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Conversation with Raian Karanjawala, Founder and Managing Partner at Karanjawala & Company

Conversation with Raian Karanjawala, Founder and Managing Partner at Karanjawala & Company

Bar & Bench

Raian Karanjawala set up Karanjawala & Company in 1983 along with his wife Manik Karanjawala. Karanjawala & Company is one of the leading litigation firms in the country and over the years the firm has handled large number of high profile cases and has serviced wide variety of clients including political leaders, big corporate houses and media houses. Raian Karanjawala is a renowned litigation lawyer with a great legal acumen and is an excellent strategist.

Bar & Bench Editor Pallavi Saluja spoke to Raian Karanjawala. In this interview, Raian talks about his initial years of his career and setting up of the firm, the milestones in the growth of the firm, structure of the firm etc. He also shares his thoughts on the exorbitant fees charged by Senior Advocates and how the legal scenario has changed since he joined the Bar.

Bar & Bench: What made you choose law as a career?

Raian Karanjawala (RK): I joined law by default. I really wanted to do masters in business or chartered accountancy but in order to get admission in these courses, at that time, a minimum of 50% in your graduation was required. However, I got a third division and those options were precluded. So, the real choice available to me at that time was law, so I went to Government Law College, Mumbai. I did my graduation from Sri Ram College of Commerce and was the College Union President.

Bar & Bench: How were the initial years of your career?

Raian Karanjawala: The initial years were great. I started my career with Pravin Parekh. My personal belief is that if a young lawyer asks me for advice at the time of starting his/her career, the simple advice that I would give is “Whatever you do, join a busy place because the only way you can really get to know the law and learn the law is to stay busy and to work at it. The more work you do the better lawyer you become.” I was very fortunate that Fali Nariman introduced me to Pravin Parekh. Pravin Parekh was one of the busiest advocates-on-record then. I joined his firm at the time when he was busy with a lot of other things and therefore I got far more responsibility in my early days than I would have got if I would have joined him at a time when he was less busy. He is an incredibly hard working man and to some extent, at least in my early years, he inculcated that into me. I had the advantage, at a very young age, of briefing top counsels like Fali Nariman, Soli Sorabjee, KK Venugopal.

Around the same time, I met my wife (Manik Karanjawala), who was also working with Pravin bhai. After we got married we decided to start our own firm. We started our firm in February 1983.

Bar & Bench: What were the initial years of setting up your firm like?

Raian Karanjawala: The initial years were fun. We were very fortunate that we were ahead of the curve and we got a lot of high profile work from the very beginning and were able to grow at a fairly rapid pace. Success met us early and stayed with us long and God has always been kind.

Bar & Bench: Karanjawala & Company is one of the leaders in the field of litigation. What are the significant reasons for success?

Raian Karanjawala: I have that one quality which Napoleon looked for in every General. I am lucky.

Bar & Bench: What were the milestones/landmarks in the growth of the firm?

Raian Karanjawala: There has been a steady growth and the firm has had several landmarks. Obviously, the first landmark was the beginning of the firm and the early success that we met. Then somewhere in the year 1986-87, the Indian Express came to us. Through them also got to know Nusli Wadia and in those early days represented Nusli Wadia / Indian Express in the battle against the Reliance Group.

Then, through that Indian Express connection in 1987, V.P Singh came to me as a client. So that was our second big milestone. In life if you have a very high profile person as a client, it gives you a certain benchmarking in people’s eyes. This is what happened to us. When V.P Singh became my client, he was on the way to becoming the Prime Minister of India. So the firm just took on a slightly different and higher profile. Side by side with the well-known political cases, we did a lot of commercial litigation and we were expanding at a fairly rapid pace.

Then in 1990-91, the next big milestone that came our way was that both Air India and Indian Airlines became my clients. That gave a whole different perspective to our work; it made us expand our base in order to cope with that work. What often happens is that a large corporation such as Indian Airlines has to deal with all kinds of disputes like labor disputes, consumer redressal in the consumer forum, various litigations in the High Court. As a result of this, the firm, which was in those days essentially, and predominantly a Supreme Court practice firm with a lot of High Court work was forced to expand into different legal fora. We were forced to set up teams, which would handle matters in the labor court, go to the trial court, and to the consumer forum. So that was, I think, the third pivotal point at which the firm expanded considerably and established a significant position in various forums in Delhi and across the country.

The fourth point would be around the year 1993-94, when two big clients came to us. One was Star TV. We were their lawyers for almost 16 to 17 years and we used to handle their litigation virtually on a pan India basis. That really benchmarked us at a slightly higher level because we developed the capacity to handle litigation not only in the city in which we function, but also in different other cities. It gave us a huge profile and a huge amount of connectivity and it introduced us to media organizations. That, along with Lufthansa coming to us as a client, are the two big things of those years that I can recollect. Then things went on in a sort of accelerated way. Though there were many important cases in between, the last big jump came in 2004 when the Tata group shifted to us as one of their principal litigating resources in this part of the country.

