This article is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, CEO and Co-Founder at iPleaders.
There are more than 15 lakh lawyers in the country. Standing out is very important if you are going to practice law, be it in big law firms or build your own law practice in some court. Lawyers make much more money when they specialize in a specific area of practice. Unless, of course, they specialize in a function (such as generalist in-house counsel) and not in an area of law. Still, it is a specialization nonetheless.
The example of a lawyer who specializes in a specific area of law, or more likely a specific industry, will be a capital markets lawyer, or an aviation lawyer. There can be super specializations as well.
For example, there are investment lawyers who do all sizes of investments. They will do private equity investments, venture capital or angel investment work, or even M&A work. Most Indian lawyers in big law firms do all these as long as clients are able to afford them. However, there are smaller boutique law firms who specialize in impact investments, or seed and angel round investments. They build their network, train their juniors, create a reputation – all around a specific, small industry that has enough work! It is very difficult to be the number one law firm in Venture Capital today, but you can still become the best Impact Investment boutique law firm in the country and benefit from the superstar effect! Here is an article that explains the concept of superstar effect, and why it is highly rewarding to systematically pursue this effect. Ever wondered why doctors spend decades pursuing super-super specializations even after getting a medical degree that takes them 5-6 years to obtain? It’s the superstar effect. By specializing, you eliminate intense competition.
In crowded markets, specialization reduces your options, but increases the likelihood of getting the options that you really seek.
Let’s take another example. Most big law firms have a banking law team. This team mainly negotiates debt agreements, ensures compliances to regulatory requirements and advice clients in these areas. Project finance is a super-specialization within banking. Many law firms didn’t have a project finance team initially. However, as work in this area grew (as India’s economic engine is often fired by government spending, which majorly goes into projects like naval ports, metro rail, airports and roads), project finance teams grew in size and now have become bigger than vanilla banking teams in some firms. There are boutique firms that only do project finance mostly.
The right specialization does not reduce your opportunities, but make you way more likely to attract the right opportunities for you.
How does this apply to law students and young lawyers?
I have many times heard senior lawyers giving the advice to young lawyers that they must not specialize in initial years and get general experience to start with. Remember that in the legal profession, learning used to be slow in the past, and specializing was incredibly difficult and rare.
The economics of legal business has changed. They supply of high quality law graduates (at least smart and confident ones) have really gone up in the past two decades. From a career pursued by some left over students who could not get seats in other colleges, law has become a sought after career for ambitious people in India. With decline of engineering and MBA as career options, the lure of the legal career is at an all time high. Parents are ready to spend obscene amounts to get their children into the right law colleges.
On the other hand, internet is a game changer. Today you can directly access wisdom of the finest practitioners of securities law or IP law through blogs for free or for a small cost access online courses and learn from practitioners at the cutting edge of law practice rather than professors who do not have any idea about how the practice of law and markets are rapidly evolving. You can also email or call or solicit the mentorship of any lawyer you want much easily because the world is connected and people are open to be reached out to much more than they have been in the past. All you need is the right messaging (bothering them or propositions that they do not appreciate will only get you blocked) and a reasonable proposition. Even after you graduate, the process of learning and growth must continue till you get where you want to get.
For ages, the legal profession depended on seniors willing to spend their time on their junior, educating them about how the work is done. Beyond that you could only rely on classes in law schools, textbooks, conferences etc to keep the learning alive. It was inefficient, and broken. If you want to specialize in Shipping Law, which is highly lucrative and relatively uncrowded, you could not find a single law school that offered classes on shipping laws. All the good shipping lawyers who knew enough may not bother to teach, and law teachers didn’t know what to teach if they had to offer a shipping law course to save their lives. On the other hand, publishers thought there are too few buyers to bother about publishing a Shipping Law book. If they did publish something, they cut costs as possibility of profits on a high budget shipping law book is really low. They also priced these books really high!
So if you wanted to learn shipping law, it was a nightmare for you. Only real chance would be to find a nice senior who likes you and is willing to spend his billable hours teaching you how to do it. If you think about it, the possibility of this actually happening was quite remote. Those who worked in big law firms know how little law firms actually teach their new recruits despite all the knowledge management programs.
The truth is that you are not dependant any more on your college, your teachers, some publishers, your senior, even online course providers for that matter, thanks to the internet, which opened a million doors. It is now up to you to open the right ones and walk through.
How early should you start building an area of expertise?
Apparently, it is never too early. Early in my career as a law student, I interned with an exceptional lawyer who made a name for himself very early in Bombay High Court as a shipping lawyer and is one of the owners of Chambers of George Rebello, regarded as one of the best Shipping Law firms in India. His name is Ashwin Shanker. Ashwin sir once interned with a shipping lawyer in his 2nd year of law school, following which he decided to become a shipping lawyer. After this, he focussed his undivided attention, as a law student at NLS Bangalore, as far as possible into shipping law. Every subject he studied, he tried to relate the same to shipping law. If he was studying insurance law, and asked to write a project on insurance law, he will chose to write about a topic relevant to shipping industry insurances. If it was Civil Procedure Code, he will find out which provisions of the CPC are most relevant to shipping law practice. When he finished law school he joined the Chambers of George Rebello. But even before that, all his internships were in shipping law firms!
