Working as a corporate lawyer can be a very rewarding and lucrative career path.
Despite the continued challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, last year has seen significant activity in the corporate sector, specifically in private M&A deals. With the easing of listing norms and a record number of entities choosing to go public in 2021, the year witnessed the listing of major Indian start-ups, with Zomato leading the trend, followed by the likes of Nykaa, PayTM, and Policybazaar.
Today, corporate lawyers are in great demand and are employed in several organisations including law firms and companies.
We interviewed Harsh Khemka, Principal Associate at Khaitan & Co., Mumbai, who took us through his rollercoaster journey from first becoming interested in corporate law to committing his career to Insurance M&A. After doing multiple internships during his law school, Harsh started his career with Luthra and Luthra law offices, Mumbai, and within 6 years of his professional career, has become a Principal Associate at Khaitan & Co., one of India’s top law firms.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. What inspired you to pursue law? How would you describe your law school experience?
I grew up in Bangalore and come from a business-oriented family. That said, my late paternal grandfather practised commercial tax and wished for someone in the family to become a lawyer. This is one of my first recollections of wanting to become a lawyer. From there, popular culture took over and by the time I reached class 10 in school, movies and TV shows had convinced me that I was best suited to be a lawyer. At the time, I don’t remember wanting to pursue law to achieve some higher purpose - it was just something I felt I would enjoy doing and might be good at.
I went to NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad. They were some of the best years of my life. As is usually the case, it was the first time I experienced living away from home. I realised early on that I enjoy the independence it brings. Apart from gaining a degree and a job, I learned some of my most important life lessons in law school. I gained a lot of perspective by interacting with not just my professors but also my friends and peers, who came from all across India and overseas. I can say that law school opened my eyes to the world and prepared me for everything that lay ahead.
How did you begin your career post-undergrad law studies?
I had received a pre-placement offer from the Mumbai office of what was back then Luthra & Luthra Law Offices. After multiple internships, I had decided by my third year of law school that I wanted to pursue corporate law. So, I was very happy with the job offer and while I knew I was going to miss Bangalore, I felt working in Mumbai would be a good experience for me. My team in Luthra worked on all kinds of matters – corporate, M&A, debt as well as funds. This helped me get a good grounding in various practice areas. After two years in Luthra, I moved to the Mumbai office of Khaitan & Co to focus on M&A and private equity practice as I wanted my career to grow in that space.
How did you come to specialise in ‘Insurance M&A’?
I was staffed on a private equity transaction on my very first day in Khaitan and while I didn’t have prior experience in this field, I took the challenge head-on. As a newcomer and outsider to a large but very well-knit team, I was keen on impressing my team members. With the help of some really helpful seniors, I was able to catch up to the very steep learning curve. In my quest to expand my learning and out of my sheer interest, I volunteered for varied kinds of transactions - one such transaction was a large M&A deal involving two insurance companies. The insurance sector in India is heavily regulated and this transaction was very challenging for me – not only did I have to acquaint myself with the multitude of laws applicable to the insurance sector, but we also had very challenging timelines. This often meant sleepless nights and working weekends. At the end of the transaction, the partner on the deal asked me if I would like to focus more on insurance matters. I had just finished the third year of my professional career and initially felt it was a little early to commit to any one practice area. After some deliberation, I decided to give it a try, as the sector genuinely interested me.
The insurance regime in India had just been liberalised a short while before that and there was growing interest in the area. However, at the time, there were very few people at Khaitan and across firms who were specialising in insurance M&A. I ended up being at the right place at the right time and with the support of my partner, a lot of opportunities presented themselves. Over the course of a couple of years, I gained a lot of exposure in the sector through deals, advisories, meeting industry folk, and diligently updating myself about the industry and sector.
Currently, you’re working as a Principal Associate at Khaitan & Co.; what does an average day at one of India’s biggest law firms look like?
That’s the most frustrating as well as the most exciting thing about a law firm - every day is different. While this means that planning ahead becomes a challenge at times, it also means that there is never a dull moment. Borrowing from Newton’s theory of relativity – 12 hours spent drafting a document peacefully (I always listen to some music while doing this) by yourself can seem very different from 12 hours spent on multiple matters jumping from call to call, deliverable to deliverable, and trying to douse the largest fire first.
