Interview with Sherbir Panag, Partner at Law Offices of Panag & Babu

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Sherbir Panag is one of India’s foremost white-collar crime lawyers and a partner at the Law Offices of Panag & Babu. Sherbir’s multi-disciplinary white-collar crime practice has been listed and ranked by Chambers and PartnersWho’s Who Legal and The Legal 500. He has been recognised as a Thought Leader for Business Crime Defence (Corporates) by Who’s Who Legal and Global Investigation Review and has been ranked as one of the 40 under 40 Rising Stars of India by Legal Era. He has led investigations and acted as defence counsel in some of India’s most high-profile cases, which have also interplayed with law enforcement in the United States, Europe and Asia. These matters have involved allegations of bribery and other misconduct under Indian and foreign anti-corruption laws; financial and regulatory fraud; procurement fraud; violation of sanctions laws; and violation of corporate governance norms. Sherbir’s representative experience spans the entire spectrum of India courts including the Supreme Court of India.

Sherbir is a Senior Fellow at the Wharton School’s Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research and a member of Cornell University’s Meridian 180. He also serves on the Advisory Group of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’s Alliance For Integrity.

In this interview, he told us about his entry point into the world of law, the work culture that his law firm thrives on, about the analogy between an investigations counsel and a prosecutor, his influencers and his advice for law students. An ambitious attorney, a maverick bookworm and a military history aficionado… is a transcript of the interview.

Trishala: What propelled you to pursue law?  How was your experience at law school?

Sherbir Panag: I grew up in a family with close to 150 years of military service, but thanks to John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer – I was convinced early on that law will be my calling. The cliché apart, I must admit that this was probably the biggest influence in my decision to become a lawyer.

Law school was an incredible journey, which was predominantly governed by fun, frolic and lots of reading. I am incredibly lucky to have met my best friends at law school, one of whom I married and the other two who I work with.

Trishala: Panag & Babu’s is a widely accomplished and internationally respected boutique law firm and a fairly young one at that. What kind of a work ethic needs to be adapted to forge a successful partnership firm?

Sherbir Panag: We are honoured and at the same time humbled by the acclaim our practice has received in terms of global rankings, market standing and to be viewed as an institution of merit. This has been a very interesting journey, the credit of which goes entirely to my colleagues – who have brought out and rather embodied our values of integrity, quality of work products, a strict meritocracy and unabashed ambition.

Our success to a large extent is driven by our culture and once again an incredibly talented team, who for the most part are founding members of the firm. We take our culture very seriously and it remains a top priority to ensure that there is no dilution here and to constantly expand as a platform to make space for our colleagues to follow their practice of choice. Culture, on the other hand, cannot become an excuse for cutting corners in the professional management of the firm or compensation that our lawyers draw – both realms in which we are at par with or exceed the best in the market.

We are a professionally run law firm from the word go and not principal or family-run. The firm’s operational management is through the COO with partners focussed on their practices. The firm’s partners and I are at best the current custodians of the brand but we insist that every lawyer who works at Panag & Babu, knows that their name can be on the door – a statement we make and reinforce regularly.

Our work ethic is effectively ingrained in the firm’s management philosophy of professionalism, innovation and to reiterate meritocracy.

Trishala: What inspired you to build a legal practice in the field of White Collar Criminal Defense?  

Sherbir Panag: To be honest, I didn’t have an epiphany to be driven to the white-collar crime practice, but rather the desire or more colloquially the fear of missing out on the thrill of criminal law and pace of commercial law. White-collar crime sits on the confluence of both these bodies of law.

To a large extent, the life of an investigation and compliance counsel is very similar to that of a prosecutor. The mandate is never to bury facts, but rather to bring them out, find the truth and prevent misconduct from occurring. On most days, I feel I have the best job in the world.

