The Higher Bar | Journey Of Leading Law Firms & Legal Eagles
By Pavan Lall
“I Was Told By Some Lawyers That You Need A Godfather… Well I Didn’t Have One!” – Abhijit Joshi
How first-generation lawyer Abhijit Joshi built a lean, mean boutique law firm with an emphasis on honing corporate culture
Veritas and they attest that the founder Abhijit Joshi is never more than a phone call away when needed. Joshi, a slim, understated, mild-mannered lawyer describes one possibility on why he may have that reputation –– and it has to do with a lesson he learnt while apprenticing with law firm Amarchand Mangaldas. It was back in the early nineties and he was introduced to the firm through a common friend. Back then the firm had its offices in Lentin Chambers and operated with one large conference room. At the time, Joshi recalls that Suresh Shroff, founder of the firm, was still active.
It was an era when India was opening up and Dr. Manmohan Singh was the Finance Minister and the first big power projects were being announced, the Indian Cola wars were taking off and things were starting to shift gears socio-economically. It was 8 PM one evening, when Joshi was headed back home when Cyril Shroff (Suresh Shroff’s son and now the boss at Cyril Amarchand Mangladas) pointed at his watch. Joshi replied with the time “8 PM” to which the quick response from Cyril Shroff was “I was not asking the time – I was saying don’t wear it from tomorrow.” From that moment, began a great learning for Joshi.
Veritas and Joshi have carved out a reputation of distinction for themselves in recent years. They’ve been recognized as one of ‘Asia’s Top 15 M&A Lawyers’ by Asian Legal Business 2022, as a ‘Thought Leader – M&A’ by Who’s Who Legal 2020 to 2022, ranked in Band – 1 for Corporate / M&A (India) by the Chambers & Partners Asia – Pacific Guide 2017 to 2022, Ranked in Band – 1 for Corporate / M&A (India) by the Chambers & Partners Global Guide 2020 and 2022, and recognized as a ‘Recommended Lawyer’ for Private Client, White Collar, M&A, PE by Legal 500 2021.
Unlike many top lawyers today who run corporate law firms, Joshi is a first-generation lawyer, and while he comes from a reasonably affluent family, his father passed away when he was just nine years old. Both his parents were educationists, and used to run a school in Fort, Mumbai. His mother, who is now 87-years old, is perhaps one of the oldest alumni from Stanford University and his father wrote Gujarati poetry.
In the beginning it wasn’t law that Joshi gravitated towards. It was commerce. He went to Sydenham’s College in 1985 where he got his Bachelor’s in Commerce and then “drifted” for a while unable to make up his mind as to where exactly he wanted to start working, and got a law degree at the same institute in 1990.
The National Law School had barely kicked off and so the field was not a commercial engine yet but more like a pure profession like a doctors was.
But then instead of practicing law he started working in garment exports thanks to a friend who was a textile exporter. “I decided, let me just do it by myself. So I did it, and I was quite miserable. I remember my first order I got from maybe Sweden and I goofed up pretty badly. And I realised that, well maybe creativity is also not my field.” He does admit that he does, to even this very day, enjoy music tremendously but it could have never been a serious vocation for him. “I sing decently well, I’ve been told and while I’m not trained, my mother is a trained classical singer. So I come from that background of art and culture.”
Experimenting aside, Joshi had a couple things that college helped him with in life. One was that he met his wife Neeta there, and the second he became the youngest students’ union champion in Sydenham. Then in the third year of college, he realized he needed better direction so he applied to R.A. Shah which was a very formidable organization for foreign investments and joint ventures but he never heard back from them.
This is right about when he got connected to Amarchand Mangaldas through friends for a job. His salary was around Rs 2500 a month, not a princely sum but it gave him something to get started with.
“In those days, I was told by some lawyers that you need a godfather. And here, I didn’t even have a father, forget about god-father.”
After he joined, Joshi found himself getting pulled to Delhi quite a bit, given that Shardul Shroff and Pallavi Shroff (Cyril’s brother and sister-in-law and now founders of Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co) were mostly stationed there.
At that point, one of the more intense and enjoyable cases he got exposed to was Gujarat Bottling, which was connected to the first Cola war in India, between Coke and Pepsi. “I remember that it was 12 AM and I got a call from Cyril Bhai. And he said, what are you doing? come back to the office.”
So, he came back at around three o’clock in the morning and got to work. That was just how it was. The intensity of the battle is something that Joshi still recollects. “I remember, the bar was divided, half would be on Pepsi and half on the Coca Cola company, and we used to have dockets, to brief counsels. I remember, I used to take several dockets to court and approach counsels.
