How This 27-year old Company Secretary Built a Thriving Practice in IPR and Corporate Law From Scratch. And How You Can Too!
- Hi, I am Kunal Sarpal, a Company Secretary and a Bachelor of Law from India.
- At the age of 21, I qualified as a Company Secretary and started my internship.
- Immediately after my articles in 2013-14 at the age of 23, I took the plunge of starting my own Consulting Firm White Collar Legal LLP.
- I made up my mind that if this did not work out, I would have no hesitation or shame in going back to employment...luckily this leap of faith paid off well!
- Here is my story of How I treasured freedom and independence over a high fixed salary & security and started my own consulting firm from a 'small office' and grew it a 300+ clientele spread across the world with offices in 3 cities.
Tracing Back Roots – How I Began My Career In CS?
I was not very bright academically and hence wasn’t allowed to pursue the science stream by both my mark sheet (scores were too low to get into a good college) and my parents! Also growing up we were not very well off financially and most of the courses in the science stream are quite expensive! So, my low average marks in the 10th board exams and the financial constraints we had, made me choose the Commerce stream. Honestly, I found the Commerce stream too simple and aced it. I topped my class in college (for the first time in my life) and excelled in extracurricular activities as well...looks like I was a late bloomer! When it was time to pursue a professional qualification, it was a no brainer to opt either for Chartered Accountancy or Company Secretary. I decided to enroll in both CA and CS! However, I quickly realised that I had a liking for secretarial practice which also led me to pursue CS vehemently. I cleared CS at the age of 21 a few months before my Commerce graduation and started my internship with City Corporation Ltd (a listed company in India). I loved the work so much that I decided to drop CA at the Intermediate level. Around the same time, I also enrolled for a bachelor in Law! In short, I took it as it came and (luckily) things work out pretty well! Extra Tip: I do feel now, we shouldn’t unnecessarily choose difficult stuff. Easy is smart. Always!
Starting my journey as an entrepreneur at the age of 23
I was a licentiate Company Secretary in 2013 and a member of ICSI (The Institute of Company Secretaries of India) by 2014, – all at the age of 23! I did my articles training with 'City group where I got a lot of freedom and exposure. I became quite good at corporate law and that gave me a big confidence boost. All credit goes to Dr. Kamaljeet Kaur, my first (and awesome) boss. Once my training was over, It was time to decide what next, either get into employment or start my own practice and I chose the latter! Since I did not have the luxury to experiment for a long time (finance was a concern), I was willing to try out on my own for only 2 years. If it did not work out, I would have no hesitation or shame in going back to employment. That was my plan. With this in mind, I founded White Collar Legal LLP in 2014.
Early Days as an Entrepreneur
Starting early is also super stress-free. No major responsibilities as such, also one can take risks and bounce back easily! We were lucky to be riding the startup wave where many wanted to be entrepreneurs...so there was never a dearth of assignments. I started in a super small office (<150 Sq Feet) where only 2 of us used to sit and work and one extra chair for the client! The rent for our office was USD $100 a month...so not too expensive! Clients typically came from my referrals initially. I did conduct many workshops on the legal aspects of the business which brought in fresh clients. I still do it now, mostly from habit and because I love it. Mr. Kailash Biyani of AMSEC and Mr. Srinivas Kamath of Natural Ice Creams were the first big-ticket clients to actually take a bet on us and trust us. We are proud to serve them, even today. I simultaneously taught as a visiting faculty at various financial institutions. These teaching assignments kept me occupied for 2-3 hours on a few days, every week. This also helped me keep my concepts clear and of course it also helped me 'get some marquee clients'. That’s the beauty of the practice, it gives you immense freedom and flexibility! The best part was, I always got job offers while in practice (and still do). That’s again amazing as it’s always easy to get back into service from practice but never the other way.
Growing The Business: The Complete Timeline (2014 — Present)
2014 (Year of inception)
- Very little work. Lots of writing and speaking opportunities!
