Continuing our Law Firm Leaders series, I had the opportunity to interview, Poonam Bisht Rawat. Poonam is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Dhir & Dhir Associates, one of the leading full-service law firms in India. The firm and its partners have been recognized as the leaders in various practice areas by leading legal publications including Chamber and Partners, The Legal 500, India Business Law Journal, IFLR1000 and Asialaw.
Vassu Arora (VA): Could you please tell us about your professional journey from LLB to COO at Dhir & Dhir Associates?
Poonam Bisht Rawat (PR): When I joined the firm in 1998 I was fortunate enough to work under Mr Alok Dhir, Founding & Managing Partner of Dhir & Dhir Associates. Mr Dhir recognized my inherent skills and motivated me to explore my potential beyond the legal practice and foray into the management aspects of the firm. I realized that management plays a very important role in the overall growth of the firm by combining talent assets to work together as a team.
Thence, I started working very closely with the Partners. I had always been a people person and it was easy to strike a sense of belongingness amongst Partners and their teams, which helped me in achieving the shared vision of the firm and its partners.
While performing the managerial functions with an understanding of the law, I was able to discuss relevant matters with the professionals and the clients. This honed my business development skills and I could explore both domestic as well as international opportunities. As a lawyer, I also generated an affinity amongst my peers, who did not feel that they were dealing with some alien to the profession. I also undertook specialized training in Leading Professional Services from Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Since then, there has been no looking back. I kept moving higher in the professional realm and am currently serving the firm as the COO looking after Practice Development, Business Development & Marketing, Knowledge Management, Human Resources, Finance Management, IT and Administration amongst many other momentary roles.
VA: That is an interesting professional journey. Considering the importance of business management in the practice of law, do you think that law schools should also impart this knowledge to enable lawyers to build a sustainable practice?
PR: Yes, I strongly feel that law schools should include dedicated classes on law firm management and training for soft skills in their curriculum. The legal services are not just limited to handling a case and its legalities, but also offering moral support to the stressed client in a manner that assuages and ameliorates their problems.
Law practice also involves handling teams with varied expertise and ensuring that their collective efforts lead to overall success in any matter and the firm at large. Hence, it is immensely beneficial to acquire these additional skills in practice and business management. Law firms have a cellular structure with practice groups operating as independent entities. With effective management skills, a lawyer can determine the growth and profitability of his practice area.
Each team has to be self-motivated and exercise business development initiatives with a comprehensive understanding of management. The Partners have to handle growth within the top and bottom line. To ensure that the team works efficiently, they must have sufficient skill set and knowledge in Human Resource Management, Finance Management, Corporate Communication and Public Relations, Knowledge Management, Business Development and Marketing.
VA: I could not agree more. There are quite a few functions in the domain of law firm management, could you please identify the most critical ones?
PR: As the COO, I have to supervise and control almost all the dynamic affairs in the firm. I devote time with each Partner to understand his work, help him overcome any challenges and help him in business development including cross-referrals. Another critical function is to bind all the Partners and the teams together like a charioteer heading in a direction with a common objective for the firm established by our Managing Partners and Partners. So we work together as a team to draw out the strategies to achieve the same.
Since this is a service industry, one of the most critical components is human resources as it involves building and preserving the work culture of the firm and creating an environment where all the professionals work as a team to provide qualitative services to the client in a most timely and effective manner. This not only includes the acquisition and retention of talent but also motivating the professionals to perform at the peak of their potential and dovetail the individual aspirations of the team members with the overall growth of the firm.
Knowledge Management is another critical function in managing a law firm. The law is ever-changing. New laws and amendments are promulgated all the time. Court rulings change the nuances of the law and its interpretation. In such a dynamic environment, a law firm has to be on top of such developments to be able to update its self-owned knowledge bank to facilitate proactive advisory to clients and provide solutions to them. This increasingly requires the use of technology to create a data bank for quick access, assimilation, and delivery within the firm as well as utilize it for the benefit of the team and its clients.
Another important aspect is Corporate Communication which plays a crucial role in positioning the firm’s thought leadership across various platforms. This enables the clients for peer comparison and helps them make the decision to avail the services of the firm. Dedicated efforts are undertaken in creating, communicating and executing a robust content marketing strategy that covers quality, quantum and nature of work being done for improving the firm’s ranking in the legal realm.
