Law & emerging frontiers: Start-up ecosystem in India

In India, over 80 percent of the legal profession is confined to litigation and courts. But the trend is changing drastically. Today lawyers and law firms are expected to have specialized knowledge and expertise in different branches of law such as cross-border transactions, M& A, corporate acquisitions, telecom law, technology laws, intellectual property rights, Privacy & data protection laws and Start-up laws, et al.

India is fast emerging as a start-up nation. The Indian entrepreneurial landscape has seen a tremendous growth towards the creation of innovative start-ups and has emerged as amongst the fastest growing hub for start-ups in the world.

The start-up ecosystem is not just made up of entrepreneurs and investors; it also includes lawyers, bankers, HR and payroll providers as well as financial services providers. These service providers do more than provide a service; they are partners and important players within the start-up ecosystem, providing guidance, connections, and support.

As someone who worked and still works at the interface of law, technology, and public policy; I have been curious to explore if lawyers could play and if they already are playing any role in helping build this start-up ecosystem. I strongly feel they can and do play a significant role, and this article analyses the role lawyers play in the current scenario and emerging trends across the various dimensions that define the Indian start-up ecosystem; and gauge India’s position as a global start-up hub that is becoming attractive for investors, start-ups, & corporates.

Start-up lawyering is a distinctive style of law practice first observed in Silicon Valley decades ago. Like a typical business lawyer, start-up lawyers form entities, protect intellectual property rights, and document financing transactions for clients starting new businesses. But start-up lawyers have encouraged entrepreneurship there, more broadly, by promoting Silicon Valley’s practices and conventions. Today, start-up lawyers practice not only in established entrepreneurial centers in the USsuch as Silicon Valley or Boston; but also do so closer home, at Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Kochi, etc. and complement the Government efforts to promote entrepreneurship. Our own Bhubaneswar is fast emerging as a Start-up hub of India, with a host of entrepreneurs in the city giving shapes to their promising ideas. I think it is the next big thing for lawyers in the city.

Start-up lawyering is susceptible to both positive and negative assessments: as productive and professionally satisfying civic engagement or as wasteful rent-seeking. Based on my own personal experiences as an entrepreneur, and pride in my legal fraternity and profession, I strongly tend to support the more favorable view. This expansion of start-up lawyering accompanies a growing trend in economic development policy. A wide variety of regions concerned about their ability to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based economy are engaged in efforts to promote entrepreneurship, and start-up lawyers are playing a leading role. Many emerging law firms focusing on the Start-up practice, in cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune stands testimony to this.

Lawyers engage in a wide variety of activities, besides offering technical legal advice, that supports this robust environment for entrepreneurship. For example, they advocate for regulatory reform that assists entrepreneurs and venture capital managers. They also offer to defer fees or work for stock in the company rather than cash, to absorb some of the risks of uncertain business ventures and conserve precious cash flow for investment in product development. Today, lawyers who are far from any established entrepreneurial center are importing the start-up lawyer model, law schools almost uniformly offer courses or clinics focused on venture capital financings and related work for start-ups, practice guides for start-up lawyers are widely available, and start-up lawyer blogs abound.

Start-up Law is a niche area of practice, which most traditional lawyers & law firms hardly have any expertise in. For any Start-up that has been incorporated, or has a disrupting idea, and/or is in the planning stage; it is always advisable to consult a lawyer in the initial stages itself, as there are several legal & regulatory issues that should be addressed to avoid conflicts and hassles later on. Furthermore, the Founders or the Entrepreneurs should focus on giving wings to their ideas & running their start-up business while competent start-up lawyers take care of all the legal compliances and aspects like the founders’ legal rights, government and domain licenses, local laws, agreements with users and vendors, terms of use, privacy policies and many other related legal processes.

Start-up development isn’t easy and one can’t go for it alone – the entrepreneur probably needs a legal team by one’s side. Building a strong relationship with a lawyer early in the Start-up’s development can be a real advantage down the road. Lawyers are as important as business partners on the Start-up board and will keep one on the road to success. Entrepreneurs need to learn to trust their lawyers, let them in on the internal workings of their business and their goals, and they will help pave the way.

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In addition to handling the legal work, lawyers help start-ups get off the ground by making introductions for founders of start-ups to potential investors, mentors, and accountants. They also help negotiate licenses, execute customer contracts, public offerings, and mergers, sit in on board meetings, and give advice- just to name a few.

Conclusion

Lawyers who represent entrepreneurs have a responsibility as trusted counselors to grow their knowledge of key players, engage with.The spread of start-up lawyering is a positive story for the legal profession. In its native environment, i.e. Silicon Valley in the US, start-up lawyers appear to have used their unusual degree of influence over client objectives to promote a system of entrepreneurship that has produced extraordinary results for not only clients but also the Silicon Valley and national economy of the US. This makes start-up lawyering in aspiring clusters such as Bhubaneswar, Vizag, et al a potentially emerging opportunity for young brilliant lawyers.

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Sujeet Kumar suspended his legal practice to serve as the OSD-cum-Special Secretary of the Odisha State Planning Board, a very senior policy planning position. He is the advisor-mentor of ‘LexMantra LLP, a boutique business & legal Consulting firm focused on Legal and Business advisory services for domestic and overseas corporations, multinational companies,  multi-lateral bodies, and start-ups. He can be reached at sujeet.kumar@post.harvard.edu

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