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Our biggest asset is our people – Suneeth Katarki & Srinivas Katta, IndusLaw

Our biggest asset is our people – Suneeth Katarki & Srinivas Katta, IndusLaw

Pallavi Saluja

Started in 2000 by Suneeth Katarki, Srinivas Katta, Gomatam Sridhar and Srinivasa Raghavan, IndusLaw has grown to become a 75 lawyer, 11 partner firm with offices across four cities.

Bar & Bench speaks with IndusLaw Partners Suneeth Katarki and Srinivas Katta on their decision to set up IndusLaw, their successes and failures, and their vision for the firm.

The dream to build a professional firm

Suneeth: “Even while we were studying in law school, we were quite keen on setting up something on our own. This was in 1996 when there were hardly any firms that were truly professional.

We had all done our internships in different firms and what we saw there convinced us that all these firms are not so professional. The more time we spent in each of our respective firms, the more we realized that we really need to set up a good professional firm that works only on the basis of merit and allows people to become partners based on merit. That was the dream with which we started IndusLaw.”

Srinivas: “Initially we were there for the joy of practicing law. It wasn’t about building the firm although we always knew that we are going to be professional in the way we work and the way we will make lawyers grow in the organization. The focus wasn’t so much on building the firm but enjoying work. The first 5-6 years was all about learning. The truth is the expression “professional” takes on a different meaning as we grow and evolve.”

Success and Failures

There have been a few success stories, some failures too.

Suneeth: “It was in 2005 or 2006 when we started thinking of building a pan India presence. We spoke to Gaurav Dani and Avimukt Dar in Delhi who had set up their own firm. In 2007, we merged with them and called ourselves ‘Indus G&D Law’ for a while. That was for the first foray into building the firm.”

Delhi was just the first stop.

In 2008, Satyasree Akella, now a partner in the firm, set up the Hyderabad office. Four years later, the firm established a Mumbai office.. In the meanwhile, they also managed to get Kartik Ganapathy who was heading the private equity practice at Nishith Desai to join the firm in 2010. Ganapathy was not the only big-ticket lateral hire.

In 2012, Pramod Rao moved from ICICI Bank to IndusLaw. Priyanka Roy then joined them from Alliance Legal. But less than a year later, Rao moved to Citibank as General Counsel. Just last year, Nishant Singh, an Associate Partner at Khaitan & Co, Mumbai and Ran Chakrabarti who had worked with Amarchand Mangaldas and a couple of London firms including Ashurst and White & Case joined them.

Suneeth:There have been some failures too. Tapas Mishra, who joined us from PWC as a tax partner in the Delhi office, had to leave the firm as he felt that his practice was not really growing. In Bombay, we had Pramod Rao, who joined us from ICICI bank. He was a veteran in ICICI but law firm practice is quite different from being an in-house counsel. I guess, it was also our failure that we couldn’t help him make the transition.

So there have been some good things and some not so good things.”

Srinivas: On the people side, we have had a few people leave us over the years. We treat not being able to retain people, or not being able to give them a platform to evolve and grow, as a failure.

The recipe for success

Suneeth: “We follow various things at the firm. One, we have tried to be inclusive in the way we have tried to build the firm. We make sure there is consensus and everyone is on board.”

“We have different committees including knowledge management, training, templates, and publications. We have specific partners taking care of each committee but the key here is our inclusion of associates also. We also empower the associates to run these committees with partners only providing guidance. This helps them understand what it takes to build the firm and they also grow professionally. We make sure that training percolates as well. At every stage we try to be very inclusive and obviously we give more responsibilities as a person becomes a Senior Associate and a Principal Associate. That’s also where they see themselves as growing just not in a practice of law but beyond the practice of law – what and how law firms look at things. People have been a great asset.”

Srinivas: “As far as strategic decision-making is concerned, we strive to get consensus but as far as implementation goes we don’t believe that it is necessary to build consensus. We make the distinction between what is an important decision and what is a day-to-day decision.

Each partner has an administrative role and in general we don’t interfere in each other’s departments. If I hit a roadblock or if I have a tough question, I will always bring it back to the partnership and then we discuss.”

“We must also remember that at the end of the day we are a people business. However brilliant the Partners are its useless unless there is a team. So if you ask us what is our biggest asset, it’s not our brand, it’s not our Partners, it’s our people.

We want to be a very intense and cool place to work in. Usually those two terms don’t go with each other. As far as the work is concerned it must be intense but people must be happy to work and this is what we have tried to build. Our HR team works hard to make the work-place fun and engaging all year around.”

Pure play equity model

This management philosophy may not be the only differentiating factor between IndusLaw and other law firms. The equity distribution followed by this firm is also slightly different from the traditional model.

Suneeth: “We tend not to link equity with the revenue or say its revenue-based. We tend to look at it in a more holistic way. Obviously equity is something where we want to give comfort in the sense that we won’t tell someone you are 5% equity today then drop them to 2% if they are not billing or give them 10% if the billing is fantastic. We give percentages and we look at reviewing every 3 years and we accordingly see if any change is required so that everyone feels they are where they deserve to be, that’s the over all approach.”

