Mr Sanjay Notani is currently a senior partner in Economic Laws Practice’s International Trade Law team, and is one of India’s foremost trade lawyers. In this interview, he provides an insight into practising trade law in India, how the field has evolved over time and the social importance of this area of law.
1. Please introduce yourself to our readers. What are some hobbies that you always try to engage in?
Thank you Sarthak, for giving me the opportunity to be part of this interview. As far as introducing myself, I am a senior partner at Economic Laws Practice (ELP), where I co-head the international trade and customs practice. In terms of my interests, I love travelling, and I love technology. I also like to learn languages as part of my travel plans, because I think that learning cultures in turn helps you learn about people, which not only goes along with my profession, but is also something that helps me grow both professionally and personally. I also think that understanding the emotions behind when people speak helps you transcend language and cultural barriers.
2. In terms of your journey, you studied at GLC Mumbai, following which you worked under Mr Rohan Shah, before moving to ELP. Where in this journey did you make the decision to be a trade lawyer, and what made you do so?
21 years ago, I was one of the first employees of ELP, and at that time, two founding partners had brought in their practices and skill sets. The first was Mr Rohan Shah, who dealt with tax law and with whom I flowed into ELP with; and Mr Suhail Nathani, who brought in his skill set for trade law. My exposure to trade law came from the fact that at that time because there were such few people in the firm, we were doing tax law in the morning and trade law in the evening. That led me to understand and develop an affinity towards trade law because I had to interact with everyone from Managing Directors to technical experts to the shop floor itself. I enjoyed understanding how different people view the same situation differently. It is fascinating to see how ideas and issues are interpreted differently by different parts of a company, and that was the foundational idea behind my journey in trade law.
3. What are the day-to-day tasks that you undertake as a trade lawyer? How are they different from when you were just starting out in this field?
When I started, I was learning trade law. I had to learn the tricks of the trade, so to speak: how trade happens, how operations, management, logistics, finance, manufacturing, sourcing, etc., all interact with each other in the real world. There is even more, to learn when you add in different jurisdictions and regulations. So, at that time, my role was to understand and imbibe the skills required by trade law.
Today, I have to be honest and say that most of the heavy lifting is done by my team in terms of day-to-day tasks. My role is to see if there is an additional layer of value that I can provide, which could lead us to change something and ultimately deliver to the client what they are asking for to bring success to the assignment. It also requires me to ask pertinent and incisive questions that are not related to law but to understanding business or commerce. One of the most important things a lawyer needs to remember is not teaching the law to your client. They are not here to learn what you know; they are here for you to apply the law to their problem and give them a solution. Secondly, as an analogy, I come in after the Lego pieces have been arranged to see if the design is ready to be executed, and if not, to try and find a better way to do that. I examine if we are adopting a 360° approach instead of operating on tunnel vision, especially since trade is constantly in flux. In fact, at one point, we used to say that in trade law, we need to think five years ahead; today, that is as good as thinking five days ahead. Trade inherently requires longevity, so it is important to provide holistic, adaptable and long-term solutions, which ultimately requires you to look at the larger picture for any problem.
There is also an element of commercial awareness. On a fundamental level, trade is business. If there is a company, you must first understand its essential business and the sector it operates in. Then, understanding their specific position within that sector regarding their vision, challenges and opportunities. Finally, there are regulations that apply to each of these aspects. Therefore, understanding business and commerce gives you the universe in which you apply your skills and provide solutions.
4. With more than 21 years of experience at ELP, it is not far-fetched to label you as someone who has seen this field grow in front of you. Do you consider practising trade law in India to still be a niche career path?
To answer that, we first have to understand the direction trade and geopolitics are likely to go in the future. The kind of trade that happens now, in terms of both the Global North and the Global South, has absolutely changed from the kind of trade that used to happen 21 years ago. The kinds of technologies, businesses and models that exist now raise completely new global issues, and they will also change in the future. So purely on a domestic level, there is a need to understand how Indian businesses will be affected by these issues in the present and moving forward. And that is where we come in, as businesses want longevity and agility to continue growing. They must navigate this constantly changing environment of new businesses, emerging technologies, global supply chains and even geopolitical events like sanctions. Trade lawyers help businesses navigate these challenges.
There are also more opportunities in trade law than before, because no matter how much a country may want to become protectionist and decouple itself from the globalised economy, we are simply so entrenched in a global world, that it is extremely difficult to singularly untie those knots and remove yourself from global trade. This has led to a growth in opportunities within the field, and this is where we, as lawyers, come in and understand if there are untapped opportunities or likely challenges for India at large. Additionally, growth in trade also leads to an expansion of rules, regulations, etc., on specific aspects of the trade, which in turn highlights the need to have someone understand and navigate these changes.