Bar & Bench: You deal with lot of high profile and sensitive matters, which get lot of media attention. How do you handle such cases?

Raian Karanjawala: The way you handle any other matter. When you advise clients you give them the advice you think is best for them and if the case is very high profile, you also factor into the fact that certain aspects of media coverage may impact the way you present the case. So you factor that in at times. That’s about it.

Bar & Bench: How is the firm structured?

Raian Karanjawala: The firm now has 6 partners and about 55-60 lawyers (located in its two offices). The two founding partners are my wife, Manik and I. The other partners are Nandini Gore and Ruby Singh Ahuja who handle a lot of the civil litigation that emanates in the Supreme Court and in the various forums outside it. There is Sandeep Kapur, who handles all the criminal work. The firm has a huge criminal practice and we have handled many high profile cases. We were lawyers for Sanjeev Nanda in the BMW hit and run case, Suresh Nanda in the case pertaining to the seizure of his passport by CBI, Karim Morani in the 2G case and Dr. Nupur Talwar in the Arushi Talwar murder case. So the criminal practice, which started about 8 – 10 years ago, has really grown. Meghna essentially handles the litigation in the High Court.

Bar & Bench: How does one make Partner at Karanjawala?

Raian Karanjawala: The policy of the firm has been that partners are made few and far between. In my office, people don’t become partners only because they have put in so many years or have billed a particular amount.

It’s an amalgam of many things. First, your personality and your fit have to be right for the firm because the firm has a certain character and a certain blend and you should be in consonance with it. Two, the timing has to be right because so far as the firm is concerned, we are in it for long haul and it is not a valuation game that we are 15 partners and worth so much. So partners are made in a very calibrated way. A litigating partner has many responsibilities and has to be right for the job. 

Bar & Bench: What are the differences between a litigating firm and a non-litigating firm?

Raian Karanjawala: There is a huge difference because there are different skill sets. People who are not litigators function in a far more controlled, calmer and more “across the table” environment. If you are structuring a deal it is across the table, it is friendly, you give a bit and take a bit, you put a patchwork through and you shake hands on it and you hope that it lasts. If you are going for an IPO you just have to follow certain rules and regulations and check compliances and so on.

On the other hand, litigation is like a battle. The fundamental difference between a litigating lawyer and a non-litigating lawyer is that the mistakes of a non litigating lawyer may not show up even for 10 years because if there is a badly drafted contract, the errors in the contract may never come up. If people choose not to litigate on that contract; or may come up only 8-10 years later if people choose to litigate on it and then by the time it is discovered, the person who drafted it is long gone to some place else or is no longer in touch with client and so on. A litigator wins and loses everyday. You step into the court with a certain goal in mind; you either achieve it or don’t achieve it. Your strengths and failures are right up there out-front for everyone to see. You also work under a lot more chaotic pressure. It’s true that teams that put together a deal often have to face a lot of intense pressure, for a few days, but the chaotic pressure of a court where the environment is not controllable where you don’t know what the other side will say or how the judge will react makes you far more on your toes than a non litigating lawyer. It’s also much more interesting though there is more money in the non-litigating space. So the point I am making is that you have to be far more on your toes if you are a busy litigator than otherwise.

Bar & Bench: What is the vision for the firm for the next 10 years and for yourself?

Raian Karanjawala: Time will tell. See everyone has a broad vision. One obvious immediate aim is the integration of both my children into the firm. Tahira, who has just finished her LL.M. from Columbia, will be joining us soon and Niharika, who is finishing her law from Amity Law School, will also come into the firm. So we will see that they integrate smoothly and slip into the systems of the firm and slowly take the reins. That is one immediate plan.

Obviously in an abstract way everyone wants to grow, everyone wants more money, everyone wants more juniors, and everyone wants to enjoy themselves. So these are all abstract things. What we are doing at the moment is a fair amount of restructuring in the firm. We have appointed legal consultants to help us put certain processes in place and streamline some of the firm’s functioning. So we are in the process of structuring the firm in a tighter way than it has been so far. That’s an on-going process but what that will lead to and where it will take us is, frankly, not clear at the moment. There is always, somewhere in back of one’s mind, the aspect of starting a non-litigation practice and involving people laterally and so on but these are things that will happen as and when they do.

I certainly don’t see myself retiring ten years down the line, certainly not. Let us see what happens.

Bar & Bench: You joined the bar in 1979. So, how has the legal scenario changed since the time you joined the Bar?

