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“The firm is not conservative but cautious in its approach, which is why we have sustained ourselves for over 180 years” – Sanjay Asher, Senior Partner, Crawford Bayley

“The firm is not conservative but cautious in its approach, which is why we have sustained ourselves for over 180 years” – Sanjay Asher, Senior Partner, Crawford Bayley

Pallavi Saluja

Sanjay Asher is a Senior Partner at Crawford Bayley. He started his career in 1989 with Crawford Bayley and was made an Equity Partner at the firm in 2001. He is dual qualified to practice both in India and England and Wales.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, Asher talks about the history of the firm, the perception that the firm is a conservative one, and his thoughts on liberalisation of Indian legal market.

Bar & Bench: The firm has a British origin. Can you talk a bit about the history of the firm?

Sanjay Asher: Our firm was established in 1830. The present firm is the outcome of the amalgamation in the past of three separate firms. Mr. Henry Collins in 1830 founded the earliest firm and conducted business under various styles until 1898.

Mr. Richard Sneade Brown joined this firm in 1880, and in 1898 was the sole surviving partner, the business then being conducted under the style of R.S. Brown & Co.

In 1890, by the amalgamation of the firms of Crawford and Buckland, and Burder and Bayley, the firm of Crawford Bayley was formed. Thereafter, on June 1, 1898, the firm of R.S. Brown & Co. amalgamated with the firm of Crawford Bayley & Co.

After the amalgamation, the style of the firm continued to be Crawford Bayley & Co.

We had English and Scottish partners in the firm until 1970 when they retired and since then we have all Indian partners.

B&B: Can you tell us a bit about how the firm is structured now and the decision-making process at the firm?

Sanjay Asher: We have three levels of partners. We are twenty partners out of whom six are Equity, six Salaried and eight are Associate Partners. The decision-making process is through consensus.

B&B: The last time the firm made equity partners was in 2000-01. Since then the firm has not promoted any of the partners to equity partnership. Any, specific reason for this?

Sanjay Asher: Earlier when a lawyer joined a law firm and developed his career with the firm, he would tend to stick with the firm for a longer period of time. However, over a period of time, the trends have changed. Nowadays, a lawyer might, one fine day, just leave the firm to go somewhere else even though he has equity in the firm or is in the firm’s management committee. We are in a noble profession of law and not in a business. So a lot of faith and trust has to be reposed to make someone an Equity partner.

We are careful and cautious. Surely, we will promote suitable talent to equity partnership.

From a remuneration perspective, our Salaried partner is akin to Equity partner in any other law firm except they don’t share the goodwill. Our vision is not short term but long term.

B&B: The firm had introduced the Associate Partner level in 2011. What was the thought process behind this?   

Sanjay Asher: This is to promote and retain talent because if somebody has trusted you and has been with the firm for a long time, they need to be rewarded. This way they also feel a sense of responsibility and dedication towards the firm. This will also put them on track for salaried partnership.

B&B: There is a perception that it is very difficult to become a partner in Crawford Bayley and because of which some lawyers have left the firm. What do you have to say?

Sanjay Asher: Partnership is an extremely important relationship of faith and trust. Our partners are partners in the Firm in the true sense both in letter and in spirit and not merely a namesake partner. In order to promote a senior associate to a partner level, one has to be cautious and careful and that’s the approach we follow.

B&B: Another perception is that each partner functions like a separate law firm within the firm. Your thoughts?

Sanjay Asher: It’s a wrong perception. We are a full service law firm, which works in a very cohesive manner. As in any other full service law firm, there are specialists in each field of law and we follow the same pattern.

We don’t have a pool of associates. We have dedicated teams for each practice area. It is better to be focused in one particular area of practice rather than becoming jack of all and master of none. At least we prefer it that way.

In fact, with all immodesty, we have been a full service law firm for over 60 years and have specialists in each field of law.

B&B: Crawford Bayley is one of the few Bombay firms which pays its interns very well.

Sanjay Asher: We do pay our interns well. We do have long-term interns (studying law and remaining with the Firm for over one to five years) and short-term interns (1 month to 3 months). We find long term interns more dedicated and we, therefore, want to encourage them (to remain in the profession). Accordingly, we try to remunerate them adequately.

By the way, at every level we pay reasonably well according to the prevailing market rates. In every industry, you need to pay handsomely to attract good talent.

B&B: We understand that there may be a case pending in one of the courts filed by the clerks on a union issue. Is that correct?

Sanjay Asher: This to my mind is incorrect. At least in the last 15 years, there is not a single law suit filed in any of the courts by any employee on union issue or otherwise. We have negotiation with the union every three years but that is a separate issue.

B&B: What is your vision for the firm and where do you see Crawford Bayley in next ten years?

Sanjay Asher: My vision for the firm is of continuous growth. I would visualize the firm in the next ten years as a firm, which would grow in all dimensions namely, lawyers (partners and associates), more offices and the like.

B&B: It is understood the firm is a bit conservative in its approach. Do you plan to make changes in the firm to compete with other new age law firms?

Sanjay Asher: The firm is truly not conservative but is cautious in its approach, which is why we have sustained ourselves for over 180 years. At every point of time there will be new law firms and one has to compete in the then prevailing conditions in the market and one does adapt sufficiently to do so. It’s a natural phenomenon that one does change and one has to change in order to remain ahead.

B&B: Talking about clients, do you see different kind of demands with specific reference to cost cutting, reducing the number of lawyers on a project or moving from billing hours to a lump sum payment?

Sanjay Asher: Cost cutting is a natural phenomenon during bad economic conditions and therefore it is but natural to expect some cost cutting measures in legal fees as well. By and large, I have not experienced a drastic cost cutting in legal fees.

Perhaps with some clients and some transactions one does at all times (good and bad economic conditions) a lump sum payment as opposed to an hourly billing. By and large as far as legal expenses are concerned, there is a marginal difference over a period of time.

B&B: What are your thoughts on the entry of foreign law firms?

Sanjay Asher: Foreign law firms should be allowed to enter so that they bring on the table their expertise, which they have experienced in more mature and developed markets. For example – their technology, management skills, transaction handling techniques etc.

One should not fear competition at all and in fact should encourage healthy competition. In any event, at the end of the day, the practice will be of substantial Indian law and therefore lawyers who are qualified and experienced in Indian law will ultimately be able to deliver to the client.

B&B: Looking at the current scenario and regulatory uncertainty, what is the investor sentiment for Indian market?

Sanjay Asher: The investors are a bit cautious considering the economic and political issues at the macro level. However, considering the sheer size of the Indian market, surely India is the most exciting and promising market for most investors. There is a temporary glitch in the economic condition but I am sure we will overcome this soon. I am quite optimistic that very soon the economic scenario will change and we will be back to over 6% growth level.

B&B: You started your career with Crawford Bayley in 1989. How has the journey been? 

Sanjay Asher: The journey has been great and enriching. I have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the journey and continue to do so.