In conversation with Mr Abhishek Sinha, founder of NotJustLex, his journey from a Partner at a tier-one law firm to an Entrepreneur and his advice to budding corporate lawyers

Mr. Abhishek Sinha is an eminent lawyer who has recently been awarded 40 under 40 Award, 2020 by Legal Era-Legal Media Group for the vision, leadership and innovation in the legal industry.

Mr. Abhishek Sinha is a dual qualified (England and Wales and India) corporate lawyer with a post-qualification experience of more than 14 years. He has worked as a partner at Khaitan and Co. and Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and Co. He has wide-ranging experience in advising on private equity matters, as well as structures requiring India entry strategies. He has been involved in various acquisition matters (both domestic and cross-border), contract negotiations, and has regularly advised his clients on investment strategies, joint ventures, strategic alliances, regulatory compliances, exit options and general corporate matters. He is also the founder of “NotJustLex” which is an online learning platform to make the students and young lawyers acquainted with the practical aspects of law.

He has been interviewed by Varalika Mendiratta, the Campus Ambassador of EBC-SCC Online for the Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.

  1. Hi Sir, thank you so much for taking out time for this interview. So, to begin with, what drove you towards the field of law?

When I was in school, law was never an option for me as I was a science student. I gave my PMT Exams, but I could not secure a very good rank. I was getting a dental branch in some medical school in Delhi and I did not want to spend my entire life looking inside peoples’ mouth. At that time, rankings of law colleges were out by a reputed news portal, so I thought it was a chance for me not to join a dental college. So, by chance, I applied to ILS because, by that time all the competitive exam dates were over, ILS was the only place where at that point of time admissions used to happen based upon 12th marks. Therefore, I landed up there. Maybe not a very interesting story, but it is the reality.

  1. How would you describe your law school journey?

I had never stepped out of my hometown to study, so it was more like a fun thing for me to go from Ranchi to Pune to pursue law, which I never saw as a career option earlier. First two and a half years it was all fun. I was always diligent. I used to be the only one to attend all the classes because I thought attending classes was a must. I used to spend a lot of time in the library as well. I used to get good marks, but was not a topper since I was not very interested in that. I was into a lot of social-work related aspects, human rights, camping, trekking, mountaineering, etc. By the end of two and a half years, I had zero internships and zero papers related to corporate law. I wrote on human-rights related issues, I was a founding member of a couple of human rights organisations.

When we came back from a break before the third year, I was sitting in the cafeteria with my friends chit chatting and one of the toppers of the first two years said that, Abhishek you cannot really do law, if you cannot really do law then leave it, what is the fun when you cannot top the University? That got into my head, so I just wanted to prove her wrong (by the way, it is not a Bollywood story, it is actually true). And then I started studying, I was always good at studies but never focused on law. But in the third year, the subjects were pretty interesting, like IPC, CrPC, Companies Act, etc. So that year, I topped the University.

ILS was a part of the Pune University which had around 70+ colleges, so topping the University at that time was a huge deal. Right after the third-year results, I started building some sort of interest towards Companies Law, more to do with SEBI and Securities Law. It really interested me because it had more of the commercial aspects and less of law. I always focused on something where we had to analyse and apply our mind to understand what are the next steps and advice accordingly. Subsequently in 4th and 5th year I topped the University again (revaluation changed my rank though) and that is pretty much the journey.

  1. Do you think being a Non-NLU student ever impacted your growth?

First of all, I will tell you, when I was in ILS, which is a non-NLU, some people believed in this hierarchy system that first there are NLUs, then other tier-two colleges, and then ILS, etc. But I do not think that is true at all, that is only in the minds of the students. This issue is extremely overrated. I do not see any significance in it and no one should even bother discussing this issue because for all practical purposes it has zero effect, whether you are from an NLU or a non-NLU. If I take my case, I am from a non-NLU, I became a Partner at least three years ahead of my other NLU peers.

So ultimately, it is about whether you have the capability and the ability to make things happen, how willing are you to put in the effort to learn. For more than seven to eight years I have been taking interviews and most of the interviews which I have been a part of, we never used to check who has the best knowledge of the law, that is not the requirement. Law can be taught, but whether you have those behavioural patterns of a true learner, whether you will fit in the teamwork structure, whether you have fire in the belly to do it, those are the things which really matter. And of course, you shall have a mind that can analyse and you should be a logical thinker, that’s more important. So NLU or non-NLU is never an issue, has never been an issue, and I believe it does not matter when it comes to top tier law firms recruiting.

