fivehundred magazine > > Interview with… Ramani Muttettuwegama, managing partner, Tiruchelvam Associates

Interview with… Ramani Muttettuwegama, managing partner, Tiruchelvam Associates

How has your role/involvement in client facing work changed since becoming a Managing Partner?

My law firm is associated with our dynamic founding Partners, the late Dr. and Mrs. Tiruchelvam – both contributors to the legal system in Sri Lanka and globally. We have now grown to carry that name and carve out a niche for ourselves as a full-service law firm with a solution-oriented mindset. Our practice areas are diverse and we handle matters ranging from corporate and investments, real estate, tax, litigation, projects and energy, intellectual property, information technology law, labour and immigration.

What do I do as Managing Partner? Reduce client facing moments and concentrate on management. We are lucky – we have a mid-sized but exceptional team of lawyers handling each division headed by Partners with expertise in their relevant fields. So, I can concentrate on matters that are sensitive or cut across all the divisions of the Firm. Given my political and human rights background, I assist clients who seek a socio-economic-political analysis and I remain the Firm’s key representative with regulators in highly sensitive matters.

What are the biggest challenges facing firms in Asia Pacific and specifically the market in which you operate?

The strange thing about a pandemic originating from our region is that its impact is less felt on Asian economies than the rest of the world. See for instance, as per the ADB study of May 2020, the projected GDP impact is well below the rest of the world (excluding of course the impact on the PRC).

Cross border transactions and travel have been greatly affected in the Asia Pacific region. We can see the impact of this in all the practice areas.

The key problem in our market is continuing operations with reduced cash flow. This has resulted in pay-cuts and retrenchments. Clients need legal advice that help them stay legally compliant and strategic in carrying out restructuring. Therefore, although this pandemic has affected and posed a challenge to certain practice areas such as projects and foreign investments, the more severe impact is seen in our labour and corporate restructuring practice areas.

The impact of the pandemic affected our clients in the tourism, real estate, transportation sectors more so than others. Although in March this year with the start of the pandemic investments were stalled, we are now witnessing our clients particularly in the IT field going ahead with their initial long-term investment goals.

Interestingly despite the quarantine requirements, our immigration department has been exceptionally busy handling a great number of immigration applications for Resident Visas from multinational clients in the IT sector.

Our greatest challenge during this time has been to persuade clients to stay calm and find the capacity to withstand the onslaught instead of giving into panic.

While some issues are beyond the pandemic, we found remarkable positive features during the worst of these times. We have been humbled by our clients’ determination to survive the pandemic. For instance, we are happy to note that our local clients have used this opportunity to become creative. There is an upsurge of local companies traditionally considered as start-ups that are delivering services in the food supply, logistics, digital healthcare, IT and security fields. We have been providing full legal support to our clients in these industries in expanding and achieving their business goals.

My worry however is how this pandemic will affect our profession as a whole. For example, how many newly qualified lawyers will find work or apprenticeship opportunities?

The global pandemic has clearly changed the way in which organizations tend to operate. What have you noted?

The key impact of the pandemic is felt by all. People are less inclined to travel, are anxious about crowding and are tired of delays. Businesses want to reduce overheads in order to stay afloat. Regulators limit visitors (when they are open at all). Public transportation slowed down. So, WFH, reduced labour, more emphasis on supply chain efficiency are the new mantras in Colombo.

I feel that Sri Lankans are resilient. Our chequered political history of 30 years of internal war, political instability and after we all thought it was over, the recent 2019 bombings has helped us develop a mind set to overcome challenges.

How has all this affected our clients?

Our Clients are more interested than ever in cost and efficiency. Tax implications of investments, shifting value of the rupee, the time it takes to complete a transaction – all have taken on a new meaning now. Clients have increasingly been pushed to be more creative and innovative in an attempt to keep with the new normal. They are anxious because they have no idea when the next wave will hit and what that may mean.

Overall, the impact of all this on our clients has largely been industry/sector specific. While some industries have been seriously affected with limited avenues to resort to, from what we have seen, most clients are striving (and eager) to get with the times and changes.

How has the Firm responded?

