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Ashwin Julka: Firms must become thought leaders

Ashwin Julka:  Firms must become thought leaders interview image

Remfry & Sagar’s managing partner talks jumping on the technology bandwagon, how a healthy work-life balance is key to a thriving business, and why being a law firm leader is not a role you can shrug off at will

Remfry & Sagar is India’s oldest, and one of its largest, IP firms. How would you define its culture and how important is that culture to you?

If you ask me to answer in one word, I would say ‘unique’. A long history of nearly 200 years has given the firm a distinct culture. This has played a vital role in maintaining its leadership position since its inception in 1827. Values of excellence, professional ethics, diversity, close mentoring and teamwork, and a healthy work-life balance form the keystone of our philosophy.

Clients respect our organisation because of these facets and Remfry has become the benchmark in many ways for the legal industry. As managing partner, I am conscious of this precious legacy and do my best to maintain and enhance the firm’s commitment to its core values which distinguish us from our competition.

As managing partner, what’s the main change you’ve made that will benefit clients?

As a client you expect concise, business-centric advice, quick turnaround and competitive costs. These are the factors I have worked upon – by intensive in-house training of attorneys, removal of infrastructural bottlenecks and incorporation of state-of-the-art technology which promotes efficiency and transparency.

What are the biggest challenges facing firms of your size and specialism in India and across the Asia Pacific region?

The legal industry is in a flux – the top drivers of change being technology and pressures of competition. Remfry & Sagar is no exception.

The biggest challenge is to recognise these forces of change, respond to them and convert them into opportunities.

Firms must look to employ top of the line technological tools and digital solutions to support their core legal services.

As to greater competition due to a plethora of lawyers and non-traditional legal service providers (such as consultancies) in the market, and the resultant commoditisation of legal work, a law firm must create a meaningful point of differentiation from competitors, regardless of size. It must position itself as a ‘thought leader’ – a go-to authority in specific fields.

Also, pressures of cost are here to stay, particularly for lower value work. The traditional billing method – of billing by the hour or in terms of standardised charges for a particular legal activity – is fast evaporating. In its place, to foster long-term relationships, law firms and clients will increasingly enter into alternative billing models such as fixed, flat, blended, or capped fees.

At the same time, it is important to mention that the overall demand for legal services in India is rising. So despite the pressures of cost and competition, there is a lot of opportunity for law firms to expand services and clientele. But to do this successfully, practitioners must don multiple hats: a legal hat to come up with practical and useful advice for clients; a business hat to remain competitive; and an entrepreneurial hat to think out of the box and lead the market.

Can you expand on that? For example, what are the top three things most clients want and why?

To elaborate on what I said earlier, first, a client wants you to be relevant. What this means is that you must understand the client’s business and help it seize opportunities or avoid potential problems before it may even know it itself. Also, a business works to a budget – if market pressures squeeze the bottom line of a client, it expects a law firm to be responsive to fee adjustments. Engaging with clients is about consistently delivering top-quality, holistic solutions and establishing meaningful relationships.

Second, most clients attach tremendous value to responsiveness. If they have a query, one must acknowledge it and respond to it efficiently. Also, when it comes to information on deadlines, changes in the law or procedure, or even if there’s some unpleasant news – every client wants to be updated as soon as possible.

Third, when it comes to seeking legal advice today, clients can choose from an array of firms. But at the end of the day, legal services are all about the perceived value of the final product. If a firm can come up with solutions that combine generalist advice with deep specialist expertise – I think that is a combination that clients really value.

How is technology changing the way you interact with your clients?

To remain relevant, one has to be a part of the technology bandwagon and Remfry is one of the few which adopted this mantra very early on. We bought the first microprocessor-based Indian computer in the late 1970s. Today, the firm has a state-of-the-art infrastructure that ensures every member can securely access our database from any location in the world thereby drastically reducing our turnaround time for clients.

Also, the firm’s records are fully digitised and we have recently designed, developed, and implemented a proprietary (and award-winning) case management solution that enables end-to-end case docketing, tracking and deadline management. This ensures clients get timely alerts and matters are attended to efficiently within stipulated timelines. In addition, we have a proprietary database comprising records of all trade mark, patent and design details published by the IP office, enabling us to render accurate advice on a real-time basis. Also, new tools such as video conferencing and webex have facilitated closer contact with clients and increased efficiencies of time.

Technology is also throwing up new legal challenges. E-commerce calls for a new approach and solutions to deal with the rising menace of online counterfeiting. Streaming of content has created new challenges to copyright protection. Concerns of data privacy, cyberattacks and online piracy, too, are rising. As we assist our clients across such emerging areas of the law, the nature of our practice is also evolving.

Retaining talent is difficult in India. What have you found are the best ways to keep your best partners and associates?

You’re right, retaining talent is difficult, particularly in India where there is a limited supply of quality professionals. But we have tried to create an open and supportive work culture and our statistics speak for themselves.

We can proudly claim to have one of the lowest attrition rates in the industry – less that 3%. More than one-third of our members (including ten of 14 partners) have been at the firm for more than ten years – resulting in stability and continuity of service to our clients.

We are a merit-driven institution and I believe there are many factors which make us an appealing choice. Our reputation as an industry leader, the remuneration we offer, the value we attach to each member’s potential and the career path we envisage for them, our emphasis on teamwork and collaboration – all these factors together enable individuals to thrive and develop.

The firm rewards hard work and accomplishment, but equally it prides itself on the fact that team members enjoy a healthy work-life balance. Flexi-working hours and technological tools have been put in place to ensure our attorneys can log in to the office network from wherever is convenient.

How has your role/involvement in client-facing work changed since taking on larger management responsibilities?

My work profile has seen a sea change since becoming managing partner. Given the varied responsibilities and pressures on my time, I no longer work on matters on a day-to-day basis. My energies and expertise are directed more towards offering strategic advice to important industry/client issues.

So, what’s surprised you most about running a firm?

The position you always aspire to, is a challenge that you are least prepared for. It is surprising the amount of time one has to invest in ‘man management’. It is almost as time consuming and critical as client management.

Also, the range of responsibility calls for a very high degree of multitasking and in the background one eye must always be trained on the bigger picture.

So it is a role one cannot really shrug off at will – it is your constant companion whether it is day or night!