In Conversation with Atul Sharma, Managing Partner, Link Legal Indian Law Services
In this insightful interview, Mr Sharma speaks with Ashima Ohri about his illustrious journey in law and focusses attention on the industries most hit by the pandemic with a view to ensuring their survival.
Mr Sharma you have over 40 years of experience in practice areas of project advisory, corporate litigations, mediations, arbitrations including international commercial arbitrations. Well regarded for your strategic abilities and recognized widely as a leading infrastructure, aviation and corporate disputes lawyer in India, you are also recognized as a Litigation Star by Benchmark Litigation Asia Pacific 2020 and one of India's Top 15 Disputes Lawyers 2019 by Asian Legal Business.
Would you please take us down the memory lane and share with us where were the seeds of this illustrious journey sown? Would you please also tell us the story behind Link Legal.
My family traces its roots back to the walled city of Delhi. My grandfather Rai Sahab Shriram Sharma was a civil contractor who was instrumental in conceptualising and building many prominent structures of Delhi. My father, the youngest of five brothers was a practising lawyer and was for a long time, standing counsel for Western and Central Railways, which was considered an important position back in the day.
I too was the youngest of five brothers and was born in Old Delhi. I was fortunate to be enrolled at one of Delhi’s best-known schools—Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. Our principal, Mr Raghubhai Nayak and his wife Jashiben Nayak were strict disciplinarians and great ambassadors of Indian culture. We were taught social studies not by the classroom method but through a mock parliament. Every student played a role, whether that of a minister, the leader of the opposition, or a member of parliament. This was a great tool to widen our horizons and instil a sense of social awareness, in addition to improving oratory skills.
The wishes of my family were that I pursue a career in medicine. However, I was keen to study economics, which I did at Delhi University, and then joined the Campus law Centre at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University.
The Faculty of Law was then, the hub of student politics and just as I entered Law Faculty, Emergency was declared. The Law Faculty Coffee House was the favourite haunt of intellectuals opposed to the suppression of civil liberties. That was the time the likes of Mr Arun Jaitley, Mr Vijay Goyal, and other youth leaders were part of the Faculty.
After obtaining my LL.B. degree, I joined the chambers of a leading senior advocate Mr Arun Saharya who went on to become a judge of the Delhi High Court and finally retired as the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Mr Saharya’s sense of propriety, righteousness, and ethics are assets that I have used as a guiding light throughout my career as a lawyer.
Upon his elevation, I joined a leading law firm of the time (which happened to be the second oldest law firm in India)—Orr, Dignam and Co. at their Delhi office. This gave me enormous exposure to all kinds of work particularly commercial litigation including Company Law matters. Thereafter, I joined Bhasin and Co., which again afforded a great opportunity and provided me the opportunity to work on different kinds of commercial matters and gave me an insight into labour law, which I did not have the occasion to delve into earlier. Bhasin & Co. was a bustling space and the ‘go-to’ firm for clients in the aviation and hospitality sector, apart from general litigation.
After a 6 year stint at Bhasin & Co., I set up my independent practice while continuing my focus on commercial disputes. This was the time when arbitration had started to emerge from the shadows. I took on a large number of arbitration matters and was fortunate to be a trusted advisor and advocate to some well known clients in the aviation, hospitality, and media space, amongst others.
It was in 1999, when I was driven to the lure of setting up a law firm, which I did with two erstwhile partners of Dua Associates. Both my fellow founding partners moved on after making significant contributions to the firm. Since then, I have been lucky to be supported by a trusted set of partners and numerous other lawyers and staff who have contributed to the growth of the firm for over 20 years now.
Who are the people who have inspired you the most in this profession and how?
The biggest influence on my career has been my first senior—Chief Justice (Retd.) Arun Saharya. He is the most meticulous lawyer that I have even seen and his legal acumen was only matched by his ethics and honesty. He has been and continues to be my mentor. I continue to benefit from his guidance and wisdom and try and meet him for a meal, whenever possible.
The second person who inspired me was the late Mr Anil Diwan, Senior Advocate whom I had the opportunity to assist on many matters just as I had started out. I was fortunate to be a junior counsel alongside Mr Diwan in a constitutional matter before the Delhi High Court. I found his approach to the brief immaculate. He was a maverick and a perfectionist. My senior at Bhasin & Co.—Mr Lalit Bhasin has also been instrumental in developing skills of pointed research and a focussed approach to the brief.
How has Covid-19 impacted your practice? How is your firm staying futuristic?
Like most other firms, Covid-19 has impacted our firm particularly our disputes practice. Court hearings came to a complete halt, before taking the shape of virtual hearings. However, even now, courts are hearing only urgent matters and it is anybody’s guess when normalcy will be restored in our courts. Despite the slowdown, our Corporate and Projects practice continues to witness a good deal of action.
We were fortunate to have invested in key IT infrastructure over the past couple of years. Fortuitously, we migrated from our previous collaboration platform to MS Teams at the beginning of the year and our timing couldn’t have been better.
Also, we have been tracking economic and other indicators to enhance our knowledge in sectors and practice areas that are likely to flourish in the near future despite the pandemic.
What are the most critical changes that we must make in the wake of the pandemic to face the future effectively?
Upgradation of technology, fungibility of resources, and adapting to flexible and innovative fee structures, are in my view, the key to facing the future. Law firms will need to utilise the right resource mix to make adequate returns, without compromising on quality. Optimisation of real estate needs coupled with a smart remote working plan is also necessary to keep costs in check and bring in greater efficiency.
