Ashima Ohri

A business economist, lawyer, and writer.

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In Conversation with Namita Chadha, Founder and Managing Partner, Chadha & Co. 

In this exclusive conversation with BW Legal World, Ms Chadha talks about her illustrious journey in law, her most memorable case, three trends that will dominate the law firm ecosystem and much more.

Ms Chadha, would you please take us down memory lane and share with us where this illustrious journey began? 

I cannot truthfully say that I have always wanted to be a lawyer. However, as a young girl, I always had instinctive skills in negotiations and discussions. Having a lawyer father honed my skills naturally and my innate ability to convince my parents along with my argumentative nature assisted me in choosing this profession. 

By the time I grew up, I knew I had the courage to dream big, become a successful professional, and live life to make a difference to others. The profession of law seemed to offer the promise of fulfilment of my dreams and pursuits. Power, prosperity, and glamour were in the offing and seemed attainable.  

Also, with the emergence of globalization, there was an increase in transactional work and therefore taking up a legal career in law firms and pursuing corporate law intuitively seemed appealing. 

My persistent and ‘never say die’ attitude, coupled with my unceasing efforts, certainly yielded results, and today, I run a very successful law firm, Chadha & Co. My firm specializes in advising foreign companies from over 36 countries doing business in India on their Indian entry, structuring their entry, establishing their Indian operations, and all legal and regulatory matters that impact them after they have commenced their operations in the country. Chadha & Co. also has a very competent and effective dispute resolution team that handles court work as well as arbitration. Today, Chadha & Co. is reputed for its high quality, practical, proactive, and cost-effective legal advice, and is well networked with law firms from across the world.  

I firmly believe that the job of a lawyer is not only to render advice but to also empower the clients with strong legal protection so that the focus remains of management remains on growing the business. 

Who are the people who have inspired you the most in this profession and how? 

My father has forever been my source of inspiration. His conversations with his clients and colleagues and the poised dictations he would give to his steno while authoring two books, made me feel curious about law. He inspired confidence in me and made me understand that if there are obstacles, then there are solutions too. Coming from a rural and modest background, he was amongst the very few who pursued a corporate legal practice much before the opening of the economy. He was one of the pioneers in advising and assisting multinational companies in establishing their business in India and also served as a director of the boards of the Indian subsidiaries of several leading multinational companies. 

In addition to all the priceless mentoring he did, the greatest contribution he made to my life and ambition is to pass on the ambition gene to me, and it is from him that I learned that ambition and passion are two brave choices for women and are ultimate acts of courage. He set me down the path of a very exciting career to tread and I have not looked back since. 

Would you please tell us more about the array of work you handle at your firm?  

Chadha & Co. is a full-service corporate and commercial law firm. We act for clients across industries and advise them in all areas of law that are relevant to their business. Some of our main areas of practice are inbound investments; company law, M&A, joint ventures, private equity, technology transfer; contracts; corporate and commercial matters; banking, restructuring; corporate/ project finance; foreign exchange laws; labour, employment and industrial relations; white-collar crime; compliance; competition laws; direct and indirect tax; distribution and franchising; real estate; government approvals, regulatory matters; consumer matters etc. The firm also has a very competent and effective dispute resolution team that handles court work and arbitration. 

My own principal areas of practice are multijurisdictional litigation and dispute resolution, regulatory issues, competition law, white-collar crime and commercial fraud, labour and employment, and compliance.  

With the emergence of Legal Tech and AI in the Indian legal market, other than good legal acumen, what are the other important skills you’re looking for in lawyers joining your team? 

There are several key skills that my law firm looks for when selecting candidates. Firstly, a candidate should have strong academic credentials, commercial acumen, problem-solving abilities, curiosity, single-minded devotion to work, and perseverance. In addition, they should have solid oral as well as written communication skills to accurately communicate critical legal information. Another significant trait that we look for while hiring a candidate is that they should have the confidence and cultural awareness to work with clients from across the globe.  

 Moreover, with the advent of advanced legal technology and artificial intelligence in the legal market, many law firms are now using software to automate manual tasks of a lawyer such as conducting discovery, due diligence, creation of standard as well as routine contracts, generating electronic billing, document management etc. Hence, it is imperative that lawyers embrace technology. Also, taking into account the fact that the role of technology is expected to continue increasing in a post-COVID-19 world, being tech-savvy is unquestionably the way forward for any lawyer, whether young or experienced.  

In your opinion, what will be the top three trends that will dominate the Indian law firm ecosystem in 2021? 

Peter Drucker, once said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” 2020 will definitely stand out forever as a watershed year, set apart by instability and uncertainty. Like all other industries, the legal sector was also impacted in more ways than one. With the pandemic still ongoing, one thing that is clear is that, if current litigation trends continue, we can expect to see a surge of cases in 2021. Hence, law firms can expect more litigation work.  

