Litigating Lawyers Probably Hurt Less Than An MNA Transaction Lawyer: Raian N. Karanjawala, Managing Partner, Karanjawala & Company

In an interview with BW Businessworld, Raian N. Karanjawala, Founder and Managing Partner, Karanjawala & Company, talks about the outstanding journey of Raian Karanjawala.

With nearly 40 years of experience of litigation at the Supreme Court of India, Founder and Managing Partner of Karanjawala & Co. speaks to BW Businessworld on his early years as a lawyer, being a student in Mumbai in the late 1970s, developing his initial clientele and landmark cases for the firm. Read the interview to know about the outstanding journey of Raian Karanjawala. 

Edited Excerpts:

Prior to studying law, you were a student at Shri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi in the year of 1972. Can you tell us a bit about your years at SRCC?

I would like to tell you a little about my years at SRCC, since in my view that's when I became the Raian Karanjawala that people know today. I was a byproduct of St. Columbas School. Us Columbans in those days were a little nerdy, little self-conscious, unlike the Modern School students who were always full of confidence. I remember Justice Yogeswar Dayal of the Supreme Court had once pointed out this aspect of the modern school student to me.  

When I joined SRCC, I met my close friend Arun Jaitley. He was contesting for the College Union  Presidentship. Arun pulled me into college debating and also student politics. After he left SRCC, I captained the college debating team and years later also the debating team of GLC, Mumbai. Arun brought me into student politics, after which I became the Supreme Counselor in my second year and College Union President in my third year of SRCC. 

If Mrs. Gandhi had not declared an Emergency, I would probably have been ABVP’s candidate for DUSU president. It is this introduction to student politics which marked a change in my personality. I began to interact with people from all walks of life. It is this that has stood me in good stead in later years. 

At SRCC, in addition to meeting Arun, I became close friends with Vijay Goel, Rajat Sharma, Justice Rohintan Nariman and Justice Arjan Sikri, all of whom stay in touch even today. 

Why did you join Government Law College, Mumbai to pursue law as a career? Can you talk to us about your experience as a student in Bombay in the late 1970s? 

On graduating from SRCC, my foremost choices were to do an MBA or Chartered Accountancy. Most people pursued either of the two after studying commerce. Law was not a sought after thing in those days. Arun (Arun Jaitley) went for it because his dad was a lawyer. I got one mark less than 50% and that is why I could not take up an MBA or do CA as that requires a minimum of 50%. That was the real turning point in my life. I wouldn't have been so successful in any other profession as I am in law. No other profession would have given me so much.

Also, coincidently in that very year Delhi Law Faculty required you to have a minimum of 50% for admission to it. It was for this reason, I had to join GLC, Mumbai. I went to Fali Nariman, who was my friend Rohinton’s father. He put in a word with the principal of GLC. His wife Babsy in addition spoke to Rafiq Dada who was a professor at GLC at that time. This along with my  extra curricular activities of SRCC, that got me the admission at GLC, Mumbai. 

In 1976, Bombay was both the financial and legal capital of India. Since the Emergency was in place, there was one great difference between Delhi and Bombay. Delhi was a place full of fear, while Bombay gave a complete sense of freedom. I still remember Soli Sorabjee as a young lawyer speaking at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai against the Emergency openly without any fear. 

Also in GLC, I met two of my closest friends - Mukul Rohatgi (Former Attorney General of India) and Anip Sachthey, Senior Advocate. We used to hang out together all the time. In fact, we were known as the three musketeers.  

Did you also have experience of working in Bombay? How was the Bombay high court working in those years? 

Prior to studying law, I did an internship with Nanavati Tijoriwala for 4 months. I saw the best lawyers that Bombay High Court had to offer. Fali Nariman had already moved to Delhi but I was able to witness the legends of law like Nani Palkhivala, Ram Jethmalani, RJ Kolah, KS Cooper, JC Bhatt, Soli Sorabji, Anil Divan, and Ashok Desai all in action including a very young junior called Sam Barucha who later on became the Chief Justice of India. Out of the names mentioned, two of them went on to become Attorney Generals of India. 

