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Conversation with Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, Partner at Khaitan & Co

Conversation with Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, Partner at Khaitan & Co

Bar & Bench

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala moved from Kolkata to Mumbai along with Haigrieve Khaitan to set up Khaitan’s Mumbai office in 2001. He has over 13 years of experience in advising clients. “Jhun” as he is known amongst his friends, talks about initial years of setting up Khaitan office in Mumbai, his vision for the firm, expansion plans, management and decision making process at Khaitan.

Bar & Bench: What prompted your decision to join law? What were the initial years of your career like?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: I belong to a family of lawyers and grew up breathing legal cases, thanks to my father who worked round the clock. Law was the obvious choice even though there were some teenage aspirations to take up medicine, something which my father always wanted to do himself and couldn’t. With more than half my extended family as lawyers – some forty of them today – we could veritably be a law firm!

So law it was for me as I enrolled at a Calcutta law school before joining the National Law School in Bangalore. Even as a law student in Calcutta, I was training at the Calcutta office of Khaitan & Co, a premier law firm that traces its origins to 1911. Classes began early, at 6am! The rest of the day was usually used by students to work at law firms or in the chambers of advocates and barristers: something like the internship programme that various law schools have or articleships prevalent in Mumbai.

Having graduated from the National Law School, Bangalore in 1999, there was little choice but to go get back to Khaitan & Co where I worked for two years till early 2001. The firm was then on an expansion mode and had decided to start an office in Bombay. It was an opportunity that I grabbed. I packed my bags set out to build the Mumbai office from scratch

Bar & Bench: Talk us through your decision to move from Kolkata to Mumbai to set up office in Mumbai. How difficult was the decision?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: Moving out of the confines of one’s home and a settled career with wide access to people was not an exactly easy decision but I knew that Mumbai was the place to be in and it was the right decision to take. The team that moved to Mumbai was a well-knit unit with Haigreve Khaitan as the mentor and the entire company willing us to succeed. There was a great zone of comfort between Haigreve and me because we had known each other since we were toddlers in Calcutta. This created a bond of complete trust and faith in the other’s judgement, which helped us to deal with every challenge that came along. I recall a senior managing partner of a leading Indian law firm saying Haigreve and Rabindra are interchangeable!

Mumbai was a major challenge because we were seen as a family firm; one from eastern India and trying to make it in the big league. There was initial scepticism that had to be overcome by sheer hard work and delivering results. Things were easier that we let on because there was a powerful backing of the best legal minds back in Calcutta that supported us every step of the way. There was also the deep sense of camaraderie that the Mumbai unit shared that we cultivated carefully and conscientiously, making every one who joined us become a member of a professional family. That is what converted the team into a formidable force.

Today, the Mumbai office has 30 resident partners and we are 150 lawyers that make up a team united in spirit and zeal; a team of like-minded people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, each enriching the other; sharing best practices from home and abroad; ensuring that the team is never let down. It has not been an easy thing to accomplish but it has been a damn great and fulfilling journey.

Bar & Bench: You have spoken about the whole experience of setting up the Mumbai office. Tell us about your initial successes and failures.

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: Failures, if any, were indeed the stepping stones to success to use a clichéd phrase, which truly applied to us. The main learning was that not everyone who promised work would do so and those who did not know you from Adam did!

Our background trained us to differentiate ourselves and indeed, it was a background that gave us unique abilities to deal with typically Indian business mindsets with distinction. There was also the fact that all the partners rolled up their sleeves, jumped in, got their hands dirty and did not leave things to anybody else. The idea was to surpass the client’s expectations; take proactive and practical measures and be business minded at all points of time but from the client’s perspective.  It was a fundamental Khaitan & Co learning for a century: business follows client satisfaction; nothing else matters. If the client expected partner attention, he would get it round the clock. Other law firms did not quite understand the value of “partner time” from the client’s perspective. We did and that made a huge impact on them, gradually enabling us to build our office and our client base.

The second learning that we imposed on ourselves down the line was to drive best practices through all our systems, processes and, indeed, our mindsets. There was the heritage learnings from Calcutta that were supplemented by our learnings from interacting with other law firms both domestic and international. We picked up the best and adapted them to the ‘Khaitan’ way of doing things. Both Haigreve and I being young and driving these beliefs, we could actually do whatever we wanted, cutting through the normal bureaucracy that one would have normally run into. This also helped to attract great youthful talent, which again strengthened the firm and made us more successful. Only, we were far more successful than anyone could have envisioned.

Just three months back at our internal centenary celebration in Calcutta, it felt good that while the firm had completed 100 years, Bombay had completed 10 extremely significant years. The accomplishment must have hit Haigreve and myself at the same time: we did not have to speak to each other; we looked at each other and amidst all the jubilation we paused to think: “Wow, it is amazing that we have got to where we are”. Probably in the whirlwind of work, we had never paused to contemplate this reality. Looking back, it was very, very satisfying!