No day is complete without interaction with teammates – both virtual and while in the office. From exchanging weekend plans, failed diet routines, and movie suggestions to also helping brainstorm transaction structures, vexed legal questions, and complaining (don’t know if I am allowed to use the B-word) about clients – your teammates are with you through thick and thin. My team at Khaitan especially engages in a lot of pranks and banter, especially on the office floor. This helps bring a light touch to what can often be a serious and stressful job.
How is the work culture in Mumbai different from that in other cities in India? What should one know about working in the corporate law sector in Mumbai?
My only internship in Mumbai was enough to convince me that I would like to work in the city. There is something about the city that just makes everyone hustle – maybe it’s the high rents, long travel times, or the large crowds. It seems like everyone is always in a mad rush and running against time. This vibe prevails in the law firms here as well. While the other two corporate hubs, Delhi and Bangalore, have equally talented and professional lawyers, I have felt the culture in Mumbai is to push yourself just a little harder. This may also be driven by the local clients, who may be more demanding than their counterparts in other cities.
But the city has a charm about it which makes you fall in love with it. The song “Bombay meri jaan . . . ” beautifully epitomises this feeling. That said, Mumbai definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but I would recommend that young corporate lawyers experience the taste for themselves before deciding.
In 2021, India witnessed an all-time high in the number of mergers and acquisitions. What are your views on these developments in the country?
It was a great time to be a corporate lawyer in 2021. After the slowdown caused by the pandemic, the market rebounded very strongly. Teams were busy throughout the year with people having to refuse work because of bandwidth constraints. All our overseas clients were interested in the Indian market. Indian start-ups and founders had never earlier had access to this kind of capital. Valuations went soaring and we saw some of the most successful IPOs the country has ever seen. While the market has corrected itself a little in 2022 and we have seen IPOs being delayed, Indian companies and entrepreneurs have made their mark. This will definitely inspire greater innovation and lead to more start-ups coming up in the future. Government policies and regulations on industry and ease of doing business will have to keep up.
What are things that one ought to know about a career in corporate law? (For example: are the hours long and workload high? Is there too much competition?)
Law is a jealous mistress – I have come to realise this right from my law school days. It requires us to constantly read and keep updating ourselves -- most of the statutes we study in law school are significantly modified or replaced by the time we start working (long live the Contract Act 1872). Further, corporate lawyers are professionals and part of the services industry and hence there will always be client pressure. Yes, it entails long hours and constant pressure but is equally rewarding in terms of career growth. Some of this pressure comes from the competition – if we don’t deliver the work product within the requested (read demanded) timeline, then the client will go to someone else next time. So yes, everyone is out there to impress and woo the biggest clients and work on the largest deals. But there is also a satisfaction that one gets to see the transaction they worked on getting reported in the news.
But the pie is ever-growing and new entrants in the industry will be able to get a piece of the action and establish themselves. The increase in funding and M&A activities in India will definitely lead to more job creation and opportunities. So the future of corporate law professionals should be bright!
How would you suggest one go about a career in Corporate Law? What avenues are open to corporate law aspirants in India?
Law school these days has started offering a lot of electives and courses on various corporate law subjects. Also, students, these days have access to a lot of online courses, study material, and websites that can help them prepare for a career in corporate law. Taking up some of these courses may help impress during internships and land one a job. But there is nothing that you learn in law school that you can't learn on the job. As long as the fundamentals are strong (basic contract and companies act), any student should be able to manage to crack an interview. Other aspects law students can work on are developing their communication skills and the habit of reading.
I have always maintained that corporate law is no rocket science – hard work, sincerity, diligence and regularly updating oneself will see you climb the corporate ladder.
Even if one doesn’t land their dream job out of college, there is always a chance in the future to move firms – it's fairly common and there will be a lot of opportunities. In fact, corporate lawyers are increasingly receiving opportunities for in-house roles – this will only increase as we see more companies come up and the corporate compliance culture increase. VC and PE funds are also known to hire a lot of lawyers and some of these roles often also involve some business elements. All in all, experience in a corporate law firm is very helpful for anyone looking to work on the corporate side.