Sonia Gupta – A Passion for Justice, the Experience for the Win

A business cannot run without law. Law protects businesses from having products copied (patent), protects employers and customers (from deception) without law, business organizations could not achieve desired results. Many major business activities are restrained and dependent on law such as, Establishing the organization, Acquiring resources, Business operations, Selling output, Taxation, resolving disputes if occurs, etc.

Ashok Dhingra Associates (ADA), is one of the leading law firm incepted in 2014. The firm offers a wide range of services under Customs and Trade including Export Controls and Sanctions; Goods and Services Tax (GST); erstwhile Indirect Taxes; and Regulatory Laws. ADA also provides advisory, training, and investigation services under Anti-Corruption Laws and White-Collar Crimes to corporates.

In a conversation with Ms. Sonia Gupta, Managing Partner at Ashok Dhingra Associates, we talked about the current law and litigation scenario across the country and how ADA is empowering its clients.

  • Tell us about the firm

Ashok Dhingra Associates (ADA) has been founded by myself with Ashok Dhingra in 2014 when we moved out of J. Sagar Associates (JSA).  ADA’s objective is to enhance value for clients by focusing on solutions that are innovative, yet practical when it comes to implementation. ADA aims to deliver services through highly qualified and trained professionals to meet the objectives of clients and maintains an uncompromising focus on quality services ethically.  ADA follows no relative policy to

  • How were the first few years of the firm?

Just like any new start-up, we did face challenges at the beginning. However, we welcomed every challenge with open arms and overcome the same with determination. We rolled up sleeves and started assisting clients while at the same time adding resources and building a team. Over some time, hard work and determination started paying off, and here we are today with a good team and decent client base.

  • What are the services the firm focuses on? How are your services different from those in the market?

ADA provides a full spectrum of advisory, compliance, and litigation support services under Customs and Trade Laws including Export Controls and Sanctions; GST and erstwhile Indirect Taxes; Regulatory & Anti-Corruption Laws and White-Collar Crimes, which are divided into three practice groups. I lead Customs and Trade Group and GST Group and Ashok leads White Collar Crimes, Investigations, and Regulatory Laws.

I am a Chartered Accountant and Lawyer with an overall experience of around 19 years. Having worked during the initial stages of my career in consulting and financial institutions, I have a deeper knowledge of working in industry and banks which comes in handy while working on investigative assignments. Being a Chartered Accountant, I understand numbers very well which helps in trade remedies investigations. Further, Ashok has worked with Indian Customs for more than 22 years, 7 years with Big4 Consulting firms, and 16 years with law firms. Hence, we both bring on the table the unique experience of having inside knowledge of working of tax and regulatory administrations, accounting, consulting, and legal acumen to provide the best business solutions to clients.

  • How do you decide to take the firm a step further in terms of your services?

We want to focus more on adding services to our existing practice areas rather than adding new practices. On account of global events and trade wars, Tariff Barriers and Non-Tariff Barriers; Export Controls and Sanctions; Money Laundering and Black Money; and Data Privacy have opened immense opportunities within existing practice areas. Hence, we want to leverage our knowledge, experience, and client base to provide these specialized services.

  • Is there any new addition to the list of services? Anything exciting you would like to share?

As mentioned earlier, we are focussing on expanding service offerings horizontally than vertically, we will focus on newer opportunities in our domain. While we are not averse to adding a new service line by taking onboard domain experts to lead such a new practice area, we continue to remain focused on assisting clients in expanding business challenges in our domain.

  • What factors influenced you to choose a career in Law, Litigation, and IP field and start a law firm?

I was introduced to the legal field by JSA, where within a short span of under 4 years, I was elevated as a Partner. Before joining JSA I had worked with consulting firms and banks. On being part of the legal fraternity, I completely got hooked to it. How a legal provision can have a different interpretation depending upon the perspective of the reader fascinated me. While I prefer advisory work, on clients’ insistence, I have handled many litigation matters as well which has honed my litigation skills.

  • Can you please brief us about your professional experience?

