INTERVIEW SERIES: MR. DEBANSHU MUKHERJEE (CO-FOUNDER, VIDHI CENTRE FOR LEGAL POLICY)

Updated: Jul 14

[Mr. Debanshu Mukherjee is the Co-founder of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and is working in the capacity of Practice Head of Insolvency Law, Corporate Law and Financial Regulation. He has a decade-over experience in commercial laws and has advised the Government of India on several legislative projects in this space. After graduating from Hidayatullah National Law University in 2008, he worked as an Associate at AZB & Partners. In 2013, he completed his BCL with distinction from the University of Oxford. Later, in 2017, he attended Harvard Law School as a Fulbright Scholar and was awarded the Irving Oberman Memorial Prize in Bankruptcy and the Dean’s scholar prize in Corporations]


1. How has the leap from being a corporate lawyer to policy-making been for you? What were the factors/reasons that helped you in taking this decision?


I was quite happy with my work as a transactional lawyer before I left for my first graduate degree in Oxford. Around this time, I was approached to join forces with others in Vidhi’s founding team and develop its financial sector work. I really liked the idea of starting a new venture with like-minded individuals and help in building something up from scratch. As with any other start-up, the first few years were quite challenging but equally exciting. We divided responsibilities amongst ourselves, strategized together to agree on how the organization will develop and literally gave it our all.


As luck would have it, we got to work on some large reform projects right off the bat. We also benefitted from being mentored by senior professionals on our board, who kept us disciplined. In hindsight, the first couple of years created the blueprint for the organization’s future development and I found the entire experience to be very fulfilling. To sum up, it wasn’t a planned move. I just followed my instincts in the beginning and decided to remain invested because of what we experienced and achieved in the first few years.


2. Having a postgraduate degree from both the UK and US, could you detail on some peculiarities in the method of learning (practical and theoretical emphasis) that you found in these countries?


The BCL program at Oxford allows you to take up to four courses a year. They are taught through seminars and one-on-one tutorials and evaluated based on a single exam at the end of the year. Most seminars involve multiple instructors and are very engaging because of the small class size. There is no cold calling during classes, but the final exams can be very challenging. The LLM at Harvard follows a semester system that allows one to take 9-12 courses over three terms depending on their appetite and interest. Seminars are not very different from Oxford but primarily rely on reaction papers for evaluation. Many bread-and-butter subjects like Constitutional Law and Corporations are taught in the lecture format.


Exams are not as tricky as Oxford, but there is a lot of cold calling in classrooms, which keeps one more prepared throughout the year (and possibly explains why the exams appear to be easier). Harvard also requires everyone to write a short thesis during the year. The BCL is an exclusive program for graduate students, whereas the JD and LLM students at Harvard are usually taught together. Oxford is quite tradition-oriented and allows one to go deep into specific areas of law and understand the theoretical underpinnings. Harvard enables one to go wide and has more practice-oriented offerings.


3. Could you tell us some differences and commonalities in your undergrad and postgrad law schools in terms of lifestyle/demands on time, approach to teaching, expectations, or even general environment?


I started my undergraduate studies at Hidayatullah National Law University in 2003 (the same year that the school was set up). While it wouldn’t be fair to compare my college with the graduate schools I attended later (in terms of resources and infrastructure), one significant difference that I must point out relates to the amount of time I spent preparing for classes. There was a lot of spoon-feeding during my undergraduate studies. This changed dramatically during graduate studies, where the quality of your classroom experience entirely depends on how prepared you are for a class.


In my time, the batch sizes at most national law universities used to be small, and ours wasn’t any different, which was good for us. We had some excellent teachers in the initial years. More importantly, we had a very competitive (and yet supportive) student community that consistently pushed everyone to do well. We had our share of problems, but even those experiences helped us become better versions of ourselves.


4. Could you detail on the long-term objectives of the work undertaken by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy as well as the areas of law/issues that are likely to be the focus of the Centre in the near future?


The organization and the areas that we work on have developed very organically over the years. Driven mainly by the backgrounds and interests of the founding team, we chose four broad areas in the first year: public law, judicial reform, health & environment and financial & commercial law. We started independent research under these broad themes at the very outset. In so far as government work is concerned, we got our first break with the bankruptcy reforms project. While this was ongoing, we were pulled in to advise on several aspects of the statutory framework for AADHAAR. We managed to execute these projects reasonably well. This helped us in establishing our credentials in the early years.


Today, we have thirteen verticals (working on areas ranging from inclusive education to tax law) and two regional initiatives in Maharashtra and Karnataka. We are focused on producing independent research outputs in each of these areas to bring about meaningful reforms by shaping the public discourse, engaging directly with the government and, if required, even going to court (as we did in challenging laws that discriminated against leprosy patients or intervening in a landmark health law case in support of an individual’s right to have a greater say in their end-of-life medical care). We hope to work with more State governments in future (especially for reform areas that come within their legislative competence).


5. Could you detail on your experience working at AZB Partners?


I started work in 2008 as the global f