Declaring Independence is a series by Tishampati Sen, an Advocate-on-Record who quit his job at a top-tier law firm to start his own practice. Setting up one’s own practice at a relatively young age is a challenge, albeit one that can have great rewards. Every month, Tishampati will look at an important aspect of going independent and have useful tips and advice for young lawyers who just want to break free!
Ever since I graduated from law school, I have enjoyed a wide variety of experiences. I have had the good fortune of starting my career with a large top-tier law firm in Delhi-NCR, where I trained with some of the finest lawyers and learnt how to be a legal professional. I gained experience in the transaction side of the practice, as well as in the dispute resolution side. I handled large deals and conducted negotiations and also learnt to prepare matters, draft pleadings and appear in various forums. However along the way I developed a strong desire and passion to be able to start something on my own. So finally, egged on by my family, much to the horror of some close friends and colleagues, I took the decision to quit the firm and work towards setting up my own practice.
Before we move on, let me say this right up front, this project is in no way an attempt to show-case life outside a law firm, or conversely the life within firm or to discuss which is better. I am only using this platform to share some of my experiences and lessons that I have learned in the process of setting up an independent practice.
Moving out of my Comfort Zone
One of the first things that I learnt when I told people that I am looking to quit the firm to start my own practice, was how woefully inadequate my life is! I had been looking at the world through rose tinted glasses. One very prominent senior colleague in the firm smiled at me and told me that I was having the “law firm mid–life crisis”. There were others who told me about the people who had tried their hand at starting their own practice, failed miserably and then could not even find a job at a law firm again. The fact is that we know of all the reasons why such a move could end up being detrimental.
But I noticed that once I did take the step, let go of the safety net and swam into the rougher waters, there were plenty of people to hold my hand and show me the way. The funny thing is that most people will tell you only about what could go wrong, and I guess to a large extent that is needed so that you make an informed, practical decision. But happily, there are quite a few very successful advocates and legal practitioners out there, who have equally, and sometimes more remarkably left cushy jobs to follow their dream of having their own practice. These are people who understood the internal conflict and self–doubt that I was going through and gave me invaluable guidance and a pat on the back. Their only request was that I persevere even when I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. I still remember how a rather soft–spoken, quiet sort of a man, had looked squarely into my eyes and had said with a force I have never before noticed in him, “If you have a safety net, burn it. Only when there is a fire on your backside will you make this work”.
FIRST STEPS WHEN LEAVING THE FIRM
So if you are in a law firm and have decided to branch out on your own, the first few steps could possibly include the following:
1. Save, Save and Save
Definitely give yourself a few months (if not a year or more) before you disclose that you plan to move out. Use the steady flow of income that is coming your way to create some savings. One of the great things that my wife helped me do was analyse our spending and expenses for a couple of months (of course being told that I don’t really need a new PS3 game, was like being relegated back to school), and we came up with a number which would be the average monthly expense. Keeping a plan/sum in mind may allow you to save while still not living like a hermit. Savings are definitely a must, since it gives a bit of a reassurance as to one’s financial sustainability in the initial period. Panic is a very usual and daily emotion in such a state, but it helps if your partner or family member or friend can keep reminding you of the savings and assure you that you will be alive and fed, even if you make nothing, or close to nothing, initially.
2. Choosing the kind of work while in the firm
This, to a large extent, depends on the structure followed in the firm and whether there is any option for you to be able to choose the kind of work that you would be involved in. In the firm that I was a part of, while work was mostly assigned, one did have some amount of say and control over the kind of matters that one could opt into. The firm attracted clients who were large corporate houses, or businessmen, and the work, that I was initially involved in, was mostly in the nature of writ petitions, or Special Leave Petitions, and some company matters. But I realised that it would be a while before corporate houses would approach me and pay me to go challenge the constitutional vires of certain laws. Therefore, based on the advice of friends and mentors, I tried to involve myself in a wide variety of litigations including matters in the lower tribunals, civil suits, certain minor criminal proceedings etc., so as to get a wide base of exposure. Most people in a firm would agree that the attraction of any particular matter or transaction is also often contingent upon the billing rate and the regularity of payment by the client. However, at this stage of declaring independence, the attraction is for the specific forums where the matter is listed and the nature of the dispute. A word of caution, though: while doing this in the firm your revenue and billing may take a hit. Swallow the embarrassment of the scrutiny that your performance may be subjected to, and remind yourself of the larger picture. A good friend once gave me the following perspective which was helpful: “Take it like being taught important skills and being given essential experience, and all the while being paid for it.”
