New Innings of JSA’s Former Senior Partner Berjis Desai

Following in the footsteps of Jyoti Sagar, J. Sagar Associates’ Senior Partner Berjis Desai retired from the firm on March 31 this year. Having followed the firm’s retirement policy, the senior partners have walked the talk. In 2013, Jyoti Sagar, the founding partner retired from the firm, giving away all his equity. Although Jyoti continues to be the Chairman and Mentor of the firm, Berjis will no longer be connected with JSA.

Interview by Pallavi Saluja, barandbench.com

Jyoti and Berjis were introduced to each other through a common friend about 15 years ago. Remembering his first meeting with Jyoti, Berjis in an earlier interview with Bar & Bench, said,

“Within 15 minutes of our meeting, we had agreed on the commercial terms and we realized that we had several principles, which were very common and that is why we got together”.

On April 1, 2003 Berjis along with his team of 15 lawyers joined the firm.

After 14 years, Berjis would sever all his ties with the firm.

On April 1, 2017, one day after his retirement, Berjis is already sitting in his new office, working for his clients. In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Pallavi Saluja, Berjis talks about his professional plan post retirement, future of JSA and law firms in general.

Berjis-Desai

It’s just been a day since you retired. How does it feel?

I haven’t got much time to think about it because I am already sitting in my new office. I have been working since 9.30 am. I have just moved from one place to another.

What are your plans for the new office?

I am not setting up any law firm or retaining any lawyers. I will focus on private client practice – advising promoter family, trust planning, will, succession planning, family disputes, something that I have been doing for last several years. I will also do fast track commercial arbitration where I will act as an arbitrator.

I will develop a totally independent arm’s length relationship with all the law firms. As and when any advice is required, I will provide the consultation and that is the kind of practice I want to build. It is retirement from JSA but not retirement from the profession.

Apart from focusing on private client practice, what do you plan to do, since you no longer have to manage a large law firm?

I have been wanting to do some serious writing; both fiction and non-fiction. I have some unpublished fiction, which I hope to publish in a reasonable time.

The firm has seen some big exits in the past two years. How has it affected the firm and what steps have been taken to retain the firm’s talent?

So the exits effectively were only two – Akshay Chudasama and Somasekhar Sundaresan, which were unplanned exits. And undoubtedly both of them are star players. As far as my exit is concerned, it was a planned exit, everybody knew that I was going to retire on March 31, 2017.

I have always said, Akshay and Som’s exit was a loss to the firm; there is no two ways about it. But these are times when there is intense churn – particularly in Bombay – in all the large law firms, so JSA has also been a party to it. At the Equity Partner level, effectively it has been these two exits and of course now recently two equity partners – Sumanto Basu and Pallavi Bedi, who were essentially part of the project practice, have left.

So apart from that, the Firm has had a very good year. As a matter of fact, without going too much into detail, it is the best year of its 25 years – in terms of both revenue and profits. But, in terms of these two guys and other exits, to say that there is no loss is obviously not true. This is part of life now and everyone should become used to it and I think in next one and half years, there will be a further churn in the legal profession as such.

Amit Kapur has taken over as senior partner and the firm already has joint managing partners. How does this all fit in the organisation? What is the role of the senior partner?

The senior partner’s role is a work in progress; he has just taken over today, but the role and responsibilities are being worked out. It will be done in a manner in which it does not undermine the joint managing partners. But at the same time, the senior partner is in-charge of strategy and vision essentially.

It’s the same on western lines, where you have a managing partner and the senior partner and each has its role to play. So in a smaller setup, they will be looking after some aspect of management or the other. Amit is a great lawyer, a great resource and I am sure he is going to do a great job.

In our earlier Interview with you and Jyoti, you had said, “We are no longer there even in the mentoring role, then the challenge will come whether the institution is durable.” So what are your thoughts on that now?

He still continues to be the Chairman of the firm. Mr. Sagar has a mentoring role, which he is discharging. At the moment, though he may not be a partner, but he certainly is the brand equity of the firm, the mascot of the firm so to say. He has a lot to contribute as and when issues arise both internally and externally.

I am of course going to be now completely independent of any law firm including JSA. It is severance in the true sense. I am an independent practitioner not having any kind of direct, indirect consultancy with any law firm because that is what I want to shape the practice as such.

What is the future direction of JSA and the path of the legacy you are leaving behind?

I would say that JSA has been an experiment to a large extent and Jyoti’s vision has been far ahead of his times – no family controls, no dominant individual controls, there is a retirement age and people have walked the talk mostly. It’s a unique experiment. The firm has completed 25 years and this year has been the best so far in terms of revenue and profits.

