Going independent as a practice or establishing and running your own law firm is no easy feat. Of course there is the advantage of self-employment and the ability to profit directly from your own efforts, but the risks are equally high. There are a number of things to be taken into account and a number of challenges to be met. We interviewed Abhiskek Subbaiah, the founder and managing partner of Bridge Legal to learn about his journey from working as an in-house counsel in the banking sector to working in a number of law firms in different cities, to currently heading his own law firm in Bangalore.
We also asked him about the qualities he looks for in candidates interested in working or interning at Bridge Legal. Read on to find out!
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself. Why did you choose law as a career path? How was your experience in law school?
I head a firm known as Bridge Legal along with my two Counsel, and the three of us bring years of experience in different aspects of law to the table for our set of niche clients. I graduated from the National Law School of India University in 2013 and have since worked in a multitude of large organisations including law firms before I figured that there’s no existing business model that incorporates my unique strategies – strategies that now form a core part of the philosophy of Bridge Legal.
I chose law as a career because it rewards those with strong fundamentals in language and logic – two pillars of mine that I wanted to and continue to leverage to make my professional mark. Law School was, like most of my experiences with the Indian paradigm, less than ideal in almost every sense, but I’m always critically analysing our professional and educational systems, so this view may come across as being slightly negative even though my perspective and intent is borne out of a constructive set of objectives. Things seem to be changing now, but let’s just say that I’ve never been a supporter of our education system, even (or maybe especially so) at the upper echelons.
2. You began your career with banking law. What does a career in banking law entail?
Banking law entails grasping a lot of knowledge with respect to regulatory procedures and protocols, while also engaging and utilising fundamental concepts such as contracts principles, property law, and classical financing documentation drafting. It’s essentially a good base that creates a good foundation no matter what sectors or industries one ends up specialising in. Money and property permeate every kind of market, really. From a career standpoint, some choose to go deeper into the industry, and I know for a fact that there is always a dearth of good banking and finance lawyers especially at the mid-senior level, so there’s scope to grow into specialised roles for those looking for such a career.
3. It is not very common for lawyers to move from in-house roles to law firms, although the other way round is fairly common. What made you switch to a law firm?
(Laughs) I constantly heard that in-house roles aren’t ‘real lawyer’ roles and also that an in-house lawyers’ experience is discounted when shifting to a law firm, so that provocation combined with the fact that I wanted to learn as much as I could intrigued 24-year-old me. I didn’t mind the extra money either – Mumbai is an expensive city to live in. My first interview with a law firm occurred more than two years after I started working, as opposed to a campus interview, so having the leverage of specialised experience finally made such interviews balanced (I didn’t interview with law firms during college placement).
4. What was the nature of your role in the various law firms you have worked in?
Well apart from a brief stint with one law firm that was absolutely atrocious, my other roles involved acting as a wingman to my Partner on transactions – versatility and quick learning combined with a solid work ethic was always my selling point. It wasn’t just traditional banking and finance either – I was always pushing and allowed to push for mandates that involved technology, overall management, and negotiation in niche areas.
5. You have worked in many different cities in India. How do these cities differ in terms of work culture?
Well things are balancing out somewhat now but I don’t see all cities functioning at the same level of professionalism when it comes to the legal services industry (this is now changing, however – a lot of people, me included, are attempting to change the tier-2 or even tier-3 landscape). Many units of large firms in tier-2 cities essentially act as tertiary / auxiliary units apart from a few practice areas and it’s never a good feeling constantly being in the back-end; I’ve noted this to be the case across different cities although my primary experiences lie in Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. Mumbai has its own feel, so does Bangalore – apples and oranges if you ask me and there’s no clear way to describe the differences without unfairly generalising.
6. What is the story behind ‘Bridge Legal’? What are the challenges you have faced so far as a law firm founder?
Necessity, really. No organisation in Bangalore or Bombay offered the level of flexibility in terms of practice areas, billing rates, and client engagement that I deemed and deem to be a prerequisite to the next stage of disruption, so I decided to do it myself and chart my own path that reflects my philosophies and ideals.
Challenges include a very traditional industry that believe it or not is highly cartelised and entrenched and typical founder challenges such as branding and marketing (which is a special level of challenge since we cannot advertise, which effectively helps the incumbents). I can’t complain much, though – it’s been a great ride thus far and our clients are really happy, with the list continuing to grow. One notable challenge is of course cost structures, since we don’t have the benefit of economies of scale that large factories have and instead choose to work as a small team of experienced lawyers. We’re expensive, and the Indian market is very slowly coming to terms with the true boutique model that offers high quality and customisation – think Patek Philippe as opposed to Rolex or Creed versus Chanel, it takes a mature and nuanced market to understand the differences and value proposition deltas between the two types of brands.
7. As a founder and recruiter, what do you look for in candidates looking to work or intern at Bridge Legal?
For work, the biggest question is what one’s business plan and client base is – it goes without saying that the experience and fundamentals need to be strong. We don’t hire, we partner. Our clients know this as well – apart from the occasional apprentice and / or intern on a transaction, we’re all true Partner (equity) level professionals.
For interns, I usually look for sincerity, grit, and most importantly, hunger. I’m biased towards those from smaller cities and non-metropolitan backgrounds. Internships are equally our duty to manage and impart education via, so as long as the fundamentals are in place, my biggest restriction is usually the number of interns I can bring on board depending on bandwidth. Like I said earlier, we don’t follow economies of scale, so naturally the selection process becomes very difficult and I have had to say no to a lot of promising, amazing students.