Uday Ahlawat is a co-managing partner of Ahlawat & Associates in New Delhi, India, and a member of the International Lawyers Network. In this episode, Lindsay and Uday discuss the changing marketplace that law firms are facing post-COVID, what makes India so attractive for businesses, and how law firms as businesses are driving efficiency.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. Our guest this week is Uday Ahlawat from Ahlawat & Associates in New Delhi. Uday, we’re so happy to have you with us on the podcast this week. Thank you for joining us.
Uday: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lindsay: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your law firm and your practice?
Uday: I’m Uday Ahlawat. I’m the managing partner of our firm. We are a full-service firm, headquartered in New Delhi and offices in two other cities in India, Chandigarh and Mumbai. I co-head the corporate commercial practice of our firm. Primarily, this involves looking into foreign investments coming in, structuring those, and various other nuances around that.
That’s a little brief about me. As a firm, like I mentioned, it’s a full-service law firm operating PAN India. Being a federal jurisdiction, we are free to operate from anywhere in India, so we don’t need multiple offices. It’s easier to operate from any other city as well, so it helps us out, keeps costs down, and helps the business grow.
Lindsay: That’s very cool and that’s good to know. I didn’t realize that you could operate easily in multiple jurisdictions throughout India because of the jurisdictions. That’s similar to the US, but we also have state by state restrictions. We need local counsel as well.
Uday: The difference between US and India primarily is that once you’re enrolled with the Bar Council, you can practice anywhere in India. Unlike the US, where you have to be enrolled with state-specific bars. In India, it’s not that. I can practice south, north, anywhere. Hence, we are able to work. We have clients down south, which are 2,000 miles away sometimes. We are free to operate from here.
Lindsay: That’s incredible. Let’s jump into some questions. What would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome that?
Uday: The biggest challenge at the moment, I would say, is more handling the resources within the firm. In the post-COVID era, people are still in that phase where they’re not fully comfortable being in the office. They’ve lost the habit to travel. Socially, they’re okay being alone in that sense. Working as a team and those kinds of things is not on their priority list.
At the moment actually, as a firm, we are going through that transition where people have come in, but we do see challenges as well in that front. We are trying to work around it. I think it’s not just limited to the legal industry. It spreads across to other companies as well. But as a firm, we are going through it. The second challenge, of course, is that as a country, we were very late to corporate law per se. And that is something that has started growing now. Competition within our space has grown tremendously.
Of course, clients are taking advantage of the situation, because they have more choices. Everybody is willing to undercut. My majority time has now started going in resource and client management rather than actual execution. Because as a managing partner, I’ve had to undertake that role to ensure that the firm continues to grow in the correct manner, and we continue to keep our clients happy and also bring in new clients all the time. That’s a huge transition that I’ve had to go through. Especially in the last one year and more in the last six months than before. These are the biggest challenges at the moment that we are facing.
Lindsay: Those are really two very difficult challenges for you to face at the same time, because I would think that people resource-wise … That would be really difficult to find good talent to both want to work and to stay competitive.
Uday: It’s a very strange situation. It’s the same people who used to travel earlier without any issues, and now all of a sudden, it’s the same people saying, “We live too far. The travel time is really high.” Those kinds of things. It’s a very difficult balance that one has to create in that sense. For the first time. It’s been a year now. We never needed HR. We have full … It’s an outsourced HR, but we need it desperately now.
Because as partners, six of us here, it gets very difficult to handle people issues all the time. So, it’s HR who has to deal with it. We’ve in fact started compensating and started giving people a travel allowance to allow people to stay as well. We are one of very few firms, maybe less than 1% of the firms who do that. But as an incentive, we had to start doing that.
We actually compensate up to a certain amount every month to every single resource in the firm. These are just ways we are having to innovate, which were never thought of, which you couldn’t even probably question when I started my career. Because at that time, just having a job was a big thing. These are all new things that we are trying to deal with, but it’s a challenge.
It’s a good challenge. We are learning as we go along. I think times have changed, post-COVID especially, and we have to adapt. Everybody has to do that, but as a firm, we also have a very strict policy of being in-office. We don’t have the flexibility anymore.
Lindsay: I agree with that. What I’m wondering about is … You’re talking about adapting. Do you see this as a way that we’re as a marketplace shifting into? Or do you think we might shift back to what we were doing pre-COVID?
Uday: Well, at least in India. I don’t know about the rest, but it’s slowly going back to where we were earlier. The efficiency is not the same. Depending on which field you’re in. But at least in our field, the efficiency is not the same. Especially, when you require teamwork. Everybody leaves the office at a reasonable time. They have a life post-office.
