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Suneeth Katarki: Happy associates make for happy clients

IndusLaw’s co-founding partner discusses the war for talent in India, the best way to retain the partners of tomorrow, and why international practice aren’t all they’re cracked up to be

How would you define your firm’s culture? How important is firm culture to you?

We love a culture that is more millennial driven – all elements of a cool and fun work place with flexible office timings etc., without any compromise on quality of service provided. We believe giving a sense of ownership at each level is critical and endeavour to engage and keep people involved at every level in some aspects of decision making on behalf of the firm. We also believe it is critical for associates and partners to build congenial atmosphere amongst themselves. Wanting to come to work, being happy and challenged at work are important ingredients of a good firm culture. Happy associates make for happy clients.

What’s the biggest change or innovation you’ve made in the firm of late that will benefit clients?

The firm’s goal has been to do everything around ensuring lawyers get to focus only on things they want to focus on – such as client delivery, knowledge acquisition, client building – even rest, relaxation, and fun time. This has meant investing heavily in support staff, including hiring a non-lawyer CEO to enable the streamlining of all support staff. This means lawyers at all levels get a greater ability to focus on clients and focus on things that will help them be better lawyers.

What does innovation mean to you and how can Indian firms be better at it?

I think Indian firms need a mind-set change. They too often believe that lawyers work is too unique and no one other than lawyers understand it and so use that as an excuse to prevent learnings from other industries. If we were just open to looking at ourselves as yet another services industry (of course with some unique elements because we are doing legal services) we would be able to learn, adopt, and absorb very many innovative things happening in various other services industries. It needs a mind-set change. Using available technology and artificial intelligence to automate more and more legal services involving less involvement of lawyers is needed to enable speedier and cheaper delivery of services. Law firms can be better at identifying legal needs of the client industry and more innovative in identifying laws that can be used by clients to improve their business efficiency.

How has your firm developed or expanded of late?

We have expanded significantly of late. From being less than 100 lawyers three years ago to being nearly double in strength, we have added more breadth and depth to our capabilities. We have added a new capital markets practice, expanded our employment law and TMT practices, and developed a more robust investigations and anti bribery practice, while continuing to expand on areas we have always covered such as our private equity and M&A and dispute resolution.

What are the biggest challenges facing you in India?

It may seem surprising for a country as populous as India but the biggest challenge is availability of good legal talent. For our demographics and the vast number of colleges providing legal education, the actual employability for top law firms in India is typically restricted to only a maximum of ten to 12 colleges since the rest, unfortunately, don’t have the desired quality or have too few people with the desired quality that it becomes impossible to filter them through the usual interview processes. This lesser talent pool to dip from results in driving up legal costs, too much work being handled by too few associates and thus resulting in associates too often spending nearly 100% of their time on legal delivery without desirable time being spent on article writing, knowledge management, and self-improvement outside learning through direct legal services delivery.

What do you think is the likelihood of India’s legal market opening up to foreign law firms and would you welcome this development?

Looks like this is likely to happen with countries on a reciprocal basis i.e., countries which will allow India-qualified lawyers to practice law in their jurisdictions. This needs to be done when Indian law firms are ready to take on the competition and take on the advantage of being able to establish law firms outside India themselves. Indian law firms should be ready for that in five to seven years’ time but may not be ready immediately.

What do you think are the top things most clients want and why? Have these changed over time?

Fundamentals of legal services and expectation remain the same – high quality delivered in the quickest possible response time. However, there is today also the expectation of understanding of clients’ business and anticipating legal services that they will need. The enlarged role of in-house legal counsel means that law has entered in the boardroom or at least the senior management as an integral part of business and not merely in situations where legal breaches have occurred. This means that using law and developments in law to manoeuvre the client business and anticipate client needs is getting more and more important.

Is technology changing the way you interact with your clients and the services you can provide them? </h3?

Yes indeed. It means you can provide services that are more comprehensive, will allow you to bundle low cost services along with high cost services make it more efficient for client and to help retain the firm as a one stop shop for the client. Technology can also mean limiting human interaction and allowing technology to drive the first level service to clients, which again should mean more ready use of our services by client. It also means lesser hours spent by associates allowing law firms to be innovative on pricing and reduce or even eliminate man hours as the main basis of pricing services and make it more value driven.

What have you found is the best way to retain talent – both at partner and associate levels?

At the junior levels, it is the quality of work, the learning and mentoring from senior lawyers, general camaraderie and a fun work place. As you move up the levels, it is more important to take the engagement with the firm to a higher level. This means engagement in terms of involving senior associates and partners in various decision making processes of the firm, providing clarity on career progress, communication on all aspects of the firm and not just in relation to their bonus and entitlements, seeking opinion from them on ways and means of growing the practice, the firm, new practice areas and implementing some of their ideas gives them a strong sense of ownership and belonging to the firm which eventually is the best way to retain talent.

How do you convince top talent to stay in India rather than pursuing a career abroad at international firms?

I think it is important to convey to budding lawyers about the importance of being close to the action and being involved in exciting work on the ground. Sometimes, working in international firms as part of an India desk may mean doing India work but without being able to provide in-depth on the ground knowledge about the transaction or matter for which you have to rely on domestic firms. Therefore, the ability to service comprehensively is not the same. Further, the opportunities are only growing in India and law is developing around several new areas rapidly and being in India will also help shape the law. While there is significant uncertainty in law and policy in India and while this no doubt creates business difficulties, it provides great opportunities for lawyers to provide more nuanced inputs to business, all of which makes for an exciting career right here.

What are your firm’s policies on diversity and inclusion?

We had a stated objective of having at least 25% of our partners being female and we are happy to say that we have more than achieved that objective. We also have a differently-abled associate, who is 100% visually impaired, whom we are proud of and it has been a great learning experience for all associates to work with him. We make conscious efforts to see where we can include more differently-abled people in our work environment.

What’s surprised you most about running a firm?

How much it is about running business as opposed to only providing services and practising law. The issues that all business heads face are not dissimilar to what you face in running a firm. Acknowledging and understanding this and most importantly the extent of learning from it has been the biggest surprise.

What advice would you give to the next generation of partners and law firm leaders?

The world is changing. People need to stop thinking of a law firm as a compendium of partners and look at how it can be a cohesive thriving business enterprise with a common culture, work ethic, and branding. Partners need to look at what the law firms stands for and whether that suits their personal thinking, culture, and aspirations before joining the firm, and once they join they should always strive to align their objectives and firm’s objectives in all they do.