#Interviews: “We are building a dynamic institution which survives its founders” – JSA Senior Partner Amit Kapur
Interviews

#Interviews: “We are building a dynamic institution which survives its founders” – JSA Senior Partner Amit Kapur

Pallavi Saluja

Amit Kapur started his journey with J. Sagar Associates in 1996 – then an eight-lawyer sole proprietorship, and made partner in 2000. Seventeen years later, he would take over as Senior Partner of JSA, a firm with around 300 lawyers.

Asked about his journey and success, Kapur says,

“I learnt my work ethic from my father, who is a self-made man. JSA gave me the freedom to evolve my practice and the opportunity to achieve this position today for which I am grateful”.

With the retirement of the founders Jyoti Sagar and Berjis Desai, the firm’s management is going through an institutional change. The firm elected Shivpriya Nanda and Dina Wadia as Joint Managing Partners; they took charge of the day-to-day management of the firm in January 2016.

With Berjis’s retirement in March 2017, Amit Kapur took over the responsibility of evolving and monitoring JSA’s strategy.

The big question now is: Will this institution survive the retirement of its founders?

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Pallavi Saluja, Amit Kapur answers some of these questions and talks about his role, his equation with the Joint Managing Partners, and the future of the firm.

You have taken over as Senior Partner at JSA. What is your role?

I feel excited, honoured and humbled to be entrusted with this opportunity. The task entails building upon the legacy of Jyoti and Berjis to define the firm’s future course. I will primarily focus on leading the strategy of the Firm. This would entail defining and disseminating the growth path of the Firm, including long term impact and directional issues; strategic inputs to practice management, client development and talent; monitoring the strategy implementation and evolving mid-course corrections that may become necessary.

It is not an ivory tower exercise but one with meaningful engagement of the elected Executive Committee of six partners including the Joint Managing Partners, with strong involvement of all partners of the Firm.

Can you talk about the firm’s current Management Structure and the ExCom?

JSA has a collective and participative management philosophy. The Executive Committee is the elected governing body of six partners today. Besides me, there are the Joint Managing Partners (Dina Wadia and Shivpriya Nanda), and three members with functional responsibilities for Finance (Amitabh Kumar); Talent (Murali Ananthasivan) and Technology (Venkatesh Prasad). In the day-to-day management of the Firm, the Joint Managing Partners are supported by ExCom Members.

Our practice management is anchored with elected Practice Chairs. We are organized in teams working across three practice clusters: finance, corporate/business advisory and disputes. As luck would have it, the three of us (Shippi, Dina and I) have our primary practice founded in different clusters.

We do not have many Indian firm role models to follow. We have experimented with and evolved a management structure suited to our institutional DNA, i.e., led and managed by a team of active practitioners. Our focus is on our clients and our talent. We are increasingly engaging our younger partners, including our retained partners, to play stronger roles in firm’s decision making and implementation.

The main question is how is it going to pan out between you and the Joint Managing Partners? Where does each one’s line of authority end? How do you share the power in practical terms?

When Berjis was stepping down as the Senior Partner of the firm, I was called upon to take up this responsibility. Today JSA is led by active practitioners who have been colleagues and have collaborated, building our equations over the years. Being focussed on the firm and growth of other partners, our space of work overlaps. Slipping into our new roles has not been a complete change in the ecosystem and has enabled us to work in an integrated manner.

I have engaged deeply since October 2016 in reviewing how we have evolved over the years as also how we should move ahead. I had the benefit of deep consultations with Jyoti and Berjis and the ExCom before presenting the proposed path to the partnership. We have rolled out the firm’s vision and strategy based on our core competencies and institutional DNA.

Dina Wadia
Dina Wadia

While I committed to assist with management of the Firm, I did not want to hang my robes at 52. Similarly, Dina and Shivpriya remain active in their practices, though each of us has had to pull out significant amount of time away from client work. There is no power play since each of us knows and accepts that we can individually do only so much and appreciate the merits of collaborative working.

As we work to build upon our strengths and interest, I have not seen any insurmountable challenge yet and remain confident that if it comes, we will deal with it!

What is your vision for the firm? Where do you see the firm in the next five years?

A building block of the Firm is our presence in eight states, with sharp focus on locational realities. Another is the steady focussed specialisation that our teams are building up. My vision is to work with my partners and attorneys to help actualize their potential as a team. I would be delighted to see JSA evolve into the finest Indian law firm, building our own unique path premised on our strengths which has found resonance with our clients.

I believe that we are well on our way to build a dynamic institution which survives its founders and individuals. In the immediate future, we will continue to grow niche practices, improve quality of service to our clients and continue with our drive to build professional excellence in our people.

The firm has seen quite a few exits. How do you plan to retain firm talent?