Srinivas: “The reason that we like to do it this way is there are 4-5 of us who do similar stuff. Like say I get a 100 million dollar transaction and a 5 million dollar transaction; if we are not on a pure equity model, whatever is the situation, I will take 100 million deal and pass on the 5 million deal. So very often things actually work the other way round. We look at who is busier at that time, who has greater expertise in that business vertical and accordingly pass on the transaction. We obviously want the firm to put its best foot forward instead of me putting my best foot forward and see how much money I take at end of the year. Very often you have partners passing on very large transactions to other partners just because of convenience or may be because of expertise in a particular vertical or for other reasons. Nobody thinks about the money in deciding what to do ourselves and what to pass on. It actually keeps us very integrated and we keep supporting each other. The incentives are completely aligned at this moment.”

“We are looking at the common goal of building the firm. So having a pure equity model is beneficial at this stage, who knows 5 years from now we may change the model. We will never have “eat what you kill” model but we might adopt a lock step or a modified lock step. I do think we will always remain a pure play equity model at least in the near future.”

Vision for the firm

Suneeth:The immediate vision is to grow and have larger presence in Bombay and Delhi. Bangalore will continue to grow and hopefully will grow at a better rate.”

“The long term simple vision is to build a people centric firm that to us means intelligent, hard working AND happy lawyers translating to a great work product. We believe with a little effort the rest will follow.”

Srinivas: “The aim is always be a multi disciplinary law firm and not a full service firm. We want to be top 3 in each of the practice areas we operate in. It doesn’t matter to us where our over all rankings are but in each practice area we operate in we want to be in top 3.

What that translates to us as a firm in order of ranking is of a little consequence. At the end of the day if you ask me how I would measure a law firm; it would really be the kind of work we do, the kind of transactions we are involved in, the role we play in the transaction and the kind of clients that engage us.”

Generating revenue and billable hours

Suneeth: “Really, the golden years for law firms were somewhere between 1999 to 2008 and that’s where we could command anything. It’s no longer that. Since 2008, the economy has slowed down. Obviously there are lots of firms that have built up lots of capacities and therefore they are more willing to say “I will want to keep people engaged, so I will reduce the fee if needed.”

Clients say there is a firm, which takes lesser so revise the fee, even if it’s an old client. There is much more fee pressure in the form of saying that we want a fixed amount or reduction in the hourly rate, so all that has been happening.

I believe that if the economy starts growing 8 to 10% or more at least for the next few years, again we may start loosing some of these price pressures. I suspect it will ease off for the next few years if the economy grows.

The last year or so has been better. Hopefully with this will continue to be the case”.

Liberalization of legal market

Suneeth: “It’s not in the priority so I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next 3-4 years at least.”

Srinivas: “There will be some kind of hybrid model where nobody will be allowed to practice Indian law. You will be able to service international transactions like what Singapore do today. I don’t think you will ever find an economy which opens up legal service completely. At end of the day you have to be qualified locally. It doesn’t matter whether you are a local firm or a foreign firm. So you will see, some kind of a hybrid 5 years or 8 years from now. When exactly is anybody’s guess.”

Do law firms need to get more professional?

Suneeth: “Certainly we do. There is a huge scope to get far more professional. Most law firms are very poor in terms of how they use technology, how they do their knowledge management. So there is huge scope to improve usage of IT and certainly when law firms have more revenue, they will have more money to spare for getting more and more professional people for various aspects like HR, technology, and knowledge management. We are all heading in the right direction.”

Srinivas: “I think in the last 5 years, the one thing, which law firms have evolved, is on project management. 10 years ago project management probably did not exist in law firms in India. This is one area where law firms have seen a lot of improvement.”

Suneeth: “But one thing will still remain; I think law firms will remain fragmented. You are not going to have the big four, it has not happened worldwide. I don’t see it happening at least not in the next few years.”

Staying away from Best friend relationship

Suneeth: “We sort of shied away from that. There are some advantages and some disadvantages. The disadvantage is that all other firms will start looking elsewhere. The advantages are of course you will get some practices, technology etc. that will help the firm.  We have always tried to have a bunch of firms in different jurisdiction that we are comfortable working with. We have tried to work with a bunch of people; we have not tried to cautiously build a specific best friend relationship.”

Work life balance

Suneeth: “Intense and cool are the two things that sums up our work like balance. It can be a 14-15 hour day and you can’t say that I will do only 10 hour day, it just doesn’t work in massive transactions where clients expect you to be on a call at 12 in the night or sometimes even later. It’s hard to say I will only do cutting edge work or say I will not open my laptop after 6pm or get on a call after 6 pm.

The key is to make it intense but cool. You have a 14-hour day yet if you can manage to keep the person vibrant and happy and not feel the pressure then yes you have achieved what you have wanted.”

Srinivas: “This is a profession where the first 15 years you give it everything. So, if you want work life balance you will not have a great career but that is a personal choice.

I remember the first 4 years when I used to work in a different law firm, I used to open the office at 7.30 in the morning every single day Monday to Friday and I would shut down the office at 11 pm every single day. I used to do that even when I was a student. Today I can say after 18 years in the profession, I can look at a work life balance, but I could not have thought of it then. That’s true for everybody in this profession; put in the hard work in first 10-12 years and after that you can start doing a lot of things.”