Kesar Dass B. & Associates
As a result of the grand scale liberalization of the Indian economy in the 90s, multinational firms were looking for opportunities to invest in India as the government opened various sectors for foreign investment. Global firms looked for lawyers in India, which operated in the similar fashion as US law firms. Indian lawyers were still practicing in a conventional manner with little use of technology and email communications. Kesar Dass B. & Associates, a multi-discipline corporate and commercial law firm happened in 1993 because it was an idea whose time had come; their belief came from the foresight of the expected change in the legal landscape due to neo-liberal reforms. It was the first boutique law firm to be set up by two aspiring lawyers with less than 4 years of experience. The core strength of the firm lies in the in-depth understanding of the legal landscape and financial architecture of the country and its suitable application for client need. Sumant Batra is the founding partner of the firm, is an internationally renowned lawyer who is highly regarded in his areas of practice. With changing times, the firm adapted accordingly, they felt the need of giving the law firm an entrepreneurial direction and outlook. They decided to give a firm a post-modern touch with glass and blinds. The newly adapted changes became very popular and a trendsetter, so much so that a prominent financial paper did a photo feature of the firm's office to show how Indian law firms are responding to the change.
To know more about Sumant and his life, our editorial team spoke to him on a Sunday Afternoon. Here are the edited excerpts.
Why did you shift your focus to insolvency when the market was so hostile to it?
In the 90s, the spotlight was on reforming economic laws to facilitate easy entry, greater foreign investment and making the most of growth opportunities. Banks were lending on large scale. GDP was on the upswing. The investor-clients inquired from us the state of the bankruptcy law while seeking open on investments. I understood why the cost of capital was very high in India from my interaction with my foreign clients. From them, I learned the importance of insolvency law in the financial architecture of a country and its influence in taking investment decisions. I took up the need for insolvency reforms after when the Asian financial crisis happened in the late 1990s because of such a shortsighted view of policymaking in India. My passion for this branch of law got me appointed as insolvency consultant to the World Bank and later, OECD, IMF, and ADB.
What unique approach do you bring to firm and in particular insolvency?
I would like to believe my strength lies in the understanding of the fundamental principles and approach to insolvency law has been part of all global standard setting initiatives in this area over the last 20 years. Clients benefit from the expertise and experience as a large firm while still enjoying the privilege of personal attention and responsiveness of a small firm.
What role do you see playing in the field of insolvency going forward?
Even today, my function is of a conscience keeper for the insolvency industry while advising clients. Providing no-nonsense advice to clients generally results in making more enemies than friends. It only gets more prominent from here.
What is the need that you've felt most to be filled?
Ethics. I feel that besides the service we provide, our emphasis should be more on the ethical quotient and best practices as expected by clients from abroad. We found that ethics was central to all the best practices observed after interacting with lawyer friends in foreign law firms and learned the modus operandi of firms operating abroad. In India, this core value wasn't recognized as prominently by professionals as it ought to have been. Besides this, we felt the need to be and stay utterly professional, fiercely independent and constantly ahead of the curve in terms of knowledge and continuing education.
Kindly tell us about people who contributed to your Success story?
My foremost goal always has been to earn the reputation of an able professional with the utmost integrity, hard work, and discipline. But it would be being dishonest if I were not to acknowledge the contribution made by my wife. I could not have achieved even an iota of what I have been to accomplish without the untiring support of my wife, Asha. She let me chase my dreams at the cost of suppressing hers. I owe it to her. She is also my lucky charm. I also have to confess that there is a long list of people who played a role in many ways – clients and friends who invested in my dreams and stood by me in difficult times and above all, my parents who always prayed for my success.
How does it feel to have been recognized as no. 1 insolvency lawyer of India for so many consecutive years? Shed some light on the milestones and awards received by you.
It is quite embarrassing to talk about the accolades earned by me. I am both grateful and humbled by the acknowledgement of efforts in all fields I have been involved. My deepest sense of accomplishment comes from my contribution in policy development, standard setting and representing India in forums established by UNCITRAL, World Bank, OECD, and INSOL International. The highest point of pride was when I was appointed as the first Asian and the youngest president of INSOL International, a global organization with the presence in 70 countries, at the age of 39.
Brief us over the notable insolvency matters handled by the firm.
We have provided consultant services to one or the other stakeholder in nearly all the king size insolvencies filed so far such as Jaypee Infratech, Essar Steels, Amtek Auto, Monnet Powers and Steels, Electrosteel Steels, Bhushan Powers and Steel, Videocon Industries and many others.