5. Your domestic experience is further complemented by your memberships of the American Bar Association, the Inter-Pacific Bar Association and the Customs and International Trade Bar Association. Given all this knowledge of both domestic and foreign laws, what does legal research look like for a trade lawyer? How can one equip themselves for the same?
There is simply a lot to learn. Trade is essentially inbound and outbound movement in relation to a country. So firstly, you need to understand the global regulations applying to a specific issue. Then, you get more granular; for example, if you are exporting food to Japan, then you need to learn the domestic regulations within Japan that apply to all the different aspects of that transaction, and this changes with each transaction such as exporting mangoes to USA, or importing cheese from Australia. Considering all of this, legal research needs you to adopt a holistic outlook where you must look at both sides of the fence i.e. in India and outside India.
In terms of equipping yourself for this, one question you need to ask yourself is “how hungry are you for learning?”. As a lawyer, you need to understand businesses, regulations and recent trends to analyse a person’s situation and apply your skill sets to solutions. There are some subjects and areas of law where you depend on the law to change to learn something new. But with trade law, you cannot wait for changes in the law. Our universe is too large, and there are constantly a lot of things to learn, recent examples being a cryptocurrency, electric vehicles, sourcing and logistics, hydrogen and renewable energy, etc. So, understanding your appetite for knowledge is crucial for legal research in this field.
6. Be it litigators or M&A lawyers, the legal “profession” is often accompanied by a social importance i.e. a larger role that lawyers play within the society. What role do trade lawyers play in society?
Let us take a case study of the textiles sector as an example. There is a growing global awareness of important issues, such as climate change, environmental and social governance, forced labour in manufacturing, or even foreign subsidies, etc. This has resulted in new regulations evolving and developing, which relate to how these issues interact with trade. So, from the perspective of the globalised world, you need to understand this evolutionary movement of regulations and how it applies to the Indian textiles sector. Your role is to understand how you can contribute to these global issues, such as enabling best practices, recommending policy changes, etc., that serve the purpose of a globalised world.
Secondly, from the perspective of the Indian textiles sector, your role is also to understand how you can keep this sector equipped for longevity. Trade is crucial to a nation’s growth, which requires Indian business and the Indian society at large to be equipped to meet new challenges in the future and sustain, if not grow, its position in the global world.
7. Can trade law also double as a means to solve important issues? If yes, how?
Yes. In tangible terms, we can look at an issue like climate change. Now, events between the COP26 and COP27 conferences have ultimately resulted in positive movement on specific climate issues having slowed down. Trade law is in a tremendous position to promote this positive movement, such as by allowing India to use its G20 presidency to try and raise these questions and spur discussion. Conversely, looking at trade law as both a cause and a solution for and to climate change allows us to look at issues that may not have obvious answers and figure out mutually acceptable solutions.
On a domestic level, there is also a lot to contribute in terms of how Indian regulation affects these things: how our Constitution interacts with the climate and environment vis-à-vis development, the structure of the division between the Centre and the State when it comes to environmental issues, how our judiciary interprets commercial issues along with global climate litigation, etc. Essentially, there is a lot to learn, and in parts and pieces, there is work to do in trade law for lawyers in all areas of law, from tech-centric lawyers to climate-centric lawyers, to corporate lawyers. The question is, what role do you want to play?
8. Lastly, what is some advice that you wished you had been given when you were in law school?
Do not be afraid of your aspirations. Do not be afraid of taking risks, do not be afraid to seek mentoring and do not be afraid to follow your passion. To do that, patience and perseverance are also really important. Continue with your passion in goal setting, but patience is how you achieve those goals. Ensure that in your path, there is a lot of reading, a lot of learning and that you find people that can help you become a successful lawyer for the community and yourself. But you need to follow your passion.
I also want to say that it is okay if there is a course correction in your journey in this field. Do not be discouraged by it. I started my career as a corporate lawyer, then became a tax lawyer, and now I am a trade lawyer. You may also say jack of all and master of none, but this experience would give you the ability to thank analytically to resolve the issue differently. Maybe a few years down the line, I might be a climate change lawyer. Change is not necessarily bad because it is not necessary that what you did for 25 years should be continued for another 25 years. The mantra is to be the best at whatever you do. It should not come with an ego, but just know where you are and how you are contributing; ultimately, people will recognise you.