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was almost non-existent, except in specific areas, which were more noncorporate. The corporate advisory was very nascent possibly because the Indian corporate sector was still growing at that time and liberalization hadn’t occurred. But I think the evolution has been fantastic (pauses) much beyond my expectation in terms of growth, opportunities, diverse practice areas, clients’ service etc. It has opened up phenomenal opportunities for young, legal professionals. B&B: You were an accountant for 7 years? How did law happen? AB: I was very privileged to have met Harish Salve and his father N.K.P. Salve very early in my career. They were my two mentors. Mr. Salve was of course like a father figure. It was very kind of Harish to have introduced me to his father. Between Harish and Mr. Salve (I called him “Uncle”) they were anxious that I do law. I basically used to do tax work with them and learnt a lot about law. In those days, Mr. Salve and Harish’s tax practice was very focused on huge clients with high level tax issues where you needed to understand corporate law, Sale of Goods Act, Contract Act, Companies Act etc. Mr. Salve used to say that one couldn’t practice tax unless one was well informed of these core areas. So I learnt a lot about law but he always insisted I should practice law.
Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on Indian legal industry and how the legal profession has evolved over the years? Ajay Bahl: I have seen the legal profession evolve from the time I was an accountant. I spent about seven years as an accountant, observing the legal profession from the outside. I think it has been fantastic to see how the profession has evolved over the years, particularly in northern India. For many years, it was dominated by litigation alone. The whole advisory practice
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Mr. Salve used to say that one couldn’t practice tax unless one was well informed of these core areas. So I learnt a lot about law but he always insisted I should practice law.
By then I had started doing my own work as well. About 6 or 7 years later, I decided to change my profession. I went back to him and told him I want to be a lawyer; so he said, “I will call Soli Sorabjee” That’s where Harish had started his initial days and you can also begin there”. But I told him I want to do corporate law, and I still remember Uncle saying,
Having the background of being trained under Mr. even then. We were also just acquainting ourselves with the developments in this field through a US law firm I used to do a lot of work with. particularly by audit. some advisory work and some audit work. company law. By the time I joined the legal profession. But I felt I was getting very pigeon-holed into one specific field and my desire. was to advise clients on corporate matters. Salve for a recommendation. which I was doing but I was getting bogged down. Sanjeev Puri is now a designated Senior Counsel but we try to work together as far as possible. Salve and with Harish. The moment they saw somebody trying to work hard they would be very indulgent. “What is corporate law? There is no such thing as corporate law”. I decided I need to do something more. He is still a Partner of the firm and a very important part of the firm. Sanjeev Puri and Nanju Ganpathy joined the firm. So I surrendered my certificate of practice about 5 days before I was slated to sign my first tax audit report and that’s how I joined the legal profession and went to Mr. Raman Sharma. who had recently left JB Dadachandji and set up his own practice. In fact we used to have his name on the masthead and my wife’s maiden name so that we could show we had more lawyers who were not related to Ajay Bahl! In fact we used to have his name on the masthead and my wife’s maiden name so that we could show we had more lawyers who were not related to Ajay Bahl! Then. I decided to move to law. But he didn’t have a vacancy. I had moved to an office in South Extension [in Delhi]. a pretty active tax practice considering where I had started. has been with me since the beginning. and I said. He came to me to do his articleship in my CA firm. Anyway. B&B: What made you change your mind and change your profession? AB: I used to attend evening classes [in law]. structuring © Bar & Bench etc. B&B: How did Ajay Bahl & Co become AZB & Partners? AB: I had met Bahram Vakil when the energy sector opened up. The tax department was remarkable at that time. We were already doing work for clients where I was doing tax. B&B: So you started Ajay Bahl and Co from your house garage? How were the initial years? AB: Ajay Bahl & Co was just an extension of my accounting practice. So a lot of my existing clients continued to support my legal practice and gave us their legal matters and took more and more legal advice from us. I 2 . by God’s grace. he gave me a letter of recommendation at my insistence to work with Shailender Swarup. and I had. After about six and a half years of a serious tax practice. so I started from my garage where I was already doing my tax practice. “Why don’t you stay as a lawyer?”. Nanju is very much associated with the firm. In fact. It was literally a week’s decision between me and my wife. He was a Partner at Little & Co then. And then we had couple of lawyers join in and one of my partners. it was a phenomenal opportunity as well.
