“It’s imperative that you do not become rigid with your choices of the field of practice. Keep your mind open and options open. You never know when things could change.“
1. Hello, sir. Please tell us something about yourself, your professional journey, and your early years with our readers.
Hello, first of all, thank you for considering me as the subject-matter of your interview. Currently, I am a Senior Legal Advisor at Deloitte, India. I started my law degree in the year 2000 after I finished my BCom degree. I completed my bachelor of law from the Dr Ambedkar Law University in 2003. I immediately enrolled in a masters in the University of Warwick, UK, specialising in International Economic Law. I joined Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan (LKS) from 2004 till 2009. In 2009, I decided to join one of the Big-4 accounting firms as an employee. In 2004, I started my practice as an advocate, and in 2008, I qualified as a solicitor in the UK after clearing the qualifying lawyers’ transfer test as it was known then. In 2009, I joined as a manager at Ernst & Young (EY) in the indirect tax team. I was not too thrilled to be an employee of the Big-4 accounting firm. I wanted to be an advocate, so I decided to return to being an advocate by joining PDS Legal. I was a part of PDS Legal from early 2010 to 2011. I met S. Thirumalai, who has been my mentor and guide. He saw me arguing a matter in tribunal and then asked whether I would be interested in joining his practice and being a part of his team as a retainer to Deloitte. I jumped at that chance. Since May 2011, I have been associated with Deloitte as a non-exclusive retainer counsel.
2. Why did you choose taxation as a field of specialisation as compared to other branches?
I never wanted to get into taxation. Taxation was not on any list of areas of practice that I wanted to do. I joined by default. I have never looked back since. I have been practising taxation since 2004. Taxation was not taught as a potential area of practice in law colleges. From the past 4-5 years, I have seen an improved understanding of taxation as a subject and as a course in law school these days compared to way back in 2001. Then, taxation was taught as a subject, especially at Dr Ambedkar Law College. I never thought that tax could be a potential field of practice. It could be one such field, probably, if I had done CA/CS/CMA while doing BCom, it may have been a worthwhile option then. But I did not consider taxation a career when I started my law degree. But once I joined LKS, I believed that taxation was growing exponentially, and it was imperative on my part to fit into the scheme of things concerning tax law, and I did not look back. My affinity for tax law has been my bread and butter, and it continues to grow stronger. I could have taken any other subject, like corporate law, but I somehow cut the trend and took taxation as a field of my practice. It is a lesson in not being rigid in what you choose. Keep your mind open and options open. You never know when things could change.
3. What are the things law student focuses on if they want to pursue taxation law?
The first thing is that before we understand the fundamentals of taxation, we need to understand business fundamentals. Every tax-related subject, provision, and interpretation has a bearing on the commercial transaction, whether income tax, international tax, or indirect tax. All these tax provisions have a connection with a commercial transaction. Therefore, your fundamentals concerning the Contract Act must be robust. The transactions between 2 parties determining whether there is a liability to pay income tax, international tax, or indirect tax significantly correlate with commercial transactions. Understanding the meaning, clauses, scope, and purpose of a contract are essential to understand the issues concerning commercial transactions. To understand taxation, you must understand the business, the company, and the nature of supplies. It could be goods or services, or both. Understand the company and business scenarios around you well. Only then you will be in a better position to understand the interplay between commercial transactions and taxation.
Tax law is one field of practice where if you can master the fundamentals of interpretation concerning tax law provisions, you will be able to master any other statute. Fiscal statutes have so many interpretative principles laid down over a period by the Supreme Court that all these principles have a ripple effect on interpreting words, phrases, clauses, and expressions used in other statutes.
So, the first thing is understanding commercial transactions, business relationships, nature of transactions, then getting into the fundamentals of taxation. There are only effectively four concomitances of fiscal statutes i.e. levy, value, rate and liability paid. Once you can understand the fiscal statute from these four perspectives, it is not difficult at all. There may be a lot of clauses and statutes while interpreting the statutes, but it is fundamentally the same.
4. As many people say, understanding mathematics and accounting are essential if you want to pursue taxation. What are your views?
I was not a great mathematics student; I was slightly above average, but the fundamental mathematics taught in my time was the mathematics we do in IITs. The mathematics that we did in 1997 was challenging. With time the curriculum concerning mathematics has changed. You have a lot more business mathematics and business-oriented mathematics. We do not need that high level of mathematics for tax law. However, accounting knowledge would help us understand income tax and indirect tax. Knowledge of mathematics is not paramount. We use only addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in tax law.
5. Do you believe that people who pursue CS/CA side by side have a better understanding of taxation?
I would answer the question in the affirmative. With a CA and a CS qualification, it will be easier to master both direct and indirect taxation. A company secretary will be a viable option if you want to pursue corporate law. If you have a fundamental CA and law degree and seek tax as an option, it would be a beautiful combination for success. I do not have CS or CA degree, but I still have an experience of 18-19 years of now.
6. Many students pursue postgraduate after LLB according to you, which is better, to go for CS or complete a master’s first?
