Nishith Desai

If there is one metaphor I aspired to pin our firm with, it is to be a North Star. We dreamt about being a timeless beacon of bold new thinking, about invention and innovation in the legal firmament.

We crowned this ambitious quest to a significant extent as our firm crossed the 25th year milestone. We were recognized as the Financial Times (FT) ‘Most Innovative Asia Pacific Law Firm 2016’ with a score that put us among the best innovators amongst global law firms. It is heartening that our innovation journey has inspired other innovation-keen law firms from different parts of the world including in the US, UK, Korea, Israel, Mauritius and so on.

The nub of it is: we were fearless about disruption, where we believed it was needed. We sought to lead and carve the best path, rather than be driven by the market and its prevalent methods and models. Consequently, I have been labelled as ‘constructively contrarian’ many a time. But fact is, we have broken many perception barriers and assumptions to be a ‘distinctly different’ but thriving brand and institution, which delivers its clients a high value equation of trust.

For sure, research, education and thought leadership have been our primary instruments to break new ground. However, there has been another crucial enabler – a secret sauce - that I believe has engineered our firm’s evolution and character. It is our application of philosophy-driven organization design and behavior. Our most forward-looking efforts have been in shaping an organization model and culture that adds huge fillip to our vision and strategic intent.

This brings me to the crucial disquieting question: has the conventional Partnership model of law firms that evolved a few hundred years ago run its course as the ‘model that works’ in our industry? It may have served the last few centuries well enough, but is it enough for this one and beyond? Or do we need to envisage a radically different organization construct to truly flourish in the future?

Over the last couple of years, I have ruminated long and hard on the incredible challenges we face in this millennium. The forces and pace of change in the environment have thrown our organizations and systems out of gear. Even as technology hurtles ubiquitous transformations, complexity and plurality in our world, our workforce and workplace, law firms are still sticking to the structures, systems and cultures of the past. If we think that we can keep the last century edifice, and dabble in incremental changes to manage these new-age calls on our firms, we are being rather short-sighted.

Time is perhaps right for an overhaul. Let me tell you why.

The traditional Partnership-led structure of law firm is based on hierarchy or pyramid. It is defined to mean 'relationship' only between the 'partners' and not with the organization as a whole (see section 4 of the Indian Partnership Act1). It fosters centralized command and control by a closed elite club at the top and parks most of the power and decision-making in those few hands.

My submission is this: today’s world is too complex for a few heads at the top to make sense of it, leave alone muster the entire range of knowhow and competencies needed to stay on top of the multifarious demands. Our organizations need all hands on the deck blazing at the top of their game. In other words, you need many more liberated, courageous, accountable and unconstrained leaders across levels, who step up, take charge and lead their spaces, as per their competencies. The present bureaucratic law firm structure is ill-equipped for this.

Also, law firms continue to be rigid, soulless sweatshops demanding ‘hours’ and the formatted ‘professional’ submits to this system. Few firms can claim to be inspirational workplaces that allow their members to fulfil their life’s purpose and be ‘who they are’ in the workplace. Rather, a stereotype of an ideal lawyer prevails and professionals wear ‘the necessary front’ they need to fit in. This does not truly bind an individual to an institution.

What’s interesting though, is that globally and in an array of industries, next-gen workforces are ushering in new concepts of work-life and workspace. These significant new trends are currently outside the radar or scheme of law firms. But for how long can we evade it?

The lines between the ‘professional’ and the ‘personal’ are blurring to bring the ‘whole person’ to the work and workplace. Then again, the workplace is becoming virtual – with an ‘anywhere, anytime’ mindset that plugs in work along with other priorities in a person’s life. Also, working structures are morphing into networks and clusters of self-directed inter-linked roles – jettisoning need for downward delegation or supervision.

Integral psychologist Ken Wilber calls it the ‘Teal’ or evolutionary wave, and Frederic Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organizations’ 2 paints a compelling picture of this alternate organization of the future. Self-management is the cornerstone of this, and advocates powerful, fluid systems of distributed authority and collective intelligence.‎

Teal sees the world “as a place where we are called to discover and journey towards our true self and unfold our unique potential.” The Teal concept proffers some notable elements. For one, ‘dis-identifying or taming the ego’ and believing in ‘abundance’ over ‘scarcity and fear’. This calls for expanded ability to trust others and life itself. Second, inner rightness acts as the compass. Third is ‘wholeness’. So people are encouraged to drop the mask and be themselves.

While such next leap organization architecture is still nascent and unfolding, I am convinced that the ‘Teal’ philosophy will yield agile, innovative, democratic and compelling workplaces fit to tackle the next hundred years.

Sounds esoteric? Yet, what is fascinating is that our own path at NDA seems a ‘Teal-like’ story.

First, the use of trust, transparency and democracy as foundations of our culture. In line with that, we created a non-hierarchical, title-agnostic and mostly flat organization in architecture and mindset. (People join the firm only after agreeing to these ethos3). With philosophies like ‘freedom to think, freedom to act and freedom to earn ' in a team based environment, we championed equal opportunity and voice, and nurtured a climate of initiative, ownership, commitment and passion. We resisted any system where power accrued to a few at the top.

Tuning this further, we sought to embed an evolved form of inspirational leadership that drives ‘great will with great humility’. Defined as Level 5 Leadership by management thinker, Jim Collins, in an acclaimed Harvard Business Review article, we set to develop ‘egoless leaders’ at every level. We propelled ‘expertise’ to the heart of our thinking on career development and made sure our firm was a platform for our people to realize their professional greatness. That apart, we decided on a nano firm model that would ‘stay small, think big and do big’. We have constantly done mega deals with mini teams using power of our research, technology and culture. We focused on fortifying ‘braincount’ – or accentuated capability and capacity in every headcount.

While we professed and ingrained such novelty in our organization system for two decades, we missed seeing a striking pattern. All future gazing in organization and workplace design were pointing to the merits of ideas that we had embraced way before their time.

And we have now made a brave move to deconstruct and rebuild our firm. In April 2016, our ‘Partners’ collectively deliberated and opted for a bold, new inclusive leadership model. As a symbolic gesture, we decided to drop ‘Partnership’ and its baggage of connotations from our vocabulary and use word 'Leader' instead for competent people. After months of internal socialization of the big idea, we are determined to reconstruct NDA over the next three years into a self-managed, flat, dynamic and inclusive 'Networked Leadership'.

Watch this space, as our exciting new journey unfolds.


We would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.


1 'Partnership' is the relation between persons who have agreed to share the profits of a business carried on by all or any of them acting for all.

2 Refer ‘Reinventing organizations’ by Frederic Laloux (2016, First edition) published by Nelson Parker

3 Every applicant to the firm is expected to read 'Management by Trust in a Democratic Enterprise: A Law Firm Shapes Organizational Behavior to Create Competitive Advantage', a case study on NDA published by Wiley Interscience.