Working from home, they were just working as per their convenience. They were working late nights, early mornings. Whatever. But here now, they understand that it’s good to be in a routine. You come into the office at a certain time, leave the office by a certain time, and have your life back in that sense. Because social exposure is needed, it’s the need of the hour, especially post-COVID. Somewhere people are starting to realize that.
Also, the efficiency bit is very important. It’s not the same when you’re in your own comfort zone all the time. Once in a while, it’s fine, but being in your comfort zone all the time … It just reduces efficiency to an extent. Especially in our profession, because you need to concentrate. You need to be alert at all times. Not having that can lead to disaster for the client. It is something that people are starting to understand slowly. They are happy with it.
One thing very interesting that we’ve also started doing is we’ve started having more social activities, which obviously revolve around drinking. This Friday, we have another big one. Everybody’s looking forward to it, because we have a long weekend after that. Everybody is actually excited about it now. It’s going to be a nice long evening. They’re slowly understanding the social part of it and why it’s important.
But for us, HR has been very important to explain that. Because as partners, we can only explain to a point or only dedicate that much time. That is one rule I think which will become very important going forward, from resource management and everything. I think HR will start playing a much more important role now than they have ever done.
Lindsay: It’s really interesting how law firms will move more towards a business model. Even more so than before, it seems like.
Uday: The US was obviously a pioneer in that where they had CEOs, COOs, and those kinds of things within law firms. It’s becoming a common practice here as well. You have CEOs, you have CFOs, all these things are there in firms now. For example, even within our firm, we have a marketing and business development team separately, which is apart from the lawyers.
It is going towards a business model. They do work on sales in that sense. They do get incentivized for it as well. It’s actually becoming more like a business as you correctly pointed out, but there’s no other way. Yes, we are professionals at the end of the day. It’s a service that we provide, but we need to look at it more like a business now than ever. I think that’s very important.
Lindsay: Speaking of business. Talk to us about the current state of the market and what that means for your clients.
Uday: Of course, India has its own challenges. The market is … We are somewhat in a good position overall. Compared to the West, especially. Yes, we do have affinities to certain countries, which are not in favor with the West. But as a nation, because we are growing in a certain way, they have to maintain those. There’s a background to it. But anyways, the point is that business is good because of these reasons.
For us, also the fact that post-COVID, I think there’s been a change in mindset towards China, which is helping other economies within Southeast Asia. Not just India, but Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia. A lot of things are moving to these places. There is a lot of concentration of business moving towards India, which is of course helping us from where we were three years ago. We’ve actually doubled because of that in terms of our size. So, it’s good.
We do have an election coming in about eight months, which is the national elections for the prime minister. We do expect a slowdown six months before that, because things go on hold in that sense. Keeping fingers crossed. Let’s hope it doesn’t slow down too much in that sense. But overall, the market is good. Nothing compared to what’s going on in the West. Inflation is under control, and we are providing a viable alternative.
Plus, the biggest difference that India has compared to, say, China or even other Southeast Asian countries … Globally, we have the largest concentration of the middle class, which means that the purchasing capacity is there. A lot of businesses want to come here, because they also have a ready-made market. We are the biggest now in terms of population anyway. Even getting a 2% share is about $28 million maybe. It’s a fairly large market in terms of that. We can’t complain. Let’s put it that way.
Lindsay: Very favorable, I would say. What’s the biggest area that’s related to your practice or even in your industry that you’re curious about?
Uday: At this moment, like I mentioned, data protection is something new that’s come in. India is … A lot of people don’t know this, but in terms of the financial and digital side, we have one of the largest economies because we went digital many years ago. The concept of making online payments, whether through an app, has been there in India for many years. That’s where the maximum change is also coming. Because obviously, as the government learns from time to time, mistakes were made initially.
They’re constantly making those changes. Hence, we’ve got these data protection rules, we’ve got other guidelines that have come in. But this is the area that’s seeing the maximum growth, the financial businesses, the FinTech businesses as we call them now, and the digital businesses. Everything is going online. The other area that’s strangely growing very fast as well is the gaming sector.
I’m not very happy about it, because I’ve got a four-and-a-half and a nine-year-old at home who are getting exposed to it. But it is an industry that as a firm we specialize in. We are amongst the top five firms in the country who specialize in that sector. And it is a very fast-growing area. It’s something that we expect to grow even more, because we already have close to more than one hundred million people, users of that industry in that sense, who are already into gaming.
Data costs are the lowest in the world in India. Everybody can just be on their mobile 24/7 and keep playing and it makes zero difference. Everything is moving online. It’s more and more. It was already there, but now that concentration is just increasing and increasing in that sense. That’s where the boom is coming in India, and we expect that to last for another five to 10 years at least.
