Shardul Shroff: My father would write the firmís balance sheet on the back of an air ticket
About the firm’s expansion and setting up of the New Delhi office.
I moved to Delhi on September 1, 1980. We celebrate 30 years this year in the Delhi office. I finished 30 years as a registered lawyer on July 1, 2010. When we came here in 1980 there were three lawyers in the Delhi branch. Of these, two left in the second month. So it was Pallavi (Shroff) and me who were left behind and we started from scratch. Amarchand had already made two acquisitions: Both were firms owned by Shroffs, who were in no way connected to us. In Mumbai it was Hiralal Shroff & Co. in 1970. In Delhi it was Shroff & Co. owned by I.N. Shroff, in 1980. On August 28, 1980, my parents had brought me to Delhi though I had precisely two months at the bar — July and August 1980; and I was asked to start the branch. We are now 230 lawyers in the region, Delhi and Kolkata.
There wasn’t any legacy plank to which I could climb on. I have built my own legacy and created my future.
In Delhi we are the largest establishment, lawyer-wise. Overall, we’ve crossed 470 lawyers. There have been watersheds along the way. We have grown, managed and changed several times over the years. Each stage has involved a tremendous amount of mental process, and logistics.
How daunting was it?
Very daunting because, as I said, there was no legacy. I was totally overwhelmed. Of course, I had the support of both my parents. None of the kids who practice today have seen anything like what I’ve done. I had never appeared in court and I had 2000 to 3000 cases to progress with and argue of the erstwhile Shroff & Co.. There were some matters, which from retainerships of the former Shroff & Co. averaging to Rs.7 per petition. So how to conduct a trial, how to lead a cross examination, how to write pleadings, how to go about witness actions, how to draw up appeals…I mean everything was new. But we had great friends. My father’s college bench mate and currently the governor of the state of Orissa, Mr. M.C. Bhandare, was an enormous help to me. He sat next to us, me and Pallavi, and helped and mentored us to conduct our trials. He used to guide us when he was a practicing senior counsel. And the judges, at that time were truly outstanding and helpful. They recognised young talent. I was just 24 years old when I started at Delhi.
Both you and Cyril had very different initiations into the firm?
It was a baptism by fire. I was thrown in the deep end. What I have been through and what he (Cyril) has been through has been a totally different style of functioning. He had the benefit of my father being around and with him at Mumbai and the presence of my mother also at Mumbai. My father passed away in 1994. Fourteen years, from 1980 to 1994 is a long time for him to understand the whole basis of running a law firm. And yet, I think I got my best learning in those 14 years when I was away. Despite the distance, the closeness I developed with both my dad and mom is just incredible. He taught me long distance how to run a firm.
How has your role in the firm changed over the years?
Till my father was alive, there was no question of either one of us (Cyril or Shardul) becoming managing partner(s). I was a branch manager, not a managing partner. I was responsible for my branch. My father was running the firm and he was responsible for all the branches in a sense. Even at that time, we had five offices.
In 1984 the first partnership deed was drawn up. That year is significant because that’s the year Cyril passed out. I was not admitted to the firm till he passed his law. My mother was not admitted to the firm, it was a sole proprietorship of Mr. Suresh A. Shroff till 1984. His principle was that everything would be on an equal basis. And the women lawyers like Pallavi and Vandana joined the partnership after 1994.
Your father, Suresh Shroff was an exceptional lawyer.
He was a giant. He would write the firm’s balance sheet on the back of an air ticket from Bombay to Delhi. I’m not joking. He knew the firm’s balance sheet and its finances by heart. So if there were 10,000 client accounts, he would know all the details of each account. He would have memorised the date, the amount, the bill, the matter, when was it received, why was it received: That kind of phenomenal memory. He had an incredible mind. I remember him very fondly. If he met you in 1980, he would say — okay, we met on this date, you were dressed in this colour, and we met at this location. He knew the entire land title deeds of Jamshedpur by heart. I would give him almost 70 percent of the credit for the transformation of industrial lending, in terms of structuring and documentation.
