“There is a rule that one cannot hire family members and this rule starts with me” – Hemant Sahai on 10 years of HSA Advocates

“There is a rule that one cannot hire family members and this rule starts with me” – Hemant Sahai on 10 years of HSA Advocates

Anuj Agrawal

On August 8, 2003, after spending close to 12 years at JSA, Hemant Sahai established Hemant Sahai Advocates (subsequently renamed as HSA Advocates). Now, as HSA Advocates celebrates ten years of its existence, Bar & Bench caught up with Hemant Sahai to discuss his views on the changing Indian legal market, some of the milestones reached over the last decade and why the firm does not believe in hiring family members.

B&B: Ten years. That is quite a long time. Is this what you had in mind when you started the firm in 2003?

Hemant Sahai: I agree, the first 10 years of a firm determine its future course. We are at a defining moment in our lives.

The one thing that I was always clear about was that HSA (then Hemant Sahai Associates) would not be a boutique practice; the vision was always to create and build a large firm – may not be the largest, but definitely a meaningfully large firm. We have managed to build a full service firm with a quality practice and a decent size team, and this puts us within the bracket of the medium to larger firms in India. While most of our growth so far has been organic, we have had some inorganic growth too.

B&B: In an earlier interview, you had said that you wanted to be 15-partner strong by 2015, 20 Partners by 2017.

HS: We have achieved those numbers much in advance – we are currently 13 partners and Associate Partners and we should be back to our planned strength of 15 as we were last year. Based on our current growth trends, we are confident that we will get to a strength of 20 partners much earlier than 2017. We continue to look at growth and expansion, both organic and through lateral hires. While today’s market conditions are not really conducive to high growth trajectories, we have managed to maintain our positive growth trends.

B&B: Was hiring Meenakshi Arora a conscious decision to build the litigation practice?

HS: We already had Ranjit [Prakash] who has a really strong arbitration practice heading our litigation practice; Meenakshi brought with her the mainstream court practice experience and skills. Yes, integrating Meenakshi’s practice into HSA was certainly a conscious decision consistent with our expansion plans. HSA now boasts of an enviable corporate and civil litigation and ADR portfolio. One area that has seen tremendous growth in our disputes practice is regulatory litigation, which in some ways, is an extension of our highly specialised projects practice.

What we have realized is that litigation in the specialised tribunals, such as the Electricity Tribunal or National Green Tribunal, requires skills more than just an understanding of law and conventional civil litigation. One also needs to have strong acumen and understanding of the commercial and economic aspects of the underlying sector. Each sector, whether its energy, aviation, telecom or others, has its own peculiar dynamics though the economic and regulatory principles may be common. We are able to bring a strong understanding of the comemrcial and economic aspects of the underlying sector to the table, which is what distinguishes our services. We bring this philosophy of specialisation to each one of our practice areas and therefore, bring a different value proposition to clients. We refuse to compete with firms on pricing, rather we compete on value, which is where we are able to distinguish ourselves.

B&B: Any highlights along the way?

HS: Ten years is a long time and we have had our share of successes and highlights. We have been proud of what we have been able to achieve within a relatively short span of time. Some of the highlights are that today, we are consistently ranked amongst the top firms in the country and these rankings are not based on the size of the firm but on the quality of  our work and transactions. We are increasingly being recognised for our work beyond our traditional strengths of projects and infrastructure. Even though we are a reasonably large firm today, we pride ourselves more on the quality and depth of our team, quality of transactions and clients. Measured on these criteria, we are comparable to any other firm.

We have always worked to short term targets, medium term plans and a long term vision. To give you an example, when we shifted our office from Defence Colony to Friends Colony, we doubled our office size. Moving to a larger office is always something we have looked at with optimism as well as a bit of concern – you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. I thought this office would be good for the next 10 years, but we started running out of space in 3 years! Then when we moved to our present office at Adhchini, which was once again twice the size of the Friends Colony office, we thought this would be good enough for some time. However. within a year and a half we had to take up additional space and finally an additional floor in the same building. We currently have 25,000 sq feet of space in our Delhi office.