Bar & Bench: What was your initial team like? Was it just the two of you who started it or was there someone else with you?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: There was a third colleague, Prabhay Khaitan. So, really the three of us moved from Calcutta to start the Mumbai office but within a year he decided to move on and quit the profession. Sometimes, we tend to forget his contribution because he is not around now but it was the trio that made the initial team that was soon supplemented by an associate moving from Calcutta and another recruited in Mumbai.

So, we started off with four lawyers and one office manager, but our ranks swelled. Within six months, another associate moved from Calcutta.

We acquired an office at Ballard Estate, which was the old business precinct in Mumbai and the hub of all activity before Nariman Point was born in the mid 70s. It was no dingy place that we chose but a reasonably sized one, a building called Meher Chambers, thanks to financial support from some of our Calcutta clients and gradually filled it up. We took two floors (about 4,500 square feet in all) but we started off using just one. The vision was to grow in the same location instead of changing offices and, within a year, we needed the additional space. There was growth from day one; every year the firm has grown in Mumbai.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on best friend relationship. Do you have plans to enter into a best friend relationship with any of the International law firms?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: As of now, we do not have any exclusive relationships nor do we have plans to have one. There are various reasons why we think that way. The clients that we serve have such varied needs; they range from small, mid-tier companies and large matters, spread over different practice areas in India and various parts of the world.  There is no one firm that can serve all our clients’ needs. So, we have not really thought of identifying one law firm and sort of tying up with them on a full-time basis though of course, we have been approached by several. The model that we have been following is to be friendly with everybody and let that be known to everybody. We do not want a situation with people perceiving us to be friendly with one law firm and not with another. We work with different law firms depending on the practice area, the size, the complexity of the deal and the jurisdiction itself. We have been awaiting the market opening up and, as and when it does, we will formulate an appropriate strategy. For now we are pretty clear that we work with everybody.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on liberalizing the market for legal services by allowing the entry of foreign law firms.  

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: We are very open to this whole liberalization process. We are vocal about it and our views are very public. We do not see why they cannot practise here. I go to the extent of saying that they are already practising here, if you consider some of the existing relationships; some international law firms are already here! We are just beguiling ourselves by saying that international law firms are not working in India. They are working out of Singapore or Hong Kong. Some are even working out of India. As I see it, I do not think anything will change in the next three years but it will be good if the government and law firms settle this matter once and for all instead of going over the dilemma of “when to open and how”. We should just formulate the rules of the game and go ahead.

Bar & Bench: The firm has been on a hiring spree. The firm has recently hired lateral partners across all offices. What is the next big plan for Khaitan & Co?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: Our plan is to find the best people, like minded ones and to hire them. We are very focused on growth. We want to be as big in Bangalore and in Delhi. When the opportunity comes, we will look at it. You will see us growing. You will see us strengthening our core practice areas. You will see us strengthening our other practice areas where we are not very strong.

Bar & Bench: Any plans on opening new offices abroad or in India? 

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: Our thinking has so far been that we know the law in India and it is best that we practise that rather than venture out. We have a good relationship with firms and find no reason to have outposts in other countries and try and source work directly. In India, we have had plans to open up in Chennai and Hyderabad, and probably will when the right opportunity comes knocking. We are very opportunistic, very business-minded; we take the chances and risks, but well calculated ones. Ever since the Mumbai office was set up, we have taken several major steps, they have been game changers!

I do not think there is another parallel in the country in terms of the number of lateral hires that we have had. You will not find another parallel for the number of international hires that we have had either. That is because we are an open partnership; we are very transparent and we represent a group of, as I said, like-minded people.

Bar & Bench: Could you tell us a bit about the management and decision-making process at the firm?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: It is very democratic. We run the partnership through an executive committee. The partners elect the executive members. They do not get elected for life but for a period of time. Another differentiator is that we are all equity partners in the firm without anyone enjoying a special right or veto or status. We are all equals. We all have one vote. We all participate in the decision-making process. It is from these partners that a committee is selected to serve as the engine of the firm. You elect the engine, the engine drives the firm and rest of us follow the engine.

Bar & Bench: How is the firm structured? How do all the offices operate?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: The four offices are set up as different partnerships because of the 20-partner rule. We are 57 partners. When law changes we will operate as one firm. At this point of time, our Delhi office is an LLP. So, all of us are partners in Delhi. Otherwise, the firm is connected through some individuals being partners in more than one firm and some in all the firms. Once the Bar Council gives clarity in terms of LLPs amongst lawyers, we will be one LLP.

Bar & Bench: The Delhi Bar Council Chairman Mr. Rakesh Tikku had recently objected to the LLP formation. So, there is no clarity as such. Your thoughts.

