Building a Practice from the Ground Up and Maintaining it Through a Pandemic
Q&A with Kal Das of Seward & Kissel LLP
At the white-shoe law firm Seward & Kissel, Kalyan (“Kal”) Das has plenty of talented partners, many of whom support his work for large banks. But the career of one of New York City’s biggest rainmakers was something of a do-it-yourself project.
When London- and New York-educated Das became leader of his practice group in his mid-30’s, he had spent only a decade in the states, his mentor had just left the firm, and his only other resource was a first-year associate. Much has changed since. Das’s group, the Global Bank and Institutional Finance and Restructuring Practice, has grown to one of the largest of its type in the world, and his client list has expanded to include the likes of Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Bank of New York Mellon, UMB, US Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui, and M&T Bank, among many others. Das is the relationship partner of about 15+ banks.
Today, his practice may be more relevant than ever. As the impact of the pandemic continues to ripple through the economy, Das’s experience navigating disruptive events from earlier this century, including the accounting scandals of the 2000s and the Asian financial crisis, has proven valuable to his clients. Meanwhile, more recently, he has developed an interest in a pursuit that is having a true moment: fintech investing. He also advises clients in the area, yes, but Das has also truly done it himself in that field. He has become a significant investor in the space—and he has done it on his own unique terms.
Global Banking and Finance Review sat down (virtually) with Das for insight on his legal practice, fintech investments and his proprietary fund of funds.
How do you help your clients, and what are you doing for them right now?
My group handles quite a wide range of assignments for global and domestic banks. We do transactional work, of course, but also new product research, regulatory, litigation and bankruptcy/restructuring matters in both structured and non-structured transactions. It runs the entire gamut from soup to nuts.
Really, much of my practice has been devoted to being a trusted advisor to bank clients. I’ve helped many clients on the back end of structured deals that went bad. I did a lot of work in that area, for instance, in connection with the Enron, Adelphia and WorldCom scandals. And we did some pretty innovative work helping Wells Fargo untangle itself from conflicts related to the mortgage crisis. Today, to give one example, I’m helping parties work through complications arising from the Province of Buenos Aires’s default on $5 billion in bonds.
How often do you work on cross-border matters?
I work on a fair amount of cross-border matters in addition to working on domestic transactions. I spend four or five months every year visiting clients around the world, and I’m admitted to practice law on four different continents. In addition to New York, I also maintain a London office, and I was spending a week every month there on a regular basis before COVID hit.
How has the pandemic affected your travel schedule?
Unfortunately, pretty severely! Since last March, I’ve really only made one trip. I’m looking forward to visiting clients again—there’s just no substitute for in-person contact.
What was your one trip?
We signed a new client, UMB Bank, and I really felt it was important to see them, even though it wasn’t advisable to fly at the time. I ended up driving 3,000 miles round trip to Kansas City. I had to get through a couple of heavy snowstorms, which just makes the story better in retrospect. The senior management at UMB was very gracious to meet with me.
That’s devotion. Is that what draws so many global banks to your practice?
Client service is very important, and I do think about it all the time. I respond immediately to my clients. My secretary has standing instructions to answer my line when I’m in a meeting.
But then, who knows? Sometimes I’ve been told that people just like the fact that I’m upbeat!
How have you been involved in the fintech area?
For about three years now, we’ve been doing transactions for Community Investment Management, a San Francisco-based impact investor. CIM invests in companies that are bringing innovative financial technology products and services to underserved communities. They are committed to making a positive social impact and bring the long-term focus necessary for that mission even though the services they are funding are on the cutting edge.
At any given time, we have a few different transactions going with that team. That’s an example of a client that has only made me more enthusiastic about the possibilities for this space.
You’re involved in it as an investor as well as a lawyer, correct?
That’s right. For a long time, I advised a group of three former executives from Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan who started a fintech-oriented investment firm, Pivot Investment Partners. They would give me a look at their investments, and I would be the fourth one in. They’ve been highly successful and have many clients currently. However, my deal with them has not changed. I’m fortunate to say that of the more than 25 deals, we’re invested in multiple companies that have gone on to become unicorns, like AvidXchange Inc., iCapital Network Inc., Bold Penguin and a couple of others. It has been a fun experience.
Are you involved in any other investment funds?
Yes. I’ve created my own proprietary fund of funds. It’s multi-strategy, long-short funds, and has unique structures and is professionally managed.
Six money managers compete with each other, and the institution that performs best every year gets more funds to work with for the next year.
How are they doing?
You can say I’ve been very pleased.
I understand that you are involved in philanthropy?
Yes, I’ve been lucky to be able to give back to institutions that are important to me, including the Weinfeld Program at New York University Law School, where I’m on the LAA Board. I have also pledged a seven-figure amount to Skidmore College for their new Center for Integrated Sciences, where I am on the Board of Trustees. Additionally, I am also on the Advisory Board of ISH in London and President of FISH(L). We award a scholarship to an American student every year (who is financially challenged) to travel to London and study at London University.
Have you received any recent recognitions from your peers?
Yes, I am honored and delighted to have recently been elected to Law360’s 2021 Banking and FinTech Editorial Advisory Boards. I am also listed on Legal 500 and numerous Who’s Who publications and many other accolades. I am really humbled and honored for such recognitions.
In addition to all your activities, it seems that you are also studying at Harvard Business School?
I am enrolled in the Owner/President Management Program at HBS. It is a three-year commitment, and it is one of the best programs out there. My cohorts are approximately 150+ CEOs from companies from around the world. As a result of COVID, our in-person classes got pushed back towards the end of the year. I expect to graduate this year in November.
Where were you trained as a young lawyer?
After becoming a lawyer, I was trained in both London and New York. My early training was in one of the top barrister’s commercial chambers in London and then with two of the most pre-eminent law firms in New York City before joining my present law firm, Seward & Kissel.
Who is your role model?
Although NYU Law clearly helped my career tremendously, my role model was Jim Hurlock, managing partner at White & Case. I trained under him, and I am what I am because of him. Unfortunately, he recently passed away, and I am forever grateful to him for launching my career.
Life is a journey. I still have so much more to achieve in this life. I am only getting started! Stay tuned!
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