However, the only point I would like to highlight is that because of the limited number of seats, all these law firms might prefer to go to XYZ colleges and not to all law colleges. That is the fact you cannot change. But that’s not really an NLU v/s non-NLU thing. For example, there are many NLUs but the top law firms do not go to all of them for recruitment. So, just because you have the brand of an NLU that does not really matter. And for some reason you have to give it to the top thee NLUs, they are top three because of some reason. So yes, there is a difference between these top NLU grads and non-NLU grads when it comes to the corporate sector because that is the way they are taught and their curriculum entails the same. Whether they get a better opportunity to learn the corporate culture, sophisticated legal concepts when it comes to corporate law? Absolutely yes. But does it mean that the result is that they will get hired and not you? I do not think so. If you have learners in non-NLU, they will also outshine all the NLU grads. There were so many people in my batch from NLU who never got a job. So just because you are in an NLU doesn’t mean you are going to get a job.

Also, would you even want to work with a law firm which says that you are really good but we cannot take you because we want to take an NLS grad? I would just walk away even if they are paying hefty money. See, you will have to ultimately decide where you want to grow! I would suggest to join a boutique law firm initially because that is where you will actually learn; at the end, it is upon you to learn and make it. The University can only make you jump in the sea, you will have to swim and cross it at your whims and fancies and your timing.

  1. What are the skills that a law student interested in corporate law shall entail and how to work upon them?

Skills are very simple; 80 per cent of them are behavioural. You have to be diligent, it is not a 9 to 5 job where you go, sit in front of the computer, mindlessly put in the data for hours, your job is done and you go home. How strong you are mentally is very important. You have to love the work you are doing otherwise you are not cut out for this, that is one.

Next, you need to have some kind of analytical and logical mind, if you keep getting confused between simple stuff, maybe law is not for you or at least commercial law is not. It is not about knowing everything under the sun, no one knows everything, but as a good corporate lawyer, you must know where to find it. You should have clear basics, when someone is talking about a private company, you cannot talk about takeover codes, so you should know that much. If you really want to be in the commercial sector, focus only on the substantive law. Even if you do not know the procedural law, half an hour of work and you can know the process if you know where to find it.

You have to work in a team, so team spirit is essential. You have to keep yourself updated. When you go up the ladder, no client is going to talk law to you, they have an assumption that you know it, they would want to know your gut feeling and your analysis and your advice based upon that. You should have knowledge of the business world. You have to nurture your people skills, learning skills and business skills right from the beginning, merely knowing the law is not enough.

  1. Commercial awareness is considered a pertinent part of corporate and commercial law, how can we as students ensure that and how to gain insights into the practical aspects of law?

It is quite difficult to find one place where you would learn all these things. There are different aspects and different areas from where you can pick up and learn.

First of all is self-learning. There is no such book that you can open and understand how mergers happen and what are the practical issues, it is just not available. So, one important aspect which you should nurture from your college days is to read business newspapers. Do not just read for the sake of reading, you will have an area of interest, so keep collecting articles which are related to your areas of interest. I am pretty sure you would not understand 80 per cent of what you are reading in a business newspaper, but here comes your job, you read it, you do not understand, you go and research about it. Nowadays it has become so easy, just google it, search the relevant parts and read about it. During our times it was too difficult, we used to keep the newspaper cuttings, wait for the weekend and used to go to the internet cafe and research, because we could not afford to go to the internet cafe daily.

Second is legal platforms, and I am not talking about these legal websites. To my mind, these websites do more damage to new learners rather than helping them to learn, they do not even post legal stuff. Just look at the important headlines from these websites and do your own research. Then there are sites which are not really these legal media sites, but these are sites where you get real business information like VCCircle, Economic Times, Live Mint, etc.

Third is your internships. Most of the time people crib that during my internship I did not get to do anything, but the question is, what did you do if you had free time? You could have written five articles, shown it to the Partner you are working under to review. See, all Partners are looking for resources they can rely on, the students who are diligent and want to learn.

Fourth, there are courses which you can take up. Then again, I am not talking about the course wherein you have recorded videos and it is more like selling certificates for Rs 1500  like vegetables. Go and explore. There are good courses from Harvard, even I did it. Keeping yourself updated is the key.

  1. How important is doing proper legal research and how should law students equip themselves with legal research skills?

If you are a lawyer then legal research has to be a part of your DNA. You cannot even utter a word in the meetings if your legal research is not done properly, you cannot advise the client, you cannot argue before the court without proper legal research. Even as a transactional lawyer, you cannot even negotiate a transaction document if you have not done your legal research. Legal research is your base, if it is not proper, effective and efficient, then everything falls apart. So, it is not just important, but mandatory! Every law student should be aware as to, how to do legal research? What are the different platforms available? How to simply look for cases? You should know how to find relevant cases, commentary, articles, etc.

