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Articulate, dynamic and passionate, Bar & Bench talks to Sajan Poovayya about his firm, his work, his family and his love for old cars. In conversation with the socialist who blends well with capitalism.
“The hardest years”
The firm has a chequered history, if I may say so, but it’s been a fantastic journey. The whole idea of establishing a firm occurred when I was in law school. For some reason, I decided to practise on my own, and the logical corollary was to litigate. From year two of law school, until I graduated, I worked in the office of a Senior Counsel, Mr. Vijayshankar, who went on to become the Advocate General for Karnataka. Those 4 years of working in Mr. Vijayshankar’s office, in particular the last year when he became the Advocate General, helped me enormously. The exposure I got there was far above any Law School could ever give. Towards the end of my undergraduate programme I knew that I was going to start a firm.
A few months into practice our firm was set up with essentially one room, one table, a few chairs and one office boy who also doubled up as a court clerk, and who still works with us. I think the period between 1997, when I graduated from law school, and 1999 were the hardest years. The market had tanked in 1996-97, like it did now- and spending on legal verticals was the last priority for people. Due to a stroke of good luck, and the fact that we thought differently, the firm really grew over the next three years. By the end of 1999, we were a 6-lawyer firm. We typically did some real estate work in general and local title opinions, matrimonial disputes, civil disputes.
“The technology boom”
After I finished my solicitors programme and came back to India, we saw brilliant opportunities in servicing outsourcing players. At that point of time, I did not know of a single law firm which had a credible practice area or a practise group concentrating on outsourcing. Law firms dismissed it as BPO work, compliance not being comparable to M&A deals. I found that both convenient, and an opportunity to start doing BPO work from 2000. Today, we represent every single major technology player in the country. We do work for huge internet companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Network Applicances and smaller companies like Ibibo and 24/7. The firm grew as our clients grew. Our corporate, real estate and infrastructure practices expanded with the growth of our core technology practice.
“Boston, New York and London”
Our immediate plans are the opening of the Hyderabad and Kolkata offices. In the short to medium term, we want to establish a presence in London and at least one presence in the east coast, in Boston and New York. We will firm up a relationship with a fairly large firm, either US headquartered or UK headquartered or if that is not possible, we will set up our own offices and see how it goes. Many of our team members are dual qualified in UK, including me, which will only help.
“You don’t invite somebody to your house without cleaning it up”
I do think the legal market should open up. Not for any particular reason, but only from a legal jurisprudential vertical. The minute we realize we want to be protected, and guard our boundaries, we should realize that our market, therefore, is only within those boundaries. Consequently, our talent is exploited only to the extent the market exploits us. If we believe that we have the capacity to cater to any client in any part of the world, when it comes to Indian law, we should stand up to the competition and let the market open up. Also, Indian lawyers get the opportunity to work with larger firms, earn more money and consumers get the opportunity to get international quality lawyering in India.
But I agree with Mr. Lalit Bhasin’s statement that you have to first open up your profession for Indians. How many Indian lawyers can actually join law firms today? Most of them go into general litigation practice, because they don’t have the opportunity to get into a law firm. Make sure that your education gets up to speed and produces lawyers capable of joining an international law firm. I think there is an urgent need for the Bar Council to consider multi-disciplinary partnerships. I still cannot partner with a Company Secretary or a Chartered Accountant, and I don’t know why! I think the regulatory system and the legislative mandate governing partnerships must be changed. It is at that point of time that your market is ready to open up. You don’t invite somebody to your house without cleaning it up.
“Corporate: Litigation; 50:50”
Unfortunately, most students from national institutions land up in corporate law rather than litigation, and I say unfortunate because I’m a litigator. I think it is not so much the money. 15 years ago, 1,500 rupees a month was a princely sum. In most law firms and most litigators’ offices, a clerk got paid more than a junior lawyer. Because the clerk stayed there for a longer period of time and honestly, the clerk was more productive than the junior lawyer! I think people who don’t want to get into litigation are being very myopic. And I think the litigation system is also not making itself an attractive proposition for youngsters. When I started off, all my work was litigation. Today, about 50 percent of my work is litigation. I’m one of the lucky few lawyers who have a fantastic blend of hard core litigation and hardcore corporate practice. If somebody was to ask me to make a choice, however, I would pick litigation.
“FICCI is an independent hat that I wear”
The FICCI chairpersonship is a completely honorary hat. FICCI is one of India’s largest industry associations with a few thousands of members directly and indirectly. The Karnataka chapter has the reputation of having first generation entrepreneurs. Typically Karnataka has never had third or fourth generation entrepreneurs, of course, with a few exceptions. My role as Chairman basically is to vibrantly act as the industry-government interface. When new policies come up, we critique it, advise the government, provide a comment, and we also act as the overall body to kind of guide industry concerns to the government. Also we try to hasten the pace of industrial development by trying to trying to attract foreign investment.
“I don’t want to work with my wife or kids”
I will certainly not brainwash my kids into studying law. But if they choose to get into the profession, I’ll whole-heartedly welcome it. I will go one step further and make sure that I create the right set of parameters for them to like this profession. Will I be glad if they take after me? I will certainly be. Would I want them to work with me? Absolutely not. The last thing I want to do is work with my kids or my wife. Sanjanthi has her own matrimonial practice. She worked with the firm briefly for the period when I was in LSE. I’ll be extremely happy if my kids picked up law. I’d want them to get into one of these national institutions, graduate, do their masters and come back to India. I’d be unhappy if they didn’t come back.
”India does not have an eye for old cars”
I’ve always liked cars. I remember my father’s old Ambassador which my mother tells me he bought the year I was born. I’m still hunting to buy it back. The passion for cars has always been in me, I don’t know what triggered it, honestly. Why vintage cars? I’ve realized over the last three-to-four years that India does not have an eye for old cars. They are scrapped, dumped all over the place. The ones which were owned by the maharajas and the big zamindars are restored and owned by the business tycoons. But there is a huge range of smaller cars which the common man in India used, between 60 and 30 years ago, which can be collected and they have a history to tell- in the sense that Bangalore and Mysore were filled with these cars. I restrict myself to European cars, mostly German and British cars, I don’t collect American cars. I’ve been lucky to pick up a few, restore them, I think it’s a great joy to see a car being restored to its pristine glory. I also collect vintage motorcycles. I hope that one day my kids will pick up after me.