When Nishant Parikh and Sridhar Gorthi were elected co-managing partners of Indian law firm Trilegal, they had grand plans for the firm’s strategic direction. What they didn’t count on, though, was that by April 2020, when their new roles took effect, they would be neck-deep in crisis management.
Trilegal became the second Indian firm to democratically elect new co-managing partners. The industry in India is made up of predominantly family-led firms, but Parikh, Trilegal’s former head of corporate, and Gorthi, a co-founding partner, were chosen by the firm’s partners to lead its operations when the two founding managing partners stepped down from the top leadership role at the end of March 2020. At that time, 55-partner Trilegal already had an elected management committee that comprised Gorthi, Parikh and the firm’s other co-founding partners, Rahul Matthan, Karan Singh and Akshay Jaitly.
But just 10 days into the election of its new leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Asia. The virus first broke out in mainland China in December 2019 and just a month later, the first cases of infection were reported in towns of Kerala, a state on India’s Malabar Coast. By March, India was on full lockdown and the country has since suffered three waves of COVID-19, with approximately 43 million recorded infections so far.
“At that point, nobody had any idea of how things would evolve. We had to shut down our offices towards the end of March and move very quickly to a work-from-home sort of situation,” said Parikh.
As was the case in most of the world, Parikh and Gorthi did not expect that the crisis would last for as long as it has. But at the onset, they decided to make some predictions that might help Trilegal weather the storm.
“The narrative and thought process became very quickly about survival so we started by focusing on bill collections, as it was important to have as much cash in the system as possible,” Parikh said.
The firm also decided to focus on talent retention and hiring.
“The idea was to be nimble because the situation was changing every day, so we didn’t put our foot down to declare pay cuts or hiring freezes,” said Gorthi. “Instead, we doubled down on increments and bonuses, and we kept that momentum going.”
As a result, and in spite of the pandemic, the firm grew its partner head count by almost 40% in the first 18 months after their appointment. It added about 20 new partners—about half through internal promotions and half by lateral hires from competitors such as AZB & Partners; Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas; and Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas.
“At the start of the pandemic, obviously, capital markets had been absolutely dead in the water,” said Gorthi. “We had a small capital market practice but we decided to expand that practice very early on and that really worked out for us.”
Last year was a boom year for initial public offerings in India, propelled partly by China’s crackdown on technology companies in July, which prompted investors to look elsewhere for investment opportunities. Between January and October 2021, Indian companies had raised about US$9 billion—almost three times the US$3.5 billion raised by 15 companies in all of 2020.
In October, Trilegal advised on Indian e-commerce business Nykaa’s US$750 million IPO. The deal team was led by partner Richa Choudhary, whom the firm hired from AZB just six months earlier. The firm later also advised on one of the country’s largest IPOs: Fintech company Paytm raised US$2.5 billion, with Trilegal advising Chinese conglomerate Alibaba Group as an investor.
Trilegal has traditionally focused on advising foreign investors, but the firm has been gradually making a shift to balance out its concentration to include domestic clients. While in the past, the firm says it did about 70% of its work for foreign clients and only 30% for domestic, it has seen those proportions shift and now the ratio is about 50-50. Much of it, the firm’s leaders say, can be attributed to the growth of domestic businesses, which are plump with capital to invest and expand.
To meet those demands, Trilegal will also need to invest and grow further, its leaders say.
“Critical mass and scale are very important here,” said Parikh. “It’s a key factor to winning and executing deals. Having a sizeable head count is becoming more and more critical for the sort of work that we do—we need large teams on our matters. Our team sizes are sometimes as large as 15 to 20 lawyers on a deal.”
To illustrate just how important that critical mass can be, Parikh said that in order to handle a recent insolvency matter that involved US$15 billion worth of debt, the firm had to pull in its corporate, insolvency, restructuring and litigation teams, deploying approximately 70 lawyers on the one matter.
The potential head count increase will need to be weighed along with the firm’s decision on flexible working policies, Gorthi says. Trilegal has yet to institute any formal policies around that.
“We’ve shied away from announcing a policy because every six months we’ve seen a shift or a change in attitudes and culture,” said Gorthi. “But I think what we’ve seen is that over a sustained period, people really don’t need regulation, as they can regulate themselves. So as long as the client’s work is getting done, we’re really not fussed about people getting back to work at the office.”