Can you tell us a little about how it was to walk inside the Supreme Court of India in the early 1980s? How did you decide to start Karanjawala & Co. in 1983? 

When I passed out of Government Law College, Mumbai, I had a choice at that time, you know, because my masi and my mama (who were both unmarried) had an empty flat in Bombay where I was staying. My masi told me, “why don't you stay on and practice in Bombay”. I said no. I wanted to go back and so came back to Delhi. Looking back this was one of the best career moves I made as Delhi today has far overtaken Bombay in litigation. I once again went to Fali Nariman for guidance and he initially suggested I join JB Dadachanji & Co. but later decided that I might be better off at PH Parekh. 

On the 8th of August 1979, I walked into Pravin Parekh’s office. He just looked up at me and said that you work when I work, I work seven days a week. I said, sure sir. He told me to start from the next day. 

Pravin Bhai’s (was a litigation firm) was one of the most dominant Advocates-On-Record. It was busy as hell. Those were probably the hardest working years of my life. The court worked five days a week, Monday to Friday. At least, 4 out of those 5 days at 8: 30 AM we were waiting for a conference either at Fali Nariman’s house, or Sorabji’s house or Mr. Mridul’s house or Dr. Chitale’s house or Justice Tarkunde’s house (later my father-in-law). In those days, there was no system of junior counsel. So every morning probably one or two of us would be sent to the conference in those days. There was no junior council system. We went before the toughest and the best counsels of that generation and probably any other generation. So when you went to Fali Nariman's house in the morning at 8:30 AM, you needed to be completely ready with the brief. Between 8:30 to 10 o'clock he would do 6-7 conferences. You’d be lucky to get 10-15 minutes to brief him. If you were fumbling, you were finished. So I read my brief from backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards so that I could keep up with some of the fastest minds of that time. I think those three and a half years with Pravin Bhai were the equivalent of ten years of work in another firm. 

I remember the summer before the vacation of 1980, the Supreme Court had declared the week to be miscellaneous. The firm had 25 matters onboard everyday and each of us had 3-4 new matters everyday. I have never remembered working so hard and being so exhausted as I was at that time.

Another great thing that happened when I was working with Pravin Bhai’s was that I met my wife and got married to Manik in Feb 1982. After coming back from our honeymoon, she cleared the AOR exam which entitled us to file cases in the Supreme Court.

In February 1983, we started Karanjawala & Co. That’s how it goes.

Tell us about the initial days of Karanjawala & Co. How were the formative years?

My first office was in B17 Maharani Bagh, it was the ‘barsati ‘of my father-in-law's residence. The office consisted of one inner chamber for me and Manik, and an outer chamber where the clerks sat. 

It was literally a “mom and pop” shop. Right from the beginning, the discipline we followed was, we worked separately on individual matters. As a few months went by we took our first junior Kuldeep Pable, who was later joined by Ejaz Maqbool. 

One of the interesting things happening on the sidelines in those days was that Kapil Sibal used to live at C1 Maharani Bagh. So nearly, 3-4 times during the week, we used to go to his house for dinner after work. In our early years, we worked extensively together. In fact, when we first met them, Akhil Sibal was 2-3 years old and Amit Sibal was 4-5 years old. I’m very proud to see that both of them today are independently successful Senior Advocates in their own right. 

Kapil’s rise in the profession was meteoric. I kept wondering to myself what is it that distinguishes him from the others so much. Kapil had what I called a “can do” attitude to the cases. The point is when you're dealing with a case, don't constantly find faults with the client as to why he did not do this,  why he did not do that. You have to take the case as it is, do the best that you can with it. This is something I learnt from Kapil and I think it is very important. 

