HSA Advocates is going through an interesting phase with the entire restructuring exercise, one that includes Khaitan & Co’s Amitabh Sharma being appointed Managing Partner.

In the first part of an interview with Bar & Bench’s Pallavi Saluja, both Hemant and Amitabh talk about the firm’s growth trajectory, decision to get an outsider as the firm’s Managing Partner, HSA 2.0, and much more.

Pallavi Saluja : The firm has been on a significant growth trajectory of late.

Hemant Sahai : Growth has always been part of our DNA. We have always adopted a strategy of strategic growth rather than mere growth in headcount, since the latter is neither desirable nor sustainable.

We have had our share of attrition, both organic and designed, however the net growth in our partnership collegium as well as the size and breadth of our team is, I believe, unique in the Indian legal landscape over the last one and a half decades.

The first leg of the strategy was to invite Amitabh Sharma to come on board as the Managing Partner of the firm. Handing over the reins of the Managing Partner to Amitabh sent out a strong message at multiple levels and also infused fresh energy required to propel us on a new growth trajectory.

Pallavi : What made you bring an outsider as the firm’s Managing Partner?

Hemant Sahai : Amitabh’s induction was part of our strategy to bring in fresh energy and expand on our vision. Over the last several years, I found that all of us at the partner level, including myself, were getting more focused on day-to-day client servicing in order to remain competitive and to meet heightened client expectations. This is true for most firms. This consequently, left very little time for me to commit time to provide strategic direction to the firm, which is one of my strengths.

If an organization is allowed to become reactive rather than pro-active, there is bound to be drift leading to distortions creeping into the system. Any leader will acknowledge that a vision has to be continually re-defined and re-calibrated, and can never be cast in stone.

Any leader will acknowledge that a vision has to be continually re-defined and re-calibrated, and can never be cast in stone.

So, I took a conscious decision to free up some of my time to focus on my strengths i.e. strategically growing the firm, along with a strong Managing Partner that had the ability to execute the vision and carry the larger team along.

As far as Amitabh is concerned – he, Abeezar (one of our Senior Partners) and I have a shared history from one of our earlier firms. So, in a sense, there was a common heritage, shared values, similar thought-processes and well-aligned aspirations.

In my meetings with Amitabh along with Abeezar, when I discovered, much to my surprise and amazement, that we have a commonality of thoughts, purpose and action, I said ‘why not’, let’s work together!

Pallavi : Weren’t there concerns with getting an outsider to manage the firm?

Hemant : The obvious concerns were whether Amitabh, coming from an external environment, a different culture and working style, was going to get the support from the existing partners. The partners too, legitimately would be concerned about the likely disruption to the equilibrium.

However, I was able to assure the partners that our fundamental culture of collective responsibility and decision-making and meaningful involvement of all the partners in the direction that the Firm takes would always be aligned, would remain unchanged.

Fortunately, there was agreement amongst our partners from day one. Amitabh has the right mix of aggression and compassion required of a team leader.

Coincidently, I had my horrific motorcycle accident after we had already concluded our conversations and arrived at an agreement on his coming on board as the next managing partner. Sometimes, one needs to step back to see where things are headed and take corrective measures.

We have all made mistakes along the way, however, maturity and leadership requires one to honestly recognize those mistakes and work on the weaknesses, rather than taking an ostrich’s approach and pretend that everything is hunky-dory.

We have all made mistakes along the way, however, maturity and leadership requires one to honestly recognize those mistakes and work on the weaknesses, rather than taking an ostrich’s approach and pretend that everything is hunky-dory.

We now have a new growth strategy and plan for the firm in its HSA 2.0 avatar – a well-defined execution strategy to achieve our HSA 2021 Vision.

HSA 2.0 has already begun to take shape as we have started implementing it with respect to inducting newer technology, upgrading our IT systems, revamping our HR processes, knowledge management systems, client relationship management, client out-reach programmes, business development strategies and tools, etc. The execution quotient between the two of us is very high (laughs).

We have an Executive Committee, derived from the Managing Council of senior partners, and a larger partnership collegium.

Pallavi : How big is the Executive Committee?

Hemant Sahai : The current EC, which is co terminus with the HSA 2021 Vision document, has three permanent members – the Founding Partner, Managing Partner and Senior Partner, Abeezar Faizullabhoy, and we have one more partner on rotation, who is currently Aparajit Bhattacharya.

