Founded over a century ago in Kolkata, full-service law firm Khaitan & Co now has offices in five Indian cities and one in Singapore. The law firm has more than 200 partners and over 1,000 lawyers working across various practice areas.

In an exclusive interview with Fortune India, Haigreve Khaitan, senior partner, Corporate, M&A and PE practices, Khaitan & Co, talks about the law firm's storied legacy, emerging practice areas, private equity deals, intellectual property and startups among others.

Edited excerpts:

How has the pandemic changed work culture at law firms? What did Khaitan do differently during Covid-19?

The pandemic really taught us that you don't have to be physically present in front of a client to be able to render the best service. As soon as the pandemic broke out, we were already connected virtually. You could dial any lawyer across the firm and reach them via a video call. We are doing transactions on a daily basis where we don't even meet the client in person and negotiations happen online seamlessly and hearings too are happening online.

Law firms have become the biggest poaching grounds for startups for their in-house lawyers. How're you dealing with it?

I see it positively. If lawyers find opportunities in startups, I think it is a very positive thing. When some of our lawyers came and told us that they got opportunities in startups, we look at it as a great career development for the individual and we also look at it as an opportunity to build relationships with startups.

India paid $8.63 billion for use of foreign IP in 2021. Why are India's patent filings lower than China? Can India become an IP powerhouse?

Almost every Indian company today has an R&D wing and is filing patents. We may have started late in the game, but we are definitely an IP powerhouse. India is playing the quality game rather than just quantity. You may not see the filing numbers like some other countries but you'll see good quality filings from India and it will only go upwards from here.

Several aspects of the recently released draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 2022 appear to be vague. Your views?

This is an evolving law across the globe. We have taken a very bold step in terms of looking at laws across the globe and then presenting a very dynamic and forward-looking draft. I don't think ours is a static draft. I think the law will keep on evolving and need amendments as we go along.

Let's take the insolvency law as an example. When it came into being, it was looked at as a very good law. But we learned as we progressed, and we kept on amending. That is something which will have to be there, and there has to be a balance drawn between on the one side privacy, on the other side regulation, and giving the sort of liberties and opportunities around data to people. That balance has to be drawn. That's the balance that will find ultimately.

What are your views on the Mediation Bill?

Giving sanctity to mediations and then when it is enforced as an award is a huge step. You don't want to carry out the same process again and again. You don't want to go through the mediation and then when parties come to mediation there is a dispute, you are back to square one. I must complement the government in progressively taking feedback and changing the laws or coming up with new laws.

Khaitan & Co is now 111 years old. What are its origins and where is it headed?

There is a very interesting story about the way the Khaitan & Co was founded. My great grandfather was the superintendent of jails in Bihar. He was sitting with a British jailor who told him that India will get Independence at some point and Indian businessmen will need lawyers. When my great grandfather asked him what he should make his seven children do, the jailor said you should consider making some of them lawyers. That's how he got four of his sons to actually study law: three were part of the firm and one was a barrister. That really gave the seed to the next generation and my grandfather's generation studying law and then founding the firm in 1911.

The firm was founded in 1911 by Debi Prasad Khaitan, who was a member of the Constituent Assembly which framed the Indian Constitution. He was then joined by his two brothers, Durga Prasad Khaitan and Bhagwati Prasad Khaitan. While Bhagwati Prasad Khaitan carried on with the firm, the other two, including the founder, left to do business.

Because the Khaitan family had seven brothers, many people from the second generation and the third generation joined the firm. From the very beginning, the firm took in partners and was a partnership. Among some prominent cases it handled included representing Mahatma Gandhi and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

It became a firm acting for the Indian business community because at that point in time the presidency towns – Bombay and Calcutta – had a lot of English firms and lawyers. But this was truly an Indian firm for the Indian corporates.

Early clients of the firm were Dalmia Jain family, Birla family, and Bangur family. Some of them continue to be clients of the firm even after 111 years.

Khaitan & Co became the leading firm in Calcutta and in eastern India. It was only later in 1970 where the firm decided to branch out and start an office in Delhi. The capital of the country had moved a long time ago and with the Supreme Court in Delhi, it was very important to have an office in the capital where the apex judiciary is. That is how we started our Delhi office in 1970.

It was later during the tech boom when Bangalore became India's Silicon Valley that some of our partners wanted to open up an office in Bangalore and moved from Calcutta to Bangalore to set up our office in 1994.

We were never in Bombay but we were working with a lot of Bombay law firms. In late 2001, some of us moved to start the Bombay office. We were around 40 lawyers in 2001 when we started our Bombay office. And today we have over 1,000 lawyers.

After Bombay, we opened an office in Chennai and then our first international office in Singapore.

We kept on attracting lateral talent. A lot of lateral talent joined us in Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore. The firm was attractive to a lot of laterals from other firms and also international returning lawyers. This led to further professionalisation of the firm, expansion of the firm, creating specialist practices and new leadership in the firm.

Which new practice areas have emerged over the past few years?

From the old times, when it was mostly about disputes and corporates, today we are a specialist shop under one roof. A lot of work is now happening in infrastructure and energy, media and telecom, IT and data, white-collar crime. The entire banking and finance practice is a specialised practice. The new Insolvency and Bankruptcy law led to a new specialised practice. The antitrust and competition law also led to a new practice. These are practices which have grown substantially and have become leading practices of the firm.

In the M&A space, you see expansion, new players coming in, Indian businesses divesting, families selling off their businesses or getting investors to expand. The M&A market is extremely busy as virtually all sectors are now open for foreign investments.

Your firm lists e-commerce as a key focus area...

E-commerce has different aspects. One aspect of e-commerce is the information technology laws. You also have tax, corporate and contractual laws and the whole interplay of international laws. We see a lot of specialisation around this area.

Khaitan & Co crossed the 200-partner mark in March this year. How significant is this milestone?

It's significant milestone because Khaitan & Co is a truly professional firm even though it started like a family firm. These partners are leaders in their own right. We now have a huge talent pool at the senior level.

You opened an office in Singapore last year. Are you planning more international expansion?

The Singapore response has been tremendous in terms of inbound and outbound clients. Inbound because there are a lot of Singapore-based investors looking at India and foreign multinationals with regional offices and private equity funds. Singapore has become quite a destination for India looking outbound. Singapore has really emerged as a gateway to investments in India. We really grabbed that opportunity. As world dynamics change, India is really the gateway for international legal services.

Another important practice area for us is the arbitration centre in Singapore. A lot of Indian arbitrations are being done under Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and that's also a reason that prompted us to be in Singapore.

To answer your question on whether Khaitan & Co is looking for further international expansion, the answer is not yet. Singapore is an Indian law office so we really don't practice international law. We will certainly keep eyes and ears open for further opportunities. There is just so much happening in the country that our focus is really India and India-related work.

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