Rahul Chaudhry & Partners
How have you seen day-to-day IP work change over the course of your career?
Globalisation has created a massive change in the way that businesses approach intellectual property and global filing strategies have evolved to recognise new economic realities. The dramatic acceleration in the rate of innovation has led to an increase in IP protection, as Indian brand owners have become more aware of the need to protect their rights. With India becoming a party to the Madrid Protocol, we have also seen a rise in the number of Indian companies looking to apply for IP protection in multiple countries.
The Indian Trademarks Registry has become more streamlined thanks to the digitisation of databases and e-filing services. A videoconferencing facility for hearings has been introduced as an alternative to physical hearings. Multinationals that are interested in the Indian market seek our assistance to review the Trademark Journals and databases and to conduct common law searches in order to monitor third-party trademarks and ensure that identical or similar marks are not adopted by competitors.
What is the biggest career challenge that you have faced and what can others learn from how you overcame it?
The biggest challenge to date has been transforming the firm from a small, family-owned business into one of the finest, professionally managed and business-oriented full-service law firms in India, with a well-trained team of erudite lawyers and support staff. This transition has been gradual and has involved various trials at every stage, requiring a head-on approach and assessment of the legal implications with strategic innovation, taking into account the unprecedented complexity, increased competition and demands for transformation, while at the same time ensuring that the needs of clients are not compromised.
Another challenge has been to build a strong client base while maintaining the quality of services. Amid mergers and the lateral entry of attorneys across law firms, as well as an assortment of competing external and internal pressures, we have had to build an agile, flexible and inclusive culture, and to attract, retain and develop a top-flight, committed talent pool.
In recent years, the firm has been expanding to take on a more rounded role. Rather than being a niche IP firm, it has expanded into core corporate and commercial law and has been handling various complex matters. These changes have required adaptability, credibility and decisiveness, along with persuasion, motivation and the empowerment of departments around a shared vision.
The covid-19 pandemic has also created a number of challenges. We realised that the outbreak would bring people’s lives to a halt and promptly implemented work-from-home policies, with our IT team creating a safe set-up for staff to work remotely. In these challenging times, it has been of the utmost concern to our firm to continue to provide prompt and quality services to our clients, while maintaining and safeguarding the health of our co-workers. Further, to ensure business continuity and efficiency during the work-from-home period, the firm put in place various resilience plans, such as timely approvals, prompt responses to emails and flexible working hours to ensure productivity with zero compromise on quality.
As managing partner, what qualities make for effective leadership in the law firm environment?
The foremost requirement is to gain sufficient trust among both associates and clients. Leadership requires honing different roles to understand the needs of both groups.
Maintaining knowledge of macro and micro issues related to the law firm environment – particularly with regard to emerging challenges – is a constant endeavour, as is integrating both specialised and general work with excellent interpersonal skills.
Transforming into a full-service law firm has involved taking risks, so you have to be resilient to overcome any criticism. The firm has seen some prominent changes in overall size and business, with both positive and negative effects. The key has been to focus on business ethics and long-term goals rather than on short-term profits to ensure that the firm’s reputation is not compromised.
It is not enough to have an in-depth knowledge and expertise of law, and to provide high-level strategic guidance to clients on a range of issues and transactions; it is also essential to consider client concerns, business sensitivities and overall goals while crafting comprehensive solutions and strategies, both short and long term, so that clients can secure and maximise the value of their critical assets.
As the legal environment changes so quickly and is in a constant state of flux, managing a law firm requires endless agility. It is important to remain proactive and to practise and imbibe new thoughts and behaviours in order to mobilise personnel around common goals to achieve impact at scale. It is also crucial to learn from mistakes and shortcomings and, at the same time, keep taking on new roles as a business leader to ensure the conscientious and judicious use of resources, labour and technology.
What would you say are the top three requirements for a successful long-term IP strategy?
Increasing attention has been given to the active management of intellectual property in recent years. The top three requirements for building a successful long-term IP strategy would be as follows:
- IP valuation – encouraging organisations to spend money in order to protect, preserve and exploit commercially valuable intellectual property, where doing so is obviously economically justifiable.
- Communication – facilitating good communication between IP generators and IP managers, as well as between IP managers and those controlling the organisation overall.
- Managing the risk of IP litigation through regular checks – taking proactive steps to minimise litigation and resolve IP disputes at the onset through regular surveillance of IP infringement. It is also essential that companies and legal advisers keep aware of the latest IP developments in all regions in which they operate – this goes a long way to ensuring that clients’ IP rights remain protected and are not exposed to sudden risks.
What is the secret to building long-lasting relationships with clients?
