As a managing partner who says he considers those in his firm as family, the departures of his senior partners and their teams have weighed heavily on Luthra and Luthra founder Rajiv Luthra. In an exclusive interview with Gautam Kagalwala, he shares his feelings about the recent setbacks, his recovery plans, and what he wants the firm’s enduring legacy to be
round August this year, observers began noticing a change in the online presence of L&L Partners. The firm began displaying a new banner on its social media accounts – one that was adorned in gold but otherwise reminiscent of the pre-2018 old logo. It’s L&L Partners website disappeared, and the firm reverted to their old and familiar name of Luthra and Luthra Law Offices – harkening back to an earlier era for the firm.
This is no coincidence. At the management and personnel level, the past few years have been challenging for Luthra and Luthra. This year it lost senior partner Vijay Sondhi, who passed away in January, and then in July senior partners HS Bobby Chandhoke and Sudhir Sharma led an unexpected exodus of 63 lawyers including some partners to DSK Legal.
At this critical time in the law firm’s history, IBLJ caught up with founder and managing partner Rajiv Luthra to ask him to set the record straight on the departures and their impact, and to find out what his plans are to take the firm forward after such a massive body blow.
What Rajiv Luthra treated us to was a lesson in old school thinking versus new-age professionalism. Simplistic ideas of putting people, personal lives and happiness ahead of monetary goals, and of a firm being one big happy family.
There is even a humorous notion of success meaning a “smelly office” ‒ so to say that they are so keen to get to this happy workplace that they hurry to work with a few strokes less on their toothbrush. But this notion also hints at the kind of loyalty and dedication he demands.
And perhaps it is here that we glimpse a divide: a familial fealty that for some is out of touch in today’s modern profession, where percentages and the eternal bottom line dominate and predestine a law firm’s survival in an increasingly cutthroat world.
But maybe, especially following the crushing personal toll of the recent pandemic, with its anxious years and suffering businesses and lost loved ones, these archaic values are just what are needed as India’s legal community picks up the pieces and evolves forward. Maybe the values of family and the pursuit of happiness in work, as in life, are not so naïve after all.
It was clear that the recent departures from his law firm had rejected the vision, as the structure fractured under the weight of numbers leaving. Luthra refers to Chandhoke and Sharma as his younger brothers, but expresses his disappointment over their sudden departures, and towards the lawyers who chose to follow them.
“You give the firm three days of notice. I am still getting resignation letters, but nobody is handing over work,” Luthra told IBLJ just days after news of the exodus hit the headlines. “Nobody is saying ‘these are the 10 cases I’m handling and here are the next dates of hearing’,” he adds with a tinge of sadness.
He says that it was the departures of the younger lawyers that hurt him more. “The client’s needs are of prime importance. How then can you not give priority to the pending matters and hand over the details ̶ is this the ethics and integrity of law professionals? Can you imagine what will happen later in their professional careers, or in their lives?”
In this vein, he narrates an anecdote of a junior partner who was recently sent to INTA at the firm’s expense. “I asked him about four or five weeks ago. I said: ‘Look, are you a long-term player? Or are you just thinking about doing different things?’ He said: ‘Sir, I am totally committed and see my future here’.”
However, this pledge of fealty was short-lived, and he left the firm along with the senior partners. “He sent me an email saying: ‘I am retiring this evening, my last working day is today.’ There was no mention of the list of clients being handled. That is what hurt me badly and his entire team was shocked, too. Why would you do that?”
The firm counts Wasim Beg, G R Bhatia, Divij Kumar, Nakul Sachdeva, Rajan Raj, Sanjay Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Faisal Sherwani, Venancio Dcosta, Anshul Tyagi, Amrita Tonk, Siddharth Barua and Prithvi Sidhu as its leading disputes partners.
PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL
Lawyers, sometimes in large numbers, leave law firms all the time. It’s nothing personal; professional advancement is a given in careers. But it’s clear that Luthra, one of the biggest legal names in India, has taken it personally, and to understand why is to listen to how he has shaped his firm and his philosophy behind its operation.
Luthra is upset at the manner the lawyers have left because his approach to work has been to combine the personal and professional spheres. The firm’s spokesperson explains that when hiring someone, he seeks to invite them to be a part of the Luthra family. “He wants them to be a part of his ups and downs. He makes an effort to remember how the children of his lawyers and staff are faring, whether their family have medical needs and what support he can provide them,” she says.
Luthra says the desire to create a familial atmosphere came from wanting to create a happy place to work. “I call all members on their birthdays… initially I would send a bouquet of flowers to them and clients too.” Two years ago, the firm switched to a greener alternative and now plants a tree for everyone’s birthdays. It also does this when providing gifts for weddings, festivals to clients.
Luthra was also fond of the firm having annual offsites in the spirit of family holidays, where he would fly the lawyers, staff and their families to destinations abroad such as China, Turkey or the Straits of Malacca. But the firm later discontinued the practice as it had become too big and the organisational aspects including finding hotels became too challenging. However, celebration of Annual Day continues, and annual offsites are being planned differently.