 The pandemic has enormously affected the abilities of a company to meet its contractual obligations. Supply chains are still broken, companies are still going bankrupt and agreements are still going unhonoured. This has resulted in an increase in litigation. Further, as companies embark on the path to recovery, they will have to make new agreements and old agreements will have to be re-negotiated. Moreover, in the wake of COVID-19, more stringent and rigid requirements are being applied by companies all across the globe. This may persuade the counterparties to pursue litigation to escape contracts they perceive as excessively restrictive. Also, expect a high demand for employment litigation in 2021. Many law offices are managing high volumes of employment disputes as a result of layoffs, salary cuts, bankruptcies, remote-work, and shut-down orders. There will be, certainly, a plethora of cases related to breaches of contract and other, more complicated litigation, but employment litigation is likely to be among the most widespread in 2021. 

Another predictable trend for 2021 in the law firm ecosystem is the acceleration in technology adoption. The pandemic got lawyers and law firms to embrace technological innovations in pursuance of collaborative working and staying connected with their clients and work associates. Court hearings and proceedings moved online, and remote advocacy became the new norm. Not only lawyers and law firms, but the judiciary also embraced technology and continued delivering during the pandemic. In 2021, law firms are likely to require their teams to accelerate their adoption of technology, prioritize digitization, and embrace new ways of working remotely and solving problems. Many in the legal industry have found a new level of comfort and ease with technology adoption and with this comes a higher level of insight and expectation, which in turn will push technology vendors to respond with more agility, flexibility, and accessible solutions. 

Lastly, increased M&A activity is expected in 2021 as a result of many companies being under financial distress as a result of the disruption to business last year, the availability of cheap liquidity, and the strategic imperatives of some companies to grow inorganically. PE activity in various sectors, especially health care and technology, is also expected to be vibrant. Hence, the transactions teams in law firms are likely to be very busy this year. 

Your firm advises companies in 36 countries on issues of global compliance, including anti-bribery, corruption laws and antitrust laws. If you could choose 3 key takeaways from some of these countries and their laws and bring to India, what would they be and why? 

While India is certainly a great country with a strong legal system, there is always room for improvement. Certain progressive laws will, in my opinion, take India one step further on the road to development which its peers are already quite far along on. The anti-corruption laws in the United Kingdom and the United States of America for instance, provide for a robust framework to check and reduce corruption. The primary legislation in the United States of America to combat corruption is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, 1977 (‘FCPA’). Under the FCPA, failure to keep accurate books and records can be held as an offence. The FCPA requires public companies and other issuers to file periodic reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission and maintain accurate books and records, failure of which would be an offence under the Act. Whereas, India’s Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (‘PoCA’) does not make the failure to keep records an offence. Further, in India the PoCA is only confined to bribery by ‘public servants’ and there is no specific law that covers ‘private commercial bribery’, although it could be a criminal act under general criminal statutes such as the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and can be covered under specific laws governing certain commercial organizations such as the Companies Act, 2013. Also, companies typically prohibit the payment of bribes through internal codes of conduct. Whereas, the Bribery Act, 2010 of the United Kingdom prohibits both private commercial bribery and bribery of foreign public officials. Thus, provisions like record keeping and emphasis on private and commercial bribery require more attention under the Indian laws. The guidance from the anti-corruption laws in the United Kingdom and the United States of America would help India in making a robust framework to minimize and prevent corruption and further facilitate future development. 

Secondly, in my opinion, there is a need for a strong legal framework for the protection of whistleblowers in India. The United States of America has been a leader in enacting whistleblower laws with key protections and incentives, including confidential handling of disclosures, financial awards, and independent reporting channels. In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was introduced in the United States in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. This law expressly prohibited retaliation by employers against whistleblowers and also provided a section for an award for the whistleblower. For information that implicates companies violating the US laws, a whistleblower could get 15-30% of the penalty the government collects from the Company. It also encourages whistleblowers from outside the US to give information about violations of laws of the United States in a foreign country. In India, the Whistleblower Protection Act, 2014 is yet to become operational. Guidance can be taken from the laws of the US to build a robust legal regime for the protection of whistleblowers in India. 

Thirdly, while in India we have several laws protecting children against exploitation, there is scope for strengthening them. I recommend taking the guidance of the laws of Germany, France, and many other developed nations that treat child labour and trafficking with as hard a hand as it truly merits.  

Which has been your most memorable case so far? What peculiarities did it bring? 

My firm specializes in advising foreign companies on their legal and regulatory issues. We act every day across areas of law and across industries for clients from over 36 countries on very challenging and memorable matters. 