I regularly assist clients on issues such as classification and rate of Duty under Customs Tariff; applicability of exemption notifications; Country of Origin Rules; investigation by Special Valuation Branch of Customs to determine arms’ length price in case of transaction with Associated Enterprises; etc. I also advise clients on Export/ Import Policy and Sanctions under Foreign Trade Policy, and compliances required to be undertaken at the time of import or export of goods. I work extensively on controls on the export of dual-use items, restricted software, and technologies (SCOMET List) in compliance with Multilateral Agreements and regularly assists the client in conducting training on export controls laws of India and drafting Internal Compliance Programmes. I am advising clients on issues arising out of inadvertent export of restricted goods and technologies and investigations by Regulatory authorities to close non-compliance causing the least disruption to operations.

I regularly assist clients on trade remedial measures initiated by Directorate General of Trade Remedies such as investigations for levy of Anti-Dumping Duty, Safeguard Duty, and Countervailing Duty and in case of adverse order assistance and appearance before Appellate Tribunal at the first stage and Supreme Court at the final stage.

I also assist clients in raid and investigations by Tax and Regulatory authorities like Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Directorate General Goods and Service Tax Intelligence, Enforcement Directorate, Narcotics Control Bureau, and other Tax and Regulatory authorities to review Customs Duty/ Tax positions and regulatory compliances, opening discussions with authorities, options to close issues, briefing, and debriefing of employees, etc.

  • How do you look after your employees? What makes your team unique?

We work seamlessly as a team and as an extended family. There are no watertight compartments in ADA which hold people in one group or team which allows everyone to work on different and unique assignments.

Since we follow the policy of no relatives in ADA, any professional joining us showing the right potential has a path to partnership. This provides unique career progression to team members and clients are benefited most by committed professionals assisting them.

  • How have you seen diversity change over the years in the legal sector?

Initially, Direct Tax was considered the domain of the Chartered Accountants and Indirect Tax that of Lawyers. However, over the years, lines of practices in accounting and legal services firms have blurred and everyone wants a piece of the cake. Further, many boutique law firms have come up providing specialized services that are also preferred by clients.  Legal services are now considered by businesses as an essential element to ensure compliance with laws and tools to ensure the growth of the organization.

Winners are not people who never fail but people who never quit.

  • Except for IP Law, how are the other law practices important to run a law firm?

Any transaction will have tax and regular issues. The famous quote ‘Death and Taxes are certain’ very well highlights the importance of Tax practice in a country like India which has a complicated tax regime (though the Government is now focusing on ease of doing business). Thus, Tax and Regulatory practices are very important to any law firm, without which service offerings are incomplete.

  • How do you evaluate success?

A successful, happy, and contented client is our definition of success.

  • What do you think is your greatest strength?

Ability to deal with issues dispassionately, providing business solutions instead of legal advice which is implementable.

  • How would you go about developing your team?

We have a mix of Chartered Accountants and Attorneys in our team having experience of working in law firms, industry, and Big4 Consulting firms. This gives us the ability to choose the best-suited person for the job. Additionally, we lay greater emphasis on training of the team and free flow of thoughts, making everyone a battle-hardened professional.

  • What is your take-away from the entire process, and how are you implementing it on the new projects?

We identify the best team members for every assignment, provide them with complete information, have open discussions and brainstorming sessions before responding to clients. This helps in bringing our collective wisdom to the fore to best serve the clients.

  • According to you what next-generation advocates and law practitioners should focus on?

There is no substitute for hard work and learning – which may come from working on assignments, observing seniors, and reading past precedents. Legal professional requires being updated with ‘What New’ daily.  Not to forget, communication is the key to success.

  • According to you, how does the future of Indian law and litigation look like?

Indian tax authorities are the biggest litigators coupled with complex legislations, which will keep our Courts and Tribunals always overwhelmed with new cases. Hence, the future of Indian Law and Litigation is warming sunshine, and bright.

  • Is there any special experience with your clients you would like to highlight?

In one of the trade remedies matter I was handling in the early years of my career as a lawyer, the client had filed an appeal before the Appellate Tribunal. Our arguments were recorded in verbatim by the Appellate Tribunal in its order and the final findings of the Directorate General of Trade Remedies were set aside. This experience was one of its kind and very close to my heart even today. Another unique experience that I fondly remember is working on a mult-ijurisdictional anti-corruption investigation where I lead the India chapter.

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