B&B: Any achievements you are particularly proud of?

HS: We are particularly proud of the fact that we are increasingly being recognised as the “go to” lawyers in areas beyond our traditional strengths of infrastructure, especially in M&A/PE and project finance. I have always maintained that quality is not the exclusive repository of the large firms. In fact, the global trend is that qualitatively smaller firms are better – a fact that is reflected in several client satisfaction ratings in India too.

B&B: How did you steer the firm’s growth?

HS: We have managed to work to short-term targets and medium-term plans consistent with our long term vision. Our strength is that at the leadership, we have a “buy-in” to these plans, since each of them have been involved in the formulation of these targets, plans and vision. For instance, over the last five years  we have expanded to become a full-service firmas we added litigation, tax and project finance partners. Our plans are aggressive and so far we have met these targets consistently.

I now tend to play a mentorship role and the execution responsibilities are shared by all the partners and the team.

B&B: And what is your role in the management of the firm?

HS: Firm management works at two levels – The organisation level visioning and plans on the one part and execution of the vision and plans on the other. On formulation of the plans and their execution, all decisions are always made by the partners collectively. I do not take these decisions alone. That is the reason we are all aligned to the plans and are committed to growing at a certain pace and trajectory.

The vision is something that I do tend to provide and in doing so, I carry my partners with me; I like to push [my team] out of their comfort zones. So instead of adding two Partners for instance, I ask them whether we can add five.

B&B: What about the decision making process?

HS: Our decision-making process is broken down to two levels – at the Partner level and at the Firm level. The Partners are the frontline leaders that are heading their practices. Accordingly, the partners take operating level decisions, such as hiring of teams, marketing and other practice level strategies. On the other hand, the Firm level, decisions are taken by an Executive Committee and also discussed amongst our Partners.

B&B: Any mistakes you have made along the way?

HS: Well, everyone makes mistakes and so have we. I think that we have also learnt from them though. The mistakes have not dampened our aggressive growth strategies.  For instance, we have decided thatour inorganic growth will not be through merger with other firms, rather we will absorb practices and partners laterally. We have also resolved not to be diffident and low key in the public sphere, as we have been in the past and we will work harder at building and leveraging our goodwill and market presence.

B&B: Your thoughts on the legal market?

HS: In the current economic scenario, law firms should be consolidating but are instead, fragmenting. And I think part of the reason for this is a systemic failure at various firm’s level. People feel incentivized to leave rather than stick around with the firm; this is perhaps a reflection of the failure to share the growth [of the firm] in a meaningful way.

We had decided right from inception not to have family structures; there is a rule that one cannot hire family members, even from the extended family. And this rule starts with me.

The advantage of this is that everyone can view his or her growth objectively; everyone has a fair and transparent shot at partnership. We have had such people grow within the firm and we are a magnet for talent.

Also, most people are going to be driven by their own personalities, but I still think that fragmentation (of the legal market) is primarily taking place because larger firms are unable to retain quality talent due to their ownership and management structures.

B&B: Any new hobbies or interests you have picked up recently?

HSWell, I started flying a few years ago. So that is fulfillment of an old  passion. As for indulging in trekking, motorcycles or automobiles – I think I wanted to follow these passions at different stages of my life but did not at that stage have either the time or the resources.

Of late, I have invested in creating time for such interests. It is a passion as well as a personal philosophy. I believe that if onewere to focus on just one thing, then the person tends to become monochromatioc.

While remaining highly focused on one’s career is good because chances of success in monetary terms is higher, however, the downside  is that the  risk of a burnout is very high; just being a lawyer day in and day out, one can tend to burn out.  Having diverse interests helps not just in rejuvenation of the mind and body, it also ensures a more sustainable professional career.

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