However advanced it is, AI cannot replace a human lawyer: Debanjan Mandal of Fox & Mandal

Mandal delves into the legacy of the firm, the use of Artificial Intelligence and other technology in firms, recent collaborations with other firms and more.
Debanjan Mandal
Debanjan Mandal

Fox & Mandal Partner Debanjan Mandal has been with the 125-year-old firm for the past 24 years.

In this interview for Bar & Bench, he delves into the legacy of the firm, the use of Artificial Intelligence and other technology in firms, recent collaborations with other firms and more.

How do you find a balance between maintaining the traditions of the firm and adapting to the changing times?

I believe that the legacy of 125 years has survived through changing times due to the sheer merit and resilience of the lawyers who have held its helm over generations. The firm was established in or around 1896, when the Indian economy was worth $66 million, the English Crown ruled over India, an Englishman (Thomas Babington Macaulay) drafted the Indian Penal Code, and there were three Chartered High Courts in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai, as well as the Supreme Court in Kolkata. The firm still exists when the current economy of the country is over $3 trillion; it is the world’s largest democracy; Delhi has the Supreme Court of India with 25 High Courts in the states.

Over the years, Fox & Mandal has transitioned from a family-owned entity to a professionally-run institution. As a firm, we have always been keen on keeping up and adapting to change. As a client-centric firm, we believe in long-term relations and several of our clients have been with us for generations now. Without striking a balance between tradition and progress, any institution may become trapped in outdated ideas and practices or may embrace changes too quickly and without proper consideration. Our principle is very simple: cater to every need of the client, adapt to changes, and mitigate the risks while keeping in touch with our core beliefs.

Three different firms have been set up with remarkably similar names, claiming the same legacy. Can you sift through this issue for us?

Fox & Mandal was established in 1896 and has never gone through a split. Fox & Mandal is and has always been a separate, independent law firm. Over a period, different entities were created by some of the partners of Fox & Mandal with similar names. Let me explain that in detail.

Fox & Mandal is probably the only instance of an Indo-British joint venture in the legal profession to have been in continuous existence for more than 125 years. The firm started as a partnership between John Kerr Fox - an attorney of English origin - and Gokul Chandra Mandal, an Indian attorney. After the demise of Fox and Mandal, the firm partnership had been reconstituted several times. In 1984, the partnership was reconstituted when Dinabandhu Mandal, Arun Kumar Mandal and their nephew, Asoke Kumar Dhar were taken on board.

These three decided to also open a new law firm with other partners, titled Fox Mandal & Co, headquartered in New Delhi.

A similar name was being used only because there were some common partners, which is not the case at present. With the demise of Dinabandhu Mandal in the year 2020, there has been no common partner between Fox & Mandal which was established in the year 1896, and Fox Mandal & Co, which was established in 1984. Apart from the fact that there were some common partners between these firms, there has been no other connection between the two firms.

Again, in 1996, the same three Partners decided to open a new firm in Bengaluru and named it Fox Mandal & Associates.

Fox & Mandal
Fox & Mandal

What have been some of your contributions to the long-standing legacy of the firm?

While the founders’ vision and mission for Fox & Mandal have served as a guiding light for all of us, one of my key roles was to ensure that the firm stays true to its purpose and remains focused on its goals. The values and principles established by our founders have shaped the culture of the institution and have inspired future generations to maintain a high level of excellence in service delivery. I have built on the strong foundation laid by them through the establishment of cutting-edge infrastructure, systems, and processes necessary for the firm to sustain itself for future growth and stability. I have to steer the firm in the right direction to pave way for future talent.

As the new generation is currently holding the helm of the firm, it is my responsibility to not only keep the legacy in place, but to also expand it. An internal revamp in 2022 led to the firm being able to take steps to start on its own in other cities in the country. We have expanded the firm’s footprint in New Delhi in collaboration with Kunal Vajani and also are looking at expanding the firm in Mumbai. I am looking forward to establishing Fox & Mandal as the one-stop address for corporate and commercial matters, dispute resolution, and matters related to real estate, government services, and projects. I want to build a client-centric firm solely based on the merit and talent of its lawyers. We are constantly working towards digitizing the firm’s operations and its services to make them more relevant for the current market. I am proud of the legacy we hold and I will personally stay focused on three things: talent, merit, and professionalism. 

Kunal Vajani
Kunal Vajani

What prompted the move to expand your footprint in North India by collaborating with Alpha Partners & BlackRobe Chambers in Delhi?

Along with stabilizing the core leadership team, we have spent a lot of time in doing the groundwork before going bullish on expansion. Expansion without a robust leadership team and operational support are often short-lived. I decided to embark on a new journey of growth and expansion after years of steady and successful operations in East India. The tremendous confidence given by the team, the growing demands of clients to have a physical presence across the national capital and the financial capital, and the support of my Partners, paved the way for me to explore new opportunities and challenges.

I personally spent considerable time studying the geographies and finding the right synergies before taking the plunge. Kunal Vajani and Akshat Pande are truly aligned with the vision of Fox & Mandal and both bring diversity to the firm in terms of progressive practices and growth outlook.

