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'We have been a bit like a fast tortoise'

July 19, 2019 10:17 IST

'My biggest contribution is the creation of the first 'modern Indian law firm',' Cyril Shroff tells Sudipto Dey.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

On a Saturday afternoon, a few minutes past 1 pm, we are sitting with our guest, Cyril Shroff, in Cafe Prato & Bar, next to the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel at Worli, south central Mumbai.

Our guest looks relaxed in an informal outfit, comfortable with the surrounding.

To me, sitting face to face with Cyril Shroff is a bit surreal.

We have been chasing him for his time for almost a year.

One reason he has agreed to this lunch -- I tell myself -- has to do with the timing of the meeting.

In May 2015, the Shroff brothers, Shardul and Cyril, formally split their then 97-year-old family law firm Amarchand Mangaldas.

That was, of course, after a few months of headline-grabbing slugfest for the family estate.

Cyril kicked off his second inning with his eponymous law firm Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (CAM) the same month (May 2015).

 

As we settle down at a corner table, Shroff says, "I want to talk about our journey over the last four years", perhaps reading my thoughts.

We decide to get the ordering bit out of the way. Shroff, with an air of firm familiarity, orders a truffle cheese naan along with a quinoa salad as a starter; I settle for a Greek salad.

For the main course, he orders an Alfredo pasta and I opt for mamma rosa pasta.

Shroff suggests we share a grilled asparagus and truffle mash.

Shroff is a third-generation legal practitioner from a family with roots in the port city of Surat.

His great grandfather was in the pearl trade.

The family firm was founded by his grandfather Amarchand Shroff and his partner Mangaldas Mehta in 1917.

An out and out Mumbai boy, Shroff studied in the Bombay Scottish School, then went to Sydenham College.

He completed his law degree from the Government Law College, Mumbai, in 1982.

Soon after, he joined the family law firm to train as a litigator.

The years following the economic liberalisation were the busiest in terms of building up the family practice.

While he focussed on the markets in the west, largely operating from Mumbai, his elder brother Shardul built up the practice in the north.

Post the split in 2015, the two went out to build their individual footprints across key cities in the country.

"The split was a hugely liberating experience," says Shroff.

CAM's progress over the last four years has surpassed his own expectations by a significant margin, he says.

CAM is arguably the largest law firm in the country in terms of the number of lawyers -- 750 and growing (apart from a support staff of another 750-odd).

It started off with around 400 lawyers in 2015.

Over the years the firm has become more thoughtful and less impulsive, far more strategic in its thinking.

"Profitable growth is a key parameter for us, not just growth," he says.

Veterans in the legal fraternity say law firms that are in the growth stage are usually insecure about losing work.

Shroff says he took an early call not to compromise on the price it attaches to the service it offers.

"We have walked away from situations where the transaction is not commercially reasonable," he says.

The challenge in the early days was to build faith among clients in the quality of work that the firm delivered and the value it generated for them.

"We have now developed a reputation and institutional capacity to take on elephant mandates," says Shroff.

The firm has been involved in many of the recent big-ticket legal deals, including those involving IL&FS, Jet Airways, the Blackstone-Embassy REIT.

What has evolved in the last four years is a great sense of legacy and purpose, says Shroff.

"My biggest contribution, I feel, over the last two-and-a-half decade is the creation of the first "modern Indian law firm" in the combined entity and now," he says.

The use of the apprenticeship model of hiring students off campus, giving them structured training, offering a career progression track, the use of technology in the work place and the compensation are some of the salient features of "the modern Indian law firm" that were all tried and tested in the erstwhile Amarchand Mangaldas under Shroff's guidance.

"We invented the notion of the 'modern Indian law firm'," he emphasises.

The journey continues with a focus on innovation -- in the hiring and training methods, in the use of technology.

"I have learnt from many different models. And that helped in evolving my own model," he says.

Shroff believes that the professional services model does not respond well to the command and control structure -- which is most visible in a corporate set-up.

"One needs to have a consultative, democratic and transparent style," he says.

"We run on the same philosophy as a BCG or a Bain or a McKinsey, but we offer only one product -- legal services," explains Shroff putting his views in perspective.

Surely, there would have been some misses in his four-year journey.

He concedes there was turbulence in the first 18 months.

A no-poach agreement with his brother forced the firm to hire laterally through acquisitions.

"Though the people were good, they somehow did not fit in with our culture. So quite a few people came and left in the first 18 months," he says.

"The culture of the firm is organic and that phase was something akin to tissue rejection. It was a great learning experience -- now we are far more astute about hiring," says Shroff.

Cracking the Delhi market turned out to be more difficult than he and his team had anticipated.

"Delhi was a difficult market for the first two-and-a-half years, but not anymore," he says.

Shroff concedes that he underestimated the need for internal communication as the firm expanded its operations across geographies.

"We course corrected on that front within a year," he adds.

There were times when rogue clients put the firm in difficult situations.

"We have learnt from the hard experiences and become significantly more careful in our risk assessment," says Shroff.

"In turn, the process of client intake has become quite bureaucratic," he says.

We have been talking for about an hour and our main course is almost over.

We decide to share a plate of mango with vanilla ice cream for dessert, followed by a double espresso for Shroff.

The family split also had a few lessons for him, which Shroff feels could be useful to corporate India in handling conflict.

"At that point, I was at a crossroads -- money was not important for me, what was important was the firm and peace of mind. I took the call to walk away," he says.

Shroff says he walked away from the conflict "with his head held high". "I am sure that would have made my father very proud," he adds a tad emotionally.

The big lesson for him is that the ability to walk away from a conflict is a huge first step in conflict resolution.

He often uses his own example while advising other families going through turbulence.

"In the game of the hare and the tortoise, we have been a bit like a fast tortoise," says Shroff.

His family will play a big role in the firm's onward journey. Both his kids -- Rishabh and Paridhi -- work in his firm.

"I am letting them come through the ranks. No parachuting. You have to grow tall on your own," he says.

He discovered an interest in painting quite late in the day.

He started off with charcoal painting about a decade or so back and plans to move to oil and acrylic.

A series of sketches, which were part of the wedding invitation of his daughter and son, has been a highlight of this journey.

"I find painting incredibly relaxing," he says.

While giving credit to his wife who encourages him to explore his "soft skills", Shroff says about a year back he started taking guitar lessons.

Of late, he has taken a liking to books on aging as he steps into his 60s and is particularly appreciative of Roman statesman Cicero's take on how to grow old.

Bollywood is the other stress buster for the Shroff family.

Together they watch at least one new Bollywood release every week.

And who decides which movie the family would watch?

"Madam," Shroff says with a twinkle in his eyes.

Sudipto Dey
Source: source
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