Amarchand’s success has been phenomenal…
I don’t think there’s any firm that’s done what we’ve done. This year we’ve won 40 recognitions and awards. These are all international awards. We were a banking law boutique firm throughout the 70s and 80s. Because that was the strength of my father’s practice. ICICI and all the financial institutions were his clients. There is not a single financial institution in India which my father has not acted for. We were the only firm which represented the Ambani’s and Nusli Wadia at the same time. At the same time, there was Nusli Wadia team in one conference room and there was the Ambani team in another conference room. That was the level of confidence people had in my father’s practice.
When we opened the partnership in 1994, after my father passed away, we were about 60 to 70 lawyers; less than 70. Today, that number is more than 470. That’s the kind of phenomenal growth we’ve had. I think we should be between 600 to 800 in the next couple of years. And we will touch 500 by the end of the financial year. We want to be the national leader. As a national firm, we want to be unassailable come what may, whether the foreigners are there or the foreigners are not there. With a 600-800 bench strength, I don’t think anyone can touch us: Because no foreign firm is going to come and set up a 600-800 person law firm. At most they’ll have 50-60; which is the trend we see elsewhere in other jurisdictions. One of the challenges we will face is poaching. So how do you really create — the challenge currently is really creating the plurality of ownership; also creating depth, because in such a case even if there are exits, your clients are not floundering for advice. If you take any practice area, for instance, if you take M&A, out of 400 lawyers there will be 100 doing just M&A. That’s deep bench strength. That’s more than a law firm, in just one practice area. So for example if you take capital markets, 60 lawyers are there who just do capital markets work.
With growth figures like this has the firm reached critical mass?
It has reached critical mass on many levels. When we crossed the first threshold at 150, it was critical mass. When we crossed 300 it was critical mass. When we crossed 400 it was a critical mass. When we cross 500 it will be critical mass; because at each 100, there is a different dimension to the practice. Today, you don’t even know your own colleagues. I cannot list 500 lawyers of the firm myself. I don’t know them personally. It has become like an industry. It’s no longer a small enterprise. It’s a very complex business: Which is why we now have clearly two aspects to the running of the firm. We have called these two programmes of excellence: Excellence in the practice of the law, and excellence in the administration of the lawyers. And what do I mean by that? Practice of the law is really the practice areas we focus on — the legal products. And the administration and the delivery systems which are necessary for us to execute the practice is a separate ball game where we are completely professionalised for several years. We have not differentiated between the firm as a firm, as we have managed it on principles akin to Company (Corporate) Law governance. The governance model we preach is something we practice. We started with the premise that lawyers need not be their own managers. And in that sense it’s been very tough on me, I’m not known as a manager, I’m known as a lawyer. So for me to switch over from the practice of the law to being a manager is an extremely difficult transition because I have no training in it.
Are you developing new practice areas?
That’s the thing I’ve done at Delhi. As a part of changing the firm, gestating new practices has been my initiative. We didn’t have an intellectual property division till six years ago. It was the first division we looked into. Then taxation, which is now again four or five years old. The next big division we have set up is competition law which is, in a sense, anticipatory. Then real estate, insurance — these were all new practice areas in Delhi. Policy and change— we’re the only firm which has a full fledged department which looks at policy and change; then labour, and employment and environment. We’re doing huge knowledge creation in the firm. These new divisions are a function of the fact that we have more space at Delhi and therefore more ability to experiment. Whereas Mumbai has been the commercial capital and therefore sticks to its strengths which are projects banking, project finance, capital markets. New practice areas have been spawned at Delhi and then made national. For example, today taxation practices across both Mumbai region and Delhi region but the numbers we have are here. We have about 18 tax practitioners here. Whereas Mumbai will have four, five or six probably.
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