Aliff Fazelbhoy was not the typical grade A student. After getting mediocre marks in his graduate studies, Aliff paved a path into the legal sector. But how did he do it? With the legal industry being highly competitive, Aliff shares how self-belief mixed with sheer determination made him conquer the legal sphere.
What inspired and motivated you to take up law as a profession and what keeps you motivated?
Call it destiny or fate or chance. I am a great believer that destiny has a few things planned for all of us, but these plans need to be put into action and that is up to each individual.
As a 19 year old commerce graduate with rather poor marks, I had no clue what I would do in life other than join our family business and sell auto spare parts. A friend, also from a business family casually mentioned to me that he was enrolling in law as his dad told him it may help in the business. I had read a few books on high profile legal cases and business law was one of the few subjects during my graduate studies where I did well… That’s how I ended studying law at the Government Law College (GLC) in Mumbai.
That decision changed my life. Within the first month of attending law college, I knew I had found my calling and that there was no looking back.
My late grandfather was my inspiration. He was by all accounts a super solicitor who rarely lost a case. Unfortunately, he died a year before I was born. On a lighter note, my late mother was delighted when I took up law as she believed I was her father’s double to follow in his footsteps.
In September this year, I will complete 30 years as a lawyer and there has not been a day that I have been bored at work. The varied nature of work I do ensures this. That, and the simple “thank you” or “job well done” note that I often get from clients after a matter or a deal is closed to their satisfaction is what keeps me motivated on a daily basis.
You are a gold medalist from the Mumbai University. What challenges have you faced during your education? How did you overcome them?
Being an albino by birth, I have low vision being about 10-15 of normal sight. This was my biggest struggle in school as I could not read the blackboard and being white and rather skinny and small at the time, had to face a lot of teasing; unfortunately, my grades throughout school and graduation were also nothing to write home about.
My mother, also an albino, was a great social worker and did tremendous work for the blind and multiple sclerosis in her life time. Deep down I knew I could achieve something. At GLC, we only had morning lectures and so simultaneously with studying law at GLC, I worked at a small law firm run by two brothers. My senior Munir Visram was my biggest mentor. He gave me so much self belief and confidence in my abilities. In my final year LLB exams, I stood first in the entire Mumbai University and was awarded three gold medals. I followed that up with a first rank in the Solicitors exam, getting top marks in all five subjects and earning a full scholarship to do my LLM at Cambridge University.
What challenges have you faced during your career? How did you overcome them?
Initially, I always wanted to be a litigator and argue my own cases but soon realised that I would not be able to do full justice to this, due to my low vision. In those days during the 1980s and early into the 90s, computers were scarce and we had to make do with manual typewriters and standard small fonts and bad ink. Books were also in small print and while studying with the help of a magnifying glass and similar aids was manageable, reading big briefs with bad printouts and arguing in courts having to refer to these was very difficult. Thus, though I did successfully handle many litigations during my early career, and I have some quite fascinating anecdotes, once again destiny played a role and I moved into becoming a corporate and tax lawyer.
Once I completed my masters in Cambridge, I worked in a city firm in London for a few months. They then introduced me to Mr. Bijesh Thakker of Thakker & Thakker (T&T) who offered me a job a year later. I thus moved from a litigation and arbitration practice to corporate and tax law. Bijesh was my second mentor who trained me to service large multinational clients and handle the most complex of deals.
With the growth of technology, reading and working on documents became much easier and being a corporate lawyer was much more manageable and very satisfying for me.
How do you measure success and what skills are vital in setting up a successful legal practice?
To me success means many things of which making a decent amount of money (not necessary millions) only plays a small part. I measure my success more by my reputation as a thorough and honest professional who always has their client’s interest at heart before my own, the respect I have among my peers and my juniors, and the ability to have a reasonable work life balance.
You need a lot of dedication and hard work to build a successful practice. There are no shortcuts. In the initial years of my career, I had to put in long hours, do whatever it took to learn and absorb the art of ‘lawyering’ from my seniors and peers and then find my own niche practice areas.
One of the primary skills that I think is vital in building up a successful practice and to keep a client happy is the ability to understand what the client needs. Once you understand that, finding the answers, both legal and practical becomes much easier.
The other very important vital skill in running a successful practice is the ability to earn the respect of your juniors and peers and keep your organisation motivated to deliver a great work product to your client. There is no magic formula for this; no one is perfect. Each firm and each individual is different and they each have their strong and weak points. You have to learn to respect that and see more of the good qualities and focus on these rather than the weaknesses.
The ability to mentor your juniors and have a high level of loyalty are also key to building up a successful practice.
As a professional on the matter, what would you say is the biggest tax issue that businesses in India face today?
While there are many, many tax issues that all businesses face, the uncertainty in the law and fear of the unknown is perhaps the biggest challenge in structuring your business or a deal.
Things were far simpler in the late 1990s and early 2000s as there was more certainty in the law, and despite the relatively higher tax rate, in general people at least knew where they stood.
Today, the government wants to tax anything and everything and even when the Supreme Court rules in favour of a tax payer, the Government cannot stomach a loss and they change laws retrospectively.
While the government says they will simplify laws, they actually over complicate it. Look at the new provisions on things such as anti avoidance, indirect transfers, transfer pricing, place of effective management and deemed transfers, just to name a few. The concepts are fine and generally accepted world over, but the drafting of the law in India is so complicated that no one really knows how these provisions will be interoperated by the taxman, the courts and then the legislature, who will change it again. Things get more chaotic when high courts in different states pass conflicting judgments on the same issue and then the Supreme Court takes its own time in clarifying that. One of the prime examples of this being the characterisation of payments for use of software. The controversy has been going on for at least two decades and the matter has been pending in the Supreme Court for over 5 years with no clarity on the subject.
Is there anything that you would like to add – any advice to young and aspiring lawyers?
The world is a much tougher place now and you have to work that much harder to rise – do not go for short term gain or by glamour, patience is a virtue and keep realistic goals and expectations. Most importantly, have self belief.
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Aliff is recognised as one of the leading lawyers in his chosen fields of practice being M&A, tax and employment law. Aliff has consistently been recognised as a leading lawyer by various publications in all these fields. Besides his strong M&A and private equity practice, Aliff has been instrumental in recent years in building up the Firm’s tax and employment practice
ALMT Legal is a dynamic and progressive full service Indian law firm that provides high quality Indian expertise with an international capability. With approximately 70 lawyers and 20 partners across offices in strategic commercial centres like Mumbai and Bangalore, ALMT has an established reputation as one of India’s top bracket full service firms.