These are realities of a maturing profession. The last few years have seen a churn in the legal markets – in India and globally. For example, legal press reports suggest that in Asia alone, there were over 350 or more partner level movements in 2016! Indian firms, including ours, have had a share of that.

JSA has a large number of career JSA people at the leadership team in the Firm. As we speak, three fourths (26 out of 33) of the partners have come up internally through the system. This must be amongst the highest proportions in any Indian law firm with a 20-25 year track record. Yet, our collegial, non-family oriented structure brings certain attributes that may be unconventional in Indian context. Some may have some discomfort with it when personal aspirations are at variance with the path the Firm chooses.

Former Partner Somasekhar Sundaresan, who left the firm last year
Former Partner Somasekhar Sundaresan, who left the firm last year

We have had a few exits; a couple of those we would not have wanted. Life goes on and people move on for their own reasons. Last year, apart from Berjis and Som – whose retirements were known and planned – two other partners chose to retire this year, one to establish his own practice and the other to join another firm. All departures were of their choosing, amicable and we wish them all the success.

What are the major challenges that you see?

The technological disruption and how our economy handles it, is re-defining the emerging future in many a way. As commercial lawyers, the main challenge I see ahead is how we equip and re-tool ourselves to assist and represent our clients.

Another challenge we face is how we keep the bright young lawyers amongst us challenged and excited at work.

We have witnessed the implications of increasing engagement of international law firms in advising overseas businesses investing in India as also Indian businesses investing overseas. Apropos their entry, it is only a matter of time.

Businesses that invest in the Indian economy are entitled to get the advice of their trusted advisors. Several of them are already engaged in advising Indian businesses investing abroad as also foreign businesses investing in India. The hope is that instead of unplanned change, it will be a calibrated opening-up preceded by long pending reforms in the profession founded on reciprocity.

Do you see any concern amongst lawyers with Berjis’ exit?

Change is the only constant in human existence and institutional strength is reflected in how we handle transition and change.

Berjis’s retirement was a planned event, as was Jyoti’s. Both departures were surely momentous events in the life of the Firm. We cherish and value what we learnt working with them and are building on the same. Both had consciously worked with several of us to prepare for the change and to step forward to build upon what they have entrusted to us. As you know, each of them has chosen to go at the age of 60 years and defined their own path ahead.

Berjis Desai
Berjis Desai

I met Berjis at his new office mid-April; he has a lovely view of the sea. We will miss his whacky sense of humour, “smiling Buddha” disposition and presence. He remains our great friend, well-wisher, mentor and guide. He will continue producing and directing his rib-tickling plays at our annual retreat and we will reach out to him for his wisdom and sagacity.

I am sure that we will do both of them proud by valuing and building on their legacy.

Berjis in his interview has said that there are challenges as to how the next generation of management works out their internal dynamics and learns how to peacefully co-exist in the absence of the founder partners and that the next few years are critical for the institution.

As I said, the maturity of an institution is reflected in its ability to handle change and transition. The senior people in JSA have a long history of debate, dialogue and working together as colleagues. The leadership team carries not only our own aspirations, but also the trust and faith of so many young professionals who are an integral part of the Firm.

Berjis has rightly cautioned us into keeping a keen eye on how the institution evolves and how well we manage it. As a parting gift to him, we had the most profitable year of the Firm since its inception.

How will you divide your time between managing the firm and your busy practice?

Fortunately, I had over six months to plan and arrange my time before assuming the responsibility, which required my optimising and allocating time differently from what I had done in the past. I have had the good fortune of mentoring some exceptional people who have built teams and taken leadership positions within my practice area (Infrastructure, Regulatory/Policy Advisory and Disputes).

While they engage me in strategic calls, they independently handle matters and manage deep client relationships. This has spared me time to devote to the Firm. That is part of what we do at JSA – build relationships and evolve practices anchored with energetic partners who excel in their own right!

Today, I feel comfortable in taking on this role. With time, I am confident of finding the right balance between diverse commitments, effectively managing my time without compromising my availability and work for our valued clients.

Last one, Jyoti and Berjis have left a legacy behind, which you also mentioned. Do you feel the pressure?

Jyoti Sagar
Jyoti Sagar

One of Jyoti’s favourite phrases is “we muddled our way through”, accepting change and availing of opportunities with dynamism. As a firm we do not delude ourselves as “know-alls”. We accept with humility that we have bounded rationalities, and go about our job with dynamism, collective wisdom and ability to change. Our strength is professionalism and merit of our people who have mostly evolved over time and earn their place in equity. Our focus has always been in trying to excel at our deep client relationships, and investing in our people. These are critical facets of Jyoti’s and Berjis’ legacy. Now tell me how can that legacy be a constraint?

I believe that we will be able to be true to that legacy and evolve something more exciting and leave something stronger as we retire and move on, handing over the mantle to others.

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