May 16, 2014 6:23 pm

The husband and wife behind India’s largest law firm

Cyril and Vandana Shroff talk about the Mumbai house where they met, married and now work together
Cyril & Vandana Shroff in the Living room on the ground Floor of their house©Subhash Sharma

Cyril and Vandana Shroff in the living room of their home in Mumbai

Cyril and Vandana Shroff like to work closely – very closely. The husband-and-wife duo head India’s largest legal group, Amarchand & Mangaldas, meaning each day begins with discussions of cases and clients in their substantial ocean-facing home in midtown Mumbai. At the office their proximity is greater still, with the two lawyers sitting across from one another, around a single L-shaped desk.

Today, sitting overlooking the Arabian Sea on ample dark blue sofas in their ground-floor living room, Cyril admits the working arrangement is unusual. “The advantage is that we know exactly on almost a minute-by-minute basis what’s happening, and this allows us to manage so many things about the firm literally as one unit,” he says.

Once, in the late 1990s, they tried working further apart for a spell, but the experiment failed: “I found I was really unhappy,” says Vandana. The proximity suits them, they agree, while the practice seems to run in the family too, given that Cyril’s father had a similar workplace set-up with his mother.

The company is a family concern, founded by Cyril’s grandfather in 1917. Today Cyril runs it jointly with his elder brother Shardul, who leads its offices in New Delhi, while the couple’s son Rishabh works with them in Mumbai. The same is true at home, where their son also lives, along with Cyril’s elderly mother and uncle. When she is in town, there is a place for their daughter Paridhi, too. “We all live on the same level . . . So we all have breakfast and other meals together,” says Cyril.

He took over the group’s Mumbai office aged 35 in 1994 – he is now 53; Vandana says her own age is “a secret” – although he and his wife rose to particular prominence over the past decade, establishing themselves as favoured advisers to India’s corporate elite. The country’s legal market remains closed to foreign firms, allowing local groups to prosper as domestic conglomerates like Tata and Reliance Industries began on a whirlwind series of global deals.

Sitting room on the second floor©Subhash Sharma

Sitting room on the second floor

At home, the two lawyers keep separate offices: Vandana’s on the second floor and Cyril’s on the ground level, which is formally decorated with marble floors and dark wood columns, and otherwise used mostly for entertaining. A dining area lies furthest from the sea-facing windows, with a dozen red chairs that match the crimson outfits the couple are wearing as we talk.

“I was born here, when my dad used to live there, just above this,” says Cyril, gesturing to the two floors above. These provide the family’s main living area, including a spacious all-through sitting room and dining area on the second level, with high ceilings, reddish marbles floors and comfortable blue couches. Light streams through from the balcony, while the main room is dominated by a sizeable model wooden ship in a glass case, bought during a trip to South Africa in 2006.

Cyril met his wife in the building too – they were introduced by their parents – while their marriage was conducted on the first floor. Last year their daughter Paridhi was married in the same spot, overlooking the sea, with the celebrations surrounding this latest wedding illustrating the Shroffs’ place among India’s corporate elite.

Their daughter chose to marry the son of Gautam Adani, a prominent industrialist and billionaire. Even in a country known for its opulent weddings, the celebrations were lavish, featuring a four-day gathering in Goa with more than 2,000 guests, including the billionaire brothers Anil and Mukesh Ambani, arguably India’s highest profile tycoons. The sheer number of guests created its own problems, Vandana recalls, with a jam of private jets causing a “bit of a nightmare” for the authorities at Goa’s relatively small airport.

Two life-size sculptures, a man and a woman, on the second floor©Subhash Sharma

Two sculptures on the second floor

To keep their clients happy, the couple largely split their roles in the office: Cyril, as managing partner, does more advisory work, and travels frequently; his wife, although also a trained lawyer, tends to stay in Mumbai and focus on internal management. “The big boss never travels,” she says, with a smile. “When he gets on my nerves I just send him off . . . and then I get my space to myself.”

The couple have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, although in conversation Cyril’s manner is courtly and precise, while his wife can be more barbed – a stylistic difference that extends to their respective working styles as well. “It can ruffle feathers,” she admits. “I am a straight shooter, and blunt. Most people like to pussyfoot.”

“A common friend came to us a while back, wanting advice,” says Cyril, by way of an example. “And I gave him the pros and the cons,” he says, before Vandana interjects, “ . . . and two pages of bullshit.” Cyril continues: “And she met him for just 30 seconds and said, just do this. And so he did that, and it worked out well.”

This headstrong trait was on show the first time they met nearly 30 years ago, at a moment when Vandana was far from keen on the potential match. “She really dressed down, which is exactly the opposite of what one is supposed to do in one of these formal meetings,” says Cyril. “And she decided not to speak a word.”

Gaint paintings & master art works in the Living Room of the Shroff's House

Paintings and artwork in the living room

Even so, the relationship quickly improved. Marriage followed a few months later, with Vandana moving from her family’s home in the southern city of Hyderabad and into a house that had been in Cyril’s family since the 1930s. Despite having no background in the profession (and parents who expected her to become a housewife) Vandana decided to join her husband, and train to be a lawyer.

The couple also began gradually refurbishing parts of their property, with their art collection becoming another joint endeavour. It now ranges from classical Hindu-themed sculptures to more modern Indian paintings, including a handful by MF Husain, the country’s most celebrated contemporary artist. “Art has been a part of our life now for at least two decades,” says Vandana.

With both their children now married, the couple’s main focus remains professional, especially their plan to expand the company beyond India and build a globally-recognised legal group. “I see ourselves as a national champion of the Indian legal market,” says Cyril, comparing the firm to the likes of London-based Slaughter and May.

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Some who know the couple say the firm’s next step up will not be easy, especially given its tight family control. “There is no doubt that Cyril is a formidable legal mind, one of the best,” says an executive who knows them. “But can they build a worldwide firm like this, still dominated by family, working around the same desk? That is less clear.”

Cyril admits that his country’s legal system has come under strain in recent years, gaining a reputation for excessive complexity. “The quality of legal thinking here . . . I think it’s second to none,” he says, “but a lot of our traditions go back to the English bar . . . and while the English bar has moved on a lot, we are still stuck in regulations which are more than 100 years old.”

Still, he rebuffs the suggestion that family ownership will limit his company’s expansion plans, even when it faces new competition from international legal groups, which he expects to be allowed into India’s market “towards the end of this decade”. Amarchand already has 89 partners, says Cyril, almost all of whom are not family members, while its family heritage provides advantages in a country where most businesses also remain family-owned.

“These are relationships of trust, built up over a long period of time, when you know each other and you know what you stand for,” says Cyril. “We are a repository of many a secret . . . but you have to keep them. They’re not your secrets to reveal.”

James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent

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A Silver Elephant Statue in the Living Room of the Shroff's House

Favourite things

Elephants dominate the Shroffs’ home, from statues of the portly Hindu elephant god Ganesha to paintings on the walls. The largest stands in Cyril’s office: a waist-high specimen in hand-beaten silver and teak, with a raised trunk.

“We picked it up in Udaipur, and, well, he is a cute, fat fellow, isn’t he?” says Vandana, Her soft spot for the animals means her family often buy pachyderm-themed gifts for her, from coffee mugs to the elephant-shaped message pad that sits by the phone. “Sometimes when I see them on the road I believe they are a lucky omen,” she says, “a sign that something big is coming your way.”

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