There was, however, this one case for which I was admitted pro hac vice at the US District Court, Southern District of New York. My client was a U.K.-based company that manufactured soccer balls in India through sub-contractors. A leading global television channel produced and telecast a documentary in the US on child labour in the sports goods manufacturing industry in India, specifically targeting my client. As a result, my client’s sales and reputation suffered and they filed a libel suit against the television broadcaster in US District Court, Southern District of New York. We acted as Indian counsels for the client on Indian aspects of the matter, specifically with regard to the collection of evidence in a manner that would be admissible in the US Court. This was one of the first matters of its kind in India and involved explaining the provisions of international treaties to the Indian government and courts, and taking admissible testimony of over 25 witnesses in a very short period of time, and transmitting the same to the US court. This was a path-breaking and arduous task in itself, which helped strengthen our client’s case. 

How have client expectations changed amid the global pandemic? How has been your experience with regards to virtual client servicing?  

Clients have been supportive with regard to virtual meetings. So far, my personal experience with virtual client servicing has been great. Some of the significant advantages I have experienced while conducting meetings virtually are as follows:

  • One saves a lot of time, monthly overhead costs and travel costs are significantly reduced. 
  • it is possible to meet with clients in several different geographies on the same day. 
  • Virtual client servicing enables you to serve a wider client base as one is not tied down to a single office location. 

However, the only downside is that boundaries between work and personal life can become blurry which may negatively impact a person’s work-life balance.  

Would you agree there continues to be an inherent social pressure on women to manage it all—home and work? What are your thoughts on issues of diversity in the legal profession?  

There is no denying the fact that women feel the pressure to “have it all”, meaning both a successful career and the perfect family. Moreover, women face additional challenges in their work-life as our society is essentially male-dominated. Women seldom receive the same presumption of competence and commitment as their male counterparts. Our society has been rigid keepers of collective tradition and enforcer of unquestioned status quo ‘don’t get big ideas', ‘be a carbon copy, ‘conform, ‘say yes when you don’t mean it’. The answer should be not to merge with any stereotype or collective, but to stand out.  

There are profound traps and barriers a woman faces inside of her. Women are given messages all throughout their lives that they should not lead. The world does not welcome full-time at-home dads. Starved of the basic encouragement and support and daunted with demands, many women put down their pens. Developing a modern and progressive mindset and having the courage to believe in yourself and not feel guilty, but to trust that you can be both a good professional and a good daughter, wife, and mother is the need of the hour. 

As far as diversity in the legal profession or any other profession is concerned, it shouldn’t be a trend, it ought to be a norm. In addition to the fact that it is the right thing to do, there are a few added benefits that diverse workplaces have over their counterparts. Diverse workplaces can perform better in light of the fact that they can comprehend different points of view, tap into various business sectors, and settle on better choices that precisely mirror the society we live in. 

 In the legal profession, especially in India, we are yet to achieve gender diversity. It’s ironic that while women graduating from top law schools and working at junior levels in the legal profession are ‘equal’ to their male counterparts, this often does not convert into an equivalent representation at the partner level. It is also a very common practice to derogate women lawyers as being over-aggressive when they are firm in making their voices heard, while the same trait is viewed as a virtue in male legal professionals.  

Having said that, I can proudly say that my law firm, Chadha & Co., is amongst the very few law firms in India where the number of women employees and the number of women partners is larger than their male counterparts. We strongly believe that the presence of women lawyers in the legal profession plays a very important role in upholding the ideal of fairness, equality, and impartiality of the justice system. Further, as my firm deals with multijurisdictional matters, we have a diverse and multicultural workforce. We have people working for us from both Asian and European countries. I am truly honoured to be heading this law firm for the last 18 years. 

Do you still find time for following your hobbies? Would you please recommend any book/movie that left a profound impression on your mind?  

Being a workaholic by nature, I work hard throughout the year, and the popular saying, ‘work hard and party harder’ has never been my motto in life simply because work does not feel like work to me, so the party never ends for me. However, during my leisure time, I like to read spiritual books and listen to spiritual teachers. Osho has been a very important part of my life and I make sure that I get an undisturbed half-an-hour every morning to listen to him. It helps me unwind and works as a great stress buster. I love to go out and spend time with my friends and socialize. And no day is complete for me until I have completed my workout regimen. 

I am an avid reader. I read a lot and have a large collection of books. However, one book that has left a lasting impression on me is the “Women Who Run With The Wolves” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This is undeniably a life-changing book. It addresses many queries that I had when I was looking for how to gain spiritual strength and better intuition. This book guided me to find all the traps that hold me back from finding the way back home to my actual self and my instincts. Everyone who can, should read this book.  

What will be your one message to young and aspiring lawyers looking to build a thriving practice in corporate law? 

Having a legal family background is not always a necessary ingredient in becoming a successful corporate lawyer or a litigator. One should be willing to learn and absorb, have fierce ambition, and single-minded devotion to work. It might be a tough profession for a woman, but never forget, women have forever proven that they can overcome any challenge and conquer any mountain! 

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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