Can you talk a little bit about the initial landmark cases of Karanjawala & Co.? What did the roadmap look like in the initial years? 

It was Swadeshi Polytex. It was for the takeover of a particular company. We were on the side of Sitaram Jaipuria. It's an important landmark case in my life, because while the journey is the journey there are always certain milestones. When you come across a particular milestone, you feel it. I certainly felt that Swadeshi Polytex was one such milestone in my life. 

Appearing for us in the case as Senior Counsel was KK Venugopal (Senior Advocate and Present Attorney General), Anil Dewan, Senior Advocate and Ashok Desai, Senior Advocate The juniors were Arun Jaitley and Pinaki Misra, who is now a senior advocate and Member of Parliament, Bina Gupta and myself. 

We had involved Gurumurthy, the well known chartered accountant (and present member of the RBI board) who had worked with us as part of the Indian Express Team when I was in Pravin Parekh’s office. The case went on for almost 50-60 days and it was watched by everyone in the Supreme Court. This is the first landmark case of Karanjawala & Co. 

How did you start representing Rupert Murdoch? 

Rupert Murdoch came to India in 1993. I met him through my friend Iqbal Malhotra. When Rupert Murdoch wanted to enter India, Iqbal Malhotra was his point man. Iqbal needed a good team around him. That is how I came onboard along with Rajiv Nayar, now a Senior Advocate of the High Court. He fixed up a meeting between me and Murdoch at Oberoi in the morning. Rupert was staying at the Oberoi. We chatted. We got along well. 

On that occasion, we travelled with Rupert Murdoch to Bombay and I had requested my friend Nusli Wadia to host a dinner for him which he did. It was on that occasion that Rupert also first met up with Mr. Ratan Tata, Mr. Sharad Pawar and Mr. Vivek Goenka of the Indian Express. On the way home from Nusli’s house Rupert and I traveled to the hotel together. I distinctly remember him sharing one of his life's philosophies when I asked him about his family, “they can all work, but the ship must have only one captain”. 

You are known to be the advisor to the rich and powerful and famous. Your firm is the number one litigation firm in the country. When you talk to your clients or peers or friends. Who may be industrialists, politicians, what do they think, how are they going to deal with Covid. How will they deal with the future?

First, because it was so quick and so sudden everyone is coping with a sense of uncertainty. No one has definite answers. Everyone is living in the times when the bad news is accentuated and put out there; the economy is crashing.   Everyone is hunkering down going into a bunker. The Indian economy is slowing down. At the moment, there is pessimism combined with sadness. Fear combined with panic. That’s the sense I get. People also have had a lot of time to ponder on what changes they should make and I see many people making lifetime shifts. 

You even suggested a method for courts to open so that the backlog doesn't add up. And the business, of course, continues, as usual, keeping the safety and security of justices, of people who represent the litigants and the professionals who are your peers. So give us a solution for how the judicial system, the courts could go on and keep functioning. Is there a solution that you like?

The solution is unclear at the moment but is constantly developing. The judges at the moment have a temporary makeshift solution of conducting a video conference. But in my view, this is not a long term solution. The reason being that many people who have participated in such conferences don’t feel that this gives either the lawyer or the litigant sufficient satisfaction or faith that the case was put across in the way he wanted it to be. A video conference is very truncated and different form of advocacy from what we are used to. 

There are two aspects which have to be borne in mind to reopen courts. First, how to insulate the judges from the infection that can spread from the bar to the bench. One solution is to hang a perspex transparent sheet from the wall from the ceiling to the floor that completely locks out the chance of the infection travelling from the bar to the bench. Those sheets are like glass sheets except that they are easier to handle and more flexible. The second aspect is how to reduce congestion in the courtroom. Lawyers should step into the courtroom only when their matter is going on or when it is one matter away.