With a touch of humour, he says his overall vision for his firm is creating a “smelly office”. Elaborating on this, he says: “When everybody working in this office feels like taking six less strokes of their toothbrush, when I create an environment where they’re so dying to get to work and even coming in smelly, then I’ve achieved it. Money and everything else is a by-product.”
The sudden departures of his two senior partners and their teams also put Luthra in crisis communication mode with his clients. “Since there wasn’t any handover, handling clients and transferring matters to other partners was one of the challenges” he admits.
Five teams were assigned to recover information from court websites and elsewhere to find out the work that was pending and follow up. Once the answers are found, Luthra calls up the client to introduce the replacement.
“Ninety percent of the firm’s relationships, at least the big ones, are due to yours truly.”
With the loss of so many lawyers, Luthra and Luthra is already working on rebuilding the firm’s strengths. One of the recent arrivals is Verus founding partner Krishnayan Sen, who specialises in disputes, along with his team. “I have a team of 85 lawyers, including 14-15 partners, lined up from a decent tier-2 firm that is ready to join, and these are good people,” says Luthra.
When another former senior partner of L&L, Mohit Saraf, separated and started his own firm in mid-2021, it began with a total strength of 84 members including non-counsel, and eight partners.
After the departure of these lawyers, L&L brought on board some 130 lawyers including a number of partners. “Within six to seven months of the Saraf fracas happening, 25 ex-Luthra-ites came back voluntarily, without a head-hunter,” says Luthra. This included a large number of partners such as Piyush Mishra, Abhishek Mathur, Neha Sinha and Kedar Sharma.
The firm’s spokesperson says the lawyers were drawn back by the freedoms his environment would offer them. “Mr Luthra is the kind of person … who’ll take you to every meeting he is going to,” she says. “He will introduce you to whoever because he’s not territorial about the people you can meet. A lot of lawyers find that as a huge amount of opportunity.”
Luthra wryly says: “What is my logic here? As a senior, if I teach everything to my junior, then they can bloody well work, and I can play golf ‒ although this has never happened. But I can use the time to build new areas of practice. That is how the firm began.”
OLD BONDS BROKEN
Luthra’s relationships with Chandhoke, Sharma and Sondhi date back 25 years, when the three ran a litigation firm called CSS (named after their initials).
“I discovered that most of their work of that time was being utilised by my firm. So I asked them, why don’t you join? It really was the first merger or amalgamation of a law firm in India,” he recalls.
After the merger, Luthra’s litigation firm handled the litigation work and his corporate firm handled the corporate work. But over the years Luthra observed that the two firms were operating more as silos and becoming hesitant on knowledge sharing.
“So, about three or four years ago, I made it a point that let’s move towards merger of both these firms and make it one,” he says. Being adamant that this was the way to go, Luthra formed an independent committee comprising Adil Zainulbhai, former McKinsey chairman, Ashish Nanda, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who teaches strategies for professional service firms, and Valerie Bowles, managing partner of Silk Legal Consulting, a management consultancy specialising in the legal professional services sector.
Luthra tasked the three with transforming L&L into a single firm and an institution, keeping a distance so as not influence the process. He left it in their hands to determine the equity sharing for the senior partners derived on a mathematical formula that is globally accepted. However, the process became delayed by a series of personal setbacks faced by the committee members, along with the overall slowdown caused by covid.
Luthra admits the whole firm did not have visibility of what was happening at this time. This caused weariness, and senior partners grew impatient, starting with the fallout with Saraf in 2020, and the ensuing court dispute caused further delays to Luthra’s plans.
With the recent departures of Chandhoke and Sharma, Luthra has pressed forward in making Luthra and Luthra a single firm. “After so many years [of working together], one does feel the void. But I am happy to tell you about one thing, the whole area of practice of law and knowledge of law is changing. With all the old school thought of not knowing technology process gone, I call it spring cleaning in a lighter way. I do not want to say whether [this] is right or wrong, but the world is going in a different direction. And if we do not get up to speed, we will be dinosaurs very soon is my view.”
EQUITY SHARING AND SUCCESSION
Luthra says sharing equity is a prerequisite for building an institution. “Let us say I’m a founder. I’m not going to be there forever,” he says. “Therefore I am making a succession plan with second in line and third in line and then will guide the system further. That is what I’m doing now.”
But he notes that law firms in India can only practice as partnerships and with an unlimited liability. The other issue is finding a partner who is willing to don the golden handcuffs: “Once you’ve given [equity], you can’t change it around too much.”
To address these issues, an executive committee has been set up to look at remuneration, promotions, client development, knowledge management, skill development and external communications, and the overall happiness quotient of the firm. Disputes partners have also recently been made part of the committee.
Luthra returns to his idea of the firm as family, and is adamant it is the way forward. “Everybody in the firm is my family. And if they are meritorious and they deserve it, they’ll get [their reward]. This will be an institution that you will all be proud of.”