In Conversation with Akil Hirani, Managing Partner, Majmudar & Partners

Akil Hirani in an exclusive interview with Ashima Ohri, talks about his journey in law; his love for period movies; navigating the impact of Covid-19; what he looks for in lawyers joining his team; and the critical issues plaguing banking, manufacturing, industrial and other important sectors of the economy.

Mr Hirani, you are one of India's leading corporate lawyers having more than 27 years of experience. You are the managing partner of a top notch Indian law firm and head its transactions practice. You are on the legal 500 Hall of Fame for your consistent excellence in corporate / M&A work in India. You have also been ranked as one of the most in demand lawyers in India by Chambers Asia. You are not only qualified to practice in India but also in California and England and Wales. 

Would you please take us down the memory lane and share with us where this illustrious journey began?

I had a stellar academic career in school in Mumbai and in the US, but realized early on that I was more inclined towards liberal arts as opposed to the sciences.  Initially, I thought of a career in the civil services, but then got a bit disillusioned with the system and decided against it.  I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, in 1989 and felt that law was the best option, as I would be able to harness my analytical and speaking skills.  I graduated with a law degree from Government Law College, Mumbai, in 1992, with a gold medal in private international law.  

I became a solicitor in Mumbai in 1993 having signed my articles with Majmudar & Partners.  Those were the early days of economic liberalization, and lawyers were doing a lot more corporate work alongside traditional banking and disputes work.  In order to gain international experience, I went to London and qualified as a solicitor in England & Wales.  From the UK, I went on to California and sat and passed the California Bar exams, which are among the toughest bar exams in the world.   With these qualifications behind me, I did a judicial clerkship in San Jose, CA (which is quite prestigious in the US), and also worked at a law firm in London.

This was the start of my personal journey in the law.

As regards the law firm, Majmudar & Partners was established in 1943 and has evolved from a traditional law firm into a sophisticated cross-border business focused law firm. We now work with many large and medium-sized international and local corporates, banks and funds.  The backbone of the firm has always been the ethical delivery of legal services to achieve the client’s business goal.  Our firm stands out for partner-led delivery of legal advice with a full focus on achieving the commercial or business goal. This coupled extreme responsiveness has made us a sought after firm for clients who need high quality and high value services in tight timeframes.

In your long career, while you must have faced so many hurdles, is there any incident that you found particularly challenging to handle? How did you power through the problem?

The law is beset with challenges, and the subject is inherently filled with complexity. Many global standards are not accepted standards in India, and clients have to be counselled on numerous issues and hand held.

A particularly challenging incident arose in the course of a deal negotiation.  We were representing a large German multinational company on the acquisition of an Indian company’s manufacturing business.  The Indian target company was apparently leaking a substance into the ground, which was banned globally, but not in India. Therefore, we had a piquant situation where the Indian company was doing nothing wrong, but the foreign client could not close the deal because of the global ban on the substance that was leaking.  The issue came to a head with our German client wanting to walk away from the deal altogether.  Eventually, after six months of ping-pong, I counselled the German client that an environmental clean-up was not feasible, and that they should settle for an indemnity with a slight purchase price adjustment.  This became a win-win for both sides.  

My mantra for resolving challenging situations, both within the firm and on client matters, is to build consensus.  Many lawyers operate in a very adversarial manner. However, as important as that may be in certain situations, often times, transparent consensus building wins the day even in the most difficult of negotiations.

The corporate/business law market in India is not as structured as in the West. What is the biggest stumbling block in our path and why?

The corporate law market in India has grown significantly in the last two (2) decades.   However, it is still not as structured as in the West.  In my view, one of the main reasons for this is because the Indian economy is still not fully liberalized.  Capital account convertibility is limited.  In addition, there are limits on FII investments in debt markets, raising acquisition finance on the back of the target’s balance sheet in takeovers, etc.   Considering the challenging post-Covid business environment, it is a good time for the Indian government to unshackle the economy more holistically.  

Another stumbling block that impacts the growth of the law market is the lax manner in which rules are enforced in India, as a result of which companies often do not take their compliances seriously.

If you consider the US, the UK or Singapore, law enforcement is strict, and everybody takes every aspect of the law seriously.  As a result, the legal market has evolved significantly to cater to compliances, regulatory matters and related areas. 

India has embarked on its journey of becoming a rules-based society, and the next decade will surely see significant progress in this area and a consequent deepening of the legal market.

Your firm focuses on specific industry sectors, namely, banking and insurance; consumer and retail; manufacturing; technology; pharmaceuticals & life sciences; and infrastructure and real estate. What would you say is the major issue plaguing one or more of these areas right now and what would be your advice to your clients to combat it? 

The manufacturing and industrial sector in India continues to be plagued with many delays on account of land acquisition, red tape, delayed environmental clearances, etc. Although the Central Government is trying its best to streamline matters, at the state and district levels there are gaps.  Clients looking to set up manufacturing units are probably best advised to either acquire existing facilities as going concerns or establish themselves in specified industrial parks where the infrastructure is already in place.

The banking sector is seeing some challenges due to the lockdown and the potential rise in delinquencies.  Although India is still under banked, traditional banks are unable to effectively tap the growth opportunity in rural areas.  Fintech companies are changing the game, and these low cost technology-based delivery models are changing the face of traditional banking.

