Karan Kalra

Mr. Karan Kalra is the founder of Bombay Law Chambers. With more than fifteen years of expertise in the legal field, he is a corporate lawyer. In addition to offering regulatory and general corporate advice, the focus of his work is on domestic and international transactions.

He worked for one of the biggest banks in India and a prominent Indian law firm before founding Bombay Law Chambers. There, he oversaw the banking and financial services vertical in addition to leading the M&A and PE divisions.

He takes pleasure in giving speeches in front of an audience. He is a regular faculty member at several training programs and frequently gives guest talks at prestigious educational institutions. Mr. Karan is frequently cited in works on legal matters.

1. Can you share a bit about your background and what motivated you to pursue a career in law?

Delhi was my home until I moved to Pune to pursue law. I was extremely fortunate to attend school at St. Columba’s and experience a very comfortable upbringing in a joint family. Surrounded by individuals who had achieved remarkable success in various fields (especially my father and brother, both of whom I have always looked up to), I was constantly inspired and motivated to strive for excellence.

As was typical at the time, there was a subtle expectation to pursue a traditional career path, such as engineering. Taking queue, I took up science in high school and even prepared for engineering entrance tests. However, deep down, I felt a pull towards something different, something that resonated more with my innate abilities and passion. While there were no lawyers in the family, the allure of law captivated me —a career that seemed to align well with my perceived analytical skills, natural inclination to question, and ability to reason critically.

Initially, my vision for a legal career revolved around the realm of public interest litigation, driven by a deep-rooted desire to contribute meaningfully to social issues and advocate for justice. However, as time went by and I delved deeper into the law through studies and internships, I found myself increasingly drawn to the dynamic world of corporate law. I was fascinated by the complexity of cross-border transactions, coupled with its ever-evolving nature and the potential to engage in high-stakes deal making, negotiations, and strategic decision-making. I would be lying if I do not admit that that the relatively higher starting salaries that corporate lawyers earned in the early years, was also an incentive! Over time I realised that my mindset was well suited to the corporate side of lawyering and the prospect of facilitating business ventures and contributing to the growth of organisations became incredibly appealing.

2. Reflecting on your journey from a law student to the founder of Bombay Law Chambers, what were the challenges you encountered, and what were the most significant lessons you learned?

My professional journey began with a role at ICICI Bank, where I primarily focused on banking and finance laws. However, it did not take long for me to realise that I yearned for an outlook beyond banking. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work on some private equity and M&A (mergers and acquisitions) transactions while at the bank, which opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of corporate law. This early experience taught me the importance of broadening my horizon and exploring diverse areas.

A couple of years later, I decided to pursue a masters in the US Studying at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and Kellogg School of Management provided me with not only academic knowledge but also a transformative experience that shaped my aspirations and goals. One of the most significant lessons I learned during my time in the US was the desire to carve out my path and establish something of my own. While corporate law demands patience and perseverance, I remained committed to my vision of eventually founding a law firm. Moreover, I realised that this venture had to be in India, where the opportunities aligned with my ambition, and the entry barriers were appropriate for growth and success.

Upon returning to India, I embarked on a journey at Nishith Desai Associates (NDA), where I worked hard to hone my skills and continued to refine my vision for the future. The lesson of patience became increasingly evident as I navigated the complexities of big law and transactional work and fine-tuning my approach to starting a law firm. It was essential to take the time to understand the market, identify opportunities, and strategically plan for the right time to initiate this endeavour.

The most important lesson that I learned over the years is the importance of building and working with the right team. In my opinion having the right folks with you is the foremost mantra for success. I am truly blessed to have a superlative team that has not only supported me throughout but are the core strength of Bombay Law Chambers.

To summarise, the journey from a law school graduate to founding Bombay Law Chambers was characterised by a series of valuable lessons. I learned the importance of expanding one’s horizon, pursuing education and growth opportunities, staying true to one’s vision, exercising patience and of course, being surrounded by the best people. These lessons continue to guide me as I navigate the challenges and opportunities of running a successful law firm in India’s dynamic legal ecosystem.

3. Could you elaborate on a particularly complex case or transaction you have worked on and discuss how you navigated any legal or ethical challenges that arose?

All transactions whether big or small have their own set of challenges and it would be impossible for me to single out a particular transaction that stands out in this regard. That said, your question highlights one of the most important principles that I strive to live by in my personal and professional life ethics. In the realm of practising law, there exists a delicate balance between ethical considerations and meeting client expectations. This challenge is particularly pronounced in complex transactions where there are pressures to expedite processes or overlook certain nuances for the sake of closing the deal swiftly.

Navigating this balance requires a deep commitment that ethical principles are non-negotiable and cannot be compromised at any cost. At Bombay Law Chambers, we prioritise ethical integrity and take pride in our firm’s culture of upholding ethical standards in every aspect. We have demonstrated this commitment by turning down numerous matters that we believed could potentially compromise our ethical standards. While these decisions may have short-term implications, they reinforce our long-term credibility, integrity, and reputation as a trustworthy legal partner.

