Ms. Shreya Rao

Ms Shreya Rao is an alumna of NALSAR Batch of 2006 is a highly regarded taxation lawyer with a boutique international tax and private client practice. Academically, she is interested in and has taught core and elective courses on international tax, comparative tax system design and fiduciary law at various Indian law schools since 2009. She has also published in journals such as Intertax and Tax Notes International. She has worked with AZB & Partners, where she was co-heading the firm’s Private Client Practice, specialising in private client and tax matters.

1. Your career trajectory has been very interesting; from working at prestigious firms, teaching at eminent institutions, and now running your own practice, could you share your journey and experiences that led you to head your own practice in international tax?

As grateful as I am for the many opportunities, I have been fortunate to have, I would not attribute the choices I have made to a predetermined plan or any kind of linear thinking. Many of my early choices as a law student and then a young lawyer, were driven by a lack of patience, and my complete inability to engage with, or do passably well in areas that did not intrigue me. In tax, I found a technical, complex, yet human area of law, with many personalities to it. You can approach tax as a blackletter lawyer, or through a financial risk lens while looking at deal commercials, or through a normative lens while thinking about Rawlsian notions of justice or engage with it as a vector of socio-economic change. In taking up different kinds of work over the years, be it with advisory, transaction and litigation practices at law firms, with universities as a lecturer, or now as a PhD candidate who runs an international tax advisory and litigation firm, the pursuit has always been to try to experience different sides of the tax story.

My trajectory is also partly driven by the discontent that I have with how academia and professional practice often operate as silos in the Indian context, rarely engaging with each other meaningfully or learning from one another. Internationally, there are examples of how we could imagine the world differently and why we may want to. I am hopeful that over time, there will be a growing tide of people who see value in bridging the divide and believe that it can be bridged.

2. How did your alma mater (NALSAR University) contribute to your interest in international taxation? Can you mention some experiences that led you to pursue this field of law in specific?

When I began university, I did not think I would last as a lawyer. The law’s logic did not come naturally to me, and I felt constantly stupid around it. I disengaged from coursework and spent most of my early college years reading obscure poets and learning to sketch. The switch flipped in my fourth year, when we had a new and young Professor (Maithreyi Mulupuru), who came to teach us tax, and who carried with her an excitement and freshness of approach that resonated deeply. Things suddenly started making sense, and I fell in love with tax, and through tax, with other areas of the law. Good teachers truly are superheroes, and I could not be more grateful to her, and to my alma mater for enabling me to discover a whole new world.

3. Can you detail the kind of work you do as a partner of your own firm and how is it different from when you worked as an associate?

I was a somewhat clueless associate, so I am hopeful that I am not as clueless as a partner. Jokes apart, while the nature of work has remained more or less the same over the years (i.e. consistently obsessed with tax), there were a couple of reasons for wanting to set up independently:

First, I wanted to bring together a team of people obsessed with a culture of responsible lawyering, for example, by encouraging pro bono commitments, actively seeking out pro bono opportunities where we could make an impact, and having an organisation level target for the pro bono hours we would spend every month. It irks me that these conversations are so ad hoc in the Big Law ecosystem, and not more of a priority, in spite of how privileged and resource rich many organisations are. Second, I wanted to bring together a tribe of generalists, rather than folks keen to super specialise, as is often inevitable in larger setups. We do not call ourselves tax lawyers although we do tax. We would love to be known instead, as excellent generalists who understand tax, and who have the ability to apply it in a variety of contexts, without tax blinders on. Finally, I wanted to see if it was possible to create a space for lawyers keen to pursue professional practice while also undertaking serious commitments on the academic or policy side (not just in the form of electives offered over a weekend, for example). As someone who did this within larger, full-service setups for many years, I know how exhausting it is, how difficult it is to negotiate, but also what value it can bring. I would love to make it easier in some way, for talented lawyers to straddle both worlds.

4. You have pursued an LLM from Harvard Law School and now a PhD in Tax Law at the University of Oxford. How was that experience, and how does higher education in this field impact one’s career?

I am still in the midst of my PhD. While it will likely take me several years more, it is a labour of love, so no complaints. That being said, further education is not a badge but an exercise in rewiring the brain. I am not convinced that it is meaningful for everyone to pursue additional degrees, and we need to break this tendency towards linearity in how we think about career “progression” — for example, in the idea that you do your undergrad, then your masters, then a doctorate. Many folks achieve great impact and have very successful careers without ever studying beyond a first degree, whereas others are not as successful even with additional degrees. It is important to be clear headed about why we study further and what we hope to gain from it.

Harvard really expanded my imagination of what the world could be — I established strong and lasting relationships with accomplished friends around the world, learnt what a well-functioning university system looks like, and spent many of my course credits chasing non-law things like creative writing classes. But Harvard did not necessarily get me to partnership quicker.

5. You have published extensively in journals such as Intertax and Tax Notes International; could you discuss one such publication and its significance in the context of the Indian legal landscape?

I would love to see more good academic writing on tax law in Indian journals. There is so much scope for interesting work. But there are perhaps not as many good readers or writers as we would like to make that possible, which will continue to be the case until more lawyers engage with tax academically.

6. You are also passionate about teaching (as visiting faculty at APU and NLS) but you have gone beyond your area of law and even taught courses on feminism. How was the experience and what is the scope for practitioners to make a shift into academia and teaching?

The practice of law is very fun, but one of its pitfalls is how it compels you to tackle several different kinds of issues over the course of a day, without giving you the luxury of time on any of them. I began to teach because I wanted to slow down and think about tax at a deeper level. You may think you know it all, but nothing reminds you how little you know until you try to lead a class of smart alecks through the field in a way that is simple, precise and interesting. The deep engagement I have with the subject as an academic gives me firmer feet in my practice. On the other side, my experience as a practitioner enables me to bring in real world experiences into academic questions and reminds me that the law is always one step behind commercial reality. I think bridging the two worlds, whenever it can be done, is incredibly rewarding personally, but also leads to benefits on both sides.

7. Given your vast experience how would you advise law students to specialise their skill set and equip themselves for a fast-changing landscape (in terms of internships, publications, moots, etc.)?

I would not advise law students to specialise. There is value to being open minded to different areas of law in the early years, and doing different kinds of work, so long as one prioritises fundamentals and attention to detail. I do recognise that being a generalist makes the resume less marketable, and that being a generalist is harder because there is much more that is new, but it makes for stronger lawyers overall. If you ask me, it is also more of a joyride.

Must Watch

maintenance to second wife

bail in false pretext of marriage

right to procreate of convict

Criminology, Penology and Victimology book release

Join the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.