Nishith Desai, head of the research-focused Indian legal and tax law firm he established almost three decades ago, recently spoke to Forum magazine about his firm and his philosophy around growth, tech and culture.
Indeed, Desai says he strongly believes that businesses can be built atop a foundation of a few solid pillars of wisdom. For example, size has consequences.
“The legal industry is becoming more like the commodity business,” Desai says. “Those who are involved in innovation, creativity and value addition will thrive.” Many of the rest may vanish or be absorbed in mergers, with up to 30% of current practicing lawyers becoming redundant in five to seven years’ time, he predicts. “It’s not about competition, location or even about the large law firms themselves. It’s more about the impact of technology.”
In the current environment, law firm leaders should be addressing robotics, automation and artificial intelligence rather than real estate, practice groups and head count, he adds. “There’s been much talk, but little preparedness for all that.”
“It’s not about competition, location or even about the large law firms themselves. It’s more about the impact of technology.”
Instead, law firms continue substituting size for nimbleness, and quantity of legal talent for niche specialization. Desai estimates the “right size” for an organization is about 150 to 200 members – beyond that, “it becomes a machine.”
When a firm becomes too large it forces an emphasis on process, to handle all the diverse pieces of the firm – and that is a mistake, Desai explains, because process begets more process, and increases the related compliance and risk management to oversee it. Soon the machine is replicating itself. “Processes are very important, but when there’s too much focus on processes and less on people, it tends to drive a firm’s behavior,” he notes. “And that makes it harder to pay attention to innovation, creativity and value creation.”
Of course, Nishith Desai Associates (NDA) is not completely opposed to growth – the firm has native offices in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, and branch offices in Singapore, Munich, Silicon Valley and most recently, New York City. Throughout those offices – which, the firm notes, span almost all time zones – NDA lawyers can almost continually work on client matter, collaborating with the aid of technology.
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