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Serving the society should be an integral part of one’s life. While staying focused is important, the ‘Can Do’ psyche will help attain success is what Nishith Desai has to say to future lawyers


“Be constructively contrarian all the time and play intellectual challenges” is Nishith Desai’s mantra in life. It is, therefore, not surprising that he took up International Business Law at a time when international companies were leaving the country due to the restricting regulations of the Janata Government. There was hardly anyone who was interested in Desai’s work. Yet, with his deep interest, and of course his acumen for law, he established Nishith Desai Associates (NDA).

However, like most young people of those times, Nishith too was an ardent supporter of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement during the Emergency days. “Just as I was finishing my LL.M., Emergency was imposed, taking away many of the fundamental rights of the citizens. JP provided timely leadership to the nation. I was inspired and participated in the ultimate restoration of democracy,” says he remembering the Emergency days. In fact, he went on to convene the Bombay Sangharsh Samiti – an all-Mumbai Students’ movement.

As times were not in favor of International Business Law, Nishith did not put caution to the winds but studied patterns of more than 100 global law firms before starting his own law firm. Established in 1989, it is reputed as a research-based international law firm. The firm specializes in regulatory, strategic legal and tax advice. Not only this, NDA also deals in accounting and consulting in addition to international tax matters and investment opportunities. Today, the firm has offices in Mumbai, Bangalore, Silicon Valley, Singapore and New Delhi.

He prides himself on the fact that the technologies adopted by the firm are the most advanced in the world, which makes the West take cognizance of an Indian law firm. Even interns from Harvard come to the firm every year.

The use of latest technology helps NDA to conduct its own work while also facilitating cross border communication and interactive sessions. In addition to this, Desai greatly regards knowledge and thus feels that managing knowledge is a facet of the firm that cannot be left unattended. Therefore, the basic structure of the firm is based on Gandhian principals.

Desai’s dedication to the firm and innovative methods have been rewarded well. Top law magazines of the country such as RSG India say that Nishith Desai Associates is “an innovative law firm which has a leading expert status in its chosen verticals of funds and tax.” As for Desai, they say his is a safe pair of hands for many foreign law firms. NDA was also ranked as the eighth best law firm in the country by RDS India 2011 rankings. Legal 500 calls Desai’s genuine expert’ and says that “Nishith Desai Associates is ‘a real market leader’ for investment funds work, and represents clients such as Avendus Capital, Long Term India Fund, Kotak India Real Estate Fund IV and Milestone Domestic Scheme III.”

While Desai is open to the idea of letting foreign law firms into India, he strongly feels that it should be a two-way process. Similar entry should be given to Indian law firms abroad too. Immigration is the biggest impediment, especially in countries such as the UK and US.

Having helped shape the legal landscape of modern India, his name is listed in the Lex Witness ‘Hall of fame: Top 50 individuals.’ Voted as the ‘External Counsel of the Year 2009 by Asian Counsel and Pacific Business Press, he also holds the title of being the ‘Most In Demand Practitioners’ by Chambers Asia 2009. Internationally too, his name ranks at 28 in a global Top 50 ‘Gold List’ by Tax Business, a UK-based journal for the international tax community. In fact, he is among the few who hold a special license from the State Bar of California to practice Indian Law. He is the recipient of Prof. Yunus Social Business Pioneer of India Award for 2010.

A lawyer who is known for his honesty and integrity, Nishith, with no legal legacy behind him and neither any godfather, had to learn everything the hands-on-way. Having lost his father Madan Desai at the age of three, Nishith had to be moved from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, where he went to live with his paternal aunt and her husband. Here, in addition to handling the normal pressures of academics, he also helped his uncle at his medical shop.

A meritorious student, an ‘inherent interest’ saw Nishith take up law in 1969 at Government Law College, Mumbai. His mother Raseshwari Desai belonged to a family of lawyers and judges. He went on to pursue International Business Law. In fact, he wanted to continue a PhD in the subject but lack of any faculty forced him to discontinue.

Tough he counts several amongst his ideals, Nani Palkhivala holds a special place in his heart. “Learned a lot from Nani. My first office was in the building next to Bombay House where he had his chamber. We used to greet each other morning around 9 am in the Homi Modi Street,” says Desai.

If one may think that he is a man with only brains then they can’t be further away from the truth. Quite the romantic, Desai met his wife Swati at a marriage ceremony in Gujarat. A five year long courtship culminated in marriage in 1977. The couple has two children – daughter Noopur and son Suril – both have completed their LL.B. from Mumbai after doing International Business Management from California. Swati runs a business of her own, wherein she helps weavers in making textiles in remote areas of Andhra Pradesh and sells it through outlets called ‘Creative Bee.’ Even Sonia Gandhi is among those who wear sarees woven by these weavers.

Desai may be a top notcher, but as per him, humility goes hand in hand with success. Serving the society should be an integral part of one’s life. While staying focused is important, the ‘Can Do’ psyche will help attain success is what Desai has to say to future lawyers.


We acknowledge “100 Legal Luminaries of India” by Lalit Bhasin (Lexis). The multicolour coffee table book printed on art paper in Hardbound is priced at ` 5995/- and is available at Universal Book Traders, C-27, Connaught Place, New Delhi – 110001. sales@ubtlawbooks.com

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