Sampurna Kanungo, Corporate Law

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

An alumna from our very own college, she was included in the Dean’s merit list for ranking second overall in the BA LLB (Hons.) Program. She has also represented our college in various debate competitions and was also the Head of the Law Review Committee last year. She is now working for Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas as an associate.

Interviewed by Kshitij Kasi Viswanath

INTERVIEWER

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in a law firm, according to you?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

Advantages-disadvantages vis a vis some other career, such as an in-house counsel?

INTERVIEWER

Inhouse Counsel, or let us say an NGO, or research, etc. What is the benefit of working in a law firm?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

I will dive into the advantages first. I was very sure I wanted to practice law in a law firm primarily because of the quality of work that you get. So, say, in an in-house role, since your client will be one, you will be handling all of the matters in relation to that particular client. The diversity and variety of issues you get exposed to in a law firm environment are far greater. So, for instance, if I am staffed on four matters; all four are vastly different from each other, even though all fall within the same practice area bucket. That is one.

The second one is with respect to the growth potential. I think there is a lot more scope for growth in a law firm environment, primarily because of the nature of matters you are exposed to. And secondly, I felt like in an in- house counsel role, the quality of work, and the issues you ultimately assist on, are very limited. And at advanced stages, they go over to the law firms for assistance, so on a day- to-day basis, I find that the work in a law firm will be much more diverse and interesting as opposed to compliance-related or contract management-related roles.

Of course, I do not have a lot of, or even any, experience in the in-house role. So, this is mainly based on my perception of it and my interactions with people. But while making that call, these are the jumping points where I went off of.

When it comes to the disadvantages, I am sure it is no secret that the hours are especially bad. I think that is something that everyone should be very wary of. I have recently experienced, from my interaction with friends and so on, that the hours are not just bad for larger firms or tier one firms; the hours are uniformly bad throughout the industry. I wish somebody had sat me down and explained all of this to me in my earlier years. Initially, when you hear these horror stories, you think that these are one-off incidents, or these are not as prevalent, but that is not the case. That is not to say that you will be working for 16 hours at a stretch. But the hours can get very unpredictable, and the hours can be long depending on the transaction stage. The concept of holidays and weekends is diminished once you start working, depending on what work comes up, whether it is urgent or not, if the timeline is stringent on a matter, you are going to have to pick that up. That is a major disadvantage. Apart from that, tight deadlines, fast-paced work, and not being able to take your own time for everything. At the same time, that also comes with a lot of learning in its own way and a lot of variety.

INTERVIEWER

Just to summarise, the advantages are greater learning opportunities when we come to law firms and the scope for a diverse number of matters which you can make yourself adept with whereas the disadvantages are the rigidity of hours and the lack of a personal life.

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

…And a very fast-paced environment.

INTERVIEWER

What was your journey to secure this role at CAM?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

With respect to Cyril Amarchand and Mangaldas, my journey was relatively easier than a lot of the others, in the sense that I interned with CAM in my 4th year, and right after my first internship, I was asked to sit for a PPO interview. I was offered a PPO post this interview. After that, I was barred from interning anywhere else for a year and a half till I graduated. I joined Cyril Amarchand and Mangaldas upon graduation. I think for a lot of the others, there are two or three ways to go about it: one, the more common one, is you get an internship, and then get a call back internship, or an assessment internship post that. During the internship, if your team deems fit, you get offered a PPO.

The second is if you intern long term and eventually get absorbed by the firm and continue working, you switch from an intern to an associate. The third is, you apply directly for an interview with the firm after you have graduated. Depending on the firm, they will either ask you to intern for a month, assess you, and offer you a job; or they will simply offer a job to you based on the interview. In that case, the interview is going to be a little more stringent than a PPO interview. I would like to point out right now that this varies greatly, from firm to firm. If you are interested in a particular firm, I suggest you speak to somebody and figure out their hiring process first. For instance, a lot of the firms will not offer a call-back internship. It is a do-or-die situation in the first instance itself, so if you do not get an offer the first time around, it means you are out of the process; you are not going to get a call back or a job offer later on. Some firms hire specifically from their intern pool, so it becomes necessary for you to intern with the firm; you cannot directly sit for a placement interview. Some of the others require you to intern long term at the firm, say six months or more, and only then will they decide whether to give you an offer. So, make sure you do not go in blind, speak to people working at the firms, and talk about their hiring practice. A lot of the firms also have certain limitations because they will only hire for a particular year, during a specific period. For instance, for the year 2021, they will finish hiring on campus in 2019. In which case, you need to make sure you have interned at the firm and you have secured an assessment internship before that cut-off period. It is not very strict, but some firms will follow that. Make sure you are aware of the hiring practice and the process they follow before you go into an internship, and obviously, this is for the latter stages when you are looking for a job.

