In Conversation with Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, Senior Partner in Corporate Law Practice at Khaitan & Co., Mumbai
Studying law at NLSIU, Bangalore, moving to Mumbai 2001 to establish the Mumbai practice of Khaitan & Co., building client relationships and impact of COVID 19 on FDI in India
Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, Senior Partner from Khaitan Mumbai talks to BW Businessworld about his formative years as a lawyer in Calcutta, studying at NLSIU, Bangalore, moving to Mumbai in 2001 to start Khaitan & Co’s Mumbai practice and his career in law.
Rabindra Jhunjhunwala is endorsed as a Leading Lawyer in India by IFLR1000, Indian Business Law Journal lists him in the A-List of India’s top 100 lawyers, Lexis Nexis has listed him as 100 Legal Luminaries of India, he is ranked by Chambers and Partners Asia Pacific for Corporate/ M&A work, and is also ranked by Asialaw Leading Lawyers as one of the Market-leading lawyers in M&A.
He is professionally affiliated to the Bar Council of Maharashtra & Goa, Bar Association of Calcutta High Court, International Bar Association, amongst others.
What motivated you to study law? How was your experience as a law student in those years?
R. Jhunjhunwala: I come from a family of lawyers, whether it is my father, my sister, my cousins, my father's siblings and cousins, their descendants, etc. There are far too many lawyers in the family, 25/30 or even more. So, it was popular in the household. I must say it was not my first preference, always wanted to become a doctor!
I had a distinct experience of having studied in two completely different setups - before NLSIU, Bangalore I was enrolled in a local law college in Calcutta. It was a very different way of teaching. Early morning classes, attendance was not compulsory, no project submissions or exams in the first two years of the course. Things have of course changed considerably now.
Comparatively, NLSIU, Bangalore was very different. The whole model of imparting legal education was brand new, starting from the five-year integrated course and the requirement to stay on campus. Things were structured and disciplined, it was like being in a school. It was also very competitive - since the class was chosen based on your performance in an all India entrance exam.
Why did you decide to move from the law college in Calcutta to National Law School, Bangalore?
R. Jhunjhunwala: My father was instrumental. I was since 1990 already working at Khaitan & Co as a paralegal, and my senior assigned me to work as an aid to Dr. Madhava Menon for a conference in Calcutta. I landed up spending a considerable amount of one on one time with Dr. Menon and at the end of the conference, Dr. Menon told my father, “What is this guy doing here? And why is he wasting his time?”. Those were somewhat his words.
Dr. Menon was seen as a big educationist and he suggested to my father that I write the NLSIU all India entrance exam. He also asked my father to send me away to NLSIU for two weeks to understand what living on campus means, to reset some expectations, and also prepare for the entrance exam! Keep in mind those days there were no law school coaching centers!
I spent two whole weeks on NLSIU campus, getting to know campus life, preparing, making new friends, sharing books, and food with some very kind seniors who I will never forget. That is how I started my journey at NLSIU, Bangalore.
You moved back to Calcutta after your graduation. How were your formative years as a lawyer? Tell us a little about your initial roadmap.
R. Jhunjhunwala: I had already gathered work experience in Khaitan & Co for four years before I went to NLSIU. Class XI/XII in St Xavier’s Collegiate School started at 6 am after which the whole day was free. It was an established tradition amongst the Marwari families in Calcutta that the younger generation would start learning the tricks of the trade early on!
After I graduated from NLSIU, it was an easy decision to go back to Calcutta and rejoin Khaitan & Co - it was expected of me and I also wanted to do it. During the five years at NLSIU, I had spent all my breaks interning in domestic and international firms gathering as much experience as I could. When I rejoined the firm, I hit the road running. Apart from work a lot of other responsibilities were also thrust on me. I used my learnings from NLSIU and the internships to adopt good practices, processes, etc. I have only good memories of my formative years as a lawyer.
Were there family members, college seniors, law school faculties, people from the profession who impacted your career?
R. Jhunjhunwala: I would say my seniors at work, NLSIU, and the family members, all three played a critical role.
I would not have gone to NLSIU, had it not been for its founder Dr. Madhav Menon and my father’s foresightedness and the encouragement.
My family’s struggle has always inspired me the most – it taught me nothing is impossible! My mother always provided for us and took care of all our needs. My sister always let me have things my way since I was the younger sibling. My parents always remind me of their very humble beginning. My father is from small-town Deoghar, in Jharkhand. The famed Baidyanath temple is located there. He did not have money for his higher education and managed on scholarships and kindness of family elders. When he qualified as an Attorney, he broke all records claiming more gold medals than anyone else before. My mom always reminds me that my father had only one set of white pants and a shirt that needed to be washed and ironed for the next day. His move to Calcutta with absolutely nothing and his struggles are another story!
