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Interview Of The Month  

This month, ILJís Vikrant Pachnanda spoke to Mr. Nishith Desai, Managing Partner, Nishith Desai Associates on how he started Nishith Desai Associates and the evolution of the firm over the last decade thereafter.

Ques: Can you tell us about the initial years of setting up Nishith Desai Associates?

Ans: When I first set out to establish a law firm in the late 1980ís, I was pitted against strongly established firms with hundred-year old legacies. I spent enormous time studying and contemplating an ideal business model for the firm and determined that one competitive strategy would be to focus on high-value, premium positioned services. I also contemplated the philosophical and ideological roots of the firm. Early on, I was inspired by Mahatma Gandhiís doctrine of Trusteeship, built on the ideals of non-violence, equality and self-rule, as well as several of Charles Handyís ideas such as the future of work in a globalized and fluid context, how traditional structures will change, the management of communities and the membership corporation. In the light of these aforesaid ideas and given the negative perceptions about law firms in general, I chose organization behavior as a second source of differentiation and our strongest competitive advantage. An organization built on strong and inspiring values, principles and practices instills in its stakeholders pride, commitment and a sense of greater self-actualization, which are powerful forces for attraction and retention of talents, clients and an extended professional network. Experience over the years has shown me that the crux of the challenge of building a firm on the great philosophical ides of trust and democracy is in adapting and refining their practice to a specific organizational context. The business model, our vision for the firm, and the firmís organization and talent framework as part of that context as well as being important building blocks in NDAís evolution.

Ques:  In a very short span, you managed to build a firm of international repute. What are the significant reasons for the success of NDA?

Ans: As mentioned above, before launching the firm, I spent s few years researching and studying successful business models among law firms (almost all the global top 100), professional service enterprises and institutions. My search revealed some outstanding models that shaped my outlook then and over the years, the consulting firm Mckinsey, the fashion company Louis Vuitton and, even the countries of Singapore and Switzerland inspired me hugely with their highest quality, premium-end positioning. One law firm in particular New York based Watchell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (WLRK), stood out consistently maintaining the highest-value, learn and profitable business model to become not the biggest but the best. To illustrate WLRK ranked 58 among the global law firms in 2006 with about a quarter of the annual revenues of the top-ranked firm, Clifford Chance. However, WLRK received this revenue with less than a tenth of the number of lawyers-208 versus 2,432 at Clifford Chance. Thereafter, we were successful in attempting to model NDA on the WLRK format in several ways. We believe in brain count and not head count.

Ques: What is the vision of your firm? Where do you see yourself personally five years hence, and where do you see the firm five years from now?

Ans: Our client and business proposition has led us to the following vision for NDA: a research-focused global organization providing strategic, legal and tax services to entities that are or aspire to be global, irrespective of size, sector, or nationality. In short, we are a research and knowledge enterprise. Research has turned out to be the most distinctive feature of our firm, backed by a robust methodology and process we term ‘NDA’s DNA” which is our strategy for becoming a research and knowledge enterprise. Through our Anticipate-Prepare-Deliver research strategy, research in essence graduates to knowledge, and finally to intellectual property.

Ques: Can you tell us something about the management structure and decision making process at NDA?

Ans: A democratic system needs to pay particular attention to its decision making process. Early, on we sought to govern by consensus-based decisions and encourage debate among the leaders. This approach may be slower, but it results in greater ownership of decisions. One drawback, however, was that in our encouraging but not aggressively demanding culture, people at time chose priorities differently, with the result that certain activities and tasks would be marginalized. As a solution, we created three councils to align leadership processes, thought, competencies, and decision making: The Executive Committee (EC), the Partners Group and the Leadership Council. These councils have a planned annual calendar of meetings to ensure strategic, transformational, and transactional leadership. An important aspect of our governance is the presence of any external board, chaired by a former partner of one of the big four accountancy firms in the United States. This board contributes to strategic and leadership direction and strengthens our governance. It keeps an eye on the overall welfare of all members of the firm, and in case of differences of opinion acts as an ombudsman. There 60% of the decisions are reached by consensus while providing additional modes of decision making in specific instances namely, majority vote, minority wisdom and CEO vote.

Ques: Do you think that the entry of foreign law firms in India is inevitable and what are your personal views on the same.

Ans: We are an India centric global law firm. We are not worried whether foreign law firms come or do not enter the Indian legal market. Both the United States and the United Kingdom are increasing protectionists and should ratify their immigration laws which are the worst form of human rights violations.

The views expressed here are the views held Mr. Edward Walker-Arnott personally and do not represent the views of Herbert Smith.
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