Creating and building DSK Legal


By Anand Desai

From starting my career as a junior counsel at a time when law was a low priority option as a profession, to being a businessman for a short time, and then a partner of a relatively small but successful law firm, it was a fantastic moment to be invited to be managing partner of the Indian member firm of what was then the fastest growing international network of law firms - Andersen Legal. DSK Legal was established on 1 April 2001 with seven lawyers, including three partners, and a skeletal support staff. From then it has been an exciting roller coaster journey of growth, high points, disappointments, and stressful times, with many great learnings as a professional having the responsibility for an organization in a fast changing and increasingly complex environment.

The context is important to set as well. From the traditional law firms to economic liberalisation in 1991 and the establishment of national law schools from 1986, law becoming a “preferred” option for our bright young minds and “business development” becoming a norm, the practice of law firms has transformed. Firms have grown in numbers, size and expertise, with strategy, business development and strong support functions having become an integral part.

Establishing a new firm with international standards was a unique experience. Andersen closed worldwide in early 2002, but meeting network firm managing partners in that brief period was of great benefit. I am fortunate to count some of them as my close friends, and I continue to value their advice.

The initial exposure to systems and processes of a large international network was an eye-opener and exhausting to comply with, including global conflict checks to ensure the network was treated by clients as one. An early memorable incident was our inability to accept an assignment for our Indian corporate client against an Andersen Legal global client. This resulted in our client threatening to sue us for not accepting the assignment! Fortunately, this got resolved with a waiver from the global client, but only after some stressful days for me.

Over time I learnt that the key to a successful organization is to attract and retain talent that has energy with a larger vision, and understands that if the pie grows each one gets more, as against the usual “what’s in it for me” attitude. As I learnt while representing a Japanese client acquiring their agent’s business  in India, there are those who truly appreciate being part of an organization that does good work and benefits from teamwork where 2 + 2 equals more than 4.

Building the blocks of a recognized firm included attracting the best talent, incentivising and training them well, and building strong practices with a healthy mix of retainer clients who entrusted all their legal work to us, and large transactions from international and domestic clients.

Each day is not just about client work but also about developing and implementing a strategy to grow the firm, positioning, attracting more clients in specific practice areas, and putting in place robust systems. Law firm management became a part of my life. Vacations shortened. While managing a fast growing firm is a full time occupation, I benefitted from the sound advice of an ex-managing partner of Andersen Legal to never stop doing client work, as it made one redundant as a lawyer. It has been a balancing act, but I believe giving preference to client work was the correct path to follow, as that is what we became professional lawyers for.

The years 2007-2008 were heady for business, before the stock market crash in September 2008. We would see company promoters comparing multiple term sheets from overenthusiastic investors chasing companies in order to not “miss the boat”. The crash was a reality check for business and professional services firms.

Over time we noticed several other Indian law firms using initials with “Legal” as their firm name. In 2011 a scandal arose in the USA about a well-known French national having the initials “DSK”.  This resulted in searches on the internet for “DSK Legal” listing his legal team higher than our firm for a brief period. We indulged in some soul searching with a professional brand advisor (also a client) who analysed and described to us what he believed we stood for as an organization, and offered sage advice to not change our firm name as it had already built commendable goodwill. Pursuant to this exercise, we added the logo and tagline “True Value, True Values”, which also serves as our motto.  

From 2011 we decided to grow our dispute resolution practice, which has proved beneficial, and we have been fortunate to have been entrusted with matters involving a very wide range of laws. A highlight of our teamwork was when we worked through a memorable day during which a famous client was convicted and sentenced by the Sessions Court, and we filed an appeal and obtained a stay on the sentence from the High Court the same afternoon – later we succeeded in the appeal. That day none of us had time to eat a morsel until the formalities for release of our client were completed at 7 pm amidst high drama and constant media glare.  

Most experienced lawyers who joined us in our growth journey came with their own way of functioning, and were resistant to change. An oft used expression was “you joined DSK Legal because you saw something better, hence adapting to DSK Legal’s ways is the sensible thing to do!”. But human behaviour isn’t easy to change! Expressions like “managing lawyers is like herding cats” rang so true. We also lost colleagues over the years, which is an unfortunate reality. There were times when out of frustration I said “I am leaving”. The wisest counsel I received from a senior member of our support staff was “Mr. A.N.Desai few people have the ability to create employment. You do.” And that was the end of my thoughts of leaving.

As our firm grew we saw value in engaging a CEO and other support function heads. Our colleagues performing these functions have helped greatly through the difficult COVID-19 period, with the benefits of good planning and extra efforts on the part of all.

I am delighted that we have built excellent practices in several areas, with technology, artificial intelligence, blockchain, augmented reality and the like being the most exciting.

Recognition as a lawyer and law firm leader also presents opportunities to participate in business and social life - as a director, advisory board member, supporting and advising NGOs, all of which bring about an excellent rounding off to one’s professional life.          

Will life as service providers change for law firms after 2020? I believe it will. In addition to expertise, I believe agility and adaptability in the way we deliver our services, while unwaveringly adhering to our core values is going to be the key to staying relevant.

Will I hand over the position of managing partner to a colleague who can take on the role? I hope so!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the author. No Forbes India journalist was involved in the writing or production, and Forbes India takes no responsibility of the views and opinions expressed here.