I can never forget my seniors, Pinto and Haigreve Khaitan, under whom I trained and learned so much. Haigreve and I subsequently moved to Mumbai to start the new office in 2001.
I am what I am because of these individuals.
Litigation was a more popular career option for law school graduates in those years. Why did you not choose litigation, and decide to pursue corporate law?
R. Jhunjhunwala: It was a decision which I had made very early on in my life! Many reasons - I never wanted to be a lawyer, this is a second-choice profession for me. My father is a litigator and I grew up seeing his struggles. As I said, he built everything from scratch – I saw his late hours, efforts on weekends and holidays, the tons, and tons of paper/briefs. He did not have any time for a social life outside of work! All his friends were and still are from the bar and the bench. I got the feeling (wrongly) that the glamor was only there as a transactional lawyer. Somewhere it was also the rebel in me, I wanted to create an independent identity. I may have been wrong in my thinking, but it was a personal choice that I made, and I became a transactional lawyer (and have never regretted the decision!).
You were already working in Calcutta, and had a clear roadmap ahead. What made you move to Mumbai in 2001? Also, can you tell us about the early year of setting up the firm in a new city?
R. Jhunjhunwala: In the early 70s, when the firm opened its first office outside of Calcutta (in Delhi), the question of opening in Mumbai had come up but the firm did not find people who would be willing to move to Mumbai. Mumbai was always an attractive option for the firm – it just needed someone to volunteer.
I moved in June 2001 and we started the first office in Ballard Estate on 11 November 2001, the 90th anniversary of the firm. For me there were multiple reasons - I was young, Mumbai was very different from Calcutta, it was the financial capital and professionally more challenging, opportunity to be independent and the chance to start something from scratch, entrepreneurial spirit and having no fear of failing (I could always go back), I was already spending 3 days a week in Mumbai and Delhi, I didn’t like Delhi (had already spent a few months in the Delhi office), Khaitan & Co not having a local office – these made it an obvious move for me and a perfect match!
Finding the right office space was tougher than we had expected – remember real estate prices in Calcutta and Mumbai were like chalk and cheese. A couple of relationship clients helped us finance our first office space. The initial years were very challenging. It was not easy to survive in the maximum city. It was lots of hard work and luck.
Tell us about the first five years of Khaitan firming its footings in Mumbai.
R. Jhunjhunwala: It was challenging! We did not have any anchor clients. Those who promised us work never gave us any.
It did not take us long to realize that Khaitan & Co may have had a reputation, but we were seen as a regional firm and not as a national firm. We were hardly known internationally. These may be reasons why competition in Mumbai did not take us seriously. In a way that worked out well because we could do things without being noticed.
We had the reputation built by our seniors, their support, and our conviction. Our seniors backed us fully, they trusted us and gave us wings to fly. We have built the Mumbai office brick by brick.
What was the team strength in those years?
R. Jhunjhunwala: The day we inaugurated the office, we were a handful of resident lawyers, one receptionist, one finance person, and some support staff. Our total strength in Mumbai was less than 10 people, but we had Calcutta, Delhi, and Bangalore offices backing us up.
We started ramping up quickly and built a team on the ground. We always chose to have the bench strength over going and getting the work first. That worked for us! It was important for us to always deliver before time. Seeing the opportunity, we had lawyers and staff choosing to move to Mumbai from Calcutta office. With all our hiring in the first five years we had built up a sizeable practice, and in some more years from then - with several lateral hires, we were already being seen as one of the fastest-growing law firms in Asia year on year for several years.
How did you build your client relationship?
R. Jhunjhunwala: We differentiated ourselves in everything we did and simply punched above our weight. Partner availability, working seamlessly across other offices, not hesitating to bring in senior partners from other officers, sticking to time commitment, fairness, practical insights and finding solutions to complex issues, our general deal-making capability, not giving up small work, were some of the things that were talked about. We were leaving a mark on our clients and on the other side too, whoever we got as a new client came back to give us more work. There are innumerable instances of the other side walking across to us for the next deal!
I remember getting a call from a new relationship one evening, saying - here's the term sheet, this transaction is important for us to survive, we need to fly out immediately, start negotiations tonight and sign the deal as soon as possible. We took the flight, negotiated for two and a half days, the transaction was announced, and the takeover offer made.
Such instances sort of earned us a reputation, and bankers and clients started coming to us for things that others were not able to do. We probably had more time than our competitors since we had just moved to Mumbai.
If you ask Haigreve (Khaitan) or me, neither of us then could have imagined the success that we've had or the size that we are today. When we moved to Mumbai we were only looking for better opportunities. The rest of it just happened. Yes, of course, it happened because of lots of hard work and luck.
How did you eventually pick up your areas of specialization after moving to Mumbai?
