Parley with Mr. Sakate Khaitan, Senior Partner at Khaitan Legal Associates

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Mr. Sakate is the senior partner at Khaitan Legal Associates who oversees Corporate Mergers and Acquisitions, Corporate Restructuring and Insurance Practice among others at Khaitan Legal Associates. He advises his clients on Inward Investments into India. Libertatem Magazine had this opportunity this time to interview Mr. Sakate and to have a deeper look into his role as a Senior Partner at Khaitan Legal Associates. We also had the opportunity to get to know about his opinion on various policy initiative regarding the corporate world.

Here’s what Mr. Sakate has to say about his journey from being a young law graduate to a partner at such a reputed law firm and about the Startup bubble in India along with the policy initiatives.

Excerpts

Please tell us something about your educational background and your key achievements in Law School.

I am qualified to practice law both in India and the UK. I’m a law graduate from the University of Calcutta and registered with the Bar Council of West Bengal. I am also a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales (non-practicing). Added to this, I hold an MBA from the London Business School.

I’m of the view that academia and practice go hand in hand and that one feeds into the other. So I’ve tried to keep that balance going all through – even when I started out in law school I was working as a full time paralegal. So, my first and foremost achievement was balancing studies and work! Then when I was a partner handling administrative issues in Khaitan & Co, I had first hand experience of running a law firm and practicing law at the same time, which fit into my subsequent MBA at LBS. At LBS, I co-founded the India Business Form, a platform to create awareness, facilitate dialogue and promote cross border investment from and to India. The discipline, time management skills and lateral thinking that I’ve ingrained because of my various balancing acts have been invaluable.

What motivated you to pursue law?

I’ve always been fascinated by law, I’ve wanted to become a lawyer for as long as I can remember. Though I come from a large family that is not far removed from legal practice, none of my immediate family members are lawyers or have any legal background. I firmly believe that having a law degree is like having a torch that throws a different light on the world. One tends to understand human interactions better, the web of rights, remedies, duties, obligations become that much clearer. More than anything else law is the most important tool for problem solving. It’s been over 20 years and practising law still energizes me as it did all those years ago!

Being a Senior Partner at Khaitan Legal Associates, is not a cup of tea. Please tell us about your journey from being a young law graduate to a partner at such a reputed law firm.

Looking back now, I think (perhaps because I started work at a very young age) I had the focus pretty early on. When I mean focus, I mean not only the focus on what I was doing but also the focus on what I wanted to do, with what I was doing. I knew I wanted to do corporate-commercial law but I knew that I also needed litigation experience to have that extra edge when advising corporate clients. So since the time I was fresh out of law school, I have tried to ensure that my fundamentals are strong so that I can keep building on them and moving to the next level.

I started out doing litigation at Khaitan & Co, moved to the corporate commercial department and became an administrative partner at Khaitan & Co in 1999. Then I decided to move to London, and after my MBA at LBS, joined ALMT Legal and headed their financial services practice. These were great times, the Indian market was booming and ALMT Legal quickly rose to one of the top 10 law firms in India. After this, I was Senior Partner at Clasis Law, prior to setting up my own firm. I now divide my time between India and London.

Law is becoming a new commercial industry with the advent of law firms and the students becoming more inclined towards corporate culture. What are your views about these changes you have witnessed over the years?

The liberalization of the Indian market about two and half decades ago, and the advent of foreign investment into India opened the floodgates for the practice of Indian corporate-commercial law. At the same time, the litigation practice in India is still bound by tradition and seniority There has thus been a big shift in Indian law practice – however, in my view rather than viewing corporate law and litigation as disparate elements, they should be understood as two sides of the same coin.

The inclusion of corporate culture in law firms can be a blessing, for there is exposure to best practices across the globe – Indian lawyers can sharpen their drafting, presentation and communication skills and go a long way in managing client expectations. But at the same time having a sense of how courts function and what strategies should be employed should a dispute go to court or arbitration is equally important. To sum it up, my view is that the changes in the Indian legal industry are very welcome (and it is about time, to be honest), but at the same time, one should be mindful of the various elements that are unique to the practice of Indian law. These should not be lost in the quest of excessive corporatization and standardization of processes – what works in one jurisdiction simply may not work in India! With the Government strongly considering opening up the Indian legal market, we have some interesting times ahead of us.

What should be the approach of students while studying in the law school and so they can carve out their areas of interest and excel for the kind of jobs they wish to go for? What would be your advice to the Law Students and Law Graduates?  

Law school is an exciting time, simply because you have the opportunity to explore so many things, be it studies, moot courts, presenting research papers, or even living away from parents for the first time in your life! If I can give some kind of advice to law students, I would say just three things – one, try everything once for yourself. Don’t get swayed by a certain type of CV, or a senior you admire. Only if you try it out, will you know what works for you, whether it is corporate law, litigation, academics, big firm, small firm, etc. Two, every day matters, so make it count. Keep an eye out for your life after the idyllic law school period and work towards it. Three, develop passion and humility to keep learning all your life.

What is your take on the start-up bubble in India?

After years of focus on the service sector and the rather well-known national obsession with doctors and engineers, the shift to entrepreneurship is heartening. And the Government’s unveiling of the Start-up Policy is a revolutionary step. While Indian startups were entitled to certain tax breaks and other benefits, there was no broad policy that underscored the Government’s commitment to promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. However, having said this, one should not jump onto the startup bandwagon with just a copycat idea, there should be sufficient differentiating factors for it to work in India. I think the market is now correcting itself, the so called ‘unicorns’ may be fewer now but they will set the benchmark for innovation from India, going forward.

According to you, are the corporate laws in India favorable to the Startups? What more is required?

Generally, the focus of reforms of the current Government on ‘ease of doing businesses in India will benefit one and all including start-ups. In particular, specific measures like the introduction of the Start-up policy, several laws (company law, foreign investment law, income tax law among others) are being amended with the understanding that startups are different from big businesses and to ease their compliance and tax burden. The introduction of the National IPR Policy is another step in this direction. Efforts are also being made () to clarify laws and make them more accessible to entrepreneurs. However, more needs to be done, especially in Tier 2 cities and at a school level. Also, it remains to be seen how the implementation of the Startup policy works out in practice, whether all of this actually filters down to an increase in entrepreneurship.

The Government is bringing many changes in the existing law & policies such as FDI, GST Bill etc. How do you think the Modi Government fares in the area of legal reform?

The Modi Government’s pace of reform has been steady, and a lot of diverse areas have been tackled – greater FDI liberalization, introduction of the GST, insurance reform, focus on NPAs, the insolvency code, measures to improve the ease of doing business in India, etc. It has also kept us on our toes having to keep track and update our clients!

Another factor that I wish to highlight is that regulators are getting more accessible, they no longer sit in their ivory tower, they understand commercials and are more receptive to the concerns of industry. Though nay-nay sayers expect more, I think that the Modi Government has done well and pace of reform will only gather momentum in the next few years.

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