Lindsay: That’s really just incredible. Those numbers are just … I can’t even fathom.
Uday: We don’t do small numbers in anything. With the kind of population we have, small numbers don’t exist.
Lindsay: Switching gears, a little bit. Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
Uday: It’s very hard to hide considering what’s behind me at the moment. A lot of people get surprised when they walk into my room, “Is this a lawyer’s office?” Because probably, you can’t see all of them, but there’s three of them. One is to do with cricket and two with Michael Jordan. Sports is something that I thrive on, and it’s something that a lot of people don’t understand why I do it. I do it for my mind.
If I don’t do it, my brain doesn’t work or function the same way. That’s one of the few things that people don’t really know too much about me in that sense. I wake up every morning at 5:00 to ensure that I get my dose of sports first thing in the morning. That’s irrespective of what time I sleep. Sometimes it’s just four hours of sleep, five hours of sleep, and I’ll still be on the tennis court in the morning at the desired time.
I travel a lot and I have a very strange habit, which was put into me by my first senior who I worked with. You will never get an “Out of office,” reply from me. You will always get a reply within 24 hours from me. Some people say I have OCD about it, but I think it’s just professional courtesy that I have, because I don’t like anybody knowing where I am firstly.
Even if I’m at an island conference, nobody will know I’m there unless you put up pictures and tag me like you do. Then, they realized I was there in that stage. But generally, as a habit, my first senior put this in my head. Because she never did it and she said, “It just takes two seconds to reply as a partner, and then you just have to delegate,” which stuck to me. I send out a reply, connect them to the appropriate person, and that’s about it. It’s just one of those finicky things that are set in me.
Lindsay: That’s great. I love that. It makes you more mysterious too.
Uday: Whether I’m on a family holiday or a professional trip, you’ll never know.
Lindsay: That’s right. Or in the office.
Uday: Because you’ll only get a reply.
Lindsay: You could be anywhere. You could be right in your office or anywhere in the world. That’s the deal.
Uday: My response time is always 24 hours irrespective. As a professional and as a service provider, as I call myself sometimes, I think that’s what differentiates you. Sometimes it’s just the attention to these small things, because they actually don’t take very long. If you have a system in place, they don’t.
And then, today’s day and age. With technology, with everything, it takes literally 30 seconds sometimes to reply to a mail. It doesn’t need more than that. Or a message. It’s not something difficult to do. People make a big deal out of it sometimes. “I was busy. I couldn’t get to respond.” It shouldn’t take that long. That’s just one of those things that’s embedded in me, to be honest.
Lindsay: I have often found over my career that the busiest people are the best at responding to emails. They’re the ones that you always hear back from within 24 hours. The people that are not as good at it are the ones who make excuses. Somehow, they’re the ones who are just not as good at it.
Uday: Not at the cost of being offensive or rude, but I always categorize people in two categories. One are the doers, and one are the ones who are just happy or content with where they are. Both are equally essential to the ecosystem, but the ones who are content or happy with that limited growth don’t want to do more than that. They’re your workhorses as well. You need them.
It’s not that you can’t do it without them, which is fine, but the ones who are the doers will do things at any point of time. They will also be available for other things at the same time. Time management is one of the biggest skills. I was lucky to be taught that professionally by my seniors when I started my career. Somewhere that is one of the most essential skills a lawyer should be taught when they join any organization. I don’t know how many people spend time on it, but we do.
We as a firm do that. We try and tell people how to manage their time a little better, how to go about things a little better, how to be more efficient. And then, they do see the results, because we don’t have people working late unless it’s really an emergency. But it’s become a norm amongst the legal profession that one should work late, one has to work late, with which I don’t agree.
I come at a reasonable time, I go at the reasonable time, and rest in between. If I have to respond to a couple of emails, it doesn’t take me too long. Those kinds of things. That time management skill is something which is very important. Unless firms start focusing on that, it’s always going to be a detriment in their growth path.
Lindsay: I absolutely agree with you. I am curious now. You said for your firm, and in India in general, people are back to the office. I’m wondering for countries and cultures where it is still more remote and may stay remote, whether they are going to effectively ever going to get that time management piece?
If they start to train people where it is more remote, and they never really get to that time management piece with the younger lawyers … I don’t know if it is necessarily something that other law firms do really train young lawyers on.
Uday: Well, I feel it’s counterproductive not to train them, because at the end of the day, it makes your life simpler.
Uday: We follow a system of six minimum hours a day. That we should concentrate on six effective hours. Obviously, you’re in the office for longer than that, but that’s your concentration level for any human being, we feel. And if you’re able to concentrate for those six, you don’t need to be in the office for more than eight, nine hours at any given point of time. Maybe it works differently for other firms.
