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The world according to KIAA: India’s youngest & most commented LLP start-up survives first year


KIAA - Kumar Ankur, Karan Bindra & Chayan Sarkar (from l. to r.) - survived its debut year, perhaps a feat in itself for many start-ups. But are there enough ingredients for a recipe?

KIAA LLP, the Delhi litigation boutique started up by three Amity Noida graduates last year with less than two years of professional experience, has expanded to 9 associates, while the young graduates managed to recover all of their initial investment in the venture, except for the office property cost, and generated profits at the end of the first financial year. Their billings now cover the firm’s current outgoings and then some.

And they claim three multinational companies as having KIAA LLP on their panel – for litigation, due diligence, and corporate / M&A advice.

How did KIAA – an acronym of Knowledge Information Acess Associates (the unconventional spelling of ‘Acess’ is intentional) - manage to stay together, become self-sustaining, and retain more than 10 professionals in the first year? And could other young start-ups?

Legally India spoke to the young partners by telephone for their story to find a possible survival recipe in India’s teeming legal start-up market without age, experience, exposure or even much benefit of doubt apparent in many of the 149 comments that poured in on Legally India’s original coverage of their start-up.

Spin the web, work the net

There is always a pressure to develop our name, but work coming in was never a problem,” claims founding partner and KIAA’s biggest stakeholder Karan Bindra. “Work was always coming in.”

The partners prioritise developing their network: Informal relationships – a friend’s father extended an arbitration referral arrangement from his Pakistan law firm Zafar & Associates; referral arrangements - an associate advocate SK Singhi in Kolkata regularly sends cheque-bounce matters their way; and organisational affiliations: membership with an Iran chapter of Indian companies helped clinch an Iranian client while that of the Indian Council of Jurists (ICJ) led them to European clients, Bindra says.

According to partner Chayan Sarkar, opportunities for the litigation boutique lie in something as simple as attending the Supreme Court Bar Association’s (SCBA) functions, where busier advocates are looking to delegate matters in distant district courts they themselves do not have the time to visit.

At other times the family name helps: Sarkar mentions running into politicians bailed out by his advocate father during the Singhur scandal, at a conference – and ending up with a government department’s matter for KIAA.

“Any networking is good networking. Wherever we go, even a formal exchange of cards helps since people might just remember you and might come to you,” says Sarkar.

A steady diet of small fish

“It was never our target that we have to aim at some specific revenue. We always wanted to focus on, ‘whatever is the work we can get we should just grab it’,” says Bindra.

The first ever hunk of incoming work was Bindra’s friend’s personal litigation dispute. The dispute was won and the friend – a key employee of now one of KIAA’s biggest clients, Pyro Engineering – introduced them to the company.

While nothing materialised with Pyro for the young partners initially, the company eventually fell out with a senior advocate who was acting for it and instructed KIAA instead, relates Bindra.

“You can give a lot of credit to these big law firms, they are kind enough,” he summarises, optimistic and somewhat tongue in cheek about the market dynamics. “They are very big people now. They have very good top notch lawyers, so they are so busy with their prior commitments, and might have some barrier restrictions [against doing work for smaller clients]… Obviously the client will roam around, and with word of mouth it might get referred to KIAA.

“Or [the company] might have [hired] the [bigger] firm, but the firm was so busy it couldn’t give time to them, for instance in Pyro Engineering’s case,” suggests Bindra.

Billing clients at half the rates of bigger law firms, or sometimes even settling for whatever is the client’s margin, is another strategy of the youngsters while bidding against the older boys. Settling for the margin could mean charging Rs 11 lakh for a due diligence which, say one of the larger firms might do for Rs 24 lakh.

And some roughage

KIAA started off as a litigation boutique but soon realised that without some transactional work, the firm and its revenues would not outgrow the size of the founders’ ambitions; last year Bindra told Legally India that they were “striving to make it as one of the top tier law firm in India”.

To build the stream, almost 50 per cent of the firm’s work now comprises of a mix of due diligence and documentation. A separate team of three associates headed by senior associate Vipul Kedia is assigned all due diligence projects.

“Due diligence gives you a lot of revenue, it is good for your firm,” explains Sarkar, admitting that “otherwise it is difficult to pay for ourselves”.

Documentation on the other hand, according to Bindra, was not as good for building the brand of a firm.

Litigation revenue has had its own initial hiccups – for instance when individual clients vanished into thin air after having been consulted.

The firm now only begins work after taking an advance fee, says Sarkar.

Look the look, walk the walk

Walking the distance from networking with good clientele to finally clinching it is a matter of presentation, believes Bindra.

Accordingly, instead of starting consultancy from a home office, the basement office space of 2,500 square feet in South Delhi’s Jangpura was a family gift. Another Rs 8 lakhs were immediately thrown in for a library with an online case database subscription.

“See initially we wanted to start our law firm [in a way] which looked like a full-fledged law firm,” says Bindra.

The library has now grown to have subscriptions to American Jurisprudence, Supreme Court Cases, Halsburys in India, trade law journals, tax digests, and common referencers such as Sarkar, Ramaiyya and others, worth some Rs 16 lakh in total investment.

True to its commitment to networking ceaselessly, KIAA is also looking at having a French translator on board in order to better interact with European clients. “So far as an American company goes we do not have much problem in convincing them, because first of all they don’t know… and then the price factor works,” adds Bindra.

The final clincher, the partners believe, are nice and shiny presentations of the legal strategy that will be used when they pitch to clients.

“Though we might be able to convince [clients] on points of law, but in the law firm industry if you are getting balder and your waistline is increasing you are preferred,” quips Sarkar.

Clean up the backyard

Three months into starting up, KIAA was jolted into having the “organisation hour” so imperative at law firms.

Sarkar recollects how the firm not only filed in the wrong tribunal but accidentally applied for reopening a settled matter from years ago.

Thereafter the partners employed a mix of administrative systems from the offices at which they had worked briefly before starting up. Thus came in teams who updated order sheets daily, teams that organised pending filings, a separate team for drafting, “keeping Excel sheets”, and so on.

KIAA’s team of nine associates, with three juniors and two seniors in Delhi, two in Patna, one in Kolkata, and one in Jamshedpur make up roughly 50 per cent of total outgoings, which run to around Rs 4.5 lakh per month, explains Bindra.

The three partners, who also draw equal, fixed monthly salaries and divide profits in the ratio of their equity at the end of the financial year, do not have any fixed management rules or a process governing their internal decision-making as of now.

But Bindra says that their thinking is “in synergy”, and Sarkar adds that there prevails “a very brotherly kind of an environment” when making decisions at the firm.

Apart from possibly brotherhood, some of the key KIAA ingredients - connections, pluck and some fortune – are typical or even prerequisites in many legal start-ups’ recipes. And while like many other start-ups KIAA may be some years off its stated aim of becoming a tier 1 law firm, years are one thing that is definitely on their side.

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