by Sonal Makhija | January 09, 2012
Image courtesy Pingal Khan.
The career trajectory taken by the youngest partner of PXV Law Partners (“PXV”), and possibly the first law graduate of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (“the NUJS”), Kolkata, to stride out fresh from law school to start his own law firm, Pingal Khan, who is now shifting base from Bangalore to Mumbai, has been rare. Unlike most of his classmates who sought placements in big Indian law firms in 2007, Mr. Khan’s career path stands out as an anomaly in a class of more than eighty law students. In an interview via email, Mr. Khan spoke with myLaw.net about PXV’s success and challenges, the growing trend of young legal entrepreneurs starting out on their own, and the transformation of the Indian law firm.
Sonal Makhija for myLaw.net (ML): PXV was started in 2008 in Kolkata amidst global economic uncertainties. You soon expanded your operations to other cities, New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Was the firm affected? What led to such a fast growth rate?
Pingal Khan (PK): It is true that the recession hit soon after we started out in Kolkata. However, it did not have the same effect on us as it would have on a multinational or even a large Indian corporate entity. Our extremely small size gave us tremendous flexibility to adapt and grow in that environment. The small and medium scale industries became very cost-sensitive and reducing legal costs was key to their plans. This, along with the fact that clients were willing to give opportunities to young professionals based on their quality, rather than the brand, gave us the initial opportunities that all start-ups need. From our end, we had always been focused on the quality of service delivery and the need for steady growth. To attain the growth we desired, at least in the first year-and-a-half, the partners did not draw any earnings from the firm and made sure that all the revenue generated was re-invested into the firm for its progress and expansion.
ML: In the last five years, many young lawyers have set up their own law firms. What has led to this current growth and confidence?
PK: I believe liberalisation in the Indian economy has clearly created more opportunities than what was available to lawyers from the previous generations. Having the advantage of growing up in the nineties, I am quite certain that the opportunity levels that we have got in first decade of this millennium are far more than our predecessors in the late nineties. Therefore, it is much more equitable now to start a new enterprise, be it that of legal practice or that of any other service or product. Also, the clients today are more willing to give young lawyers a chance. Of course, the economic activities have also increased exponentially in the last decade and the market has the capacity to absorb and encourage new law firms. In my opinion, all these factors have contributed to young lawyers venturing out on their own.
ML: Yours is one of the few firms to adopt the pure lock-step model for equity partnership. Can you tell us something about that?
PK: PXV was started on the basis of strong friendships. We have always believed that the sum total of ‘us’ coming together is far greater than each of us individually. The lock-step model allows each of us to work for each other and for the firm. All the partners are comfortable with this model and we believe that this is the most sustainable way of building a young and ambitious law firm that will survive as an institution.
ML: What are the different practice areas in the firm today? Would you say that some of them are ‘core’? How are teams structured?
PK: Some of the major practice areas would be corporate and commercial advisory, mergers and acquisition, and corporate and commercial dispute resolution. We also have substantial experience and expertise in infrastructure, project finance, and banking, brought in by Deepto Roy, a partner. Real estate practice is one of our oldest and first practice areas as an independent firm, and continues to remain a great source of strength. We also have young practices in sectors like defence; biotechnology and pharmaceuticals; and technology, media, and telecommunications.
We broadly divide our teams into ‘corporate’ and ‘dispute resolution’. The corporate associates are required to work in all aspects of corporate and commercial practice and even encouraged to work on some aspects of litigation, except court appearances, for all-round learning and development. The associates specialising on dispute resolution work primarily on litigation and arbitration matters, and regularly appear and argue in the courts.
ML: What are the sunshine practice areas in India today? What is PXV doing to shore up expertise in these areas?
PK: As I mentioned, we have keen interests in the fields of defence; biotechnology and pharmaceuticals; and technology, media, and telecommunications as we consider them to be practice areas with tremendous growth prospective.
All of these are niche areas, which require specialised sector-oriented knowledge and expertise. We have partners and senior associates who have the required expertise and skill in these areas. We are also hiring people with the required experience in each of these areas.
But, presently, our most important practice area is corporate advisory and mergers and acquisitions.
ML: What is the firm size? What are your plans for the firm? Do you have definite plans for expansion?
PK: We are looking for expansion, both, in terms of headcount as well as our practice areas and volume of work.
Having said that, we are establishing a new office in Ahmedabad in January 2012, exactly a year after we started our Mumbai office, which we have already outgrown.
As of today, we have thirty-five lawyers across our four offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore.
ML: Does the firm have established criteria for hiring? As a young firm, how do you attract and retain talent in a competitive market?
PK: We have a very strict recruitment policy. The criteria we look for in prospective hires focuses on good academics, internship experience, ability to work as a team, and the ability to apply knowledge gained during internships or extra-curricular activities.
We look for lawyers who have the confidence and the desire to prove themselves. We do not mass-hire. Each of our recruits is specifically expected to add value to the firm. At the entry level, more often than not, our recruits are people who have interned with us.
We believe in recruiting people who we believe have potential to excel. We’ve been receiving substantial response from truly talented people who want to join us and be a part of this growth story. We have also started giving pre-recruitment offers to law students in their Third or Fourth Year, so that they can train with us exclusively before joining as an associate.
ML: Any experiences that became a professional and entrepreneurial turning point?
PK: It is very difficult to point out a specific turning point. For me, entrepreneurship and the profession of law are both about long continuing learning curves. Personally, I have always tried to learn from incidents and experiences around me and of my seniors. In our profession, seniors in law school and in the profession play a vital role in a young lawyer’s development. I have been particularly lucky on that front given the kind of effort that my seniors, both in college and in the profession, have put in to help me develop as a lawyer, while circumstances and experiences in the last three years have contributed largely to my entrepreneurial outlook.
ML: How has the firm growth been in different cities?
PK: Different cities and their business environment have their unique attributes and it has been a fascinating journey to set up all these offices.
Our Mumbai office has seen substantial growth in barely one year’s time. We are working on several corporate and commercial transactions and have also started a nascent litigation practice there.
Our Delhi office, which started in the middle of 2010, is currently our largest office in terms of size, since the majority of our lawyers operate out of there. We do a lot of F.D.I. and project finance and infrastructure work in Delhi. We have a strong dispute resolution practice as well.
The Bangalore office, which I currently head, was the second office of our firm. In the last three years, the practice has grown at a fascinating pace. Our main areas of practice include mergers and acquisitions, labour, technology, and litigation (commercial and economic offences).
Kolkata, which was our first office, has done consistently well. Apart from corporate and commercial advisory and litigation, we do some policy work as well.
We are setting up our Ahmedabad office next month since we see a lot of growth prospects in Gujarat.
(To be continued.)