Raian Karanjawala: It has changed completely. When we first started practicing in the Supreme Court, there used to be 5 cars in the car park or maybe 7 or 10. Today there are 600. So, it has become a more enriched profession.

When I joined the Bar, the court fee of a senior advocate was designated and fixed years ago by Motilal Setalvad and it was Rs. 1,040 for an admission and Rs. 1,650 for final hearing and that rate prevailed for at least 4-5 years after we joined the Bar. Today we all know what the market rates are… so the profession has changed.

Also, in those days the large practice used to be court driven. Today a large amount of practice in law is outside the court as far as litigation is concerned in tribunals and outside both the courts and tribunals is the non-litigation space, so the whole practice of law and the landscape of law have changed. It has accelerated in different areas and taken on a different complexion.

Bar & Bench: What are your thoughts on the exorbitant fees charged by Senior Advocates?

Raian Karanjawala: In the beginning I used to feel that it was frightfully exorbitant. Then I thought “Why cry so much, just increase your own.”

But to be fair to them, the exorbitant fees are a factor of three things. One – they are really only in Delhi; in the other cities the fees are not exorbitant. Two – the fee is high only in so far as 10-15 “super star” lawyers are concerned. Apart from these 10-15 “super stars”, the average lawyer is not charging anywhere near the kind of rates which makes your mouth water. Third – in fairness the whole point that is to be understood also is that you are living in a world where investment bankers will just structure a deal together and get millions of dollars in bonus so why should just the lawyers be looked at with envy. A lot of these people who step into the court to defend or fight for a particular individual are dealing with very high stake/large scale matters.

Bar & Bench: If you were to bring changes in our current legal system, what changes would you like to bring?

Raian Karanjawala: Frankly, it’s too complicated a question to answer without having really done a detailed study. I think the important thing to look at is two fold. One is that more people should become judges and second, you need to see that best quality of lawyers become judges and you broadly need to aim in that direction.

Bar & Bench: Looking forward, which fields/areas do you see as the emerging ones in litigation?

Raian Karanjawala: I see litigation increasingly to becoming an area of specialization. In the old days, people used to specialize first in income tax law or criminal law then excise was a field, labor was a field. Today sector wise and regulator wise also there is intense specialization. So telecom is already a well known field of litigation, electricity is another, insurance would be one, the Competition Commission would be another one and so on.

Bar & Bench: What is your opinion of the national law schools? Do you believe in the hype surrounding them?

Raian Karanjawala: Frankly if you look at the Bangalore National Law School, that’s been there now for 25 years. If you see the litigating landscape, I don’t know any great litigators that have really come out of there. Somehow I get a sense that a lot of people who come out of the law schools, either because of over ambition or because of quick and easy money, merge either into the corporate field (join companies) or get absorbed in the non litigating firms in the sense then they sort of get lost to, at least, the litigating world.

I am in favor of a 5-year course because I believe that a 5-year professional course of law is, in any case, a good degree for people to take. It is a degree you can take on the basis of a competitive exam so even if you didn’t happen to do so well in school, you work hard and sit for an exam and you get into a college. You finish a 5-year course to get a degree that gives you a right to practice a profession or use that degree in any other way you want. I personally feel that the 5-year course is better than a 3+3 system.

Bar & Bench: You were actively involved in university politics. Do you now plan to join politics? 

Raian Karanjawala: You can’t rule out the option. I always had an interest in politics. I know a lot of politically well-connected people but it’s not a game you should enter lightly. It’s not something you should aspire to in a rush. Frankly lots of people’s aspirations never get met so I personally believe that even if you have the aspiration you should just keep it floating some where in the back of your mind and if it clicks, it clicks, otherwise go on with what you are doing. Frankly, I don’t see my life at the moment in anyway hampered because I am not in politics. I can do whatever I want meet who ever I want, even without it.

Bar & Bench: Do you have anything set for pro-bono?

Raian Karanjawala: Yes, we do lot of pro-bono work. We were instrumental in the defense of Dr. Binayak Sen, who was detained by the Government of Chattisgarh under the provisions of Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005. The firm has been involved in lot of pro-bono work over the years and that is something that started from our early days. It really was an inheritance from my father-in-law, Justice Tarkunde through him a lot of pro-bono work had come our way and that’s a habit my wife and me have kept up.

Bar & Bench: Who is your mentor?

Raian Karanjawala: Well, nobody has really mentored me in the sense that what you understand by a mentor is a person who you periodically go back to for guidance on aspects. Frankly, in that sense I never really had a mentor but many people have had a role in my success. One of the people who got me into Government Law College and got me into Pravin Parekh’s office was Fali Nariman.

Bar & Bench: What interests you other than law?

Raian Karanjawala: I am basically a people’s person. I socialize a fair amount. I meet a lot of people. I have varied interests and like to talk about things.