Even before the pandemic, our Firm already had in place an efficient IT and security infrastructure. So, lawyers were able to easily transition into WFH without compromising clients’ needs. All consultations were held online via online platforms. We also had weekly staff Zoom calls to update all lawyers on the work and to also ensure that the entire staff remained mentally and physically well.

In March as the country went into a lockdown we were faced with anxious clients. Our lawyers worked round the clock to ensure that clients were aware of their legal rights and obligations. We constantly updated them with e-mails, provided strategic solutions, published materials online and organized a legal webinar to educate investors and the public on the legal issues relating to Doing Business during COVID-19.

Our established relationship with Government regulators meant we still had access to them despite their difficult transition to working from home. This enabled us to continue servicing clients at the same pace and efficacy as before.

We were also sensitive to the financial difficulties faced by clients and ensured that all regulatory fees were paid on time and received the reimbursements on a later date. We also worked out payment plans with clients who were severely impacted by the pandemic.

What do you do differently from other Firms? What do you think separates you from your competitors?

Our Firm is unique. The Partners are all women and we are multi generational. Deep rooted values such as equality, inclusivity and rights consciousness instilled by our founding partners are the basis of our law firm. The best interest of our clients is at the forefront of our advice but we also ensure that our advice furthers the betterment of all parties involved and develops and advances the Sri Lankan legal system.

We have never been the traditional, stand on professional high horse, lawyers. Instead, we view ourselves as part of the solution – as facilitators who provide holistic advice to enable clients to make informed decisions on their transactions and problems.

Our main aim, during these trying times – was to stay available, provide a variety of options for clients and talk them through their issues. WFH has created its own sets of challenges – for us lawyers – we are now on call 24 hours a day!

Our key advantage during the pandemic is that we already had in place a strong work management system that includes strict turnaround time on responses and completion of assignments; availability to clients at all times – so we were already used to WFH during holidays and picking up colleagues’ work when they are incapacitated and Partners’ review of each transaction. Clients continued to have direct access to Partners.

Our high degree of attention to detail resulting in our clients getting a better deal on their transaction and cost-conscious approach, which is paying dividends during this time, also sets us apart.

For many years, we have worked within the framework of understanding and getting to know the regulators – seeing them as part of the solution rather than an adversary. During the lockdown and WFH, this helped us – for instance, we managed to get approvals for many residence visas despite the curfew so as to ensure our clients’ businesses aren’t interrupted.

Another thing we did very early on was to invest in innovation. So, for years, we have supported SMEs with creative ideas by carefully creating corporate structures that facilitate growth, negotiating with investors on their behalf and attending to their IP requirements. We do this on a reduced fee basis. We are proud to have such a diverse private client portfolio from Sri Lanka’s first Everest climber, our celebrated whale expert to innovative IT products such as digitalised gem cutting.

Are clients looking for stability and strategic decisions from their law firms- where do you see the Firm in three years’ time?

It’s time to re-think the traditional law firm model in Sri Lanka. Our clients now require services that go way beyond legal advice – they need socio-political context sharing, services such as immigration and license applications, power of attorney holders and mailing addresses in Sri Lanka. Given potential shifts in travel patterns, we can expect more demands of this nature. So, we will need to push ourselves out of the office and the court room and into the real world where we will be expected to represent the clients as their representative in Sri Lanka.

I also see a higher demand for alternative dispute resolution. So, we will begin training our new practitioners on those skills – less adversarial, more compromise and solution oriented than before.

Sometimes, other lawyers, regulators and even the occasional client, are shocked to find we are mainly women and can be very dismissive. I believe, Dr & Mrs Tiruchelvams’ dream of showcasing talent and challenging the highly gendered stereo type of lawyering is about to pay dividend. In the next three years, or even sooner, our multi-tasking team based approach that supports each other and our clients rather than the traditional competitive approach to lawyering will, I believe, be the norm.

But our core is our relationship with our client. Some, like Galadari Hotels Lanka PLC began with a personal relationship between the Tiruchelvams and the Galadari brothers and continue almost 40 years now.

It is our overwhelming belief that our law practice must invest in our clients that holds us apart and will push us to new heights in the future.

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