxury. While I did gain a lot in terms of experience and skills, from each one of my relationships in my formative years as a legal professional, however, I can’t say that any one of them was in fact my ‘mentor’. I have had to chart my own course and rely on my own skills for all that I have managed to achieve. But I don’t grudge the fact that I did not have a mentor – it makes me feel much more self reliant and confident of my own future.

Bar & Bench: I believe you have passion for bikes and vintage cars. Tell us more about it.

Hemant Sahai: I believe that every person must have a passion in addition to the work environment as it helps keep the mind alive and younger. This is a well accepted principle even in traditional Indian wisdom.

My passion is adventure and bikes are one aspect of this passion. In my case, adventure is but a facet of my personality, an attitude that I bring to my work environment too. I am willing to take risks and tough decisions yet at the same time, evaluate them so as not to be brash which is exactly what one would do while climbing a mountain or riding a big bike.

Bar & Bench: How do you unwind?

Hemant Sahai: I love to listen to music especially western classical, jazz and early 60’s rock.

I still read myself to sleep every day usually light reading. I am reading Amitav Ghosh’s latest book these days.

Of course, I try and find time for some outdoors too like long bike rides and flying. Last new years (Dec-Jan), I was in Siachen Glacier spending some time with the Indian Army soldiers defending our borders.

My greatest joy is spending time with my daughters, who are of course grown up now but when it comes to me, are still very child like.

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