Libertatem Magazine was fortunate to get an interview with him; an excerpt from the conversation is given below.
Lavanya: AZB is now one of the best law firms in India. Since its inception in 2004, your firm has continuously scaled new heights. We would love to hear about how you, along with Mr. Ajay Bahl and Zia Mody started AZB & Partners. It would be kind if you could share a bit about your journey, from the inception of the firm to it becoming one of the leading firms in the country.
Mr. Vakil: Timing and luck were important as they are in so many aspects of life. Zia Mody and I started CZB (Chambers of Zia and Bahram) in January 2002. It was excellent timing. Zia and I have known each other since childhood and we were both in New York in the 80s. It was like a dream at the time because we were just kids, a few years older than you are right now. We used to say that one day we would establish a firm of our own. Zia is one of the very few people I know who started as a counsel but later chose to become a corporate lawyer. I was with Little and Co. for 20 years prior to starting CZB. We spoke about it for a long time but when it happened, it happened at a very quick pace and at the best time possible.
The only plan we had in mind was to become a pan India firm with multiple practice areas but focused on corporate law. Considering the size of our economy at the time, we realized that we had to have at least 100 lawyers to be considered a leading firm in India. We started in Bombay but realised we had to be in Delhi and Bangalore as soon as possible. We started with 22-23 lawyers but our goal was to get to the 100-lawyer target within 3 years.
Zia’s practice was almost wholly international; she could count her Indian clients on one hand. Fortunately, I had a good balance, and we agreed that if we want to be known as a top Indian law firm, we need to strike a balance between serving both Indian and International clients. We tried very hard, Zia being Zia; she pulled out the top 100 companies in India and we decided who we should go for. An obvious choice was the Tata Group as I had done a lot of work for them already and Zia knew them too. That was our first breakthrough and thereafter we have been fortunate to develop relationships with many Indian corporates, across India, which is extremely important to the firm.
Happily, at the end of 3 years, we had set up offices in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. We believed that in each city, we should have a well-known lawyer with the same integrity, mindset, focus, and caliber as we did. Bangalore came first because a good friend of ours, Vivek Chandy – who currently is a joint managing partner at JSA Law, approached us and that is how the Bangalore office was established.
Delhi was crucial and we were fortunate that Ajay was a good friend and we had worked together for a long time, beginning with the AES power project in the mid-90s. We had just closed a major M&A deal in 2000-2001; wherein he was representing a multinational firm, and I, an Indian firm. The deal went very smoothly because when lawyers are good friends, issues get sorted out smoothly in the best interest of both sides. I met Ajay first, and then the 3 of us met together. That was it… AZB was formed in just 2 meetings!! Ajay came not only with a great team of lawyers but also with terrific clients, both Indian and international.
From there on, all growth was essentially driven by the client’s needs. Our economy, together with the global economy boomed from 2004 to 2008, and besides all the domestic work we were also fortunate to be involved with most of the large cross border M&A transactions entered into by Indian corporates. Finally, I have to say that AZB has never been about size but always about quality which shines through its lawyers at all levels.
Lavanya: Back when you started out, the legal profession was not looked at in the same way as it is today. What motivated to take up law?
Mr. Vakil: That’s a simple one. I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 5 years old, as my father was a lawyer. It was an emotional thing; I wanted to be like my dad.
Lavanya: Back then, there might not have been a mooting culture or paper presentations and other activities as we have today. Could you please tell us a bit about your college life back then?
Mr. Vakil: We certainly had a mooting culture back then. I was at GLC Bombay. Some of the people who won moots are now top lawyers in the country, like Tushar Cooper, he is a very famous counsel, and Amit Desai, he is the best criminal lawyer in the country.
Lavanya: Students these days put their effort into building CVs through Moot Courts, Debates, and Paper Presentations. Do you think that a good CV is the only factor responsible for a law student’s success nowadays or should they focus more on a mix of activities such as a variety of internships in Courts, Law Firms, Corporates, etc.?
Mr. Vakil: It certainly isn’t all about the CV nor is it all about the number of internships. It should be meaningful. If you intern for less than 4 weeks, I would say please don’t do it. Whenever possible, your internship has to be a minimum of 4 weeks, otherwise, the opportunity for you to get proper work experience from it is limited. You don’t benefit, the firm doesn’t benefit either. Also, the key thing about internships is that it is a possible recruitment tool for the firm as well as for the students. If you can intern for more than 4 weeks, that’s fantastic. Rather than interning at 8 firms, I would definitely choose a person who has interned at 3, but has done meaningful internships. Experience counts a lot and is very important. Diverse experience is very important in today’s world. If you have decided to be a lawyer for the rest of your life, take advantage of your college years to do some other stuff, that will always help you as a lawyer, as well as in other spheres of your life. Experience is very crucial according to me.
Lavanya: Students these days think that they should get a Tier 1 or Tier 2 or at least Tier 3 Law Firm internship; otherwise their Internship is meaningless and would not even count towards their CVs. Do you think that is the correct ideology?
Mr. Vakil: It’s tough, it depends more on what you want to do at the end of 5 years. As long as you can show that even though the internship wasn’t in a top tier firm, it led to you learning something substantial and it made you develop your personality and skills, then it should not matter. However, going with the top tier is always a safer route. For example, in the USA, one of the most important internships law students can do is with a judge. These are called clerkships. Any top tier firm would appreciate your thinking out of the box and gaining valuable experience by working under a judge. You learn a lot, a lot of research is involved, which is crucial for a young lawyer. You can also consider interning with senior counsels and Pro bono counsels/chambers if you are so inclined.
Lavanya: Being a member of the committee which drafted the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, what are your views on the effectiveness of the IBC in resolving current business turmoil? What according to you should be the government’s move to protect small businesses from the IBC, during this state of lockdown?
Mr. Vakil: That was a fantastic privilege and one of the best experiences of my professional career. One of the reasons I am so proud of it is because, despite India rarely been known to act speedily, here in a short period of 13 months we drafted and enacted a new law from scratch. For comparison, countries like Singapore, which are known for their speed and efficiency, took over 3 years to enact such a law and the same goes for European countries including the UK and other countries like the USA. I don’t know if there is any country that did this in 13 months. It was the unified resolve of the government which achieved this; the IBC is implemented by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, but at that time it was led by the Finance Minister and his team. There was tremendous support from everyone, be it the Ministry of Law, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, or the RBI, everyone was fully behind it. The then RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan chaired a few meetings, SEBI too was wholeheartedly behind it. All the arms of the government acted swiftly; otherwise, this could never have been achieved. Of course, the committee was terrific, so ably led by Dr. T.K. Viswanathan. The reason we needed such a law was that our banking sector was in a fragile state and the level of NPAs was very high.
The current committee (ILC) has been declared a standing committee i.e. it meets as and when it is required. In these COVID times, since it is a bad situation and you need to give some relief, an Ordinance has been passed which is timely and helpful.