Photo provided by Seward & Kissel
The recession, bank failures, credit crunch, tighter government regulations and even Somali pirates might all contribute to a slow down in business for law firms. But for Kalyan Das and his 170-lawyer firm, Seward & Kissel, there isn't a busier time than the present.
Das, who is the head of Seward’s Global Bank and Institutional Finance & Restructuring Practice, is racking up frequent-flier miles traveling between the firm’s New York and London offices to advise such clients as UBS, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Deutsch Bank on all matters, including the most recent financial reform legislation to hit the U.S. banking industry – the Dodd-Frank Act.
Lawdragon: Tell us a little bit about your firm and your practice.
Kalyan Das: The firm is over hundred years old, and we represent mostly financial services companies. We represent almost all major domestic banks, as well as numerous international banks, and we probably have one of the largest global financial practice of its type in the world. We are also the leading law firm for hedge funds and in the area of transportation finance especially ship finance (where we represent shipping companies and underwriters).
My own practice area, which is probably the largest of its type in the world, represents major banks and financial institutions. We have more than 50 lawyers in the group, and we are a one-stop shop for banks. Banks get involved in all sorts of transactions, and we advise them on those, whether they are structured or non-structured transactions or on new products they want to roll out. In the area of new product development, we would do the research and development for the banks. We also represent banks and financial institutions in litigation and workouts.
The other side of the practice is representing banks in distressed-debt transactions. This is when the banks buy and sell debts of distressed companies—an area growing by leaps and bounds as you can just imagine. We represent numerous hedge funds in this area, and we also represent some banks, including Citibank and Goldman Sachs. By the way, one interesting tidbit about our shipping practice is that some of my partners are very active counseling various parties in connection with the recent Somali piracy matters that you’ve been reading in the papers. Our firm is involved in either counseling the ship owners or the insurance companies when these Somali pirates take over a ship and ransom is demanded.
LD:: How did you end up focusing on financial services as a practice?
KD: I am admitted to practice law in various countries, including New York, the United Kingdom, India and Australia. I actually became a barrister at age 22, and then I did a year’s pupilage/apprenticeship at The Fountain Court, Temple, London, one of the leading barrister’s chambers in the UK. I also have an LLM from New York University School of Law. After my pupilage, I came to the U.S., and went to work for White & Case, and there I rotated through different departments, including litigation and corporate.
As a young associate, I learned a lot and actually enjoyed representing banks. I got very involved in this practice area and the rest is history. After White & Case I went to the law firm of Milbank Tweed, and I was there for a couple of years. The opportunity at Seward & Kissel came up in 1990, and I took over the group in 1994 and started building this practice area from really one person to where it is right now.
LD: What is the hardest thing about your job?
KD: As the head of the practice group, it is a very demanding job. At the end of the day it is a service business and the relationships with these banks and institutions are fragile. You are as good as the last transaction you worked on! We have to deliver a great product at a reasonable price and be at the top of our game. I tell my people within our group to try to return every phone call or e-mail as quickly as possible regardless of where they are or what time it is. I have never taken longer than an hour to return a phone call to a client or if I cannot respond immediately, someone will do it from my group instead of me. Our clients use a lot of law firms, and we are competing with all of those major law firms every single day!
LD: As head of your firm’s banking and finance practice, what are your thoughts on the recently passed Dodd-Frank Act and its impact on your clients?
KD: I am actually working on a transaction right now for a major bank, and we are struggling with certain issues as we speak. Quite frankly, there are so many uncertainties out there, and no one quite knows what applies and what doesn’t. To do a transaction or structure one in the middle of all these new regulations and changes and give advice when you’re not quite sure exactly how to interpret them is very challenging. We’re scrambling along with a few other major law firms to structure the deal in such a way that it will comply with our interpretation of the Dodd-Frank Act. There is a way to operate in these uncertain times. It’s not the easiest way, but our experience has taught us a lot as to how to deal with these uncertainties and issues.
LD: What do you do for fun?
KD: I travel a lot both internationally and domestically. I am now close to reaching the 200,000-mile mark this year. That said, I also like to spend what little time I have with my wife and two young kids in our houses in Southampton, London and Miami.