I saw success early in my life and was determined to take a break at 40. After completing the term as President of INSOL International in 2011, I was tired of having lived out of aircraft and hotels for 6 years. I decided to take a break to pursue my other passions. I went up into the mountains to convert our summerhouse into a boutique hotel, set up our museum, curate a literate festival and do other things I loved. I came back to Delhi in 2016 when Insolvency law was passed. Those five years were amongst the most refreshing years and provided me with energy to continue to work hard, as I did during my 30s.
A day in the life of an insolvency consultant
With 19 hours of work and 5 hours of sleep, the day never ends in the life of a busy insolvency consultant. My day typically starts at 6 am by browsing the financial newspapers and responding to overnight emails. By the time I am in the office by 8.30 am. After I finish a couple of meetings or drafting I rush to NCLT and NCLAT, in between all this, I have to find time to write columns for newspapers and magazines, hop from one city to another for NCLT hearings and CoC meetings, read to stay update, contribute to the work of committees I sit on, and teach whenever I can. My most productive time is while flying as I get to work uninterrupted on my opinions and writings.
How do you manage to strike a work-life balance or are there still grey areas you'd like to better address? What are your other interests?
When work is life, the striking of balance only comes from diversity at work. My wife and I share a number of common interests besides law practice. We are perhaps one of the largest collectors of Indian cinema memorabilia, if not the largest and are curating an online museum. We have collected a whole lot of other memorabilia in particular from the decades of 1930-1980 and are in the process of institutionalizing it. In fact, my wife manages a unique museum- boutique hotel owned by us which is a built out of our collections. We also have an old and rare books collection with a massive library. We also run a literature festival and other projects to promote art and culture. Although our kids are very young, we try to keep them involved in our activities and interests. These diverse interests are refreshing, stimulating, satisfying and also enables the together family time.
Take on Indian legal education
We have come a long way since the time I graduated in law. Today, we have some of the best law schools in the world in the form of national law schools. The products of these law schools are very bright, and so is the future of the legal profession. There is an overemphasis on theoretical education, and adequate focus on providing practical experience is missing.
On the professional front, I wish to take out more time for teaching and mentoring and work on the next edition of my book on insolvency. On the personal front, I want to spend more time with my boy and watch him play cricket. We also wish to set up a museum in NCR at some point in time in future and are already on the lookout for some funding for this project.
Sumant Batra, a lawyer of international repute, a cultural champion, social commentator, founder and architect of several innovative creative projects promoting Indian heritage, culture, art and literature, and a thought leader, graduated from Punjab University, Chandigarh in 1989, started his practice in Punjab and Haryana High Court and relocated to Delhi in 1993. He is a multi-faceted personality with accomplishments in diverse spheres and was rated as India's no.1 insolvency lawyer by legal 500 for 6 consecutive years and awarded Insolvency Lawyer of the Years 2017 and 2018. He has worked as a senior international consultant to the IMF, World Bank group, OECD and other development institutions. Sumant has worked extensively on policy matters in Africa, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and South Asia. He is an avid collector, probably the largest collector of Indian cinema memorabilia, has also set up Chitrashala, a private museum of Indian vintage graphic and built a boutique hotel in the Himalayas out of his collections. He is the author of the bestselling coffee table book- The Indians.
During his conversation with our editorial team, Sumant dwelled candidly on his personal life.
"I was a small town boy who grew up speaking Hindi and Punjabi. I was a student leader who supported a mustache and beard and wore a desi attire. The bigger challenge was to adjust to Delhi way of life and muster the confidence to engage with the corporate world and high profile clients. To adapt to the sophisticated world of English speaking and fine dining clientele was some effort. To be able to understand heavy accents of foreign clients was another daunting one. But we learned quickly. Very quickly. we did not have any godfather in the profession, finding first few clients was the priority. Nowadays, it is quite easy for young lawyers to branch out and establish firms due to the presence of ample opportunities, but back in the initial period, grey hair on the head mattered more than the abilities of a lawyer. It was a very bold decision considering the nature of the market. Our first break came when ICICI Bank (then a developmental financial institution) gave us a small case. They were impressed with our approach and work and recommended us to IDBI and IFCI. It has been 25 years, and we still have an excellent professional association with these three institutions. Our initial days involved a lot of struggle and challenges in the logistics domain. We started our first office with a small amount of 2 lakh given by my father after selling our hometown house. But with the grace of God, we were able to overcome all such issues within a year. There has been no looking back since then."
For young entrepreneurs, Sumant's advice– "Believe in yourself, as Soren Kierkegaard says, take the leap of faith and work hard on way up the ladder. Ethics. Ethics. Ethics. This should be your mantra. Take out time to think and innovate amidst the mad rush of competing deadlines. Follow your dreams too along the way. And, please, respect your seniors. Always."