I am at the office of legal eagle Cyril Shroff, the Mumbai-based managing partner of Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff and Co., and his glass-walled workspace is unusual in many respects.
The first oddity is the curious seating arrangement—Cyril, 51, shares a hefty L-shaped desk with his wife Vandana Shroff, also a trained lawyer. They are one of the few husband-and-wife combinations to share a private office in corporate India. Although Vandana has a dedicated office space next door, they find it more convenient for her to work off his desk. It enables “a high-level of coordination,” Cyril says, adding that his parents worked in similar fashion for several years too.
Second, Cyril appears to have a rather soft corner for dogs. A stuffed toy puppy sits beside a clutch of sharpened pencils on his desk. A pair of 150-year-old porcelain dogs rests on the cabinet unit. The family pug’s snapshot serves as a wallpaper on his mobile phone. Such sentimentality is somewhat incongruous with Cyril’s reputedly razor-sharp legal acumen.
Old-world charm: (clockwise from top) Several hand-drawn sketches by Cyril Shroff line the walls at the office;a pair of 150-year-old porcelain pooches on Cyril’s desk; a stuffed toy puppy at Cyril’s desk; Cyril and Vandana share an L-shaped desk, and a portrait of Suresh Shroff hangs on the wall behind; and Vandana’s ‘lounge’ office. Photos: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Traces of the Shroff family, past and present, punctuate the cabin and its immediate surroundings. A portrait of the late Suresh Shroff, Cyril’s father, looms over the leather armchair next to Cyril and Vandana’s desk. A similar portrait of Amarchand, Cyril’s grandfather, hangs in the adjoining eight-seater meeting room where he meets larger groups of colleagues. Further down the corridor, a vacant cabin has several hand-drawn sketches by Cyril, depicting a range of subjects.
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Next to the Shroffs’ joint cabin is Vandana’s “lounge”, an open meeting space, distinctively domestic in appearance with its luxurious armchairs, carpet and artefacts. A vibrant Jehangir Sabavala painting anchors the room. It is just one of an extensive collection of artworks sprinkled throughout the office, assiduously curated by Vandana. “I look at art as an investment in my own happiness,” she says.
Traditional, yet contemporary
Cyril summarizes the office décor aesthetic in one word: khandaani. Vandana and he deliberately chose the old-school look, with teakwood furniture, leather armchairs and an extensive art collection, when they first bought the 25,000 sq. ft property spread over a floor and a half in Parel, and designed the office. It conveys important firm values such as “timelessness”, “continuity” and “pedigree” to clients and employees, Cyril explains.
Although old-fashioned in form, the workspace is agile in function, with modern-day computing technology, open-plan workstations and meeting rooms for firm-wide collaboration.
Amarchand was one of the first corporate entities to sense Mumbai’s shifting axis of business and relocate from downtown Dalal Street to post-industrial Parel, nearly a decade ago. This marriage of traditional values with contemporary work practices highlights the benefits of having a promoter family in a professional services firm, believes Cyril. “A founder’s ability to take risks and provide entrepreneurship is significantly greater (than non-family professionals),” he states.
Unique business model
Three generations of Shroffs work in the “family trade”—Cyril’s mother, Bharati, the couple and their London-educated son Rishabh in Mumbai, and brother Shardul Shroff, his wife Pallavi and their children in Delhi. Cyril’s daughter Paridhi is currently at law school.
Founded in 1917, Amarchand continues to dominate legal rankings in India in headcount (nearly 550 lawyers across five cities) and blue-chip corporate clientele. I am keen to understand how the dynamics of a firm such as this—structured as a partnership and led by a family—are reflected in its workplace.
The design, layout and contents of the workspace reinforce my perception of Amarchand as having a unique business model in the Indian corporate landscape. It is a family led and family managed, yet extremely successful professional services firm—an arrangement which might seem to be a contradiction in terms.
Outsiders might question whether the presence of family members implies that the firm is not professionally run. For an expert opinion, I consulted Tom DeLong, one of my professors at Harvard Business School, and author of several books, articles and case studies on professional service firms.
Speaking over the phone, DeLong told me that Amarchand’s organization structure has few global precedents. Citing the future entry of foreign law firms into India, he cautions that “it will be more and more of a challenge, going forward, to combine family owned business and the practice of law”, as both clients and human talent might prefer to work for multinational law firms.
Cyril acknowledges that Amarchand has “a challenging model; because if you look at it from the non-family professional’s perspective, they may wonder whether this means anything less than a meritocracy”. But he also stresses that “our leadership doesn’t come from shareholding, it comes from intellectual leadership”. The founder family, in a professional service firm, must provide “financial capital”, “relationship capital” and “knowledge capital”, he emphasizes.
The Shroffs’ workplace, and Amarchand’s organization structure, neatly exemplify my belief that the “family trade” (as seen in any sphere of life, whether business, politics or the arts) is still considered a solid Indian institution. Unlike other parts of the world, a decades-old family name in India connotes trust and reliability, rather than nepotism, giving it legitimacy.
The Shroffs’ office is thus an excellent barometer of Indian corporate zeitgeist when it comes to contemporary workplace culture. It captures our ability to modernize, while maintaining centuries-old tradition. Switch to iPads, instal flat-screen monitors and laptops, but don’t forget to ensure that the founder’s portrait is prominently displayed.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
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