‘Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.’ is a quote best exemplified by Solicitor Shiraj Salelkar, the sole proprietor of Vidur Legal, a young and dynamic law firm situated at Nariman Point in Mumbai. He has been part of the ever-evolving legal industry for 25 years and has adeptly changed roles through the years paving his road and staying true to his sensibilities. Read more to understand his motivation to pursue law, hailing from Goa and carving a niche in Mumbai, the challenges of being the sole overhead of an enterprise, the biggest weapon a student of law must be armed with, and more.
Trishala: Please tell us something about your educational background. Back then law was not considered to be a very good career option as it is considered now. What motivated you to opt for law as a career?
Mr. Salelkar: I was born and brought up in Goa and both my parents were doctors. While in senior school we had a teacher, Mr. Sanjay Usgaokar, who was simultaneously (with teaching) also studying law part-time. He also gave us an overview of the laws/law practice, that made the same very informative and interesting. His aforesaid approach inculcated an interest in law for me, which eventually paved the way for my seeking admission in law school.
My mother recollects that I had in the senior school itself, informed her that I wanted to pursue law as a profession.
I also enjoyed civics as a subject in school and reading about legal issues/ viewing debates on facets of law and current affairs.
The maternal side of my family had several lawyers including my grandfather, Mr. Vinayak Kaisare, who was a very famous criminal lawyer. My grandfather took up the cases of Indian freedom fighters seeking to liberate Goa from the Portuguese regime (Goa was then a Portuguese colony), free of cost. Two of my uncles and an aunt (his children) also qualified as lawyers but thereafter none of them continued in law practice and instead pursued other career choices. Hence there was never any law practice much less any established law practice, that I could continue and in that sense, I am a first generational lawyer, though I had law in my genes!!
While I sought admission to the science stream in Class XI, intending to keep my option open to pursue medicine, by the time I had finished Class XII, I had already made up my mind to pursue law as a profession.
Looking back, I believe that the commerce stream is more conducive if one intends to take up law practice, as it introduces you to the principles of accounting which makes review and analysis of financial statements, much easier to grasp.
After my Class XII, I pursued the five years course at ILS Law College in Pune. I then intended to come back to Goa to practice law which was at that time, largely restricted to civil litigation mainly in the real estate area and also to conveyancing practice. With that background, I was advised that pursuing the Solicitors course in Mumbai would place me in a beneficial position as it focussed on civil/ corporate commercial/ real estate law practice and had a practical approach to it including a period of articleship.
Accordingly, I signed up for the Solicitors course in Mumbai and have been practicing in Mumbai thereafter.
Trishala: You’ve started your law firm Vidur Legal after acquiring a treasure-trove of knowledge from your work experience of more than 2 decades. What are some practices prevalent in law firms that you incorporated and some aspects that you wanted to get rid of while setting up Vidur Legal?
Mr. Salelkar: I was fortunate to be exposed to the best practices prevalent in law firms during my time there, which today are considered very basic. Amongst these best practices I would include:
- Client facing documentation: Making sure that all interactions with the client are well documented, including engagement letters and minutes of meetings. Any important oral communications/instructions have to be recorded and if required circulated to the client, through email or in the form of minutes of meetings, so that there is a record of the same and both the client and the lawyer are on the same page. This plays a crucial role when an important call in a matter has been taken based on the client’s instructions. It could also take the form of recording return of documents to client especially original documents.
- Client facing interactions: That clients are kept in the loop on all aspects of the matter and there is a regular discussion with them on the matter including fees aspects; to understand the client’s expectations and to provide them with a realistic picture of the matter include the possible outcome and whether all of their expectations can be met and to endeavour to meet their expectations to the extent possible;
- Fee quotes, maintenance of timesheets and regular billing: To put in careful thought and effort into preparing the fee quote to ensure that fee quotes are commensurate with the time and effort likely to be put in on the work product; maintaining of regular timesheets so that there is a verifiable record of the work put in (where billing is on an hourly basis) and regular billing in matters, so that the client is aware of the fees being incurred regularly and can discuss the same forthwith, in case of any issues.
- Robust IT system: Set up and maintain a robust IT system including ensuring regular data backups to ensure that there is no data lost and no data breach occurs.
- Teams: Making sure that there is a team assigned to each matter, that the deliverable is properly explained to them, that you are available to clear any clarifications and queries that may be required. Ensuring that the team is properly staffed and that the timetable is realistic and can be met (unless there is some urgency).
- Presentation: Make sure that the work product, whether a pleading, a Note or transaction document, is very presentable including the formatting, etc.
- Committing to any unrealistic targets and timetables to the client
Hence, I ensure that to avoid the aforesaid-Timelines in matters are fixed only after discussion with my team, to ensure that the work product does not suffer.
- Excessive delegation
To avoid the aforesaid-I ensure that I am also hands-on in the matter and make sure that I am abreast of all aspects of the matter so that the matter is properly serviced.