4. Moving on to your experiences, there is a common perception of life in big law firms resembling what we see on TV. To what extent does your own experience align with or differ from that perception?

The depiction of life at Big Law on TV is naturally exaggerated and sensationalised for entertainment purposes. In reality, the daily routine and challenges faced by lawyers are far more nuanced and complex than what is portrayed on screen. The fast-paced, high-stakes drama that characterises TV shows like the “Suits” is not reflective of the day-to-day realities of legal practice. In the corporate world, it is rare to encounter situations that can be stitched into a TV episode or movie plot, even with a vast amount of poetic licence. While there may be occasional high-profile cases or deals that garner attention, the majority of or work involves meticulous research, careful structuring, drafting documents, client discussions and negotiations that are inherently non-dramatic.

Real-life law firms are built on professionalism, mutual respect and collaboration among colleagues. Unlike the competitive and cut-throat environments often depicted on TV, law firms aim to prioritise teamwork, knowledge sharing and mentorship. Building strong relationships with colleagues fosters a supportive and inclusive work environment which is crucial for success.

Law firm life is not just about long hours and stressful deadlines; it is a lot about finding fulfilment in your work, nurturing professional relationships and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. While the legal profession can be demanding and challenging at times, there is now an increasing emphasis on work-life balance and personal well-being.

5. We understand from your public profile that you enjoy teaching and giving lectures. Can you propose changes to the Indian legal education system that would better align with the needs of law firms and make the learning process more engaging?

Given how technical a profession law is, there will always be a gap between what the prevailing education system can deliver and what our expectations from it are. In fact, over the last couple of decades I have noticed significant improvements in curriculum and teaching along with practical training courses being introduced in law schools across the country. That said, there are some areas where I see that more efforts can be put in:

Focus on legal drafting: A huge gap that could potentially be filled, is in the space of legal drafting, especially drafting commercial agreements, etc. More emphasis on honing drafting skills could go a long way in aligning legal education with the needs of corporate law firms.

Soft skills development: Development of soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and emotional intelligence should be emphasised. These skills are essential for success and delivering superlative value to clients. Incorporating more and more experiential learning activities, simulations and role-playing exercises can help students enhance their soft skills.

Interdisciplinary approach: Foster an interdisciplinary approach by offering more varied joint degree courses that combine legal studies not just with arts, business and management (which have now been introduced to some extent) but also with technology, public policy, finance and and other relevant disciplines. This holistic approach will provide students with a broader understanding of the interconnectedness of various fields and prepare them for practice.

Ethics and professionalism: Courses on professional ethics need to go beyond theoretical teaching and we should aim to integrate practical lessons on professional responsibility and ethical decision-making into the curriculum. We should encourage discussions on ethical dilemmas and provide guidance on navigating ethical challenges in real-world scenarios.

Enhanced technology integration: Integrating technology into legal education, not just to familiarise students with legal research tools, case management software, etc. but also to offer courses on legal tech, data analytics, and e-discovery will equip students with valuable skills that are increasingly in demand nowadays.

Industry collaboration: While this is an area where law schools and practitioners are reasonably well integrated, there is some scope to promote closer collaboration between law schools and law firms through integrating mentorship programs and industry-sponsored projects as part of the curriculum. We should ensure law firms provide regular inputs on curriculum design, share insights into industry trends and offer practical guidance to students. In essence we need to go beyond guest lectures and internships as the barometer for industry engagement.

By implementing these changes, the Indian legal education system can better prepare students for the realities of legal practice, align them with the evolving needs of law firms and make the learning process more engaging, practical, and relevant.

6. In a hypothetical scenario, would you prefer a role as a professor in a law college, or do you see yourself continuing in the corporate world?

You have asked a very interesting question, something that I have pondered over, time and again.

I am a strong believer that teaching is not only one of the noblest and toughest profession but also one of the most, if not the most underrated professions in our country. In my frank opinion, I do not think I have the calibre to be a professor of law. While I do try and take some lectures and conduct some professional courses, the amount dedication and hard wark it takes to conduct an hour-long lecture is far greater than the efforts that go in preparing a hundred-page legal document. Students today are extremely well rounded, approaching their education with keenness, criticality and most importantly with diverse thought processes that are often extremely challenging to address. Therefore, with a clear acknowledgement of my limitations, I would prefer to continue working in a law firm than taking up teaching full time, at least for the foreseeable future. If at a later point in time I am able to give more towards teaching, I would consider the same to be a personal achievement.

7. What regulatory challenges or opportunities do you believe M&A deals currently face?

India is uniquely placed where key macro-economic factors are extremely conducive for M&A activity. Some of these include, steady economic growth, huge market potential, demographic dividend, rich natural resource base, growing investment and developmental infrastructure and a vibrant startup ecosystem.