We just completely hit it off. the good thing was that a number of our Partners in both the . People don’t believe it but it was as simple as that. We just completely hit it off. They were looking to expand in Delhi and we were looking to expand in Bombay. Bahram and me. We all had a meeting where Bahram. we were not friends as it was purely a professional contact. connection. Alka Nalavadi. I don’t think anybody gave [AZB] any chance of success because (a) such mergers had not happened. and the Partners sit there and wait. We ended up becoming very good friends and continued referring work to each other and stayed in touch. But our basic ethos is the same. they would tell me. So it made sense since both were looking to expand. Once the call gets over. B&B: There are rumours that you and Zia will split. Zia Mody and I met professionally on the opposite sides for almost 3 or 4 transactions one after the other. Zia. another Partner from Delhi who is dual qualified like me got together and we all thought it all made sense. We already had a Partner at that time who was living in Bombay. So integration and building rapport was not a problem and one thing followed another. We had very few meetings between Zia. But rumours go on. We just met 3 or 4 times for generalities and we just decided that it seemed to be good idea to get together and we did it! Of course. We just met 3 or 4 times for generalities and we just decided that it seemed to be good idea to get together and we did it! offices had been colleagues in college or in prior firms and they all knew each other and were good friends. Bahram and me. (b) we had no common relationships. There are times when Partners have walked into my office when I am speaking to Zia [over the phone]. Percy Billimoria. “We heard that the firm is going to be over 3 Zia Mody Zia Mody and I met professionally on the opposite sides for almost 3 or 4 transactions one after the other. our commitment to what we believe in is the same. had met him when one of the clients of Little & Co was migrating to us because the client was in Delhi and it was much more convenient for them. We are different personalities with often different styles of working. as opposite side counsels and just continued our © Bar & Bench We had very few meetings between Zia. People don’t believe it but it was as simple as that. as opposite side counsels and just continued our connection. So it was not unusual for people to have looked at the partnership with some skepticism. Why do you think this is the case and does it bother you? AB: You can’t stop people.
and we have an exchange of documents. We decided that we are not necessarily going to make every office a replica of the other because every office has been used to working with a particular person for a long period of time and there is no need . B&B: The perception that most people have is that the two offices function © Bar & Bench We have different styles of operating. and information across offices. each office works independently but each office is completely wedded with the other. what we believe in. put it on a speaker and anybody could walk in and see that we are talking to each other and everything is fine. independently and not as one. What do you have to say? AB: We are one firm. but ultimately we have taken unanimous decisions. we would have a call. I feel that you have to learn to accept people for what they are. 4 There are times when Partners have walked into my office when I am speaking to Zia [over the phone]. There are often things that you have to discuss at our level but there has never been a reason for us to think that we can’t work together. We decided that we are not necessarily going to make every office a replica of the other because every office has been used to working with a particular person for a long period of time and there is no need to re–invent the wheel. “We heard that the firm is going to be over but you were just now talking normally to Zia”. Within the same office. We have different styles of operating. over the years. that’s not my style. but you were just now talking normally to Zia”. You can’t be fixated. they would tell me. Partners talk to each other all the time. We never had to over rule. B&B: Can you tell us a bit about the decisionmaking process at the firm? AB: It has always been a unanimous decision amongst three of us. Whenever this used to happen. Stylistically people see things differently but in terms of our work ethic. that’s fine. We have had initial differences of views when considering [of opinion] certain decisions. I have 17 . each person changes. mellows. that is not a secret. that is not a secret. our core values are same across every office. data. and the Partners sit there and wait. to re–invent the wheel. matures. our client practices. quality and ethical standards are absolutely the same. People want to speculate.18 core people who think differently and I can’t treat everybody the same way. So when you say we work “independently”. We exchange information at all times. We can’t stop people from making their judgment on how people operate in one office versus another. we are one office across the country and one balance sheet. Our client commitment and approach to clients and. Once the call gets over.
They would keep looking around and I would ask them. May be nothing would have happened from our standpoint. but we were sharing knowledge. Clifford Chance will take over [AZB] or the firms will merge or anything like that. It was just about being good friends and trying to approach work jointly wherever possible and yet being able to work with other law firms. B&B: So what was the reason for ending the relation with Clifford Chance? AB: As I said. Still it is awkward if a client is working with you and is also thinking that if he talks to AZB then he certainly has to talk to Clifford Chance. That is what a partnership is all about! B&B: One of the reasons that the foreign firms entered into this best friend relation was that the market would eventually open up. and our teams were asking that question at the end of the day. as I said. even though we may not have said so. I remember people used to come here and I would take them around the firm. we were becoming “refer only if absolutely necessary”. Simple! No regrets. all three of us were together. we underestimated the reaction from the other law firms and we realized that from becoming a “must refer” law firm. there was a school of thought that perhaps the market would open but what would happen. even though we may not have said so. We were very clear that we didn’t want any interference in the management. it was in the back of our mind the fact that the © Bar & Bench market may open up but I want to be clear that it was never that the moment the market will open up. “we truly are!” I would say that this was never meant to be a Clifford Chance office and now they could see it for themselves. That was not true and. Other international law firms found it difficult to accept that [our relationship with Clifford Chance] was this sort of loosely based relationship. Many people have speculated on this Clifford Chance – AZB issue [and said] that I was against it. It was 5 . It was beginning to create that doubt in their minds. Did you have the same thoughts when you decided to partner with Clifford Chance? AB: Our arrangement with Clifford Chance was one of mutual cooperation and not any kind of partnership. It was very clear when we made this happen that we have lots to learn from them but at the same time we had built a reasonably decent practice in India. Yes. “Are you looking for Clifford Chance brochures?” “Ajay”. or decisionmaking. it was ultimately a joint and unanimous decision. That was beginning to create some stress. we had certain knowledge about what happens here. not that it mattered to our clients but still it is awkward if a client is working with you and is also thinking that if he talks to AZB then he certainly has to talk to Clifford Chance. what would not happen was not on the table. Therefore. In all these meetings. it doesn’t matter anyway. they would reply. So. even when we started the relationship and also when we ended it.