INTERVIEWER

What were some of the defining experiences or habits that you adapted or inculcated to secure such an offer with CAM?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

I would say during the internship. put in your 100% for every task that is given. Once you start working or interning, you will find that there will be key moments where you can highlight certain skills, which will matter in the end. There are two basic skill sets that you need to hone during your time at law school, everything else you can pick up later- one is research, and the second is attention to detail. I say attention to detail because in your initial few years, be it as an intern or as a first second-year associate, you are not going to be given a lot of heavy lifting to do. It is going to be a lot of mundane tasks. One of the ways you can stand out and set yourself apart is with respect to how well you perform an assigned task. Even if it is something as simple as proofreading a document, if you have a sharp eye and can pick up on things that others might miss, that is something that your seniors will appreciate. Again, that takes the load off of them because they do not have to go back and review your work and put in more work for something you should have done. That becomes a crucial skill set.

Another thing I do not think is commonplace but should be is being vocal about what you are expecting out of an internship. In the 4th or 5th year, it is an expectation that you are interning because you want a job. However, it is better for you to communicate this clearly with your team, preferably once you have established a rapport with them, maybe towards the end of your internship. Do not sit back and expect that you will receive that call for a PPO or an offer or a call back; make sure that you speak to your partner and speak to the senior members of the team. If you have that kind of rapport, you can ask them to push for it, but make sure you communicate this clearly with your team. It also gives you a better sense of where you stand and whether you should go out looking for other places or if you should pin your hopes on this one opportunity. So that is something that is very, very important.

INTERVIEWER

In your initial years at law school, or at your time in law school, what extracurricular activities were you passionate about? And how have these extracurricular activities moulded you towards having the career that you are trying to make right now?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

For me, there were two activities that I engaged with quite consistently at law school. One was debating, and the other was publications, writing, editing, law review- basically research, and publication. When it comes to debating, I would say that a large part of my time in law school was invested in this activity and I think it has helped me immensely. One, it has helped me in the conventional sense of improving articulation, improving confidence, and being able to present my ideas in a coherent manner, not just while speaking; this also ties into the second point, with respect to how you frame arguments. The ability to frame arguments and think on your feet that debating, as an activity, lends you. That is something that I found; it pervades into all the other activities I engaged with at law school. My experience with debating helped me in mooting as well. For instance, while mooting, I found that towards the end during rebuttals, I would end up debating with the judge, and I would speak in that manner, and that ability to think on my feet helped me with answering any questions they might have for me. The skills of being able to frame arguments and think critically about issues are what helped me in my other activities as well, which were writing and publication. Because at the end of the day, when you are writing an article or a research paper, it is nothing but putting forth your research into an original idea and presenting that idea in a structured, coherent manner. If you can think along those lines, you will be able to put those ideas on paper as well. I would say all of these activities were very interconnected and they kind of merged to be able to help each other out and help me in the pursuit of them all. It also gives you the confidence of knowing that you are going to be able to deal with the proposition at hand or knowing that you are going to be able to present your ideas in a coherent manner because you have done it so many times before. A lot of the time, that confidence in yourself also becomes crucial. Especially so when you are dealing with uncharted territory.

INTERVIEWER

What were some of the factors that made you realise that commercial law was one of your key areas of interest?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

One would be interning in those areas. I followed a method of elimination. I interned with a lot of family lawyers, and I knew that was not something that I wanted to do, same with criminal litigation, same with civil litigation. The process of elimination was the first factor in helping me understand that maybe commercial law is something that I should at least try out, if not focus on. The second thing would be to realise the kind of matters that interest me. In one of my internships, I realised that if a matter is very technical (this is something I noticed while observing oral arguments in court), it interests me far more than something that is, say, more fluid, like a Constitutional case. That was the first point, and knowing myself, I know that I am probably better suited towards; a) understanding technical matters and; b) being able to argue or work in matters that are more commercial or technical in nature. While I love the constitution and other allied fields, I know that as a career option, from a long-term perspective, something that is commercial in nature will interest me more. The third factor was the subjects I started taking towards my third year, which is where your commercial law subjects begin to come in, and those were the subjects that interested me a lot more. That helped me solidify that Commercial Law is going to be a practice area that I am interested in and that I am looking at in terms of a long-term career.

INTERVIEWER

What is a typical day for an associate in a top- tier law firm in India?

SAMPURNA KANUNGO

My experience is going to vary a lot from others, even within my firm. But from what I have seen, the hours for me are going to be very unpredictable. I could have the entire morning off and then suddenly get bombarded with work towards the end of the day depending on what is happening. This happens because a lot of the work that you are doing also depends on inputs from your seniors, clients, or even the other side. All of these factors merge to give you a very unpredictable working day. So, that is one. The second thing I would say is that the kind of matters you will be working on will also vary. So, at any time, it is not like you are working on a single matter. You are going to be working on multiple matters at the same time. Having to manage all of that and prioritising all the matters is also something that you need to slowly learn. Just to summarise, the top two things of note would be that your hours are going to be very unpredictable, especially at a junior level, because they are contingent on a lot of other factors and work done by others; and that there is a multiplicity of matters that you are going to be working on at any given point in time.

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