Further, while there is a strong will to bring about reform and promulgate ease of doing business, M&A as a practice area is deeply impacted by the regulatory landscape. Some of the key challenges today include:

Multiplicity of relevant regulators: A typical M&A deal requires compliance with requirements promulgated by various regulators such as Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA), Competition Commission of India (CCI) and industry specific regulators as well. We are often faced with situations where the requirements of different regulations are not necessarily in sync and can lead to deals being restructured, etc.

Regulatory timelines: Obtaining regulatory approvals or processing compounding applications can often take a lot of time in India and that can have a negative impact on deal activity and sometimes even, choosing India as an investment jurisdiction. We must work to improve regulatory turn-around times to avoid losing out on good opportunities.

Taxation: Tax considerations and structuring options are significant factors in M&A transactions. Issues such as capital gains tax, indirect tax, stamp duty, transfer pricing, angel tax, etc. need to be carefully evaluated and addressed to optimise the tax efficiencies. India has been notorious for complicating the fiscal landscape with frequent taxation changes and even introducing retrospective amendments to tax laws. While things are improving, we still have a long way to go before we are regarded as a stable tax regime.

Foreign exchange laws: Cross-border transactions involving Indian parties are subject to foreign investment regulations under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). Compliance with sectoral caps, pricing guidelines, reporting requirements, and Government approval requirements can be fairly challenging.

Labour laws: Another area where there is need for significant reforms (and which are expected in the near future) is labour laws. This is not as easy task for a developing country like India that is faced with an exaggerated divide between worker protection and promoting ease of doing business.

8. Considering the ongoing recovery from the pandemic, are there specific sectors that have experienced a surge or decline in M&A activity due to the global situation?

Overall, the impact of Covid on M&A activity varied across sectors, with some experiencing accelerated consolidation and transformation, while others faced challenges relating to market uncertainties, regulatory complexities and changing consumer behaviour. Adaptability, strategic planning, and a focus on long-term resilience were critical factors for companies navigating M&A transactions during the pandemic.

Some sectors that have seen a surge include healthcare, technology (especially big data, AI and digital transformation), fintech and content creation and consumption. While hospitality and tourism were strongly hit, their resurgence is promising and so is case for certain infrastructure sectors like roads and the automotive industry. Some sectors that continue to be in a tough spot overall include real estate, construction, textiles and heavy metals.

Covid was a great equaliser not just for society in general but also for transactional activity. While fundamentally unviable businesses collapsed and a lot of businesses saw downturns, valuations have now become more realistic, strong businesses continue to grow robustly and investors have become more vigilant so as to invest in the right assets.

9. In your opinion, how crucial is reading for aspiring lawyers and students? Do you think cultivating a reading habit is essential for law students?

Reading is undeniably one of the most critical skills for aspiring lawyers and there is no substitute for it. Cultivating a habit of reading is essential for several reasons including enriching one’s knowledge (legal and otherwise), honing reasoning ability and developing an analytical mindset. Reading is also vital for developing sound communication skills by improving vocabulary, comprehension, understanding varied perspectives and developing the art of articulating ideas clearly and persuasively. All of these are essential in the legal profession.

However, it is not just about reading but also about striking the right balance between quick reading and reading between the lines. In legal practice, there are often time constraints and voluminous materials to review. Aspiring lawyers need to develop the art of quick reading to efficiently review documents, identify key issues, extract relevant information and prioritise tasks without compromising accuracy. On the other hand, reading between the lines involves deeper analysis, critical evaluation and understanding the various implications possible. It requires attention to detail, contextual understanding as well as the ability to infer and interpret information beyond the surface.

10. Finally, what single piece of advice would you like to offer to our readers?

If I had to give only one piece of advice, it would be to discover and accept yourself. I will take the liberty to break this down into a few things:

  1. Discover your calling and strive for excellence: Take the time to explore different professions and practice areas with the aim to identify what truly inspires you. Once you have found your passion, commit to it wholeheartedly and remain true in your approach. Pursue excellence in your chosen field with utmost dedication and enthusiasm.

  2. Determine your contentment levels: Take the time to reflect on what brings you true contentment, both professionally and personally. Set realistic expectations and strive for a sense of fulfilment in your endeavours. Always remember that it is good to be content (and not complacent). How much of a thing is good enough, is an individual pursuit.

  3. Find your balance: Achieving a balance between work and personal life is crucial for long-term well-being and success. Prioritise time for relationships, health and other priorities that bring you joy. Honesty with yourself and others will help you find this balance sooner than later.

  4. Realise your limitations: It is important to recognise your limitations and accept them. Understand that nobody is perfect, and it is okay to seek help, delegate tasks or turn down opportunities. Embracing your limitations allows for personal growth and gives direction.

I believe that life is a transition from the fear of missing out (FOMO) mindset to the joy of missing out (JOMO) mindset. Focus on what truly matters to you, strive for excellence in it, prioritise meaningful experiences over constant distractions and find joy in moments of peace and self-reflection.

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