Libertatem Magazine

Interview with Mr. Uday Singh Ahlawat, Managing Partner of Ahlawat & Associates Advocate (A&A), Mumbai

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Mr. Uday Singh Ahlawat is the Managing Partner of Ahlawat & Associates Advocate (A&A). He heads the Corporate Commercial Practice of A&A.

His focus areas are mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, corporate restructuring, private equity, and fund formations. Having spent over a decade in the legal profession with some of the leading corporate law firms in India, Mr. Ahlawat has a client portfolio that is both diverse and all-encompassing. He has extensive experience in transactions in various sectors and advises clients in all aspects of a transaction, starting from structuring to planning their exit strategies.

Libertatem Magazine got to interact with Mr. Ahlawat recently where were discussed what motivated him to practice. He also throws some light towards what should be the correct approach to decide a career path instead of basing it on the financial prospect. One most misguided thing in a Law Student’s life is CV Building through Top Tier Firms only. He clarifies this ideology and many others. Here is the excerpt from his Interview.

Swastika: Your mother is a celebrated lawyer. Did that motivate you to take up law or did law practice interest you personally?

Mr. Uday Singh Ahlawat: Honestly, while trying to decide what to do after school, law was far from my first option. It was my mother who convinced me to study law while I was still trying to make up my mind about what I really wanted to do and I told her that the only way I would ever agree to such a commitment was if I got one of the latest cool bikes that had just come out in the market. Being a fierce litigator herself, she decided to get me the bike only if I finish the entire 5 years and got a degree, so the irony of the situation was that my actual first successful ‘negotiation’ was with my mother to do law. So, you can see, she definitely influenced me to read between the lines and the fine nuances of how to close a deal. It was only when I was in the third year, when I did my first internship with JSA I started developing an interest in law. Thereafter, I did my final year internship with Larsen and Toubro and finally decided not just that I wanted to practice law, but I also figured out that I had a deep understanding and interest in corporate law.

Swastika: You did your LLB from Amity Law School. How was your experience in your Law School and what activities did you undertake during that time which are still helping you in your career?

Mr. Ahlawat: While I was pursuing law, Amity Law School was relatively new, and I was part of their third batch. The infrastructure was still rudimentary and my first year was spent in a makeshift campus in Saket. Thereafter, the college moved to a full campus in New Friends Colony and now I believe Amity has one of the finest campuses in the country. My overall experience was great, Amity focused on quality education with great lecturers and a lot of emphasis on the overall development and exposure of a student to all the options that a law degree offers and the management put in a great effort in guiding the initial batches, which I’m sure is still the case. I was quite active in moot courts, sports, and even a part of the organizing committee for the Amity moots.

Swastika: A lot of law students wish to pursue a career in the corporate sector solely because they feel that the financial prospects in the same are greater than that of litigation. Do you feel that this ideology is correct? Also, what do you give a higher preference to, Litigation or Corporate law?

Mr. Ahlawat: My advice has always been not to base a decision on financial prospects; pursuing a career in either corporate or litigation has its own set of advantages and disadvantages and the bases of your making an actual successful career in either, lies in your interest and aptitude for the chosen field. While corporate law may initially seem like a financially better option, the chances of stagnating both professionally and financially are higher which can be very frustrating, and I have seen a number of lawyers give up the profession altogether because of this reason. On the other hand, litigation may not pay well when you are starting off and requires infuriatingly long hours and patience but if you can tide over the initial grind and gain experience in the practice, your value keeps increasing and thereafter sky is the limit financially.

It is for this very reason I have found that it is incredibly important to take up good internships. My own decision to take up corporate law was based on my numerous internships during my college days, wherein I had interned at litigation firms and excellent litigation lawyers but it was my experience at Larsen and Toubro, where I got access to pure corporate commercial work which I found extremely interesting, that helped me make my decision to hone my skills in the practice of corporate law.

Swastika: As far as internships are concerned, a majority of the students focus on procuring internships in top tier firms in order to add a good value to their CV. Do you agree with this ideology?

