Preparing for the Future: In conversation with Ajar Rab

Mr. Ajar Rab is a Partner at Rab & Rab Associates LLP. He graduated from National Law School of India University, Bangalore in 2011 and completed his masters dual-degree in law and business from Bucerius Law School and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management, Germany. He  specializes in transactions, mergers and acquisitions, arbitration and commercial litigation. He has previously worked at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas at New Delhi, the Law Commission of India, Ministry of Detence, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, UPCL etc. He is an associate with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, London and is currently pursuing a PhD under the supervision of Dr, Stefan Kroll. 
 
Mr. Rab is also a Visiting Professor at NLSIU Bangalore and Adjunct Professor at WBNUJS, Kolkata. He has published a number of articles across various Academic Journals in India, and a commentary on the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016, published by EBC.
He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Devansh Kaushik, who is currently pursuing law from NLSIU.
  1. You have a unique perspective of being an active practitioner, faculty and academic author. How do you balance such diverse roles? Has it proved useful?

There is no real secret to balancing these roles. I just make sure that I keep the deadlines. Since my law school days, I have never been very comfortable seeking extensions unless absolutely necessary. Off late, I have also tried to reserve Saturdays for my academic commitments. However, that remains more aspirational than practical. Some or the other urgent matter comes up on Saturdays as well. Most practitioners also prefer to have arbitration hearings scheduled on Saturdays. Hence, it is not always possible to keep to that commitment, but it helps reserve a specific day for academic focus. Online classes have helped massively. I have taken more courses, especially for experienced professionals, in-house counsels, non-legal professionals. The same may not have been possible due to time constraints. It has, thus, become slightly easier to balance roles.

 

These different roles have been instrumental in shaping me as an individual and as a lawyer. I have gained immensely as a practitioner from the academic work. It brings a lot of structure and clarity of thoughts to how one analyses case facts and presents them in court or before an arbitral tribunal. I have also learnt a great deal from my students. Some of the students are far knowledgeable in specific areas of law because of their moots, internships or interest. I have learnt many practical nuances because of my interactions with executives from Wipro, Larsen & Toubro, HUL, individuals enrolled with the Institute of Company Secretaries of India, and even trainee officers at the National Academy of Direct Taxes, Nagpur. Such a broad spectrum of audience aids in understanding the perspective of businesses and authorities. More importantly, I enjoy teaching. It keeps me fresh, and I look forward to each interaction, no matter the qualification or experience of the audience.

  1. What made you choose commercial litigation and arbitration as a career? Do you have any advice for law students on how they should go about choosing their areas of practise?

I never intended to be a commercial lawyer. During my time in law school, I always thought that I would be a criminal lawyer. In fact, while everyone was reading Ratanlal and Dhirajlal on the Indian Penal Code, I used to read judgements in original. It was in my fourth year that a former alumnus of NLSIU, Ms Maitreyi Mulupuru came to teach us tax law, and I really thought of being a tax lawyer. In my final year, my senior Mr Nizam Pasha, came to teach a seminar course. He made me think through what I really wanted and asked me to apply to Amarchand Mangaldas. I remember being asked in my interview if I knew any corporate law, and I said I did not. The next logical question was, why should they hire me? My response was, “because I can learn”. I really enjoyed the work I did at Amarchand and developed a genuine interest in commercial law and commercial transactions.

 

My stint with arbitration came about when I was taught arbitration by Prof. Clifford Larsen during my masters at Bucerius Law School, Germany. I had the privilege to learn international litigation from Prof. Stefan Kröll. It was during one of his classes that I decided  I wanted to pursue my doctorate under his supervision. Had Prof. Kröll refused to take me on as a student, I probably would have given up on arbitration. I did not expect him to say yes. He agreed, and I took it upon myself to learn arbitration to the best of my ability.

 

The advice I have for law students is evident. I wanted to be a criminal lawyer, then a tax lawyer. I landed up in a general corporate team, then did an MBA, wrote a book on real estate law, and I am now pursuing a doctorate in international commercial arbitration alongside my commercial litigation practice – the bottom line is you will figure it out as you go along. It is okay to do many different things before you finally pick a career. It is more important to know what you do not want! Students today are obsessed with making the ‘right choice’ about their careers while still in law school. Even after ten years of practice, I do not know what kind of lawyer I am. Enjoy each matter and learn something from it, when you start enjoying certain types of matters, you will eventually develop a flourishing career in that field.

  1. What advice would you offer to the students starting out right now, to prepare themselves for a successful career in litigation and/or arbitration?

Anyone starting litigation should know, it takes a lot of patience, grit, and self-belief to succeed in litigation. The system is more open and welcoming of first-generation lawyers now. You should not be in a hurry to earn money or fame. Instead, it would help if you focused on being a meticulous and ethical professional.

 

Many will disagree with what I am about to say, but you cannot have an arbitration practice without first understanding court procedures. Students seem to believe that an arbitration practice is a unique creature where one can excel without knowing court procedures, company law, contract law or tort law. In my experience, it is quite the opposite. Arbitration is only a procedural choice by the parties as an alternative to court proceedings. It does not change applicable law.

 

One of the primary reason students are fascinated by arbitration is because it appears fancy. The expensive hotels, big names, and most importantly, the option not to sweat in court appears tempting. However, the reality is that most arbitrations, unfortunately, continue to be an extension of judicial proceedings since the arbitrators approach the proceedings from a perspective heavily borrowed from the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and the Evidence Act, 1872. If one looks beyond the fancy facade, you need to know your court procedures at the back of your hand.