Either they had been briefed by Coca Cola or they would say sorry, we have already been briefed by Pepsi.” That sort of high-powered litigation was fantastic exposure, not to mention terrific ring-side education for a young lawyer and there was more to follow. He also participated in the high-profile securities fraud case that involved the stock-broker Harshad Mehta.
Joshi worked with Amarchand Mangladas between 1993 and 1999 after which he joined the law firms of Dua & Co in 2000 where he was a partner for two years in their Mumbai office, and then he joined the Zia Mody-led AZB & Partners.
Were there key lessons that he picked up at these firms?
Joshi says that with Cyril Shroff, among many things, he learned to think outside the box. Typically when it came to a transaction it would work like this: First thing was that there’s a term sheet, followed by a share purchase agreement, and other documents keep coming, they are all sent out on a computer, and come to you and then lawyers start marking them up and making changes and so on. “But we don’t subconsciously realise that you are only thinking within the confines of the document given to you. A transaction is not the document. The transaction is outside the document and we have to look outside, assess facts, circumstances, objectives and the law, and then plunge into the document. One look from a few feet above at the transaction to get the plot and the landscape is a must, but most don’t do that and instead only work within the confines of a document. So, at Amarchand, I was taught to think without boundaries, and to step out,” he says. “There is always an idea that has not been captured. We’ve got to keep thinking. As they say, ‘A draft follows a thought, a thought cannot follow a draft.’ That was the biggest learning at Amarchand.”
The lessons he learned at AZB, where he was for 14 years, were equally vital. “The takeaway from there was that unless I go through the commas and the full stops and every little article and clause, I might miss something because the devil is always in the detail. So that detailing which only comes by going back to a document and the law again and again and again and making it perfect is what I learned at AZB.”
By the time he was wrapping up at AZB, Joshi had entered his late forties – 46-years-old to be precise. He was of the opinion that if he was to ever start a venture of his own it would have to be then or never.
Obviously, it was a law firm that Joshi had in mind given his experience over the last two decades but what was he going to call it? Abhijit Joshi & Partners? “So, one thing I was clear about was that I didn’t want to use my name. In your career, you learn a few things about what to do, and what not to do. I did not want to have the goodwill accredited only to me. It would have to belong to the firm.”
So why did he start Veritas – was it the chase for fame or the attraction of greater lucre? “There was always an entrepreneur in me” is his somewhat simplistic but honest response. So he ended up calling the firm Veritas which had its own little backstory.
From November 2014 to around February of 2015, he was operating alone. “And then we had a big client who came to me with a giant transaction, and I was all alone. And they said that, you know, would you do it? And Joshi again said, “I’m all alone.”
The client undeterred said, “look into my eyes and tell me whether you can or cannot, if you can’t, you can’t.” And Joshi said, “Yes, I can”. And he went ahead and did that transaction, which was a large cross-border one, and ultimately went on for around a year. However, what Joshi had to do was also submit an engagement letter with the name of his company which he hadn’t decided on yet. With two days left to close the deal, he zeroed in on Veritas (it also had a website available) and had to give a name because “I had to do an engagement letter. And I didn’t have a name. And I had only two days.” And Veritas was one which fitted almost in all those situations, and that is how his new firm was named.
It’s also an apt moniker given that Veritas in Latin means truth is mighty and will prevail.
Over the years, there have been scores of matters that Joshi, his team and Veritas have worked on but the ones that stand out include the following:
“One transaction on the M&A side would be a transaction for Partners Group and Kedaara for their investment in Vishal Retail. That was a nice sized transaction close to a billion dollars, and was reasonably complex. You know, so, how do I put it, my criteria personally is very different in terms of what is exciting. For example, a lot of people put deal size as the criteria but for me actually it is complexity that beats size.”
Other notable work has included a deal between the Poonawalla-owned Serum Institute and Biocon that makes the joint venture one of the largest vaccine manufacturers. “And today also, we are helping Pfizer to roll out Paxlovid which is perhaps a breakthrough therapeutic cure for Covid-19. Therapeutics may be the only answer in the long term,” Joshi shares.
Yusuf Hamied, the billionaire scientist and chairman of pharma giant Cipla says that his relationship with Joshi goes back a long way. “He came to me when he started Veritas from scratch and I decided to go with him and that should answer any question. In essence his ability to maintain trust and integrity is unparalleled,” he said. “I could trust him if my life depended on it.”
Hamied goes on to say that the relationship goes beyond that of just a lawyer and client, adding that his foundation in India will be managed by Joshi once he is no more. The key thing with lawyers in India is discretion, which when it comes to Joshi, is unquestionable, he added.
Deloitte India CEO N. Venkatram, who has worked with Joshi since 2015, says that he finds Joshi to be both passionate and committed, despite the success and growth that he has achieved. “His ethos is not that of a typical large firm leader. He is front, center and forward on the issues and readily accessible when the situation requires,” Venkatram said. “His attitude and demeanor have not changed because his roster of clients has grown, though he has evolved to manage the needs of a larger organization, which is remarkable.”