At the same time, there are challenges as to how the next generation of management works out their internal dynamics and learns how to peacefully co-exist in the absence of the founder partners, who had ingrained moral authority and persuasive authority. That advantage is not available to the new generation of managers who will take over. So they have to work for internal dynamics, they have to do their ego management, aspiration management – which may lead to some conflict.

How do you overcome that conflict and how do you put the firm before yourself?

As I have repeatedly said, the essence of managing a large law firm is that you have to be an excellent ego manager. Your IQ may be poor but your EQ should be very high in order to really bind people together, that is a very rare commodity.

Everybody is becoming aspirationally very aggressive. Earlier, people were more docile, so now to manage all that, to keep everyone blended together, to make them think of the institution, there is where the challenge lies. These challenges are even being felt by family-owned firms. Those days are gone where a senior partner will not challenge the authority of the family owner of the firm. That’s happening all the time.

What do you have to say on the recent trend of law firm partners leaving firms for counsel practice? Will we see more of this in the future?

I think this distinction between counsels is of course only on the original side. And increasingly, this so-called informal distinction between counsel and other lawyers is slowly and gradually being eroded. Zerick Dastur, for instance, will be filing a vakalatnama undoubtedly, but at the same time he will also be arguing a lot on his own and maybe over a period of time his aspiration is to become an independent counsel.

On the other hand, Som’s model is that he is a completely independent counsel. He has no links with anybody, directly or indirectly, and he does not file any vakalatnama. He is like any other counsel on the original side. These are all different models which are developing. I think the same goes for Rohan also.

For everybody from the transactional side to gravitate to this, it’s not easy. But yes, I suppose that the answer is that we may see more of this trend. I understand most of the people on the regulatory litigation side are doing a lot of arguing themselves. For example, Amit Kapoor regularly appears in the Supreme Court and actually argues on various aspects even when other senior counsels are present.

So for somebody like him to transition to independent counsel practice is extremely easy. And even the hybrid model as I said about Zerick, where you file the vakalatnama, you interact with the client as well as you argue yourself. Those type of boutique practices which combines the traditional advocate on record practice/solicitor practice along with counsel practice is also highly cost efficient to the client. So this can be a trend setter.

What are your thoughts on the entry of foreign law firms and future of Indian law firms?

I still continue to believe that foreign law firms are not going to set up here in a hurry and that international commercial arbitration and ‘fly in and fly out’ business will go on. But as far as actual setting up a firm, I still feel that day is about 5 years away or maybe more.

I think, a foreign firm setting up a full-fledged transactional law practice, is still far away for variety of reasons and it’s not only the regularity barriers. I feel that some of the foreign firms come here and see the ground reality; they realise that they have to bring in their own processes to do risk management and that is going to cost a lot of money. They have to have a very long term radar to absorb losses as they go around. So only people with a very strong appetite, like American law firms, who don’t mind not breaking even for 5-7 years may set up.

And I think that some of these foreign law firms will look increasingly at the surrogate model. As we know, a couple of surrogate model firms are already there in the market. I think you will see an addition in this financial year, maybe a couple more.

I think the future of Indian law firms will continue to have a rationale to exist when foreign law firms are fully set up. They will throw a lot of top talent to them, which will be a challenge for the Indian law firms as and when it happens. And Indian law firms will have to compete with risk management process, quality control, the excellence of the product, which I have always said, we are still light years away from and have a lot of catching up has to do.

As the Indian client also gets accustomed to a far superior product, it will slowly obviously require a more expensive set up. And that will be the challenge. So as I said, there will be a lot of churn and it’s not that Indian law firms will simply vanish from the market or simply cease to exist, but things will not be the same as it has been for the last many years.

Any advice for young lawyers?

There is humongous scope for young lawyers and two things are very important; one is humility and secondly, some patience and ability to sacrifice the short term for the long term and to build evolving professional partnerships and relationships. People are too anxious and impatient to reach a certain point. That impatience has to be curbed.

Times have come when you are going to see greater quality control, better processes, the whole quality of the law product will change quite radically. The pressure is already on in many ways, because it’s not only the foreign law firms, the Big Four accounting firms and tax consulting firms are also directly and indirectly doing a lot of M&A work. They are bringing a huge amount of value add to the table because they look at the transaction from a holistic point of tax, accounting, consultancy and legal. The kind of value add they do, clients are beginning to gravitate to them. Plus there are these huge in-house legal departments headed by general counsels doing majority of the work in-house. These are all huge challenges for all traditional Indian law firms, but I am sure people will survive, and a new order will always emerge.