 

The other reason for arbitration practice being tempting to students is their experience in moot courts. Real practice is quite different. I must add, though, that there are several high stake arbitrations taking place every day in smaller cities. Students should not think that the practice of arbitration requires them to be in metro cities only.

 

No matter what moot you have won or what your grades are, the real world is different. You should be conscious that you are starting at the bottom of a very tall ladder, and there is a lot to learn. Litigation and arbitration practice in the classrooms is very different from real life. I once stood before the High Court, not knowing under which provision of the CPC is rejoinder filed. I went to file a suit at Rishikesh and did not know that a coupon from the local bar association is required if you are a lawyer from outside the city. You will learn most from the clerks, in your office and at court. Your reputation as a person and as a counsel is built by these people.  I have benefitted immensely by learning from them. It is when you can handle these procedures like a master that you grow from an undergraduate to a lawyer.

  1. How important are activities such as mooting, ADR, writing, debating etc., in your opinion? What kind of skill sets do practitioners like yourself look for in fresh graduates?

I think these activities are essential. I have learnt a lot just by judging moots, other competitions and coaching moot teams. I must admit that I never participated in moots and debates when I was a law student, but in hindsight, I would have learnt so much had I signed up for such activities. They develop various holistic skillsets from research to teamwork, presentation skills, and most importantly, being quick on your feet – which is vital for any lawyer.

I can’t speak for everyone on what they seek from fresh graduates. Personally, I look for three things (a) sincerity towards your work and team, (b) humility at all times and (c) the passion for learning new things. I neither look for an NLU tag nor high marks. At the end of the day, one should be easy and fun to work with.

  1. For students aiming to litigate after graduation, there is often a dilemma about the utility of pursuing an LLM or other higher education. Can you offer them any advice based on your own experience?

One should pursue a masters degree only if you want to know more or specialise in a particular area, which is why it is always better to pursue a masters degree after some work experience. Many students pursue a masters degree after five, seven or even ten years of work experience. Your lack of work experience starts to show in classroom discussions, and your take away from the master’s program is also much lesser.

One thing I should clarify, getting a masters degree does not directly make you more employable or entitle you to a higher fee or guarantee your success in a courtroom. On the contrary, a masters degree is more about growth on a personal level. An LLM from a foreign university tremendously helps in understanding and respecting different cultures. Living in a foreign land without the constant support of family makes one more self-reliant and self-sufficient. There are far too many changes to list out in terms of perspectives one gets exposed to with a masters degree.If one is interested in pursuing a career in academics, then yes, a masters degree is a must.

  1. As a practitioner, what changes in the field have you observed after the pandemic began? Do you expect any long-term changes in legal practise?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the generational gap between young lawyers savvy with their iPad, adobe readers, etc. and the older generation became a lot more evident. That in no way means that the older generation of lawyers lost its edge. It simply had to either learn or hire technical expertise. There is no substitute for experience, and whether a hearing is virtual or physical, a good lawyer will remain a good lawyer.

I think a lot of long term changes that were due for some time will come. There are archaic provisions, such as filing a second copy of a plaintiff under the CPC. Such provisions are redundant with e-filing. Similarly, the mode and manner of service of summons have already seen a positive change with the courts accepting service by email and even WhatsApp. These changes will go a long way in increasing the speed of disposal of cases. I have my reservations about moving completely online without proper safeguards, but apart from that, I think many positive changes are likely to happen.

  1. What are some of the promising of area of growth that you see in the legal field? In particular, what future do you see for arbitration in India?

There is massive potential for sectors such as electricity, aviation, sports, insolvency, and bankruptcy. Many Indian companies I am aware of are also looking at smart contracts, blockchain and other technologies to optimise contract management. I also think with the growth of matrimonial disputes, especially post the pandemic, many changes in the law, such as recognition of pre-nuptial agreements, may be likely soon. This would fundamentally alter matrimonial disputes as we understand today. The formation of tax tribunals, debt recovery tribunals, NCLT, etc., has created more specialised practice areas, and the scope for excelling at such forums is highest in smaller towns because one does not find lawyers qualified to handle such niche areas of law.

 

I think India’s arbitration train has been chugging along slow until recently, but things are changing at a rapid pace. Just the number of recent amendments to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 is a clear indicator of the government’s commitment to make India an arbitration hub. Many recent judgements by the Supreme Court and the High Courts have sent extremely positive signals to the businesses and arbitral community around the world. Personally, a focus on training arbitrators at all levels, student, practitioner, and judiciary, will provide a great impetus to India’s arbitration story.

  1. Would you like to share any new projects or plans that you are working on?

I am currently finishing my book on Drafting of Contracts with the Eastern Book Company. Apart from that, I am advising a start-up called UpLaw Academy to teach industry-tailored online courses. Three years ago, I had tried to bridge the gap by teaching an arbitration course online independently through a platform called BeyondLawSchool. I could not devote sufficient time to keep it running. When I was approached by UpLaw Academy to advise them in the online education space, I was very excited to carry forward my initial endeavour. Their aim of upskilling individuals with practical knowledge beyond traditional classroom instruction should help anyone looking for the skillset required to succeed in courtrooms, interviews or internships.

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