Mr. Ahlawat: I think a balance is essential to build a good CV, primarily for the kind of varied experience it brings, and any lawyer or firm while hiring prefer exposure rather than name dropping. If you focus on only top tier firms, your chances of being exposed to work beyond research will be limited, while mid-level or smaller firms give you an opportunity to research, draft, maybe become part of a team and if you’re lucky, get involved in an actual transaction. Also, the possibility of getting noticed as a potential recruit could be higher.  In my opinion, it is also important to intern with an individual litigation lawyer who argues themselves in the court. They give you the maximum exposure to drafting and court craft which I feel people do not give enough emphasis to these days. Litigation in a big firm primarily revolves around briefing seniors and since the stakes are always high the interns’ work is limited.

Swastika: Due to the current COVID-19 situation, the Mergers and Acquisitions Activities in India have severely impacted, especially sectors such as Hospitality and Tourism which have come to a complete standstill due to the lockdown. What do you feel is the future of these sectors Post- COVID- 19?

Mr. Ahlawat: While every sector across the board globally has been impacted, the true test of any sector surviving, especially Hospitality and Tourism, lies in sustainability. There will be demand in these sectors, but the problem here is will these hotels and restaurants be able to bide their time and be around by the time demand revives. We are seeing some of the largest chains struggling today, the likes of Hyatt and Marriott are unable to stay afloat, so unfortunately the smaller players are more likely to shut down. The government is also unable to support these industries, unlike manufacturing and other service industries which are crawling back to their optimum level of output, it is still not clear when the hospitality and tourism industry will be allowed to even plan for the future. The prospects of these sectors are bleak and right now unless they actually get a bailout of some kind either from the government or private investors, I am not sure if they can survive.

Swastika: You have worked at firms such as J. Sagar Associates and Desai & Diwanji. What motivated you to think out of the box and start Ahlawat and Associates?

Mr. Ahlawat: When I started off my career it was only the top tier firms that could provide you with the kind of practical platform one needs to get maximum varied corporate legal experience. Once I was in the profession, my long-term aim was always to join forces with my mother and set up a full-service law firm. However, I didn’t want to get overconfident and take the plunge before I had the optimal corporate experience to provide that balance to my own firm. Another fact that motivated me was the realization that corporate law was no longer “big banner” driven. Clients looking for corporate advice and transaction support were looking for alternatives to the larger law firms and were no longer just attracted by the name of a firm. They were more than willing to give a smaller firm or an individual lawyer with enough experience an opportunity to prove their worth and that pushed me to take the plunge and start Ahlawat and Associates.

Swastika: A lot of Lawyers these days wish to start their own firm. However, only a few of them succeed. What is your advice to these lawyers? Also, what are the major requirements for running a successful Law Firm?

Mr. Ahlawat: Right from the beginning and more so today, the only rule that has stood the test of time for me and which I feel holds true in all industries is to focus on quality. I have noticed that when starting a law firm or for that matter any business, people tend to take shortcuts to ensure costs get covered, salaries are paid, invest in unnecessary optics, etc – which is not a good strategy. It took us about three years to break even, primarily because we wanted to focus on quality – our plan was simply to take up matters that we could provide quality service which included our time and personal availability. We let our work speak for itself and it was only then, we started getting access to larger corporates who were willing to trust our work. That is the main reason I recruited only those who understood that vision and refused to hire for the sake of filling chairs in an office for optical value. If clients were willing to give a smaller to mid-level firm a chance, we would have to break free from the traditional ways to provide the service of higher standards and a more personalized approach.

Having said that, it was far from easy, there were plenty of times during the first few years where I would think that the pressure is too much and maybe I should go back to a job which secures me that paycheck at the end of the month and lower my expectations. I even went to the extent of drafting my CV, but somehow held on to it and persevered – Thankfully that moment of reflection paid off and there has been no looking back. There are no sure shot guidelines to run a successful law firm, the only mantra to follow is to be willing to change and adapt to the scenario and you will grow for sure. I have always said that there is enough work in the market for each and everyone in this field, you do not need to compete, rather persevere, innovate, and channel your expertise. Be patient and have a long-term plan and vision to get there.

Right now the partners have been put in a position where we have had to throw out the rule book and forget everything we learned over the past few years, as we are in a situation that no one in the world could be prepared for. But if you want to survive and thrive, you need to be up for any challenge and be able to re-prioritize or adjust to changes. As lawyers, we have a tendency to get so caught up in the fact that we are professionals and have to operate a certain way, that we tend to lose focus of the fact that you need to think of a law firm as any other business and implement those principles which you are advising your own clients in their businesses. Until you do that you will not be able to successfully run a law firm in today’s day and age.

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