High-powered lawyer Kunal Sachdev brings glamour to playing by the rules.
By Shruti Kothari
Born in New Delhi and raised in Thailand, lawyer Kunal Sachdev was promoted to Regional Senior Legal Adviser and Deputy Head of Regional Banking and Finance Practice Group at DFDL Legal & Tax before he hit 30. You would expect tales of childhood passion to fuel such an impressive career arc. However, as I listen to his refreshingly candid outlook, it becomes clear to me that practicality, tenacity, and sheer intelligence have been the driving forces behind his success.
“As with most Indian migrant kids, my career options were doctor, accountant, engineer, or lawyer. Alas, I didn’t get into medical school, to the disappointment of my parents and the good fortune of my would-be patients. So, I did my undergraduate degree in Adelaide, and postgraduate degree in Sydney, before being admitted to the Supreme Court of New South Wales. I was still reluctant during the first two years, but I had a eureka moment.” I wait for him to tell me about the thrill of arguing in court, but instead, Kunal surprises me by sharing, “I was sitting in a lecture on enforcing commercial contracts and discussing various drafting methods. I suddenly realised that so much weight in the world is borne by these (sometimes unwritten) pieces of paper.”
I ask Kunal why he chose to return to Bangkok to practice. “Bangkok is home,” he states. “Having worked in Singapore, Cambodia and Lao PDR, I always find myself coming back. I grew up watching this city develop into the metropolis it is today, and now, I am honoured to be a part of that process.”
So what exactly does his work entail? “Meeting billable targets. I joke! Historically, I was the work executioner, but I have recently been transitioning to managing some large regional clients and taking a more supervisory role in terms of legal work by overseeing teams and deadlines across certain countries. This has opened up some time in the day to develop DFDL’s technology practice (given my fintech experience), and also bring new clients into the firm. I’m still adjusting but I’m always con fident in my abilities.”
Such confidence is necessary for someone who is simultaneously dealing with 21 cases across countries with different legal systems, although he assures me that he doesn’t look at each of those every day. His cluttered desk, which gives off crazy genius vibes, belies the clearly meticulous organisation of his mind. I probe him about the most difficult cases he’s worked on. “Some matters may just be monotonous in the sense that you have to read through hundreds of pages of terms and conditions, which can really take its toll. Others may require a level of statutory interpretation where your colleagues may take a different view than yours. This results in interesting situations and debates.”
It would seem that, despite what we see on Suits, difficulty is not restricted to court. “It’s been a long time since I’ve even been to court. The practice of law is vast and varied. For example, everything has terms and conditions attached (whether you use applications on your phone, seek a loan, use a website), and lawyers are involved in those aspects of work, too!”
“I grew up watching this city develop into the metropolis it is today, and now, I am honoured to be a part of that process.”
Was that the most unexpected aspect of becoming a lawyer? Kunal explains that for him, it was actually “the number of areas one can specialise in. You can join a commercial law firm and on any given day you could be dealing with privacy, real estate, company formation, capital markets, financing and tax! Now, I’m working on specialising further in banking and technology.”
The latter makes complete sense, because it’s such a fast-changing field. “My favourite aspect of my job is working in the grey areas. It’s not about bending the rules. It’s just that certain areas, say Artificial Intelligence, don’t have any laws that deal with them directly. That’s when you’ve got to put together all of your existing knowledge and find reasonable solutions to problems, or potential problems.”
Does reading where there are no lines cause ethical dilemmas? “This is a standard problem faced by lawyers around the world. Our bar/law societies give us professional conduct rules and these serve us well when tackling complicated matters. The primary duty of a lawyer is to the court and the law, but of course, we are also in the service business, and these two aspects can clash at times.”
I have long wondered if lawyers always believe their clients. Kunal says, “I am lucky to not be practicing criminal law where this sort of issue would come into a play a little more. In a commercial context, you should always tell your lawyer the truth knowing that, once you sign the engagement letter, he/she is bound by attorney – client confidentiality.” This part is definitely true, as despite my best journalistic efforts, Kunal remains tight-lipped on details.
I ask Kunal about some of the highlights of his career. “Closing any major financing or development project gives you a rush. However, the coup de gras for me thus far has been drafting legislation for use in neighbouring countries. I am just about to undertake my third such project and I am pretty psyched about it! Other than that, bringing an international company into one of the countries we work in is always a thrill. I will drive by their premises and whoever is in the car with me will hear the story of how I helped them set up! I’m sure some of my friends are tired of driving with me for that reason.”
Aside from a deeper understanding of his surroundings, I ask if practicing law has changed Kunal’s mindset in any way. “I’ve realised that time is a commodity. Lawyers have billable rates per hour, so not doing work, or standing in line for 45 minutes, results in frustration a lot faster than it used to. I’ve definitely lost some patience!” Mindful of the clock, I hesitantly inquire about what Kunal’s billable rate is. I blanch at the figure. “Don’t worry,” he laughs. “Normally we offer clients a blended rate, because we work as a team, so actually, having a lawyer on retainer is not as steep as you’d imagine.”
He doesn’t say it, but in my head, this last fact consolidates the value of his position and expertise in the context of other lawyers, too. Another glimpse of this humble streak peeks through when he talks about his support system. “If someone says they progressed in their career without the help of family, friends and colleagues, they’re making it up!
“I have been fortunate to have parents, a brother and sister-in-law, and friends that are not only extremely driven themselves, but have led by example. My Managing Director, Audray Souche, got my foot in the door and has guided me through even the most frustrating parts of my career. I have also had the sheer pleasure to be mentored by some of the best banking, finance, and legal minds in the region, like Vinay Ahuja (a DFDL Partner) and the now retired Walter Heiser.”
Now in a position to be a mentor himself, I ask Kunal what advice he has for others. “It is important for anyone undertaking a new endeavour to keep their expectations realistic. No matter how much of a rockstar you are, or think you are, there is no shortcut to the highest responsibilities in your career without paying your dues. Dues are paid slowly and over every single day for years until you are ready to undertake more complex tasks. Personally, I’m not a believer in the ‘yolo’ lifestyle. I am still young, determined, and prioritising my career; hard work has always been the secret to ‘killing it.’”
KUNAL’S TOP PICKS
All new legal developments excite me. Here are my top three for Thailand:
- Progress towards a dedicated data protection law
- New peer-to-peer lending rules
- A move towards medical marijuana