US law firm comes calling

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on December 14, 2011

Jagdesh B. Kirpalani.   -  Business Line

Jagdesh Kirpalani explains why and how India offers huge business opportunities.

The son of refugees who came to Chennai from Pakistan during the Partition, for Jagdesh B. Kirpalani, it has been quite a journey to his present position as Attorney at Law at the American firm Haskell Slaughter Young & Rediker, Alabama.

In 2006 the firm decided to focus on India, and his job is to find Indian companies that want to enter the US market. “We tell companies how to open a market in the US for their products and get the right partners to grow their business. As they grow, we grow with them.” The firm had done an acquisition deal for Orchid Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals; it has 14 clients in India including the Shriram Group. Apart from M&A activities, they work with firms grappling with litigation or collection issues. He is now working with a Chennai-based company that is building “a state-of-the-art recycling plant where they recycle motor and cooking oil and convert it into a bio-diesel fuel. We helped them set up a huge project in South Carolina,” says Kirpalani. He adds that his firm becomes a partner to the clients and does a lot of handholding; “to the point that when our clients have a health issue, we give a solution. That is the only way to build long-term relationships.” In India, S.S. Rajasekhar, a local consultant, helps him identify clients.

Armed with a BA in Economics from Chennai, in the early 1980s he went to visit his brother in the US who was running a tailoring business. He joined the business but attended law school at night and qualified as a lawyer. For many years he did not practise law and continued in the business. In 2004, he was called by a judge to help him in a case probing the murder of three police officers. With racial elements to the case, it was one of the most controversial in Alabama. For a year he worked on this case, for free and “almost like an intern”. A few more small cases came in but he got his big break when he was asked to represent an Indian charged with bribing a county commissioner in a massive $3 billion scheme. Avenues opened up for him after this high-profile case and he eventually landed this job.

Now Haskell Slaughter is working intensely on the energy side and Kirpalani says this business from India is bound to grow in the coming years. “We are focused mainly on metallurgical coal and India doesn't have high quality met coal. We also work on shale gas and believe that at some point, India will have to look at shale gas, and we can help Indian companies identify opportunities in this area. This will reduce India's dependence on gas coming from Iran, Qatar, etc.”

Another area he is pursuing is legal education. He says that while India produces great quality MBAs, engineers and doctors, we don't produce world-class lawyers who can make a mark in the US or the UK, where distinguished Indian doctors and engineers excel. His firm's research shows that part of the problem is that Indian law schools don't “teach good analytical and communication and research skills. They don't teach students how to write well; the faculty is not good enough and this prevents our lawyers from excelling in the West. So we've designed an LLM programme where Indian law students can take an online course offered by an American institution where lectures are delivered by distinguished faculty from Yale, Harvard and similar institutions.”

The advantage is that such an online course costs $12,000, while a similar course in the US would cost as much as $75,000. “The student writes the Bar exam in the US and becomes a US-certified lawyer; your skills go up and you are more marketable.” The LPO (legal process outsourcing) industry is becoming popular in India but one of its challenges is that it has to “bring American lawyers here to do the work. This challenge can be overcome through such a qualification.

Kirpalani still considers Chennai “my home, as my heart belongs here”. On every visit, he goes to George Town where he once lived. “I try to walk down Mint Street, Armenian Street, trying to find the quieter Chennai of earlier years. I remember how Odeon used to have the best chocolate milkshake, and McRennet the best bread and Harrisons on Broadway the best pistachio and almond pastry.” He takes back to the US things like ‘ goli' soda bottles, gramophones, and is now searching for an old red postbox to ship home!

Published on October 20, 2011

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