- Somehow, being known as a good student helped me get my first few clients. I used to speak and write well so it did help me build a good brand and presence. I was never out of work even for a day and to date, the record has been maintained.
- We started with incorporations and filings and certifications and trademark registrations (and we still do all of those!).
- Slightly stable. Moderate work. Writing and speaking continued. The team increased to 3.
- Work started flowing in really well. It was a byproduct of delivery, naturally. No business or practice is rocket science and it ultimately comes down to keeping your word. Nothing is better than word of mouth when growing a robust client base. Speaking and writing articles on trending topics helped too.
- Only when it started getting a bit too much for me to manage on my own did I start hiring partners and staff.
- Big clients started coming in and even retainers. The team jumped to 7. I started teaching as well. Bigger office. New partners came in. We started a branch at Mumbai.
- Once our firm started getting a good reputation, our proposals started getting accepted from larger companies which gave us our first break into monthly retainers.
- To serve the growing clientele, I had to proportionately increase the staff.
- And to manage all of this, I needed more partners too. Partners did not bring any business into the firm but were primarily in charge of management and delivery.
- To date, I take care of business development and growth, among other things!
- Stable growth. No drastic changes. So we added IP and we get into PE deals. We started yet another branch in Delhi. We started leveraging QuickBooks, CRM systems, tech etc.
- In 2017 alone, we helped startups raise 15 million USD in equity and debt funding out of which 1.2 million USD was for social enterprises.
- In every business there comes a time 'when you just can’t track the KRAs manually and have to get IT in'. We started with accounts and then gradually proceeded to track projects, revert times and so on. It’s basically automating learning so that only new errors are made.
- When I discuss and share this with my colleagues, they gasp and are appalled. Honestly, less than 10% of the professional firms are this organized, with folks still not moving beyond excel.
2018 (A special year, indeed!)
- IPR kicks off with a bang. Team Size increased. Revenue grew significantly.
- Once we had a sizable number of clients for the 'Company law-related work' and we knew how to serve them, it did start to get a little monotonous.
- Just then, a lot of repeated IP queries started to come in and we realized, this is a competency we have to build, as the next generation of entrepreneurs would be asset-light and IP heavy. Today, it accounts for over 55% of the firm’s revenue.
- I did choose IP, as I saw a trend and wanted to capitalize on it and wanted to be in an area that has high-value low volume projects. IP would not have been possible without my corporate law practice. And IP is just a beautiful area of practice.
- Loads of PE deals. New practice area, investment documentation and compliance. FEMA too. Teaching continued.
- As the IPR practice was setting in, we noticed that these clients were those 'who either needed funds or wanted help with the compliance once they raised it themselves'.
- Repeated requests on these fronts nudged us into building competency in this area and foreign inflow and outflow in these companies made us learn and build a practice around FEMA as well.
Extra Tip: Those aspiring to be PCS should understand that 'building a specialist practice from day 1 is difficult'. First, start a generic practice and then specialize as you go. At every stage, we had to learn, spend a lot of time reading and be extra careful with the first few projects in any new area we were exploring. A complacent attitude has stunted and killed more firms than an actual problem. Questions I get asked most often.
"Why I decided to be an entrepreneur?”
- I honestly believed that the main difference between practice and employment is the ability to generate business i.e. to get clients.
- When I was at college, I was involved in arranging sponsorships for college fests and donations for NGOs, and later during my articles, I was involved in getting approvals from top management. So convincing people or being the rainmaker was never an issue.
- The other plus of being in practice is freedom and flexibility. Teaching, consulting, advising, writing…so many streams can be pursued. Some of these would serve as not just a creative vent but as a commercial revenue stream as well.
- My mother, Dr. Sangeeta Kamath also offered a lot of support initially and that mattered the most then. More than money or infrastructure, it is important that you have that moral boost from the people that matter!
- Now that I look back, I treasured freedom and independence over a high fixed salary, security or those other things that society expects us to look for, more than anything.