R. Jhunjhunwala: It was a planned move and a strategy of differentiating ourselves from the competition. We wanted to add value and adopted best practices from international law firms. We achieved this by bringing in people through lateral hires.
After the first few years of the Mumbai office, we added a large IP team, we had specialist lawyers join the banking and dispute practices, Sudip (Mullick) moved from Calcutta to look into the real estate practice. With Ravi (Kulkarni) and his team joining we created a capital market and securities practice. We had specialist tax practitioners join us. Frankly, we have not stopped growing and/or specializing!
I want to understand your opinion on the impact of COVID 19 on Foreign Direct Investment in India. Do you think the government should be more amenable to FDI post the pandemic?
R. Jhunjhunwala: There will be a reboot. The post COVID world is already looking very different. Normalcy is going to take a long, long time. Demands are going to change. There is going to be recalibration, and it will happen in multiple ways. We will see M&A getting impacted globally. But at the same new opportunities will come our way. Yes, FDI is going to get impacted but will also bring new opportunities.
I think we will see some exodus from China, and the tightening of regimes globally to prevent opportunistic takeovers, mostly from China. If we play our cards right, I think India will still be a sought after economy in this region. We will see opportunistic investments, a rise in stress/distress deal activity, monetization of good assets, and the sale of non-core assets.
Do you think there will be changes in the strategic operations and administration in the way the workforce of law firms function after the pandemic?
R. Jhunjhunwala: Yes, there is going to be a certain amount of recalibration. We will see more people choosing to work from home, it will be more acceptable to firms and be a new normal. Lots of new measures and precautions will become part of our daily lives. There will be rationalization everywhere, clients will want more for less, we will see less travel yet be more connected, there will be more efficiency in leased office spaces. Technology will become more important, we will learn how to adopt technology and not run away. There will be new opportunities and reinvent ourselves. Those with good leadership and a true and strong partnership construct will do better than others.
How has the pandemic been for you? Other than work, how have you kept yourself busy during the pandemic? Have you done anything differently?
R. Jhunjhunwala: As an individual, I am socially very active. I am always making plans and executing them. I am chasing initiatives. So, it is difficult for me to sit idle. My weekends are as busy (if not busier) as the weekdays – there also used to be a lot of sports, primarily cricket before the lockdown. These were my coping mechanisms to deal with stress and recharge myself. I have kept up the activity levels during these times and done several things. Even before the lockdown, I started a COVID19 initiative in the Firm, we tested working from home, adopted technology, put several SOPs in place, organized learning sessions for clients on how to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios, got a group of lawyers to put together a resource center which has been available on the firm's website – we thought out of the box and distinguished ourselves from others. Taking advantage of the lockdown I started on a few simple close to heart projects. These are growing at different rates and touched many people in various ways. “Saving the Shramiks” was a heart-warming project started with some fellow alumni of NLSIU, which has served food kits, cooked means, and bottled water to over 120,000 laborers boarding Shramik trains across 9 stations in 4 major Indian cities, and at relief camps. I decided to interview my father in law who is a pediatrician in Kolkata and get some answers related to kids health for friends and family, and this turned out to be a weekly Lockdown Conversation with friends and doctors in the different specializations as my guests, who have spoken on relevant aspects of the current situation apart from other health-related subjects, both mental and physical. I host a show for our corporate group where we nominate a person as a celebrity on the show and throw questions at the colleague to get to know the person better. I have also been active in the kitchen creating new and exciting things to further my love for eating (more than cooking) and sharing it with my building friends. The lockdown has been a revelation in some ways, many positives in a negative situation. Few more ideas are brewing!
What is your message for all the young lawyers reading this interview, building their roadmaps ahead? Can you tell us about a few habits and practices which you had in your formative years that you still follow?
R. Jhunjhunwala: At home, I was taught to be systemized and organized – everyone around me will tell you that! Since no one is perfect, find your strength and qualities, then keep finding ways to distinguish yourself from others, create a niche for yourself. I like to work in a team, have always preferred to play team sports rather than solo sports. Young lawyers should rethink their strategy about what practice area they are planning to join. For example, somebody who was looking at being a real estate lawyer needs to keep in mind the type of work may undergo change. Always be positive and see the glass half full. There will be a lot of cynicism around you, learn to ignore some of it but keep your mind open. Pancakes did not fall from the sky, there is no short cut to hard work, and reward for hard work is more work. I still believe that no work is too small, so please do not give up small things. The devil is always in the details, give it a hundred percent and take pride in your work. Stay hungry, passionate, and driven, at the same time make sure that you are a good human being. Make sure you have a life outside of work so that when you come back to work on Monday, you are recharged. Follow your passions outside of work, it will keep you happy and energized. My motto in life – work hard, but party harder!
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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