In terms of setting up and pioneering an international standards white-collar crime practice, the inspiration really was the market vacuum. As India became more economically relevant and with more global companies setting shop, the white-collar and corporate governance practice was not keeping pace. We either had commercial lawyers or criminal lawyers who were focussed on individual defence, drawing in principles of blood crimes to financial crimes. On the other hand, we had multinational companies who were used to working with the international firms with deep expertise, who hit a roadblock in India. As I returned from Germany after my stint at Roxin LLP, I felt this had to change and a new skill set had to emerge.

I was fortunate to meet like-minded individuals like my former partner and mentor – Zulfiquar Memon, who shared the same vision. I also owe a great debt to David Simon, who heads Foley & Lardner’s FCPA practice for his sage advice and counsel through this process. From where the white-collar bar in India was a few years ago, to where we are now – it’s a formidable journey, where we now have world-class advisory from Indian practitioners. We are now a growing tribe of lawyers across boutique and large law firms.

Trishala: What attributes, according to you make for a good white-collar lawyer?

A white-collar crime or business crimes lawyer, as the name suggests must have his predominant skillset in the criminal law along with being a great generalist. A business crimes matter will transcend several elements of law, business practices and conduct across spectrums – therefore the need to have sound first principles.

One juggles many hats – for example in investigations it is to search for and clarify facts, howsoever adverse they may be; while as a defence counsel – one instinctively views the same facts differently. Likewise, while working on corporate governance mandates – one balances the business practicality with standards of governance, and we have to deftly walk the tight rope of not diluting standards of compliance.

In short, the most important skill becomes the ability to juggle these different hats effortlessly.

Trishala: You have suggested several recommendations to perform effective anti-corruption investigations in India in a video that was made in an endeavour to break down the basics of anti-corruption practices. How do you think those recommendations would hold water in the business sector the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Sherbir Panag: That’s a very good question and I don’t think too many of them change, though the mode of delivery or implementation is likely to change.

Providence and lessons from the 2008 financial crisis have shown us how criminal misconduct risks including fraud and bribery increase, with business disruption. Armed with hindsight, it would be prudent to be prepared, ensure compliance and governance is strengthened – as opposed to being ignored or becoming a budget casualty. Compliance functions will have to rely significantly on technology and remote working for tasks that customarily were in-person or on-site, but the lack of in-person meetings cannot be the cause to bring the compliance organisation to a grinding halt and increase risk. The daunting challenge notwithstanding, this also is an opportunity to digitise compliance.

Trishala: What do you wish that you had known as an up-and-coming lawyer, as you were just starting to expand your practice?

Sherbir Panag: Well on a lighter note, I definitely wish my skills around Microsoft Office were better and I knew how to use Excel, something I struggle with till date.

On a more serious note, the best advice I got was from Justice Rajiv Raina, who asked me to read Justice Felix Frankfurter’s letter to Paul – a 14-year-old boy who wanted to pursue law. Justice Raina asked me to read this letter, on the first day of when I began to work with him and its contents have stayed with me since. In fact, I share this with every lawyer who joins our firm and to quote Justice Frankfurter:

“No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man. If I were you I would forget about any technical preparation for the law. The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person. Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give. No less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music. Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and forget about your future career.”

I only wish I had read this sooner and embodied it with much more gusto, as opposed to worrying about where the next internship would be, or the hoard of irrelevant things which felt like the end of the world at law school.

Trishala: What do you like to do when you’re not playing Batman in the Gotham City of white-collar crime?

Sherbir Panag: Hahahaha! My partner – Samudra Sarangi, a die-hard Batman fan would have loved to have answered this question; while I would have preferred a Top Gun reference.

For any time that I can find, I am a compulsive and obsessive reader and read across all mediums. My guilty reading pleasure would be military history, to make up for the career choice I should have but did not make.

The weekends that I am not travelling, I would be skeet shooting or more realistically being a glutton whichever city in the world I am in, given my love for food.

Trishala: What is your advice to law students and fresh law school graduates who wish to build a career in the field of white-collar crime?

Sherbir Panag: Follow Justice Frankfurter’s advice, you’ll find your calling in white-collar crime or whatever other areas of law; but for the most part you’ll be an accomplished lawyer.

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