25 years of Khaitan & Co’s Bangalore office: Conversation with Partners Rajiv Khaitan and Ganesh Prasad

Aditya AK December 19 2018

The Bangalore office of Khaitan & Co. recently passed 25 years of existence. What began as a team of ten lawyers has now quadrupled in size, with scope for even more growth.

In this interview, Khaitan Bangalore Partners Rajiv Khaitan – who has helmed the office since its inception – and Ganesh Prasad take us through their journey, the challenges faced by transactional lawyers today, and what the future holds for the firm.

What were the challenges you faced while setting up in Bangalore in 1993? How has the firm evolved since then?

Rajiv Khaitan: When we came, there were no major law firms in Bangalore; the legal market was built around Senior Counsel and their chambers, as well as single practitioners. The legal work was usually brought to the lawyers by Chartered Accountants. We had difficulty in explaining the law firm concept – which was prevalent at Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Madras – by which you come to a law firm like a consulting business, not just when you need to file a suit or go to court.

It has slowly picked up, and now there are over 100 law firms in Bangalore. One of the big changes that we see is that clients now first approach law firms rather than approaching lawyers through a Chartered Accountant.

When we started in Bangalore, the multinationals had just started coming in. They had the need to go to lawyers for everything, and that trend slowly began to be followed by other businesses. The challenge was to be the go-to person.

Ganesh Prasad: I joined Khaitan in 2011. Compared to other firms, we are not family-run, and there is no one-man show. Since then, we have grown multiple times, and the offerings have become much more sophisticated and more large scale.

How has the Bangalore team grown over the years?

RK: We began with a team of 10 lawyers – 2 Partners and 7-8 lawyers. The real increase in strength in Bangalore started happening in 2010. After starting the Bangalore office, we started the Bombay office, where most of the attention was given. From 2001-2010, we focussed on growing the Bombay office, and then the focus shifted to Bangalore. And now in 2018, we are now 45 lawyers, including 9 Partners, in Bangalore.

How have you managed to ensure that lawyers stay, given the attrition that is characteristic of big law firms?

RK: Managing expectations of the associates is a challenging task. We constantly try to train them and motivate them to do better.

GP: The culture of the firm is to ensure that people enjoy their work and their life. While hiring, we see whether the person will be a cultural fit. The unique feature of the law firm is that there is no ‘I, me, myself’ attitude. “Socialistic tolerance” applies to everyone. It is a very flat structure.

RK: We care for our people like we care for family.

GP: For our competitors, the only benchmark might be what you have achieved. But that’s not what Khaitan considers; there are a lot of soft factors that play a role.

I think our attrition is possibly the lowest among law firms. One reason is the culture of the firm, and the second reason is the constantly evolving HR policy. We recently updated our leave policy. The expectation is that you don’t shirk your responsibility, but at the same time, don’t be stressed while doing so.

With Bangalore being a hub for multinational companies (MNCs) and startups, how has the firm adapted to their needs?

RK: The first startup that we worked with was in ’96 – a company called Bangalore Labs. So, we have been working with startups since then. Some of them have become giants now. It is no different; their thoughts and ideas may be different, but the law that applies remains the same.

GP: There is a lot of influence of the Silicon Valley on these startups, so the need for us to innovate becomes that much more important.

RK: Multinationals require much more sophisticated advice. They are very demanding, timelines are very tight, and we have to adapt to their requirements. When we had started, we never had to pitch for work. But now, when MNCs look for lawyers in Bangalore, they take proposals from 3-4 law firms, meet them, and select the most suitable one.

In earlier days, they would approach the person who was recommended to them and deal with them. The fee negotiation used to happen much later. Now, in this competitive scenario, the MNCs issue Request for Proposals (RFPs). In this sense, a big change has happened in the legal market.

GP: It is not just a Solicitor-Client relationship anymore. It has evolved to such an extent that they have competent in-house teams asking law firms about their experience. They will ask you how many matters you have done that are similar to theirs. They also ask about sectoral experience, bandwidth, the constitution of the law firm, etc.

RK: Sometimes, they ask you how much you are insured for!

GP: They also ask about our HR practices, whether we have gender-neutral policies. Some of them also ask to sign the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliances, and our IT security practices. In some cases, we feel like we are being interviewed! It is a sign of the times to come; the market is moving towards maturity.

What have been some of the more memorable deals?

GP: The last one, the Flipkart-Walmart deal comes to mind. We continue to act for OLA. We sorted out the payments and settlements issues of Uber when they came to India. There are many, not just one or two.

RK: We have been advising the first Indian software product, Tally, since 1993. When we came to Bangalore, it was just at that time that things were taking off. We have been assisting the software industry since then.

What does the future hold for the Bangalore office, and for the firm as a whole?

RK: We don’t look at Bangalore separately; we look at the firm as a whole at all times. If a person has expertise on a subject, whether he is in Bombay or Bangalore, he will be providing the advice, wherever the client is. We believe that we do not need to duplicate services; we can render the same service from any place.

“We don’t look at Bangalore separately; we look at the firm as a whole at all times.”

We have been full-service since the beginning, the type of work we used to do and the size of mandates has changed. Now, in large mandate, we at times use 30-35 resources. The service might be rendered from Bangalore, but the client may be anywhere.

With regard to the future, international competition is imminent. The international law firms will come sooner rather than later. We have to gear up and improve the processes at the firm, and see how to improve the service to our clients using the technology. There are some things the international firms do really, really well which we are still learning.

Growth of work is bound to happen because of the boom in the Indian business climate. The government has brought in new tax structures, which has helped in improving ease of business. This has to percolate to all levels, which we expect to happen.

GP: Post-liberalization, law firms that had a size of 100 lawyers in 2001-02, had a strength of 300-400 lawyers in 2011, and around 600 lawyers in 2018. That is a reflection of the economic growth of India.

If you look at our partnership, many people have returned from Magic Circle firms, trained in either the US or the UK. That is only going to increase as the market continues to grow. Innovation is the name of the business.

Any plans of expansion in the near future?

RK: As businesses grow and mature, the sophistication of the advice also grows. We are doing our best to meet these needs. The next five years will mark a period of high growth for Indian law firms. Competition and the requirement for lawyers will only increase. We are gearing up for that, and hope to be twice or thrice our size in 3-4 years’ time. We are adding 4-5 lawyers at the fresher level every year. Expansion is always welcome.

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