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Based in a city where the property market shows little signs of letting up, Anup Shah is a distinctly passionate man. The go-to person for any real estate related matter, Shah is both comfortable and ambitious while discussing his plans for the future. Over the last two decades, he has built a practice on hard core real estate transactions and his firm, Anup S Shah Law Firm currently has more than fifty lawyers.
The office itself is built to impress; the entire ground floor houses a library in the shape of a giant question mark. Business is, quite evidently, good.
Despite coming from a family of lawyers, Shah’s initial interests lay in a completely different field. He wanted to be a pilot. However, family opposition to this idea meant this was not to be.
“Being the only son, there was massive opposition from my grandparents, so the only option was to do law”, says Shah.
A graduate of Government Law College, Mumbai, Shah initially practiced as a counsel in Mumbai. It was not an easy profession to excel in.
“It is very difficult initially and you don’t get briefs; the gestation period as a counsel and as a lawyer is relatively large but after 4-5 years it did get comfortable”.
Ten years into the profession, he was looking for a change. In 1990, he shifted to the Garden City to work under one of the most well-known lawyers in Karnataka, senior counsel Udaya Holla.
“I just wanted to leave Bombay, maybe because I got tired of the traffic and my family was also growing, so I wanted to try some other place. I looked at Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai and I found Bangalore to be a little easier to deal with, from the point of view of acceptability of an outsider.”
Although the first three years in Bangalore were difficult, Shah says that it was the tremendous support he received from Udaya Holla that really made a difference.
“It was very good. He works really, really hard. He expects you to do the work yourself, that is his USP. He gives you more than enough rope and that is how you learn. It was a good time, I worked hard and he was happy with us”.
Setting up Independent Practice
Sometime in the fourth year of his stint in Bangalore, a chance conversation ended up making a substantial difference.
“It just happened that a friend of mine told me that after Justice RV Raveendran became a judge, there was no one to handle his office. I was asked if I would like to take over. I said ‘why not?’.”
So, Shah set up his practice with Sunitha R and some support staff.
“It was a two-man show. We worked really hard. I used to work continuously for 3 to 4 days at a stretch. People started coming to me for documentation and they were happy with our work. That is how the practice grew and developed.”
Five years later, the “two-man show” grew and Shah’s practice began to shape into a multi-service firm.
“That’s the time we started our litigation department as a silo where Suraj Govindaraj, a graduate of NLSIU, Bangalore joined me, and he took up litigation”.
The firm was run as a proprietorship until 2011, when it was converted into a partnership model.
“We have a different formula of working, we are not a family-run organisation. Talent is appreciated and we try and see if we can inculcate the position of becoming a partner. So that is how the system works.”
The firm now has four equity partners and one salaried partner. The total strength in Chennai and Bangalore put together is about 54 lawyers, with the Chennai practice headed by Equity Partner Vivekanand G. It is a development that Shah would not have foreseen in the early years of his practice. Those were the days when the concept of a law firm was a fairly alien one.
“Earlier, a lawyer only did litigation. There was no such concept of firms as such, now we have firms which probably want to breach a threshold of a thousand people. It was basically run by the family members, not by a single person. I think post 1993, I saw a great change from the point of view that the market opened up and people started looking at India from an investment point of view. That’s how the whole churn happened. Since then, there has been great growth for the legal fraternity. The youth has got tremendous opportunity.”
A one-stop shop for real estate
Working in a segment like real estate, one that is particularly known for murky undercurrents, is not the easiest thing in the world. What helps, says Shah, is sticking to some fundamental beliefs.
“The [fundamental] principle has been – zero tolerance and zero compromise on any of the aspects. So, sometimes we are not liked because of this, but that is how we have actually made our name. We have an absolute standard which is far, far above a lot of large firms; we go that extra mile to put things in place for them.”
AZB & Partners – A short lived affair
In July of 2009, Shah merged his practice with AZB & Partners, a merger that lasted about one and a half years. It was an amicable separation says Shah, with both firms agreeing to a “best friends” alliance.
On the decision to part ways with AZB, Shah says,
“We thought that there would be value added and some synergy, but I don’t think it really worked out well. So while the going was good, we decided that its best we part when we are great friends than to do so after a long time, after which it becomes acrimonious.”
On the existing relation with AZB, he says,
“Even today, we get lots of work from AZB because they know our strength. So our relationship is absolutely top class with AZB. It’s not as if we had a dispute and we walked away. Not at all.”
Hitting the 100-lawyer mark
Going forward, Shah says the firm wants to attain the 100-lawyer mark in the near future. However, he does not foresee spreading the firm to other parts of the country, except perhaps Bombay.
“As of today, Bangalore and Chennai is our focus. We are growing in strength and we probably want to keep growing, but we are very choosy in getting our people. So it takes a long time. Plus we don’t have a herd mentality.”
“We are of course trying to expand our services beyond real estate and litigation so when we do that probably, we may have Bombay as an office for the corporate side, so that’s where we are planning to find space.”
The Modi effect
Ask him whether the BJP government has had any effect on the real estate market and Shah says that these are still early days.
“It’s a bit too early, but from what we have been hearing, what [Modi] wants to do is have a lot of business coming in. And if it really does come in, you need raw material such as land, be it for factories, or the software industry or housing. So definitely it will be a good season if it works out, but I think it’s still too premature. We need to wait for two years to really reap the fruits of what he is planning to do.”
Liberalisation of the Indian legal market
It is a topic that is never too far off any lawyer’s radar. In fact UK Justice Minister Shailesh Vara MP recently visited India to discuss this very issue. For his part, Shah does not oppose the entry of foreign law firms.
“I have no such qualms, they are most welcome as long as they allow us to practice where they want to practice in our country, simple as that. If they want to practice in India from the UK, I should be able to establish my practice there without going through any rigors of the law, that’s how I look at it.”
Best friend relationships have dwindled out
A lot of best friend relationships have ended with firms seeing the liberalisation of the market as a bit of a far-off dream.
“At that time, they probably thought the market will open up so that’s why firms came in and they had best friend relationships and things like that. Having realised that this is not going to go far, I think those relationships have also dwindled out and they probably do reference work instead of having best friends and being tied to them. According to me, it’s not a great thing for the simple reason that if you really don’t have a total relationship, then having a best friend relationship also affects you from the point of view that other people are not going to refer work to you.”
Evolution of Legal Profession
“To tell you frankly, when I started, from 1981-84, my fee book had 5000 rupees. That was how it was at that point of time. There is a huge gestation period now because the market has opened up, there are avenues where people pay lawyers well, firms are accepted facts, the youth who join the legal fraternity have better opportunities and better exposure and that’s how the whole concept has developed post 1993. And I am sure it will only grow from here.”
“Now, you can specialise in any field. Earlier, people would say that a lawyer is a jack of all trades and master of none, which is absolutely untrue today. You have to be a master of one.”
“We have probation periods and confirmation after one year, so we do have a loose recruitment arrangement which we are firming up. We disclose to the lawyer who joins as to how we expect him to improve in our firm. It’s a disclosed policy as far as that is concerned. Obviously, only deserving people move up and that’s how we have done our recruitments and placements till now.”
Shah concludes by saying,
“We are a relatively young firm looking forward to expanding. We work hard and hope to keep working hard, and that’s how it is.”