Tania Ahlawat is Co-Managing Partner, Ahlawat & Associates. She is a corporate generalist who leads employment and corporate compliance practice at A&A. With an experience of working with different regulators in India, she regularly advises clients on entry strategies and on various aspects of doing business in the country. She also advises clients on general corporate matters, cross border transactions including amalgamation, corporate documentation, slump sale, formation of companies (public, private and foreign subsidiaries in India) and joint venture companies and conducting due diligence.
Q. What are the major challenges that lawyers usually face in cases pertaining to corporate and commercial litigation?
While there have been many changes that have been brought about as far as litigation practice is concerned, the one most consistent and challenging is that of time. Unfortunately, a lawyer can never give assurances of time-bound relief to a client, unless of course, the matter reaches the Supreme Court which can possibly take decades, even then there are no guarantees. This is also the very reason why people are wary of getting into any sort of litigation and prefer to settle out of court, if possible.
Corporate litigation can go on for years with negligible results, which can be both difficult and frustrating for a company, especially for a company looking to recover debts. A company is looking at a scenario where they have delivered the goods or services and thereafter have not been paid for years. To keep the morale of the client up and trying to convince them that there could be light at the end of the tunnel is another challenge faced by lawyers.
With the inception of IBC and the amendment to the Arbitration Act, the timelines have been reduced to quite an extent which has made the litigation process more approachable for corporates than it previously was, however, there is still immense scope for improvement on that front.
Q. What sets the practice at Ahlawat & Associates apart from other law firms?
All the initial Partners and a few of the newer ones at A&A have practised at the bigger law firms, therefore we have a fair idea of what is missing and leads to client disappointment. Collectively we make a conscious effort to grow the practice in a manner that provides each client with our undivided attention, primarily focus on the quality of work and never underestimating a clients’ need for urgency.
Also, we understand that clients do not want their lawyer to sugar coat facts and provide idealistic advice or lead them on a wild goose chase. When providing legal services, we give practical and realistic solutions, it might not be what a client would like to hear but at the end of the day, it is far more appreciated than giving them false hope which may lead to problems in the future. A&A would like to be known for avoiding problems to start with, not creating them and then helping you solve them. Our aim is not to increase our client base for the sake of optics, but to retain clients and gain their confidence in the quality of our advice and work for the long term. This has worked for us so far and we see no reason to change our ways.
Q. Has your work been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? If so, then how are you dealing with such changes?
You will not find one business, service or industry that has not been impacted by the pandemic. I don’t think anyone could have predicted a slowdown which is so widespread but I think lawyers, possibly because of our training in the practice, are quick to adapt and have learnt to weather such storms. Whilst the corporate matters have not really seen a decline and companies have required legal advice and structuring more than ever now, the pandemic or the lockdown has been and in a way continues to be a challenging phase for the litigation team.
With most courts still not taking up regular matters and IBC literally being suspended completely for this year, we have tried to ensure that no one is laid off during this period. Cases are still being heard via video conferencing but just like online classes for children, teaching sports via electronic mediums and seeing your relatives through an app, there are some communications that are best left to and need a person’s physical presence to be most effective.
To keep our litigation team productively engaged, we have asked our lawyers to be resourceful and support our other practice areas to be able to tide this time and luckily for us they have been more than willing to do so. This has also brought about a certain synergy amongst all the lawyers and A&A, which we are hoping will prove beneficial when everyone does return to the office.
Q. From a lawyer’s perspective, what are the specific challenges that foreign businesses and companies face while investing in India or setting up businesses here?
The biggest hurdle foreign businesses still face is obtaining licenses. Depending on the stage which the licensing process is at, it can sometimes take months and the complexity involved at the local level in obtaining those licenses can be quite a deterrent for foreign investors. However, things are changing slowly. A lot of states have now started introducing single-window clearances for licenses which is definitely a step in the right direction. Apart from that many states are also setting up grievance redressal portals for the investors wherein they can lodge their grievances directly with the chief ministers’ office in case they face any issues.
There are a number of other processes which have also been simplified now such as the company incorporation process and the time taken for setting up a company has drastically reduced, moreover majority of the registrations that a company requires for starting operations such as PAN, TAN, etc are all provided at the time of incorporation rather than applying for each of them separately after incorporation.
Q. Do you think Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can be helpful in assisting lawyers in the corporate industry? If so, then in what ways?
There is no doubt, technology or A.I. has enabled many professionals or business services to serve their customer base faster and with greater precision. However, as far as the legal profession is concerned, as I mentioned earlier, there are certain communications that require a physical presence, human interaction. Our profession, besides our ability to apply our knowledge base, is all about our communication skills. Providing clients with the confidence to take that leap to invest 50 crores in a project or resolve a situation which they feel are doomed to face or enter a joint venture which will reap immense benefits, are situations that are most successful only with physical human interaction. Every client has their unique situation or a different set of problems which are specific to him/her and they want their lawyer to provide them with that relief and guide them in the best possible manner which a machine would not be able to provide.
Even during the pandemic, there is no doubt that the various virtual conferencing platforms have provided us with much relief to be able to see each other on a screen and discuss matters with our clients, but for execution purposes, the process can be extremely time consuming and team discussions and brainstorming is best at an office space.
Possibly the only area I wish the machine learning or A.I. could ease functionalities in the legal profession would be billing!
Q. How have you adapted to the lifestyle changes that have been brought about by the pandemic? How do you like to unwind when you are not working?
There has been less adapting and more re-organizing. The changes that have been brought about actually were much needed, someone hit the much-required reset button! Even though we all wish the pandemic had never happened, it has forced us to slow down and re-think about our priorities. We all push doing certain things to the back burner because we feel this is the time to focus on working hard 24×7 or giving up on your sleep to finish that project or justifying sacrificed time with your family for work, but you realize that we can have the best-laid plans but none of it will matter if you do not take care of your health and have your loved ones around you.
Making health and the mental well-being of not just myself and my family, but also of my co-workers has become imperative. Sitting at home for such a long duration can have a major impact, both physically and mentally, on everyone. Therefore, physical and mental health has become an extremely important focus area which was not a priority for anyone before the lock-down. In addition, trying to provide everyone with a work-life balance has also become essential.