"Diversity and inclusivity are not just having a large number of women lawyers, it is true inclusion in the decision-making process"—Atul Sharma, Managing Partner, Link Legal

In conversation with Mr Atul Sharma, Managing Partner, Link Legal. The firm was awarded BW Legal World Global Legal Leaders Award—Capital Markets Law Firm of the Year 2020 by Jury of the BW Legal World Global Legal Summit and Legal Leaders Awards, a virtual event conducted early this year.

Mr Sharma, many Congratulations on winning the BW Legal World Global Legal Leaders Award—Capital Markets Law Firm of the Year 2020. How was your experience interacting with the Jury and of the event? 

The experience of BW Awards was a well-implemented event. One area where we can beef up the jury is bringing in better industry representation. Awards and Recognitions have become a benchmark of the achievements of a firm.  Genuine well-researched awards enhance a firm’s standing.

Rewinding time: please allow us a peek into your illustrious journey in law. Where did this journey begin, who were your mentors, and are there any goals that remain to be achieved?

I started my journey as a lawyer way back in 1978. I was associated with two leading law firms and experienced the life of a solo practitioner for six years before setting up the Link Legal in the year 1999. My mentor has been and continues to be my first senior Justice (Retd.) Arun B. Saharya. His forthright approach and commitment to ethics has been my guiding light throughout my career. 

In the fast-moving and changing legal landscape, the goalposts keep on shifting. Technology is an aid but at the same time is a disruptor. It has made the practice of law very dynamic. The way we practice law has been evolving and will continue to evolve. Reducing costs of delivery without compromising on the standards of quality will continue to be the objective of the firm. Clients have become consumers of legal services and lawyers have become service providers. Law practice is as much an enterprise as it is a profession. Embracing the latest management practices and strengthening them on an ongoing basis is my personal goal for the remaining one-third of my professional life. I continue to focus on my mission to institutionalise the firm and create a platform for younger partners and other lawyers to achieve their ambitions.

What would you say has helped you emerge as a leader in your industry and what advice would you have for others who want to set off in a similar direction? 

To become a leader you need to create leaders on a continuous basis. The mantra has to be empowering domain and knowledge specialists. Just because you are the senior-most person in the room does not mean that your word should prevail. Often, younger specialists are better positioned to advise clients on the specific subject. The trick is to amalgamate this advice and your experience of interpretation of laws to provide a pragmatic solution to the client.

We have seen a spate of legislative changes in recent years that have been monumental in reforming India's legal framework across all sectors. Would you please highlight a recent development concerning your practice area that has positively impacted the industry?

It is difficult to list all the laws that have a monumental impact on my practice areas. Almost the entire legal framework has undergone changes. The most significant changes, in my view, have been the entire gamut of regulatory legislations in different sectors like Electricity, Airports, Highways, Ports, Information Technology, Company Law, Insolvency and practice area changes like the Commercial Courts Act and amendments to the Arbitration Law. All these amendments have created a large number of opportunities for the legal profession. 

How has the legal services industry transformed in the past year? What have been your key learnings from the year past and what are your predictions for the future?

The legal industry has been most adaptive last year. After the first month or two of adverse events, the industry adopted alternative ways of delivering services to the clients. While disputes practice suffered due to non-functioning or part functioning of courts and tribunals, transactional work was less affected. Technology was embraced at a breakneck speed. I have learnt more technology in the last year than I had in my entire career thus far. Expensive real estate is no longer a sine qua non for a thriving practice. Travel is no longer necessary and costs for travel can be done away with substantially. Nimble footedness has been the key learning of the last year.

What role can law/law firm/an individual play in making workplaces truly diverse and inclusive?

Diversity and inclusivity are not just having a large number of women lawyers, it is true inclusion in the decision-making process.

Young professionals is another relevant class, which requires representation. In the Managing Committee of our firm, half of the lawyers are below forty years and include women. In the Indian context, inclusivity will also mean providing economic opportunities to lesser privileged strata of the society. Real inclusivity lies in crediting the growth of practice to “us” rather than “Me”. 

An experience, case or person that left a lasting impression on you. 

It is difficult to zero in on one case or experience. Out of many, one instance which changed my approach to a case was a brief which came to be handled by me as a result of the demise of a well-established lawyer of that time. I was very young and the case was coming up for arguments on the injunction application. When I opened the brief I was impressed by the level of advance preparation done at the time of filing of the case itself. The brief contained details of the possible defences of the other side, list of documents that will be required to be proved at the trial, names of possible witnesses to be produced and the documents to be produced or proved by them. The case was far away from the trial stage but it was ready for a trial any day as prepared. This was a great learning experience.

Law firm practice of the future: LegalTech tools that are transforming the traditional methods of legal practice in India.

All law firms including ours cannot do without the aid of technology. All standard research tools like case law database like Lexus Nexis, SCC online, Manupatra etc., Timesheet and Billing systems, Document Management system, Knowledge management software are used by the firm. While I do not wish to recommend any particular product or products, our firm has been using the Microsoft Suite including Teams very efficiently particularly in the last year and this has made flexible working a possibility.  

What keeps you busy when you’re not working? Any favourite book or movie/series that you would like to recommend to our readers. 

While I read a fair bit, I don’t follow any particular genres. Presently, I am reading Saif Mahmood’s ‘Beloved Delhi’ and before that, I was reading a book on the life of Mohammad Rafi. I picked up golf about 20 years ago and I enjoy a game or two a week. There is a misconception that golf is a sport for those who want to ‘network’. Most golfers that I know play the sport for the love of it and are incredibly passionate about it. I have played one sport or the other throughout my life and I advise younger lawyers to have a hobby, preferably a sport, which can help them unwind.   

Any other thoughts, message to our readers. What other than hard work is a mantra to success? 

The practice of law requires a great deal of discipline and sacrifice. Most successful lawyers work throughout the week and an entire day off is a rare luxury. Law practice, much like any other profession requires commitment. However, hustle need not take the form of drudgery. I have always enjoyed interacting with my peers outside courtrooms and in the court canteen and many of these interactions have contributed to my understanding of the law and the profession.

My advice to young lawyers would be to interact with as many people as they can, both within and outside the legal fraternity and see the practice of law as a service to society and not just as a means to a livelihood.    

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