VA: Tell us about some of the challenges you face in this role
PR: In a law firm, challenges and opportunities exist in parallel. Knowledge Management is a challenging task and its careful study enables exploration of new services and practice areas that offers significant opportunities. The economy is evolving and the legal intricacies keep emerging in this dynamic environment.
The second most noteworthy challenge revolves around Human Resource Management. Attracting top talent, motivating and retaining them are significant factors of growth. It is vital to ensure effective delivery of work through the qualitative pragmatic solution to clients. Equal emphasis must also be given to consistency in performance which often becomes a challenging task. However, dedicating time in mentoring as well as training nurtures talent and transforms in opportunities.
Client Management demands special expertise. Some of the clients possess detailed knowledge of the subject. It is imperative to surpass their expectations by providing quality service, competitive pricing and going the extra mile for accomplishing targets. The role, however, does not end here. Maintaining client relationship post-closure of the mandate is equally significant.
VA: What are the vital factors to build a successful law practice?
PR: Many factors pave the way to success for a law firm. One such factor is the integration of relevant technology in legal practice as legal services are dynamic. It is essential to have a proper IT set up with relevant software specific to law firms.
Keeping oneself updated with clients’ development, news and market trends goes a long way in building a symbiotic relationship and successful law practice. Knowing your client (KYC) ensures sustainability in legal services. Without limiting oneself to the matter, it is essential to maintain client relations not only before and during the work phase but also after the completion of the assignment. We remain in touch with our client irrespective of the closure of their matter.
One of the leading factors is legal knowledge management that lays the foundation of success for a law firm. Information is updated, analyzed and shared, which in turn saves time, increase efficiency and quality of work in a cost-effective manner.
Taking care of attrition rates is yet another factor leading to success. Talent acquisition and retention are of prime importance combined with inherent qualities to synergize with the culture of the firm. Regular team mentoring and training ensures that they are self-motivated to deliver seamless service and work amicably with each other. Maintaining an open-door policy and accessibility to the professionals as well as clients, problem-solving attitude, motivating the teams are other key factors for success.
VA: Coming to the USPs of the firm, could you please tell us the factors which encourage potential clients to choose Dhir & Dhir Associates over other law firms?
PR: Well, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that success in the legal services sector depends a lot on a firm’s legacy and hence with over 36 years of existence our firm has created an edge over other firms.
Yet another reason remains the multi-directional growth and the penetration into diverse industry sectors besides our niche practices of Corporate Restructuring and Insolvency. We cover all major sectors like Real Estate, Infrastructure, Banking and Finance, IT, ITeS, E-Commerce, Media, Advertising, Entertainment, Pharmaceuticals, Lifesciences, Manufacturing, Consumer Goods, Automobile, etc.
Furthermore, the firm’s commitment to clients for providing quality services on time is another key differentiator. We have developed a self-check mechanism on all aspects related to client servicing. We ensure that there is no pending deliverable in terms of the client requests or queries and the serving is at par with any other services sector.
No doubt, the firm was one of the first entrants in stressed assets advisory space since the early 80s and in fact, has been witness to the entire lifespan of how insolvency and its related aspects entered the economy. Right from Sick Industrial Companies Act (SICA) to Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, we have been one of the leading firms in the Restructuring & Insolvency space and have a very substantial, well-rounded practice of both litigation and non-litigation work. Currently, we are handling a large number of transactions and cases under IBC 2016 and representing clients in the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT)/National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) across all jurisdictions and the country.
Over the years, besides our Delhi office, we have opened offices in Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru along with a representative office in Japan.
We have been providing various legal services including Corporate Insolvency Resolution Support (CIRP) support and have been advisors to Committee of Creditors, Resolution Professionals as well as Resolution Applicants. We have also been involved in Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) within the Insolvency and Bankruptcy space and assisted with raising finances for our clients in various matters.
VA: Thank you for listing out those. Before we conclude, any message for our readers especially those who aspire to work in law practice management?
PR: My message for aspiring law firm management professionals is that the scope of law practice management is wide and is an ideal choice for individuals who possess leadership skills along with legal acumen. It encompasses Business Administration, Knowledge Management, Financial Management, Office Management, Human Resources Management, Business Development, Security and IT Management. Hence, it hones your personality and ensures your comprehensive growth in the legal realm.
This interview is a part of ‘Law Firm Leaders‘ series in which we feature senior business unit leaders, chairmen and chief officers from top law firms.