reduce the team. the devil will be in the details as to how they operate in India. I also think that at that point in time. We needed to let people know that we were willing to reflect on our decisions and we did. the economy was such that things were not happening and there was not enough capacity in the market to work together. Is the client suddenly going to change his fee structure because . I don’t think we got the proper opportunity to actually get our teams to roll up their sleeves and get to know each other better at work. Bhasin are doing something they believe is important for the professional community. So we have built a model where 6 The fact is that the profession has evolved in India. the clients have evolved. people would feel that we are incapable of questioning our own decision. To be honest with you. Is the client suddenly going to change his fee structure because he feels that he is now working with a foreign law firm? The fact is that the profession has evolved in India. the clients have evolved. which we do. do you see different kind of demands with specific reference to cost cutting. the first ever approval given to a foreign law firm to open up an office in India was obtained by my office for Chadbourne & Parke. I think we were very responsive to these issues. while I don’t think it’s the end of the world if they open up [the legal market] and allow foreign firms. One of the things the three of us thought through at that time was if we don’t take a decision. I think that in India overspecialization not always the best for a client because our market environment is so challenging that overspecialized advice sometimes misses the holistic picture. I respect the fact that our association SILF (Society of Indian Law Firms) and Mr. I never had a client telling me that my team is too big. Despite best efforts on both sides. I come from a much wider ‘scope background’. Personally. B&B: Talking about clients. My view even at that time was that at the end of the day you cannot stop a client from seeking advice from a firm of choice. reducing the number of lawyers on a project or moving from billing hours to a lump sum payment? AB: Some. Maybe it is the background. led us to end the relation. B&B: What are your thoughts on the entry of foreign law firms? © Bar & Bench AB: I don’t know if you are aware. beginning to create that doubt in their minds. I think India is a challenging environment for anybody. So all that and the general feeling that we should move on and go back to what we already were. and our teams were asking that question at the end of the day. I think they expect us to show some sensitivity. I somehow feel that it’s not the easiest thing when you talk about entry of foreign law firms and I asked a lot of those firms that what is the model that you will have? he feels that he is now working with a foreign law firm? I am not so sure.
He is expected to have a lot of knowledge about his or her client. which is fair. especially to the younger lot and a lot of that is bound to be from how their seniors conduct themselves. we have tried to give a much more balanced service to the clients. It’s peoples business at the end of the day. As you know. and some people with more experience in certain areas than others. continue to reinvent yourself. who will invariably have a very strong relationship with the client and will populate it slowly among the smaller group (but you won’t suddenly have a team of 7 guys sitting there). I look at life year to year so I am not one of those who plan too much ahead. I think some of it is just part of the evolution and we have respected that over the years. it is too easy to get taken in by the ‘buzzword’. That’s my style. My vision is to effectively keep a good team together. We have good retention of lawyers who have been here for a long time. in terms of their needs. So we are very cautious of this and all my senior teams are phenomenally 7 © Bar & Bench . I think the vision and the growth will be driven by the combination of the wonderful people we have. We do get request for budgets. we have specialized skill sets. last year we did induct one youngster as a Partner and this year we have made five Partners across Delhi and Mumbai. I think the engine of growth has to be way beyond just my vision. But we do have (pauses) I won’t say targets. We don’t cast things in stone. in terms of their domain. B&B: What is your vision for the firm and where do you see AZB in 2020? AB: I never look that far ahead. there is bound to be some degree of cost sensitivity. We hope to continue reviewing that over a period of time. by the “brand” that is AZB. We will have one Partner. We would like to think we are responsive. Of course. but we do have expectations from people generally. I think our view is very simple: we have to be responsive to needs of the client. so this partner becomes a very – very important resource for them intellectually and also from a cost point of view because he doesn’t need to split himself to 7 different people to be able to give advice. and I think those expectations are articulated. B&B: clear Do you have Partnership tracks for attorneys in the firm? How does the equity model work? AB: We keep some of these things very confidential. I keep telling people to come down to earth. Of course. keep looking over your shoulder because one thing in profession is.
their behavior with the Associates is exemplary. are you going to keep an organization which continues to create intellectual capacity. 8 . sensitive to this. anticipate the clients’ needs and think for the client. As I said. which automatically gets you the loyalty and the associations. while retaining the humility and the ability to © Bar & Bench communicate well with the client. So the core team here believes in that and it is being imparted in the right way. I think that’s the growth. especially to the younger lot and a lot of that is bound to be from how their seniors conduct themselves. So we are very cautious of this and all my senior teams are phenomenally sensitive to this. their behavior with people is exemplary. I think the fundamental to the vision is. they take pride in their work and instill that desire to do well. when people are good. When you are working so closely it is very easy to be swayed by your seniors. to have that respect from their client. to have that confidence. I keep telling people to come down to earth. that itself is the galvanizing engine to my mind. to satisfy him. their behavior with people is exemplary.
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