The second important aspect is, whether you can interpret and understand the information you have researched or not. So legal research has two components; one, finding the relevant stuff and second, understanding it and applying it to the present situation.

  1. What are the essentials (CV building advice, prior internships, research papers, courses, moots, etc.) in acquiring internships at top law firms and what is the level of work expected from the students by such firms?

You have to put what all you have done in a piece of paper. To my mind, you should check all the boxes. It is completely inefficient to have 16 internships and not a single research paper (this is a real-life example). So, it has to be a balanced CV. Ultimately someone is going to judge you in 15 minutes, your CV shows your personality. Having only too many internships shows that you are doing it just to get a job and you are not really a learner. Thus, you need to have a balanced approach and check all the boxes.

Second, if you say if you are interested in an area, for example, IPR, then, have you written any papers in that area? Have you done any research? It is so easy these days, write a good article, there are so many publishers. So writing is critical; what you write is what you learn. Reading gets washed away in a couple of days but what you write is going to remain with you for a very long time.

Nowadays it is so easy to have a blog as a law student, so have a blog and do not get me wrong, I do not mean a blog calling for articles from your colleagues and all, write it yourself, ask your friends and seniors to comment upon it.

Third, participate in your college activities; whether it is a moot court or case comment writing or article writing, just participate in all of them. Check all the boxes, not just for the sake of participating, but for getting a flavour as to what it actually is. This will help you be certain as to what you want and choose accordingly.

Finally, keep your CV short and crisp. You should know thoroughly about each point you have mentioned in your CV.

  1. What led you to shift from being a corporate law firm lawyer towards teaching and entrepreneurship?

I have always loved teaching. Even after graduating from ILS, from that very year, I used to teach the corporate law diploma in ILS. I was a freshman right out of college, working in DSK Legal, within three months I came back and I was teaching a Diploma Course to students who were just one-year junior to me. I have explored various aspects of teaching and what is the best way to explain. I do not see it as if I am superior to the ones I am teaching, it is more like I want to learn too and thus have a healthy discussion with them. In those discussions, lots of issues come up which gives me ideas to write, to research and to learn more. I was a teaching professor in KC Law College, Bombay. I used to reach the law college at 7:30 sharp in the morning, till 9:30 I used to teach, then I used to leave for my job at AZB and Partners, I used to work there till 9 or 10:30 at night and then go home to prepare for the next lecture of the morning. So, it is basically something I am really passionate about.

After that when I became a Senior Associate, I used to go for campus recruitments and I was getting disappointed day by day seeing what is happening to all the student. No one was aware even of the basics. So, I started this training program for law firms wherein Partners and Seniors would go to law colleges and teach them. We used to go to various colleges and take sessions. Doing all this made me realise that the gap which was there when I was a student has only widened. Everyone is now worried about tangible benefits; they want to do things only if it will help them get a job. No one is concerned about real learning and all this disappointed me. So that is the point when I realised someone has to take the first step and even without doing much research, I resigned from my Partnership and decided to do something about this situation. I did some market research and saw the lack of availability of reliable and authentic sources from where students and young lawyers could actually learn. Therefore, I started NotJustLex to bridge this gap between what is being taught and what actually happens in the commercial world.

  1. Tell us something which interests you apart from law which you would like to share with our viewers?

A lot of things. I am 500 per cent an adventure enthusiast, I love anything adventurous. I love biking (interviewer’s tip- if you love biking and travelling, definitely check out Abhishek Sir’s Instagram). I love my gadgets, fancy cars and bikes. I have covered more than 50,000 km on Indian roads in the last two years, I am a solo rider. I do a lot of trekking and mountaineering. Last year I went from Leh to Khardungla on cycle and came back. Of course, apart from all these things, I am a binge-watcher of Netflix.

  1. What would be your advice to students and young lawyers watching this interview?

The very first thing is that, even if you do not know whether you want to do corporate or litigation or IPR, it is fine! Being confused is not an issue, even if you are confused till your fifth year, it is alright. How you are tracking your confusion, that is important. The point is you, have to be prepared. If you are confused, then you will have to do more hard work, as simple as that. You cannot have one CV if you are confused between any two areas. You will have to have two CVs and you should explore and check the boxes in both those areas.

Do not do internships just for the sake of doing it, it does not matter whether you are getting 10 or 15 internships, what really matters is what you are learning. Research, write and get your work published, because again, what you write is what you learn. So, my advice is very simple, be diligent towards whatever you are doing and focus more on learning.

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