I must emphasize that this constitution is not cast in stone for perpetuity and once we have successfully implemented our HSA 2021 vision, or even earlier for that matter, we will make the EC more representative and have democratic processes for electing its members.

Pallavi : Amitabh, what made you take up the role of Managing Partner?

Amitabh Sharma : What really attracted me to HSA was the shared vision, the aspiration, the courage to make it a reality and the demonstrated ability to bring the vision to fruition. I had been watching the progression of this firm while in JSA and later at Khaitan & Co.

If you closely watch and analyse the Indian law firm landscape, the first waves of economic liberalization in India post 1991, spawned several law firms. At the time, they did not face any meaningful competition and were therefore able to grow very rapidly. However, by 2003, when HSA started, not only was a highly competitive legal firm environment already established, the client relationships as well as foreign firms’ referral relationships too had cemented to a large extent with existing firms.

Therefore, the entry barriers for new firms were very significant, which is why if you look at the market, there are very few firms that have been founded around the time HSA came into being, which have grown to a meaningful size.

If you look at the market, there are very few firms that have been founded around the time HSA came into being, which have grown to a meaningful size.

In addition, despite the worst global recession starting 2008, HSA continued to grow and thrive. HSA’s resilience, tenacity and courage to rise against all adversities is yet another reason that made me notice the firm and eventually take a plunge.

The other thing that attracted me to HSA was our stated philosophy that we don’t want to, so to speak, ‘own’ or ‘rule’ our fee earners. If you look at the last 25 years the legal profession, in the law firm parlance, has changed from being a profession that was entrepreneurial in nature to more of a service sector promoting a salaried class mindset. At HSA, we are trying to nurture people on the bedrock of the philosophy that law is a profession that requires an entrepreneurial approach.

Pallavi : What is HSA 2.0 about?

Amitabh Sharma : The ideology echoing across the HSA realm is “One Firm, One Philosophy, One Culture”. We are infusing a culture of ownership, where every single member feels accountable to the Firm and its growth. Hemant and I are very clear that none of us, whether today or tomorrow, are or will be patrons or benefactors to anyone at the firm. No one owns anyone or feeds anyone.

We have already effectively doubled the size of the firm in terms of team size and projected revenues. The expansion is happening at such a rapid pace that we officially opened our Bengaluru office the day I joined. We have ramped up our Kolkata office. We have planned a redesign of the Firm’s institutional framework, rewards and compensations structures and policies.

Traditionally, law firms have mostly been headed by families, individuals or a set group of individuals, and as in the past, legal work has mainly been service driven and salaried, rather than entrepreneurial. We are committed to reverse the trend of the last 25 years and re-inject the entrepreneurial spirit.

We are trying to create an algorithm around compensation/rewards – while I know that one cannot have a binary model for determining compensation, but I am sure that with a matrix of KPIs (key performance indicators) one can have somewhat of an objective and scientific model.

The firm has always had a no family member policy that dictates that no two members of the same family can work at the firm in any position. It has to be a transparent structure. Systems should be in place, whereby a young “star” performer may be able to earn more than even a Senior or a Managing Partner, if her/his performance exceeds well-defined yardsticks.

Systems should be in place, whereby a young “star” performer may be able to earn more than even a Senior or a Managing Partner, if her/his performance exceeds well-defined yardsticks.

Similarly, even a senior position is not cast in stone. We are creating a structure that encourages leadership by rotation. Most firms today unfortunately lack such an environment and philosophy since the partners and the firm are treated as a collection of individuals without any meaningful stake in the firm, leading to individual aspirations either becoming non-synergistic with the firm’s aspirations, or creating unhealthy competition.

If you look at the Indian market, increasingly the concept of billing as per hourly rates is coming under stress, and is an exception now rather than the norm. So we are not talking about becoming like a corporate behemoth.

Even by 2021, as part of our HSA 2021 vision, we will not grow more than 250 lawyers on today’s assumptions, unless something dramatic happens to transform the economy.

The acceptable partner to attorneys’ ratio ought to be around 1:2 or 1:2.5, so at the most we may end up with around 75 partners by the end of 2021.

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