Everybody should choose what works for them, but this is what works for us in that sense. We try and focus on those six hours during the day. We need to put in that effective six hours, and everything just flows. In India, everything starts late. Our office generally starts anywhere between 10:00 to 10:30. But if you see, by 7:00, most people have left. That’s nine hours in the office and it’s effective. People are happier. They go home at a reasonable time. They don’t have a rush in the morning as well. It’s a good balance that is there.
Of course, there are times when we do spend more time, we do leave later, but that’s fine. But that’s a one-off situation. Rest is very easily manageable within those hours. These are things that younger lawyers need to learn, but it’s their seniors’ responsibility to teach them. I was lucky to have good seniors when I started the profession, and I try to pass that on to people in the firm as well. But I genuinely feel bad for people who are missing out on that piece. It affects their growth.
Sometimes they just get demotivated. We’ve seen so many cases of people quitting their professions, jobs by the time they’re 27, 28, because either they’re burnt out or bored or frustrated or whatever the reasons are. That’s purely because the surroundings or the system did not support them. If they had the right support and right guidance, I think every profession, every office could be very interesting.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’ve talked a lot about the seniors that you had early in your career. Who would you say has been your biggest mentor over your career?
Uday: I started my career with one of the biggest law firms in India. There’s a firm called JSA. I worked with multiple partners there initially, but one of the partners of the corporate commercial team, Neena Gupta, she’s now the global GC of the largest airline in India. She was one of the mentors for me. She was very brutal as well at times, which I needed, to be honest.
I was not the easiest kid on the block in those days, but she also gave me a lot of perspective in life in terms of as a profession. I became serious about the profession when I realized it’s about how hard you want it to be or how simple it can be at times. You need to find that balance and create that balance within what we are doing. She taught me a lot and I picked up from there.
But as a firm, that was a really good firm I used to work with. Just the principles and the systems they had were amazing. That was the first law firm in India. A full-service law firm with, at that stage, more than two hundred lawyers. There are more than five hundred now, which didn’t have an equity buy-in. Anybody could become a partner. As an associate, we could all see that. It was a vision that was created that you can get there.
We have the same principle in our office. All the equity partners, apart from the founding partners are all … There’s been no buy-in. They’ve been elevated from within the firm. Everybody sees that. It motivates the younger lot as well to work harder, because they can see that vision. They can see that it will go somewhere and also keeps them in one place in that sense that. Because most firms still don’t allow that, and globally, they don’t allow that. So, I think that’s a huge factor.
These are things I picked up from that place. I worked in a couple of places before I started this firm. I brought in the corporate side into this firm. The firm was already there, but it was these principles that I came in with. Whatever I do, I have to continue following what I believe in and how people stay with me. That’s the reason that the first lawyer we ever got onboard, who’s now an equity partner, is still with us. And it applies to a lot of the other people who are still growing within the ranks as well.
Lindsay: That’s great. I really like that. Finishing up. What would you say is one thing that you’re really enjoying right now that has nothing to do with work? It’s always the toughest question.
Uday: I think I’m enjoying the balance, to be honest. I’m generally enjoying the balance that we’ve been able to create, because it gives me time with my kids who are at a very good age. Very soon, they’ll be out of control. It’s good to be able to spend time with them where you can dictate a few terms. It’s not going to happen for very long. I know that. So, I’m enjoying that phase.
And the fact that work gives me the ability to do that as well. That balance is there. And the fact that I still get to travel, I still get to meet people. I genuinely enjoy traveling to these conferences as well. It’s always nice to just meet a different set of people. I generally look forward to these now. Outside of work, this is what’s keeping me sane as well, I would say, because I tend to get bored easily.
Unless I’m doing something or the other, it just gives me a way. One thing I’m really looking forward to, and maybe I’m still a couple of years from that, I love to drive. I used to love driving into the mountains, but then after my second one, we had to stop that. Plus, COVID came. Because he was too young. We had a target in mind that once he’s five … We’ve done short drives now. We’ve done everything.
Now, I’m looking forward to going back to the hills every now and then. It’s not very far from Delhi where we are staying. Earlier, if there was even just a three-day weekend, we’d pick up the car in the morning and just go. I’m actually looking forward to that as well. Hopefully, next year onwards, that’s going to start as well.
Lindsay: He’s almost five.
Uday: Yes. He can sit in one place now. That’s what we were waiting for.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’s great. Well, thank you very much. This has really been wonderful. I appreciate it. Thank you so much to all of our listeners. Please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We’ll be back next week with our next guest. Thank you so much.
Uday: Thank you.