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: There is no clarity. From what I understand the letter, written to a few firms, was sent without consensus or consultation within the Bar Council. I guess that it will take its own time to resolve itself.

Bar & Bench: How do you retain the best talent at the firm?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: That is something that we take pride in: our attrition rate is low. Basically, we take a humane approach to people, we are flexible, we make sure that they are enjoying their work at Khaitan & Co. Our mission statement talks of enjoying life, and we have various HR initiatives for the people within the organisation. We have special initiatives for the women lawyers. We make sure that their problem is our problem. We operate like a family! We do not put undue pressure on somebody. It is not maximising profit or revenue. It is a balance of quality work, hard work. That is the key and that is what attracts and helps us retain people. Another way of retaining talent is letting them grow. We do not restrict our talent; we have no ceiling for bonus. One could draw anything across all levels, not at partner level only because we work on equity basis; across the associate pool, you could get any amount. It depends on how much initiative you take and what work you are doing. We also give a lot of responsibility to juniors. They run even some of the larger initiatives. It is a very free, open environment. Everybody can walk into a senior’s room. We have a very free and frank exchange of views. I think, a good healthy workplace helps us retain the talent.

Bar & Bench: What is the recruitment policy of the firm and how does the firm nurture or train the young talent at the firm?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: We do have a policy, as would any large firm of our size have. We go to all the different national law schools around the country. We go to other colleges as well to recruit. It is a structured policy and we start with the internship process. We work through the year with different colleges and take in interns. We have an established process on how we want to run the interviews, group discussions or whatever else. Once the new batch joins, we have a planned orientation followed by eighteen months of training. The recruits do seats within the organization and work in different practice areas. There is a lot of continuous legal education imparted across all levels, with compulsory attendance. Lawyers are taken through different aspects of law where the senior people come and train them and teach them. We spend a lot of time on training, retaining and nurturing talent, mentoring them and allocating them to seniors within the organization. That is what we do.

Bar & Bench: What is your vision for the firm now and 10 years thereafter?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: Ten years back if you asked me this I would have probably said maybe a 50-member law firm. As I said, we never thought of Khaitan & Co achieving what it has. We never thought of moving to offices as big as our One Indiabulls Centre premises. Today, the emphasis is on ensuring that we keep up the growth momentum and that people coming in from diverse backgrounds are well integrated. We train talent and we are working on some of our other initiatives like knowledge management, specialisation, HR and those principles that make a law firm achieve international standards. We want to keep growing at the pace at which we have grown in the next coming years. That is what we want to do. We are a top-tier law firm today. We want to be recognized as the first truly international Indian law firm. We are seen as a professionally-run firm but we want to make sure that we stand apart in terms of our quality, our deliverables and, generally, everything and get to a stage where somebody sees a document and says, “Oh, we know it has come from Khaitan”. That is what we would like to do.

Bar & Bench: How has the Indian legal market changed since you moved to Mumbai in 2001?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: There are many more law firms to begin with and there are many smaller law firms. That is partly because people have found themselves reaching a glass ceiling in the larger law firms, decided to move away and start on their own! I think that there would be consolidation. We have had a few people, (I think four partners) who have closed their boutique practice and joined us in different locations. I believe that we will see more consolidation; a lot more people who have hit that ceiling, will move out and join firms like ours.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on the current state of legal education.

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: It has been a huge change from what it was 20 years back. Education is much more formalized, much more serious today and the National Law School, Bangalore model is being replicated in different states. Every other year, there is a new national law school springing up. It is great for legal education and for students. We are producing high quality products at the law schools and older law colleges. These lawyers need to be nurtured and mentored a bit because what you learn in the classroom is not what you apply in real life. It is the nurturing that makes the difference.

The number of international law firms coming and recruiting people here shows that the quality of legal education is good in India. That English is the language of education makes India even more competitive. Some of the graduating youngsters today are extremely smart, intelligent and very ambitious. That speaks volumes for the state of legal education in India.

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

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: A developed market has free-flowing information and legal gossip. So, it is interesting to see that people like Bar & Bench have come up and are doing well. It is important to have legal media as well and not just have research tools. It is important to know who is moving and who is doing what especially from a young lawyer’s perspective because it makes them aware of what the options are. A lot of the legal media is not just about information but also interlinked with job opportunities, interlinked with in-house counsel views and sharing of knowledge. So, I think, it is here to stay and I think it is good. The legal market in India is maturing!

Bar & Bench: How do you unwind?

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala: Work and family keeps one busy but we have a lot of socials within the organization and they provide us with a way to unwind. Going out for movies and events with friends is another way to unwind. We also play cricket. That is something that we very actively do, as a firm. My motto is work hard and party harder!