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JSA, what now, sans Som? Berjis Desai explains why he and Jyoti truly are delighted

JSA’s Berjis Desai answers the tough questions about Som Sundaresan’s departure.
JSA’s Berjis Desai answers the tough questions about Som Sundaresan’s departure.

J Sagar Associates (JSA) senior partner Berjis Desai, who is due to retire in 2017, talks candidly to Legally India about the somewhat-shock departure of securities partner Somasekhar Sundaresan, as first reported by Legally India yesterday, to become an independent counsel by the end of the year.

The decision makes at least some rational sense, in light of his personal career goals.

Sundaresan had applied to become Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) chairman earlier this year but was too young for the role at 43, with only 48-plus-year-olds having been shortlisted (the job eventually went back to incumbent UK Sinha).

Indeed, there are few places one can build one’s brand better than as an independent counsel, as also Trilegal co-founding partner Anand Prasad seems to have surmised recently.

But with Sundaresan becoming essentially a free agent, who can get approached and can approach any number of law firms for work, there seems little in it for JSA.

We put those questions to Desai, transcript below.

Is this a blow to the firm?

Obviously he's a star player. And it was one of our marquee practices. So nobody can deny there will not be any commercial impact. Undoubtedly there will be.

However, we believe that the way we are structured, no individuals, however important, whether Jyoti or myself or Som is indispensable. And the institution has to go on, that's the philosophy that the firm was founded on.

Whether people believe it or not, that's the walk we walk.

Is Sundaresan’s departure, following Akshay Chudasama’s, a vote against the JSA project and philosophy, with you and Jyoti Sagar both retiring?

As far as Som's exit is concerned, it's certainly not a vote against the model.

He's not setting up his own firm, he's actually going for a pure independent counsel practice in unique circumstances.

No one can deny, that he's heavily involved in policy regulation work, SEBI, SAT, etc, and is very interested in the field, maybe towards a public position.

Akshay's exit, you can say he's leaving in anticipation or something, etc. Then I would admit that yes, it's a challenge against the model.

But it (Som) is completely unrelated. In the true sense of the term. Nothing to do with my imminent retirement or Jyoti’s retirement.

How is the partnership reacting?

I do not know – yesterday I was in Delhi – but so far, obviously on an informal basis, the grapevine sort of had an inkling of the news in some form or the other, it's not a complete bolt from the blue.

When a star player departs, the feeling is not going to be cheerful.

It would be silly to say that everything is hunky dory - it affects the morale, but life will go on.

It will have an impact, will have a commercial impact in the very beginning, because obviously there are other partners in the system who are in the same practice, however, for them to take over and come up to the stature of Som's practice, or Som's capabilities and reach and all obviously will take time.

Who else is there in securities?

There are two equity partners: Vikram Raghani, who did the entire transaction advisory work for Som. And Rohitashwa Prasad, he's in Delhi.

These two, and the capital markets team under Nosh Modi – Som hardly used to interfere in that at all.

It was titularly under his leadership, and that's going to remain unaffected.

Capital markets, IPOs and stuff he was not doing anything. In the securities – SEBI, SAT – practice, arising out of securities space, there he was a towering figure.

Another partner to take over that role will take time, but somebody will emerge from the system.

What about Sundaresan’s juniors?

Som doesn't know about this yet but I do believe that at least a couple of people, at least those who appear with him in SAT and the high court, like (senior associate) Ravi Hegde, and a couple of people, maximum maybe three people might go [with Som]. But will go as a junior counsel attached to the chamber.

He's not going to run a firm. He’s not going to file his own Vakalatnama.

Why is that important?

A lot of counsel these days who file Vakalatnama through junior lawyers, they are not perceived as truly independent by solicitors’ firms - truly independent like Janak Dwarkadas or Iqbal Chagla - he's going to follow the same practice and tradition.

He will not have privity of contract with a client directly, but only through solicitors or other advocates.

If he has to take a public position years down the line, if he is a counsel, that is the primary motivating factor of why he has left.

And how will he do?

Honestly and from the bottom of my heart, I believe that he is the most outstanding legal mind i have come across in the field, I have not an iota of doubt, not just that I'm saying it, I'm well and truly delighted.

Someone has written in a comment [on Legally India], that our press statement [that we are delighted and proud to announce Sundaresan going independent] reads like inauthentic crap. But what Jyoti and I have said - we truly mean it.

So the timeline for his departure is end of 2016, in order to prepare clients, etc?

[Likely after September, but not about clients so much]. [Som] is buying his own chambers in Nariman Point.

We always leave it to the client [whether to leave or not]. For example, for those who wanted to go with Akshay, we said, please [go with Akshay], and a majority, 90 per cent, went with Akshay – the same [percentage], or even more with Som.

That seems like bad business?

There are many things that are strange with JSA [Desai laughs]. We do not do things that make commercial sense [all the time].

I am expecting a very, very major churn in the profession in the next year or so – everywhere. It'll be CAM, SAM, AZB, JSA – I don't know about khaitan. Definitely CAM, SAM, AZB, and JSA.

JSA too?

Quite a lot of churn – I am not saying this on any specific information, but from the way the combinations are changing, one entry leads to another exit. It's like a game of chess.

A void develops over there, so a space develops. And with the non-poaching policy is also coming to an end, under consent between CAM and SAM. From 1 April they'll be free to take each others' lawyers.

You'll see some real changes but things will settle down as usual.

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