In your career, while you must have faced so many hurdles, is there any case that you found particularly challenging to handle? How did you power through the problem or tackle the case?
One of the most challenging cases, which I handled in recent times was the relocation of the residents of Nangal Dewat village located near the IGI Airport at Palam. As per the new masterplan, pursuant to the privatisation of the IGI Airport, a new runway i.e. Runway-29/11 was to be built at the site where the village was located. The first set of land acquisition notifications were issued by the Airports Authority of India as far back as 1974. Notwithstanding the fact that the villagers had been allotted alternate lands in a new colony called Rangpuri, due to the pendency of a large number of Writ Petitions, the acquisition proceedings were not completed and the village continued to be occupied. The developer did not have the luxury of time as it had to complete the airport in three years in time for the Commonwealth Games.
I took the initiative of getting all the petitions consolidated, heard together, and prayed that a committee of all civic bodies be constituted to not only ensure the vacation but also provide all amenities at the Rangpuri site including electricity, water connections and sewerage.
After continuous day-to-day hearings that went on for a month and a half, we were successful in getting the village vacated. The entire matter was concluded in a record time of five months. But for this vacation, the airport could not have been completed. This is a great example of how infrastructure projects can be expedited while balancing the interests of all stakeholders.
I would be failing if I do not mention the extraordinary accommodation granted by Justice S. Muralidhar to hear this matter by sitting up to 6 pm on most days.
What is your current industry focus? What is the major issue plaguing that industry right now and what would be your advice to your clients to combat it?
While the Firm has a wide presence across industries, we have always had a strong focus on aviation, projects, and infrastructure. As we are advising developers as well as contractors in the infra space as also airlines, the focus in recent times has obviously been on the issues arising out of the Covid-19 fallout. This has led to a renegotiation of contracts and has led to a large number of disputes. The airline industry has been amongst the worst affected and has been forced to implement serious cost-cutting measures and come up with effective solutions to defer or minimise pay-outs towards contractual obligations. This includes re-negotiation of aircraft leases and ensuring the least impact of defaults.
We are also witnessing action in the Insolvency and Restructuring space where resolution applicants are now seeking to renegotiate the resolution plans with the Committee of Creditors.
In view of the pandemic, what can be done to ensure the survival of the Travel and Tourism sector and facilitate its early revival from the adverse shock? (Travel Agencies having lost all business during this time.)
This is a very difficult question to answer in as much as the travel and tourism industry is facing an existential crisis. A large number of travel agents have gone out of business. Similarly, airlines and hotel owners are fighting each day to ensure their survival. How many of them will make it through this period is dependent upon how fast and to what extent travel activities improve. It looks bleak at the moment and unless the Government intervenes with a package for the industry, it will be a long haul. Unless the economic conditions improve immediately, we might have more casualties.
Where does India stand on litigation funding/ TPF and what is the legislative framework we need to regulate it and to make justice more accessible to all?
India’s experience vis-à-vis litigation funding/TPF is very peripheral at the moment. One of the reasons behind TPF failing to take-off could be the delays in our court system. While there have been instances of international disputes in which Indian parties are involved, being funded by Third Party Funders, there has been no funding of domestic disputes. International Third-Party Funders are yet to evolve a strategy to fund domestic disputes in India and make their presence permanent in the country.
One of the strategies for the domestic market could be a consolidation of disputes which could spread their risks to a wider set of disputes. Legally speaking, Third-Party Funding has not been seen as a taboo under Indian law particularly when champerty is not barred in our country. There are of course caveats that third-party funding arrangements should not be extortionate in nature. In my view, the international standards of sharing of proceeds being known, the assessment of fairness of third party funding arrangements can be benchmarked to those standards. I feel that parties should be left to agree to the sharing arrangements. Regulations regarding setting up of NBFCs/Funds and repatriation of proceeds are already in place under the FEMA regulations. We can also make regulations for crowdfunding of class actions. In fact, there are already regulations for setting up of funding arrangements in respect of securities-related class actions.
From the treasure trove of your experiences, what is one piece of practical advice you would give to someone starting out as a lawyer or looking to specialize in a particular field?
My advice to somebody who is starting out as a lawyer would be to be a generalist for the first few years before zeroing in on a specialisation. This helps you approach your practice as a specialist from different perspectives and offer well-rounded solutions to your clients.
My second advise would be that try to be original by first approaching the problem on first principles before turning to the application of law including precedents.
Another great virtue of a good lawyer is patience, not only in terms of achieving success but also in his/her approach towards a matter. A giant leap or a hurried conclusion is counter-productive most of the times.
Are you hiring, if yes, other than good legal acumen in the era of LegalTech and AI what are the other important skills you’re looking for in lawyers joining your team?
After a short hiring freeze during the lockdown, we have recommenced hiring at different levels in most practice areas. The traits that I personally look for in a lawyer are problem-solving ability, original thinking and maturity. While specialised courses do help in building a sound foundation in certain areas, it is the real-world application of these skills that makes for a good lawyer.
Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview, Mr Sharma. As a final note, would you please recommend to our readers your favourite book, quote, or movie that left a lasting impression on you?
I have been a firm believer in collaboration. One proverb which has impressed me immensely is “If you run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together”. I have tried to apply this to my personal and professional life in my own small way.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
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