Kunal is a bright Solicitor & Counsel, who has spent time with the most renowned advocates and law firms in both Mumbai and Delhi. He is a registered practitioner, DIFC Courts, Dubai. Kunal and I have a longstanding relationship that goes back 10 years. I have always found immense comfort in working with him, so the collaboration with BlackRobe Chambers came quite naturally.

As regards Akshat, he started his legal journey at Fox Mandal & Co, and circled back to Fox & Mandal. With Alpha Partners merging their practice with the firm, Akshat now heads our corporate and commercial team as a Partner. Akshat also has exposure to the legal sector in the Middle-East. With his onboarding, we are not only spreading out to Delhi and Mumbai, but are also all set to expand our footprint across borders at the right opportunity.

Akshat Pande
Akshat Pande

Any future expansion plans on the horizon? Are there specific practice areas that you wish to bolster or new ones to add to your practice?

In terms of geographical expansion, with a presence across Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai, our eyes are set to expand to other cities in the Southern region of the country. We are also building our presence in the Middle-East, as mentioned above. As niche practices and specializations grow, we welcome lawyers and law firms working in niche sectors/practices to collaborate and grow with us.

In terms of specific practices, we will be making active inroads in areas like ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), AI and data privacy, Cybersecurity, Healthcare, Blockchain and Cryptocurrency, Regulatory Compliances, and hybrid of technology with other sectors, which includes Agri-tech, Ed-tech, Med-tech, Fin-tech, and the likes.

What is Fox & Mandal’s USP in 2023? 

The Unique Selling Point of Fox & Mandal in 2023 will be P3 growth: growth in practice, presence, and professionalization. While I’ve explained the growth plans for the first two Ps (practice and presence) above, I would like to share about professionalization. Professionalization of business support is a crucial factor in helping law firms grow and succeed in today's fast-paced and rapidly changing business environment. We have invested in creating an ecosystem of professionalized business support to improve our performance, better serve our clients, and remain ahead of the curve.

Today, we have a team of several qualified and experienced CXO-level team members at our head offices and regional offices. This CXO team consists of Debashish Bose and Salil Bhangvi, who have played a pivotal role in ensuring that the firm embraces professional best practices at this interesting new phase of the firm’s growth. Our association with Legal League Consulting, who are pioneers in guiding law firms to grow, has helped us catalyze our growth story with impact. The team of Bithika Anand, Nipun K Bhatiaa, and Mahima Sharma bring a wealth of industry expertise and experience and have helped us stay ahead of the competition by providing us with the strategy, systems, and processes we need to grow and thrive. 

We are also building a Knowledge Management team that can provide us with valuable insights into market trends, competitive dynamics, and evolving client needs.

Bithika Anand and Nipun Bhatiaa
Bithika Anand and Nipun Bhatiaa

How has Fox & Mandal used technology to its advantage?

We view technology as the biggest opportunity for the legal sector at this point. It has brought about a paradigm shift in the way we work particularly in the context of the pandemic. Thankfully, because of our firm and our clients, we adapted quite easily to these changes. We are incorporating technological tools like e-discovery, which is a process that assists with the identification, preservation, collection, and searching of electronic documents that are intended to be used as evidence in a court proceeding. We have been using these tools for both domestic and international cases.

We have set up virtual workstations for our employees to seamlessly work remotely. In fact, we have introduced electronic signature tools, virtual meeting software, electronic case management tools, etc within the firm. Although now we rely heavily on technology, we have taken robust measures when it comes to cyber security for the protection of our clients.

What are your thoughts on the possibility of Artificial Intelligence rendering some lawyers obsolete in the future?

Although I am all for Artificial Intelligence, one thing that we can all agree on is it can aid the process and make it easier, but can never replace the lawyer. My answer to this is simple. AI works on algorithms and data available to it, but what about questions where there is no data available? If a problem that has never arisen is posed in front of a machine which essentially works only on rules and commands fed to it, how will it tackle such a situation? In contrast, the creativity and adaptability of the human mind is infinite. Did humans lose jobs when calculators were invented? For us humans, we use our prior experience and decision-making skills to analyze and solve issues. Our emotions and instinct play a huge role in courts and legal matters. Thus, I believe that AI is one the most interesting and highly useful tools that humans have built till date, but however advanced it is, it cannot replace a human lawyer. Rather, it can assist a lawyer in eliminating errors and expediting the procedure. 

What is your campus recruitment policy? How much emphasis do you place on the university a graduate comes from?

We have actively started to collaborate with universities, and one of our first associations has been with West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata. We met some of the finest young minds on the campus and several bright students from this University are now a part of the firm. I personally believe that the agility and enthusiasm that the youth bring to the table are unmatched. One needs to tap it and channelize it in the right direction. We are planning to introduce a ‘Buddy System’ where each new joinee is aligned with a mentor who personally invests in mentoring the fresh law graduate and nurturing their talent.

In the coming years, we will be actively recruiting from campuses across the country. More than the university, the focus would be on the willingness to learn, backed by the merit of the candidate. If the candidate has the right attitude to learn, then Fox & Mandal is the perfect place for them to start their legal career. 

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