I must say it is really difficult for young law students to demonstrate such a sharp focus and far sighted wisdom. As a law student, I myself wanted to explore different areas of law practice. I interned sometimes at a shipping law firm, then at a chamber that focussed on arbitration, then with a historian, and eventually with a few corporate law firms in different cities. I wanted to experience different things at different places. It is indeed tempting to do so and as a law student you have the luxury to do this. So why not?
But well, if you can discipline your mind and focus all your energy to one discipline, one specialization, your work becomes much easier, you gain notoriety amongst peers and teachers, and it becomes far easier to land lucrative jobs or start a practice of your own.
You must have had some people in your college or class who focussed on a single subject like that and gained notoriety. Maybe they are amazing at constitutional law, criminal law or something more esoteric. My co-founder at iPleaders is Abhyuday Agarwal, my best friend from college. While at college, he was legendary for his knowledge of corporate laws. When we were in 5th year at NUJS, the 4th year batch invited Abhyuday to take some special sessions to teach corporate law. If you know how much law students usually despise going to classes, how much rivalry often exist among different batches, and how many great lawyers are willing to come and teach at a place like NUJS, you will realise what a miracle and honour it is to be called by your immediate junior batch to teach corporate laws in several unscheduled classes for which nobody got any credits or attendance.
One of the leading practitioners of cyber law in the country in Puneet Bhasin, who focussed on cyber law right from her college days. By the time she graduated, this enabled her to start her own solo practice right off the bat rather than having to work with seniors for years before going solo, the usual norm in the industry.
How do people achieve that level of knowledge while they are still in college, and have pretty much same access to teachers, books, internet, library or visiting faculty?
Another good example I love to quote is of Jay Sayta from NUJS, who was being quoted as a gambling law expert in the national media by the time he was in his second year. This is also an amazing example of the superstar effect in action. What does it take to do that?
The secret – apply yourself to one area of law over time with dedication
Learning the law is the first step. Read bare acts, scan through any available commentaries. However, it gets boring quickly. So make it interesting. Here are few things you can do:
- Write in legal publications and contribute to major blogs. When you publish interesting articles and people read them, give you feedback, it makes a difference.
- Set up google alerts so that you can keep in touch with what is happening in that area of law, and news. For example, if Securities Law is your chosen area of expertise, you want to know when new committees are set up by SEBI and there are controversies in the capital markets over new SEBI directions.
- Read classic books that are not law books but business related non-fiction. A good example will be Cold Steel if you are interested in M&A. You should also read books like Predators Ball or Barbarians at the Gate. If you are interested in laws related to startups, read Zero to One by Peter Thiel and The Upstarts which is the story of the growth of AirBnB and Uber.
- Even start a blog if you are writing frequently and you are sure you can publish at least once a week without fail for next year or two.
- Organize conferences and symposiums around your area of interest. Connect with industry insiders. Or just volunteer in events that are already taking place. All events need more and more volunteers.
- Take up online courses in your area of interest that promise practical learning along with theoretical knowledge. Only certificates are not useful on their own unless you have skills to back up. Check out courses.lawsikho.com and onlinecourses.nujs.edu for courses that fall squarely in your area of interest.
- Go for internships in your area of interest rather than taking up any internships that come your way. Network hard, get recommendations and referrals. If you are doing some of the above, getting the right internships become easier. If you are already a graduate, try and get a job in the firms that are doing the best work in your area of interest. Here is a program that can help you to get amazing internships and perform better than your peers.
- After you publish your articles in any respectable online blog (preferably, and not boring and difficult to share journal articles), share the links on linkedin with people from the same industry and ask for their feedback on how you can improve.
- File PILs in your area of interest. Help those organizations who are already filing PILs. PILs have no specific format, cost little to file, and if you choose the right cause many experienced lawyers will be happy to mentor and guide you. What amazing learning is that? For instance, while jay Sayta was still in college, he collaborated with practicing lawyers to sue the Maharashtra Government for not implementing a casino related bills that it passed in the state legislature but never notified. Top lawyers in Mumbai helped him in the process pro bono.
- Start doing some freelance work in your area of interest, for other lawyers or businessmen. People will pay you for high quality research, first drafts of contracts, ghostwriting, help in research to write books, and what not. Explore.
There are lot many opportunities that you can invent, seize or discover. It requires you to get into the water to figure out how to catch the fishes and where to position yourself. Get started with small steps! Do something today, take small steps every day, do not wait for some perfect opportunities to come by.
All the best! If you are interested in quickly gaining some skills around business law/corporate law, check out this course I conceptualized.