Since my practice and work today includes both transactional as well as disputes work, I must share my learning on the transaction front as well. My experience in the firm on the transaction front was with the Projects team, under a truly brilliant partner and with an excellent team. Hence, I have always been very comfortable and confident in contract law, structuring deals and providing legal opinions on various rules and regulations. However, given the work split and team divisions in the firm, I did not have ample exposure to pure company issues relating to the shareholders rights, structuring and restructuring of companies. There seems to be plenty of work relating to the such company issues that are available for young independent lawyers to do. Especially, in the age of start-ups, corporate arrangements, shareholder agreements and restructuring become viable work opportunities. So while I had to pick up these skills along the way, with the help of friends, if you intend to do transactional work, get some experience on these while still with the firm if you can. It may not be as juicy as contractual, or other work, but get into it. You’ll thank me later!
3. Preparing the mind
Ask anyone else who has taken the same path before and they will tell you right out, your life will change once you have left the safe harbours of the firm. Of course there are many types of firms and how you feel will depend on the structure of the firm as well as how long you have spent there. But I never realised until I quit my job, how large a part of my identity was the firm name. Having had the good fortune of being a part of a top–tier law firm with a very recognisable and well–established name, I had always been very confident and proud of introducing myself to people and piggy backing on the firm’s goodwill. I guess it is presumed that since you are with this particular firm, you would be competent as an advocate and a contender. Corporates and business people recognise your firm name and you bask in its reflected glory. But once that identity goes, you are relegated to only being a lawyer. One of many. No matter how many times you tell people that you have your own practice or your own firm, unless you are (a) middle–aged, and (b) a known name (which is unlikely until you are middle–aged), it is often heard by people as “not employed”. One moment you are the hot-shot associate in one of the largest firms in the country and the next, you are just an advocate like the thousands around you. What’s more, the other advocates are more street smart than you and have something you don’t have yet – clients. Prepare yourself to re-invent your identity and image. You will have to build your reputation and goodwill from scratch.
Simple perks like clean toilets, green tea, a court clerk who actually knows how to get things done, playing a cricket tournament as a part of the firm, running printers, office boys etc., may be sorely missed and the memory of the same could trigger a violent emotional outburst later. For all those who are overworked and stressed from working really hard in a law firm looking at going independent as a way out, to whom it looks like a way out from the crazy hours, working weekends, unreasonable clients etc., you are in for a shock! You will find yourself working just as hard (hopefully and eventually) when your work load increases. There are no longer any concept of weekends, all days merge into each other. Remember, shorter timelines for delivery and lower fees are the only USP that you have to offer in the period while the world figures out that you’re a legal genius and are willing to pay you top dollar.
KEEP THE FAITH
The one major learning I have had since I quit the firm has been that things have the propensity to work themselves out if one is willing to be patient and open to receiving help. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of very wonderful advocates and lawyers, who are very supportive towards ‘youngsters’ and happily act as mentors towards young advocates and lawyers. In the period since I quit the firm, the one thing that I am very proud of myself for is that I was able to swallow my pride, quickly get over my past identity and seek guidance from people who had been doing this before, including people who are younger than me. I have picked up invaluable lessons and tips on various issues, such as client handling, self–projection, preparing for a matter keeping in mind the concerned judges and the day on which the matter may be listed, settling upon the fee rates, and the way to remind clients and seek payment of the same.
I look forward to sharing my experiences and learnings with you on this blog!
Tishampati Sen is an Advocate–on–Record of the Supreme Court of India. He worked with one of the premier law firms of the country (in corporate transactions as well as dispute resolution) for many years before deciding to take the plunge of independent practice. He appears primarily before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, Delhi High Court and the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.