A master’s degree is an academic degree; it would not, in any manner, further the career as much as a professional degree. A master’s degree in LLM, with great respect to universities who provide and great respect to students who have completed a master’s in international taxation or any subject relating to taxation. A professional degree will help in furthering your career. A master’s degree after a few years of work experience will enhance your knowledge. This is something I learned in my master’s; when you do an undergraduate course or graduate course, mainly the law degree per se, you do not question the statutes; you accept the statutes for what they are and interpret them. But once you get into your master’s program, you start questioning the jurisprudence behind such laws. You go a step further in understanding the purpose behind the creation and economic side of that fiscal statute. Once you clear your basic taxation fundamentals, do your master’s. My suggestion to young students who are doing their law right now is to pursue their law degree and work and if you are in a position to do one of these three professional courses, do it. After a few years of work experience, when you have a good foundation in taxation, you enhance your knowledge by doing a master’s.
7. You did graduation in commerce and later followed it up with a bachelor of laws specialising in taxation. How is this experience different from a conventional five-year BA LLB course offered at universities?
That is a fundamental question. I did my three years of BCom, followed by a bachelor’s in law. Technically speaking, I would have studied one-year longer than a 5-year law degree. Honestly, there is not much difference. BCom is a foundation course; it could be BA LLB, BBA LLB. The point is that when we did our BCom, we had much accounting in the first and second years. Until my final year, I did not decide to pursue law as a career. This means that when you start with your basic graduation in commerce, you are not in that frame of mind that you are going to be a lawyer; you will be a graduate, whereas if you see the integrated course by the time you graduate, you are going to be a lawyer. So it is an excellent option to do three plus three-year courses, and there are many things you can pursue while doing a three-year law graduate degree. I learned Japanese while pursuing BCom, which helped me communicate with Japanese clients in their mother tongue. I also taught Japanese in college in Chennai while studying law, so it was a good experience because you get more time compared to a 5-year course. It gives you flexibility and freedom compared to the 5-year law; you could learn foreign languages, instruments, music, etc. I suggest a foreign language as it helps to further and enhance your outlook in your career.
8. How is your experience working in MNC as a lawyer, and why did you choose MNC as compared to the law firm?
Working in an MNC environment gives you a lot of professional outlooks. I am not saying that a law firm is not a profession; it is just that the setup is different. Even my start in a law firm is different from my MNC experience. In MNC presentations, client management and client engagement are paramount. In contrast, litigating lawyers are exceptional for presentation before a Judge. They may be different before a client because they need more time. I am not saying one is better than the other; both have merits and demerits. It is a choice that you make. Over a while, MNC sought of outlook that grew on me. I still retained my identity as an independent lawyer. Effectively, I have the best of both worlds from having an MNC outlook while being professional as a lawyer. I think it is a good thing to marry both. Having worked only at one law firm, I do not think I would be qualified enough to extend an answer to a comment about the law firm. From my personal experience, I found it more intriguing to work with MNCs because of their presentation ability. My enhancement as a professional would be down to how I perform at the professional organisation, as MNC is globally renowned.
9. As taxation laws are rapidly changing, according to you, how important is it to keep oneself updated about all the laws?
One of the most critical skills of the lawyer is the ability to retain knowledge, information and data concerning case laws. We must constantly update ourselves while observing, interpreting and understanding the case law passed by the court and tribunals. You must continuously update and upgrade your knowledge concerning the interpretation given by judicial forums. The understanding of decisions will come only if your fundamentals are strong because you will encounter many issues at any given time. If you go through case law, you might realise that certain aspects or principles laid down in that particular case law could be applicable or closely related to one of the issues you have dealt with. Lawyers try to quote case laws before Judges. Therefore, the ability to retain is vital.
10. Not many people are familiar with the concept of “exhaustion of research”. What are your views on it?
Before doing research, law students need to understand the proposition for which they need to do research. This is something which I have found a fundamental flaw in students/interns/fresh law graduates. It is that they do not understand the proposition first before they even start their research. It is vital that you know the research question that has to be dealt with; only then would you be able to do justice to the research which you have been given and present it to a person who asked to research that particular proposition. Give an outline of sources, create a basic skeleton of research and once you get these done, start making it better, updating it with more recent judgment, articles, speeches and so on. Constantly interact with people who gave you the task.
11. What is your advice to law students in a post-COVID era, where students are anxious about choosing a career path?
It is imperative that you do not become rigid with your choices of the field of practice. Do not restrict yourself because, after a point of time, there will be much development in the field of law, you will be stuck there. Keep an open mind and do a lot of internships. To be honest, I have never done an internship in my life. But now, with the changed scenario, there are a lot more law schools, law firms and more competition. Right from your first and second years start interning with the firm’s diverse portfolio and, over a period of time, work on it. Keep yourself updated with things around your business transactions, and commercial transactions. So that you are in a better position to understand what you want to do. Do not jump on anything because you want a job, that is a mistake that I have seen a lot of students make after their fourth/fifth year. Whatever may be compulsion student loans because of which students do what they get and then they are stuck with it. But if you are able to prepare yourself from the beginning, then you can ace in any field.