The question still remains, how will courts function till the pandemic goes away. Maybe the High Courts can work in two shifts. We can have a system where half the judges of the High Court sitting in one shift from 9 am to 1:30 pm and the other half from 2 pm to 6 pm. This would straight away reduce the congestion in the court itself, and would go a long way in addressing the worry of the moment. 

Has there been legal luminaries who you have admired and been inspired by during your journey? Which are the pieces of arguments that you heard? In the many years of practice, which are the best arguments which you have heard and from which legal lumiants? 

First, I would say Nani Palkhivala arguing for K. P. Varghese's case section 52 of the Income Tax Act. I remember Palkiwala came into the argument one day late and took over from Anil Divan, turned the whole case around and he won the matter. It was before Justice Bhagwati. I remember Pallavi Shroff (Justice Bhagwati’s daughter) telling me that her father thought that was one of Palkhivala’s best arguments. Second, Soli Sorabjee arguing Sanjay Gandhi’s bail cancellation before Justice Chandrachud. Third, the rejoinder that Fali Nariman gave (I was a junior in that case) in the UCO bank case. It was after the UCO banks case, when we started calling him “The Cannon” in Pravin’s Bhai office. Also, patches of Venugopal’s arguments in Swadeshi Polytex and HM Seervai argument in the First judges case.

A lot of experts, whether CEOs, promoters, or legal peers, feel that the next six to twelve months, will be a golden period for law firms in the sense that litigation will go up. 

I am not so optimistic. Let me give you two points on that. First, restructuring could go up a little for law firms. Secondly, litigation may go up. I think it will probably hold. But frankly, we have to wait and see. People always say that in bad times, “Vakilon ki toh aish hai”. The good times are best for everybody. So in bad times, litigating lawyers probably hurt less than an MNA transaction lawyer. But we will just have to wait and watch. 

How do you think the current situation can impact the future of Karanjawala & Co.? Do you think it's going to have lasting impacts on litigation? 

It depends on how quickly this threat vanishes. If this threat lingers on in some form or the other for a year, then slowly new practices will start evolving. For example, I'm thinking of telling my partners to break each team into two parts. That way, one comes in on one day and the other comes on the other day. So we have to think along those lines. Zoom is something that I got introduced to now and I see myself using it more frequently in the future. So let’s see what happens.

After nearly 40 years of practice that starts from the early 1980s, can you tell us about the habits and practices, which you had at that point which you still have in you as a successful lawyer? 

First, to be a successful counsel or a successful lawyer you just must have energy. It requires grit. You require the ability to get up in the morning, go through the grind, get back home, and get back the next day for the same. Secondly, you require a sense of perspective on what this case is all about. You know, every case when you read it, will have several points to offer. But the good lawyers over a period of time understand that there are only two or three points that really require to be pushed and these are the points he should push. The more perspective you are about this the better the lawyer you’ll become. Thirdly, you have to understand the judge, his natural inclination of mind, and put across the case in the manner in which he would want it rather than what you think is the best. 

I’ve already mentioned to you what I learnt from Kapil earlier, namely, look at the strengths of your case, and always remember that a client is like a patient with a doctor. Nobody wants a doctor to unnecessarily be an alarmist or pessimistic.

One last thing, very often clients come to us prior to the litigation seeking out advice as to what they should do. At this point we should give them advice which is realistic and in their best interest even if it is something the client does not want to hear. One of the most gratifying moment of my career was when I met Mr. Ratan Tata shortly after Cyrus Mistry had been removed. Before our conference began he said in acknowledgement, “One thing I wanted to say to you Raian is that over the years, we in the group have always appreciated the fact that you have always given us frank advice. It may not be what we wanted to hear but nevertheless you gave it and for that, we are always appreciative”. 

What do you envision for Karanjawala & Co. for the next 10 years?

I hope a lot more of the same. Personally for me now it is a transition time. Since at the moment its a family headed firm I am obviously looking forward to both my daughters Tahira and Niharika to step up to the plate along with the existing partners in taking the firm further so that Manik and I can slowly step back. 

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