“What is the advantage of being a young entrepreneur?”
- Being a youthful firm, we connect with our clients, especially startups, on a real-life basis, not just on an intellectual level.
- We understand tech, data and privacy issues not just from a legal standpoint but also from a consumer standpoint.
- We’re absolutely agile and have no ego. We are super-fast in reverts and delivery time. Clients absolutely love this.
- Lastly, our fee is much lower than many top tier firms, giving the same level of service.
“How did you go from having no employees to a whole team?”
- We added staff to manage the extra work and it was never like a goal set. I just tag a staff to a client project and tell him/her, “Your salary comes from here so you better take care of it”. As simple as that!
- Each of my teammates is as good as or better than us partners. They have their skin in the game and are working proactively and with exceptional excellence.
- Branches increased due to Mumbai clients repeatedly asking us to be closer to them. Delhi's office was brought in by the partner who joined us. Very helpful to deal with IP cases that go to the Delhi HC and to handle work from the North and North Eastern belt of India.
- So basically, both staff and branches came from clients pressurizing us to come closer to them and staff numbers increased gradually due to increasing assignments.
- However, there was downtime in 2014-15 when we did have to let some of our staff go. It was bad. I vowed to never let that happen again.
- Now that I think of it, you can’t really scale without a good team. We were very lucky to have amazing people join us.
- We are planning to hit 50+ staff by 2021.
"Challenges faced as a Founder and how I overcame them?"
- The major challenge initially was getting the big clients and high-value projects, as they didn’t want to work with kids. Yes, we were just kids to them.
- Retainers were also tough.
- We did face a lot of rejections, especially for big-ticket projects. I never understood why. That’s the sadness of rejections without a reason. No opportunity to explain or clarify or rework the proposal…nothing!
- We followed a policy of "moving on". It was more productive. We still subscribe to that policy.
- Extra Tip: Patience and being active in the events in your space is needed for a consistent period of time. The best projects will come from reputable folks referring you to the companies.
"My daily routine."
- 10 am: Be at the office and take stock of what is to be done
- 10.30 am: Call between all staff to be aligned and set expectations for today
- 11 am to 1 pm: Work, mostly drafting and opinion writing
- 1 to 1.30 pm: Lunch
- 1.30 pm to 4 pm: Meetings. (As I can’t work well during afternoons)
- 4.30 pm to 9 pm: Check, draft, revise, approve
- 9.30 pm – 10 pm: Wind up
“What tips can you give young professionals wanting to approach senior executives?”
- Most senior executives who consult you or seek your opinion know less than 10% of our field.
- As long as you’ve done your homework and are confident about what you have to say, don’t hesitate...they will, at the most, take a second opinion.
- What is unacceptable is being unprepared or impulsive or having a 'try-my-luck' kind of attitude.
Your clients will drive your practice. Use and leverage technology. Being busy does not mean productive. Missing family events, staying in the office till 10 every night, losing your health, not having a work-life balance is NOT worth it. A few big clients are better than many small ones. Always. Measure and track everything if you want to be able to manage it. Else, it’s just a hobby, not a business. CS and LLB is a necessary combination. I do highly recommend it. Both for employment and practice sake! I want everyone to know that there is a lot of work out there. Just make sure you have the competence to service it and it’ll flow to you eventually. I completely reject the claim that law is a saturated market. Kunal Sarpal is a nationally recognized leading lawyer and thought leader practicing in the Corporate and Intellectual Property space. He is also a Founder Partner of White Collar Legal LLP an award-winning boutique law firm for 2016 and 2017 ranking in the top 10 firms in India in its category, having over 350+ clients, served through a team of 25+ from 3 offices in Pune, Mumbai and Delhi.
Now It's Your Turn!
Would you start a business/ firm at such a young age? Or do you know anyone who has done so? Have questions for Kunal, comment below and he will get in touch with you. (Article edited by CA Uma Krishnan and image edited by Ankit Lodhi)