When accountants deal with lawyers, the dynamics work a little differently than with typical corporate clients, Venkatram says. “Most accounting professionals also believe that they understand the law and there’s a fair amount of thrust and parry when these two professionals debate issues. This is unique to professional service firms, particularly when they deal with their own matters, which requires detachment and the ability to step back and review the problem. “This can be exhausting for a legal professional because he has to relate to and fully understand the perspective. The outcomes of such debates need to be refined to achieve optimal resolution, getting into the heart of the legal issues”, he added. A significant value Joshi provides is institutional history, bringing philosophies arrived at over the years to the table in discussions; this is something organizations cannot put adequate premium on. For companies which do not have long-term continuity in leadership, reliance on external professionals who provide historical perspective becomes even more necessary, he says.
In hindsight how do his team-members view Joshi’s journey?
Rahul Dwarkadas who is a senior partner at Veritas says that most corporate lawyers are creatures of larger firms and bring their learnings along with them. Those takeaways with Joshi have played out thus “Veritas is a company with flat structure, an open door policy and the mindset that the views of everyone whether a ranked senior or a junior partner is fine to express, whatever the final decision of the management may be.
In addition, senior partners are more than available to guide teams and junior partners.”
Dwarkadas adds that “the firm being a smaller organisation has been growing of late and is not immune to challenges in preserving culture but has taken a conscious decision that they won’t grow beyond a certain size and will not trade off its unique value system which it says makes it different from others.”
Dwarkadas, who has known Joshi for a long time also notes that he is a very motivated individual with high drive, and great networking capability. “He has the ability to become a trusted advisor for clients over a period of time from being a service provider and that is not that easy to do.” In addition, he is gentle by nature but can also be very firm when needed and if there’s an employee who knows his work and is dedicated, it’s fun to work at Veritas but they should be aware that he can also be very demanding in the best possible way. “He will push younger lawyers to step out of their comfort zone, allow them to take credit and get plenty of client-facing time.” That’s not how it works everywhere in the legal world.
Others note the inherent challenges in organization building as opposed to simply being a pre-eminent professional. Senior advocate Percival Billimoria says that “Not all great lawyers are destined to establish and manage their own firms since it takes a special kind of individual to achieve what Abhijit has in a short span of time. Apart from being an excellent lawyer with an eye for detail he was always one who was excellent at understanding the commercials behind every mandate and developing key relationships and that would be something which stands him in good stead at Veritas Legal. “
In his own words, Joshi says that the biggest hurdle for Veritas has not been growth but maintaining its values while growing.
“Preservation of culture can become inconvenient at times and it becomes costly at times. But we have remained steadfast in terms of it. Let me give you an example. You can find a very bright person but not culturally attuned and that is often difficult but we have always put culture above all else.”
Joshi emphasizes that Veritas has an open, flat style of operation. “We are small, we are casual, we are collaborative. Now if people have hierarchical ways of functioning, we will try to mold them into our culture. And when that doesn’t happen, you may have to talk to the person. Even if the outcome is not positive, it is culture which builds a team and it is the team that delivers not the individual. ”
He adds that uniquely Veritas doesn’t have revenue or client targets at their firm.
Then how does he measure performance and decide who’s performing and who’s not performing?
“We don’t have formulas. We don’t have KRAs. No targets, People call it different names but whatever you call it we don’t have it,” he says.
Instead, the firm and its management has very regular discussions with all its employees. How regular? “Absolutely regular. As regular as it needs to be, every month if need be.” For a firm that has under 60 lawyers allows that with ease. The firm’s partners met online daily all through the pandemic. “Crisis brought out leadership and we learnt that. We have a series named Views at Veritas where people come in from different walks of life and talk to the team. We had spiritual leader Ms Jaya Row come in and talk about Vedanta; investor Sasha Mirchandani on start-up culture and senior advocate Janak Dwarkadas on what the profile of a great lawyer ought to be all about. It’s not all work. There’s also fun stuff with movie nights and free popcorn.”
Someone famous once said that the power of any lawyer lies in the uncertainty of the law and to that extent does Joshi believe in more universal principles such as Karma? “I believe there is a law of the universe. I have read the Gita, time and over again, many times… and I’m quite interested in the philosophy of Vedanta. Applying theory in practice is always a challenge but I guess it all connects somewhere. How you have led your life, and by example, all pays back sometimes in a good or a bad way depending on the way your life has been built and lived. Goodwill is nothing but your conduct through life and that perhaps is nothing but Karma.”That sounds like the truth, or as they say ‘Veritas exemplified’.