Indian employment laws also cause some difficulties across sectors, especially in situations where companies need to right size and retrench.  Dealing with labour unions continues to be fairly problematic.  

Lastly, corruption is a big theme these days too, and Indian companies having operations globally are now subject to significant scrutiny under various international anti-corruption laws that have an extraterritorial reach.

The advice to clients is:

  1. To do a reality check on the relevance of their business, 
  2. To assess whether they are suffering only because of the Covid-19 impact or whether they were already being upended by technology and other change agents in their sector,
  3. To be agile and opportunistic, 
  4. To be environmentally conscious even if it impacts the balance sheet, and
  5. To operate within the realm of the law.

How has Covid-19 impacted your practice? How is your organization staying futuristic?

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented economic and social impact across industries, and the uncertainty will continue for some more months until an effective vaccine is found and mass-produced.

Majmudar & Partners is a technology first law firm.  This has helped the firm in seamlessly transitioning to a work from home environment.  Having a very flat structure, the Covid-19 crisis has actually helped the firm’s members bond very well across the board.
Majmudar & Partners believes that the Covid-19 crisis is actually a huge opportunity.   Distress abounds and therein lies the potential for distressed M&A deals, which the firm is increasingly seeing.   Technology and data privacy are becoming very important, and the firm’s technology and data privacy practices are booming.  The pharmaceutical, life sciences and the healthcare sectors are witnessing significant traction.  Employment law is also a huge area, especially with increasing layoffs, acquihires, etc.  Contract law advice, especially on the interpretation of force majeure, is also very active.  

As our firm is nimble and agile, and the firm’s members are used to a multidisciplinary practice structure (as opposed to being super specialized), the firm is coping very well in the crisis.  The future trend in the law firm space will be that of fleet footed law firms, who can speedily give practical legal advice to clients. 

What are the most critical changes that we must make in the wake of the pandemic to face the future effectively?

As outlined above, it is very important for each organization and individual to be clear about their raison d'être .  The pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines and polarization that is plaguing countries worldwide.  Clarity of thought and purpose, and action in that direction, is what is needed to effectively face the future.

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?

The formative years in the life of a lawyer are the most important ones.  

Young lawyers should concentrate on honing their legal, analytical and writing skills.  Law is ultimately about penning a legal concept accurately on paper, be it in a pleading, an opinion or an agreement.  Therefore, in their formative years, especially in the areas of M&A, private equity and securities laws, lawyers should ensure that they garner the necessary knowledge and drafting skills.  

It is also imperative to find a good senior and stay with him/her for a while until one learns the ropes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted young lawyers significantly due to cancelled placements, internships, etc.  My advice is to take extra courses online, do an LL.M. online, or tie-up with a research institute and undertake research work.  Accept the reality that this may end up being something like a gap year.

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

Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud has been a big inspiration for me.  It was in 1996, when I was newly minted lawyer just back from my international stints, that I had an occasion to brief him in a litigation matter in the Bombay High Court.  It was a tough case, but he took it head on and argued tooth and nail.  He also brought out the best in me, because he egged me into doing more research and finding new points.  It’s his never say die spirit, which we see in the Supreme Court even today, that has stayed with me. 

Another important inspiration for me has been my father, Mr A. K. Hirani, who is a senior solicitor and statesman in the Mumbai legal market and our firm.  His analytical skills and ability to face adverse situations with incredible calmness have really helped me stay balanced in a profession, which can be very high octane.   In addition, he always told all the younger lawyers in the firm to leave our egos at home and keep the vistas of the mind open at all times.  It’s been a pleasure to have learnt all of this from him.

With the emergence of LegalTech 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? 

Legal tech and AI are surely becoming very important in the law, and the business of law will have to be remodelled around technology.   Already, many clients are not willing to pay for the time of fresh lawyers, and tools like Relativity and others are reducing the requirement of young lawyers to be staffed on due diligence and investigation type projects.

Therefore, apart from legal acumen, we look for lawyers who understand technology well, are adaptive to change, and have a broader outlook to law and life.  The firm runs on the lines of an international law firm in India and endeavours to give an international style quality work product.  As a result, the firm seeks new hires who are quick on the uptake, have good writing skills, and are exposed to an international approach. 

We are an equal opportunity employer and maintain diversity by hiring from various Indian law schools on an annual basis through campus recruitments.  Our class of 2020 will start in the autumn once the lockdowns ease, and some semblance of work normalcy returns. 

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. As a final note, would you please recommend to our readers your favourite book, quote, or movie that left a lasting impression on you.

My favorite book is Salman Rushdie’s, Midnight’s Children.   The sheer depth of prose and the manner in which the author weaves his story around real life events in pre- and post-independent India is incredible.

Malcolm Gladwell’s, Outliers, is another favorite.  His research on the lives of intelligent and famous people and how they got to where they did is amazing.

In terms of movies, I really enjoy period movies which are replete with history.  Saving Private Ryan, in which Tom Hanks was the lead, really moved me. Tom Hanks was actually sent in by the US Army to bring back a junior officer on duty in Europe, whose father had died.  In the end, Tom Hanks didn’t make it back, but the junior officer did.   What a story! 

Around The World