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Ex-Luthra partner Deepak Joyce shares what running his own start-up taught him about legal practice & how he returned to the law

Deepak Joyce talks about his entrepreneurial journey
Deepak Joyce talks about his entrepreneurial journey

After leaving partnership in Big Law in 2015, Deepak Joyce spent two-and-a-half years starting up a business in the construction space. One year ago, in April 2018, he returned to the legal fold and set up Joycelaw in Gurgaon as a sole practitioner, so far, focusing on advising start-up founders as well as some work for funds.

“It was one of the best things that I did, going out on my own in a completely different field,” Joyce said about running a start-up. “I got exposure to a few things that normally as a lawyer I would never have gotten exposure to.

“When I look back, it was a highly gratifying experience for personal experience and skill development, even at this stage of my life.”

We spoke to him some more about what he had learned about being a lawyer from his time on the other side.

After 18 years in law...

Joyce has been practising since 1996, after his LLB from Kerala Law Academy Trivandrum, and a later LLM from SMU. He had worked in Kerala for a year, then moved to New Delhi Law Offices, worked in the US in Michigan for nearly four years at Douglas L Webster, before returning to India in 2015.

Joyce was a partner at Luthra & Luthra, as it then was, having been at the firm for 10 years. Then, in late 2015, he decided he wanted a change from the law and set up Pronto21, as sole owner. “We were doing home interiors on a comprehensive contract basis,” he explained about the business, which involved “turnkey contracts” to decorate homes, managing and executing “all aspects of a project” under a “full stack model”.

“I believe I was able to develop that space,” he said, noting that in 18 months, they were able to sell around 30 projects. “For an unfunded set up to sell so much and to do so much, it’s a fairly uphill task. Especially when it’s done by a group of people who had no hard experience.”

Different from law

At its peak, Pronto21 consisted of around 9 people, he said, beginning with a team of around 4.

“We entered a bunch markets where it was about 50% occupied, which means they were fairly well penetrated by the local contractor community. First, we had to take it [business] away from local contractor, to oftentimes quote a higher price, and a perception through credibility we were able to build through brand building,” Joyce said, adding: “Brand building is a very critical part of building a business

“Unless you go into a very organised practice of law, branding is certainly not the first thing you would encounter and tackle when you’re a lawyer.”

Different from most legal practice too was also the sheer number of different “constituencies” that had to be managed from various backgrounds, running the gamut from clients, to contractors and the labour community.

“As a professional, as a lawyer, as an accountant etc, you generally deal with people from a very similar educational background,” said Joyce. “When you step out, you are actually trying to satisfy aspirations of differently placed people and constituents. That’s a skill you need to develop.”

Are there secret sauces?

However, he noted that the entrepreneurial journey did not give him a “secret sauce”, other than the realisation that the fundamental reason why a client would come to a lawyer is when “there is a specific value a professional can add that they cant find in-house”.

“Having run a business, I think my sense of what is important for a business and what is relevant for a business, especially when I’m working on the sell side of a deal, that’s sharpened quite a bit. That’s what I myself feel,” he noted.

Joyce eventually noticed with Pronto21 that it had hit a stage which would have required more capital investment to take it to the next level, although “at the initial level of business it actually [achieved] what we wanted to achieve”.

To scale up would have required a larger team and a “more sophisticated capability” to sell to a larger market, all of which required investors. But funding had “dried up” in the market, which had two or three similar companies secure funding but not scale grow very rapidly, said Joyce.

“So the choice for me was to either run it at the same level - it was decent, the fundamentals were good, we were making money - but it was not really something from a financial and monetary perspective that was super exciting,” he explained about his thought process.

The return to legal

While he was pondering these dilemmas around December 2017, he began getting some inquiries for legal work from friends, and agreed to help.

“Coming back into law was not in the initial month or two a very well thought-out, structured thing to come back to: it just happened, one thing led to another and I decided to set it up more formally,” Joyce explained. The first deals closed by February or March 2018, and by April he had given it a name: Joycelaw.

Joycelaw’s practice consists around 80-85% of founders, though he has regular work from one or two funds, he said.

While he has not hired anybody, having only offered his first internship in June, he said that he was looking at perhaps hiring one or two fee-earners this year, though he was keen to keep the set up small for the time being.

He had no plans to return to BigLaw at the moment, he said. “For that question, I can fairly confidently say, as of now I haven’t thought about it... As of now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, in the current form that I’m doing it...

“You see a lot of people who had setups like this who ended up getting back to BigLaw, but my sense is that it’s a very evolutionary process and I’m actually at the left-hand side of that continuum.”

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