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Seated in the conference room of the Samvad Partners office, I’m wondering what to expect. After all, it’s not often that you meet someone who has started a law firm, climbed a 20,000 foot Himalayan peak and has an active interest in local politics. When Harish Narasappa arrives, I find that he is an extremely easy person to talk to, and he recounts his journey sans any airs.
The decision to take up law came at a point when he began to grow conscious of the society around him. The protests against the Mandal Commission’s recommendations influenced his choice of career significantly. In 1990, the protests reached fever pitch, with students attempting suicide by self-immolation.
“It changed the way I looked at society; I saw all these college students of my age committing suicide because of a policy. That made me interested in the Constitution and how society is governed.”
Like most middle-class families, his was obsessed with medicine and engineering. However, that year, the entrance exams for both were postponed as a consequence of the riots. This gave him an opportunity to write the law entrance exam.
“My uncle knew the Registrar of the National Law School, Bangalore and he suggested that I write the NLS entrance exam. The law school exam results came out early, so I thought I would try law for a month or two, till the results for medicine and engineering came out!
I am the first lawyer in my extended family, so for a long time my parents weren’t convinced that it was the right decision.”
I am the first lawyer in my extended family, so for a long time my parents weren’t convinced that it was the right decision.
After five years, he went on to pursue his BCL from Oxford, before joining Herbert Smith Freehills. When asked why he chose to return to India, he replies that it was always the plan. Perhaps a stint at the Bangalore civil courts with now Senior Counsel SS Naganand before going abroad had something to do with that.
It was the year the Bar Council had introduced the apprenticeship rule, according to which all law graduates had to work as an apprentice for a year before enrolment. Though the Supreme Court would later strike down that rule, Harish Narasappa was grateful for the experience.
“At law school, there was a focus on social change and we were influenced by the faculty. During my time at Herbert Smith, I realised that the practice of law is contextual and societal. While the black-letter law was quite interesting there, I somehow couldn’t relate to what was happening in society as much as I did during the apprenticeship.”
He did, however, come back from the UK with some invaluable observations.
“The biggest thing for me is the way they train young employees. In the UK, lawyers have to undergo a two year Solicitor training, which is good in itself. And even after this, there are focused training programmes. But here, there’s no structured training as such.
The development of big law firms in India will probably bring about that kind of a change in the future. But now, it’s very hit or miss; if you’re lucky, you’ll find a good senior who is willing to teach you, otherwise you’re left to your own devices.”
When Harish Narasappa returned from the UK in 2005, he had had his fill of corporate law. The intention at the time was to get into some policy-based work. But, as he says, there were bills to pay, and he would have to take up corporate work side-by-side.
In 2006, he started his own firm along with co-founders Roopa Doraswamy and Siddharth Raja.
“People might think that the biggest challenge associated with starting your own venture is how to get work, but I would say the toughest thing is building a team. If you’re building a law firm, then you have to ensure that the quality of work that goes out is something that you’re happy with. It is impossible to look at every single document that goes out, so you’re dependent on your Partners and senior colleagues to deliver the same kind of quality of service you want to deliver.”
After seven successful years of practice in Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi, NDR merged with Vineetha MG’s Mumbai-based V Law Associates to give rise to Samvad Partners.
“When we merged with Vineetha to form Samvad, we never had an ambition to be in Bombay or any other city. A number of people told us that if we wanted to be a serious corporate law player in the market, we had to have an office in Bombay, which is true. We weren’t actively looking for people, but we told people that if something interesting comes up, we would be open to the idea.
To be frank, we decided to merge with Vineetha in less than an hour! It didn’t take days and weeks to decide whether to do it. It helped that I had known Vineetha for more than 20 years. We are a very collegiate firm. We didn’t want to join with someone who doesn’t believe in our philosophy of building a collegiate firm.”
From the corporate lawyer, we move on to the other side of Harish Narasappa – the youngster who took up law to help make a difference to society. Fresh from his stint at Herbert Smith, he was now ready to enter the world of public policy law.
“We identified accountability as a big issue. We felt that we should not look at it from an institutional perspective, but from a citizen’s perspective. An ordinary citizen votes and expects the elected representative to manage the administrative system.
Our research led us to believe that the Indian democracy is focused on elections. Nobody cares about what happens between elections. So how does an ordinary citizen influence the government’s policy? He can’t directly approach the bureaucracy; his only recourse is to approach the elected representative from his constituency. In order to strengthen this dialogue, we came up with the idea of the MLA scorecard.
We focus on whether the representative has responded to the needs of his constituency and his performance in the Assembly. The goal was that at the end of five years, the citizen has some basis to decide whether to vote for a candidate.”
Daksh’s latest undertaking (the Rule of Law Project) aims to analyse court data and find out the reasons behind our massive pendency rates. The issue of pendency is something that has always resonated with Harish Narasappa.
“When I practiced in the civil court, the first case I saw was number No.1 of 1956. The sad part is that no one pays attention to it. The judges don’t have the time because they are busy writing judgments and dispensing justice. The registry only looks at day-to-day management. In fact, nobody knows whether the pendency figures are true or not!
To start with, we decided to build a database that will help us analyse what are the reasons for judicial pendency and delay. This data can be used as a basis for studying the problem and later, proposing solutions. The data exists, but it is not organized in such a way that it can be analysed.
So we want to build the database to make it easy for everyone to compare. For example, what is the average life-cycle of a case? You ask ten lawyers, and you’ll get ten different answers. We need to understand the problem. Is it because of a shortage of judges, as most people seem to believe? Is it because of a lack of access to justice? Do lawyers have a role to play?”
Having noticed his perceptible interest in politics, the obvious question is whether the corporate lawyer may turn into a politician in the future.
“To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve always followed the principle that I will do what I enjoy. We’re trying to build Samvad into a good quality firm and train young lawyers. The Daksh work also keeps me occupied on the public policy side!”
To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve always followed the principle that I will do what I enjoy.
The pendulum of the conversation swings back to law firms and the impact of the imminent entry of foreign law firms on the Indian legal market.
“I’ve always held the belief that it shouldn’t matter to a good Indian law firm. Having said that, there are a lot of restrictions on Indian law firms. If they do come in, and we are still subject to same restrictions, then it will be unfair. For example, we can’t get loans from financial institutions. Cash flow is the biggest problem for Indian law firms. You need to have deep pockets like some law firms.
They can go out and hire as many people as they want without bothering about how much salary they have to pay. I don’t grudge them for it; it is an advantage they have naturally, and why shouldn’t they use it?
But for a lot of firms, like us, it’s difficult to expand as we wish; every first-year Associate hire needs to make economic sense. We’ve had examples of Indian law firms not paying salaries for months – its atrocious, I don’t ever want to be in that position. Today, no bank will give a law firm a working capital loan.”
Cash flow is the biggest problem for Indian law firms. You need to have deep pockets like some law firms [do]….I don’t grudge them for it; it is an advantage they have naturally, and why shouldn’t they use it?
Invariably, any conversation on Indian law firms these days will have to touch upon the Amarchand split. Here are his views on the effect of the split:
“I don’t think it will make a difference to the way we practice law. Maybe it will increase competition, but I don’t think we will be affected personally. India is crying out for quality law firms, we are under-lawyered as far as corporate law is concerned.”