- Unavailability to the team
To avoid the aforesaid-I ensure that that the team is properly briefed on the matter and it is discussed in detail and that I am available to the team at all times on any aspect of it, to ensure that the work product does not suffer.
Trishala: You were a Partner at J Sagar Associates, Mumbai when you left JSA, joined IC Legal as the sixth Partner and a partner in headed the litigation and dispute resolution division [Note: this is the correct position as there were two other partners in this practice, in addition to myself]. What motivated you to quit IC Legal and start Vidur Legal?
Mr. Salelkar: There were certain aspects that my partner wanted to do differently and there was a difference in the vision for going forward.
Hence, I decided to forge my own path.
The parting was on amicable terms and we continue to be good friends even today.
Trishala: You have worked as an Associate and you’ve been made Partner over the course of your career. How is that different from being the Sole Proprietor of Vidur Legal?
Mr. Salelkar: The responsibilities as a sole proprietor are slightly different but more daunting.
In case of a sole proprietorship, you are entirely on your own for all functions of the practice, including bringing in the business, administration, tax/ accounting, marketing, and meeting its liabilities. That can constrain your functioning and make it much more difficult to run your practice.
Further, you can benefit from cross-selling of practice areas in a firm, which does not work out in sole proprietary practice. In the latter, you can only service clients in your practice area/ competencies, whereas in a law firm you can rely on other partners to execute any work you have sourced in practice areas outside your own and that can lead to an increase in work, visibility and revenues.
Also, in a law firm, you have a cushion (in terms of finances), through revenues earned by other partners, to help you overcome temporary liquidity issues. Whereas in case of a sole proprietary practice you must ensure that all times you keep a cushion to fall back on in times of need.
Trishala: Are you one of those lawyers who have an all-consuming passion for work, or do you believe in maintaining a work-life balance?
Mr. Salelkar: There is no doubt that I fall in the former category, as my family and associates/ colleagues will complain/vouch for. I continue to be very passionate about work even after 25 years of practice and new matters continue to excite me. Every learning in a matter is welcomed and stored for future use/ reference and every progress made in a matter gives me a high, especially when the strategy and hard work I have put in, works in favour of the client.
In my work experience, as I became more senior and/ or undertook more responsibility, the work-life balance got adversely impacted.
Further, it is pertinent to point out that it is not always because of an all-consuming passion for work that an imbalance in the work-life balance may arise. It is also due to the nature of the work (especially litigation) and events/ issues beyond your control, that creates an imbalance, more so in the dispute resolution practice.
I have been fortunate that there has been abundant work at all stages of my career that has kept and keeps me busy-though the negative is that, it does impinge on the personal space/ “me time”/family time.
I will be candid that I have not been able to achieve a work-life balance on account of all of the aforesaid factors. However, you also realize that, as long as the work is good and you enjoy it, this imbalance (where the work takes an upper hand) is better than the other way round, where the work is scarce.
Trishala: These days, there are a lot of Solicitors and Advocates who wish to set up their own Law Firm. Few of them succeed while some don’t. What would be your piece of advice especially to the ones who wish to set up their Law Firm someday?
Mr. Salelkar: I believe that the most important factor is to examine whether you have sufficient clients who will give you matters regularly, the revenues of which are more than sufficient to manage your costs. I believe that you should have a minimum of 2-3 anchor clients so that in case one of them does not have matters at any point in time, the others will take care of the expenses.
Also, you should at all points of time, have a cash reserve/be able to maintain contingency funds to dip into, to meet not just your immediate expenses, but also your not so short term expenses, should the need arise.
Further, it would be best to set up practice, if possible, with other lawyers/partners in complementary practice areas including within the same field/practice area. In both aforesaid scenarios, you would be able to benefit from the cross-selling of the firm’s practice areas and be able to save on costs and at times also have someone to fall back on in case of need.
Trishala: Lastly, what is your advice to law students especially those who aspire to work in Law Firms? What are some essential qualities and skills required to be successful in this field?
Mr. Salelkar: The ability to consistently work hard is the singular most important quality that I believe carries you far. That means sacrifices but believe me, you get noticed. Your focus and resolve will carry you far.
Further your attitude towards your work and others especially seniors and your humility make all the difference. You may not be the brightest but if you have the ability to hard work and have the right attitude and are humble yet confident, I have seen that you can outscore brighter candidates.
I would also ask students to inculcate the habits of paying attention to details/facts of a case and not read legal documents like a novel, simply rushing through them. Rather carefully analyze the contents thereof, ask questions/pose queries, where you believe there is no sufficient clarity or explanation and especially if there are inconsistencies especially the documents and what your client is orally informing you.
Make sure that you inculcate the habit of getting into continuous learning especially in the field of your choice. It is so much easier today especially with all the legal tools and materials readily available.
Lastly, I would recommend that they also pay attention to and improve their writing/drafting skills, even in their everyday writing. The ability to state your point succinctly, preferably using short sentences not only makes for better understanding but also helps retain the attention of the reader, be it a senior or a judge.
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