Efficient communication is the most important aspect of the attorney-client relationship. It is of utmost importance for an attorney to understand the business needs and requirements of their clients and to respond to every concern with legal options that are both viable and cost conscious. Attorneys should have in-depth knowledge and expertise of the law, should be able to provide responses in a quick and efficient manner, and should be adaptive to client needs.
Second, being open and honest with clients, and helping them to make an informed decision, is also vital to ensure that they are well aware of the consequences of a proposed action.
Third, being proactive in client matters is important as it helps to instil positivity and confidence in the work at hand. Engaging with clients and providing them information on a case-by-case basis keeps them informed and helps to address their concerns.
How do demands from national and international clients differ, and how do you adapt to this?
International clients are more brand conscious and look to minimise conflict, while national clients are becoming increasingly aware of brand protection and are now focusing on cross-border protection of their marks and international filings.
International clients looking to start business in India need to be kept up to date on the market, demand and supply, and need to have the functioning of the national IP offices and legal processes explained in greater detail.
The firm has some standard protocols in place relating to timelines and billing for both national and international clients. However, it adapts to the needs of clients and amends these on a case-by-case basis. Business sensitivities and company goals are kept in mind when crafting comprehensive IP protection and enforcement strategies.
What are some of the biggest challenges that brand owners face when it comes to IP litigation?
Implementing good documentation and IP evidence preservation protocols remain the biggest challenges faced by brand owners, particularly among smaller enterprises. Brand owners should consult their IP counsel on best practices for establishing an effective repository that would give them the confidence they need to sue an infringer, egregious or otherwise, through trial and up to final adjudication.
What recent changes to the Indian IP system do brands owners need to be aware of before pursuing a dispute in the region?
While the Commercial Courts Act 2015, which streamlined practice rules applicable to IP litigation, is by no means a recent development, jurisprudence on the nuances of its provisions is very much in its nascent stages. Also, the extent to which various Indian high courts have laid out local practice rules to implement some of the celebrated changes brought in on paper by the act differs from region to region. Brand owners should consult with their IP counsel to have a clear understanding of the extent to which the act applies to the forum that would have jurisdiction and how the high court with administrative superintendence over that region has interpreted the law.
How can brand owners and their IP counsel help to promote IP awareness in India?
In the past, brand owners relied on physical assets for their growth but over the years, IP rights have increasingly come to determine the growth and bottom line of brands. As a first measure, brand owners must ensure that employees understand how they can use intellectual property in their business strategy. They must then dedicate sufficient time and resources to raising awareness by integrating intellectual property in all areas of the business; partnering with other IP stakeholders or organisations that have an interest in supporting intellectual property can be useful here.
Further, IP counsel can adopt various communication methods, depending on the available resources, including firm websites, electronic newsletters, seminars and networking sessions, to promote IP awareness in India. In this way they can specifically target students, the relevant employees in a company, SMEs and start-ups, and government offices, as well as brand owners, through planned events and communication methods.
What long-lasting effects do you expect recent global events to have on brand protection efforts in India and abroad?
The outbreak of covid-19 has led to a limited supply and demand, creating challenging times for brand owners. The economic slowdown has resulted in a tightening of legal budgets. Further, brand owners and consumers are witnessing a rise in the number of counterfeit products available for sale online and in physical stores, especially considering the high demand for personal protection and hygiene products. There have already been news reports of fake sanitizer factories being uncovered in different parts of India.
Hence, the most important, long-lasting step is to ensure that brand owners have the necessary IP protection in place, while actively monitoring online and physical channels for identical or similar brands, the marketing or sale of suspected counterfeit or lookalike products, and considering all enforcement options that can be taken presently or as and when lockdowns are relaxed.
Second, encouraging brand development through e-commerce platforms is essential. Brand owners should look towards investing in digital and online marketing, as there has been an upward trend in the use of e-commerce and online payment methods. Digital savviness will remain crucial as retailers and brands adapt to consumer preferences shaped by the pandemic.
Third, brand owners can now have a greater involvement in the lives of consumers by associating their brands with goodwill and positive action in times of crisis, rather than working solely for profit. For instance, Coca-Cola has released a series of videos profiling unsung local heroes in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and around the world who are going above and beyond for their communities amid the covid-19 crisis. The mini-stories followed the online film launched by Coca-Cola on 1 May, International Workers’ Day, which celebrated humanity and the human spirit in these challenging times. The video has already been viewed more than 18 million times.
Lastly, brand owners should consider this a good time to engage with customers, clients and marketers, in order to understand their requirements and incorporate ideas for planning ahead.
Rahul Chaudhry is managing partner at Rahul Chaudhry & Partners. He provides legal expertise to clients and handles business management at the firm. His comprehensive repertoire in the management and enforcement of IP rights and his extensive experience in assessing strategic innovation and legal implications enable him to advise both Indian and overseas clients on a range of issues and transactions relating to intellectual property and non-IP matters.