By Manish Mehta
In 2008, as a junior associate at a large American law firm, I saw immense opportunity to help Indian pharmaceutical and technology companies as they expanded into the US market.
My firm’s executive committee, however, did not agree with me that the firm should devote resources to building client relationships in India. Perhaps it was my age—I was just 27 then—that provoked their skepticism. Or perhaps it was my own Indian-American heritage, a perspective not represented in the all-white leadership ranks that did not view India as having innovative potential.
But I knew these views were outdated, and I didn’t give up. I found a colleague who shared my enthusiasm for this venture, and we cobbled together a travel budget from a small discretionary fund, as well as money from our own pockets, to travel to India, meet with companies we thought we could help—many of whom had no idea who we were or why we were there—and convince them that skilled legal advising was the key to expanding their business in the United States.
Building relationships with these executives took time, but, ten years down the line, work with Indian companies makes up a significant portion of my legal practice.
Two important dynamics made this possible. First, the opportunities have expanded—and grown more sophisticated. For instance, a decade ago, Indian pharmaceutical companies worked primarily in production of generic drugs for the US market; now, these companies are heavily invested in research and development, and are bringing their own innovative drugs to market. Second, and equally important, I’m now a partner at a firm that sees the value of what’s being created in India today.
In the US, companies “retain” a lawyer to accomplish certain tasks on its behalf, and often that relationship can feel compartmentalized: the company receives the specific service it needs, and the lawyer sends the bill, with each phone call and email drawing a separate charge. But I have found that my work with Indian companies is most fruitful when we work as partners. This means listening—really listening—to the company’s goals, and identifying ways I can facilitate success across multiple aspects of their business. I’ve also learned that some of the standard practices of American law firms, such as inflexible hourly billing models, can get in the way of building the trust and credibility that is so essential to this partnership. Innovative solutions to stumbling blocks like these benefit both the companies and their legal advisors, and keep our goals aligned.
It goes without saying that business is conducted differently in India than in the United States. For instance, in India, many companies focus their energy on growth and can be reluctant to invest in legal services early on, before the company is well established. This is a sensible decision in a laissez faire environment, but in the US, companies face far greater legal accountability, and legal due diligence at the outset of any new or expanding venture is essential to navigating the American system properly and saving a great deal of money in the long run. Helping Indian companies understand the American climate is an important part of the work legal advisors provide.
I am proud of my Indian American heritage and thrilled to see the tremendous pool of technical and entrepreneurial talent India brings to the world economy. What’s most gratifying to me is that I’ve been able to build a career with my American education that still keeps me connected to India. As a young lawyer, facing that skeptical leadership, I wasn’t sure this would be possible, but, in fact, being rooted in both places has been the key to my professional success so far—and to my clients’ as well.
(Manish Mehta is a partner at Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff LLP)