Building bridges: Attorney helps foster business and cultural ties between U.S. and India

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

It's 7,931 miles from Detroit to Mumbai. That would make for a very, very long bridge, but that's exactly what Daljit Doogal hopes to build.

Doogal is managing partner in Foley Lardner LLP's Detroit office and chairs the Business Law Department, but his passion is cross-border business issues between the United States and India. In that role, he co-chairs both the firm's India Business Committee and Asian American Affinity Group.

And as cofounder of the Detroit chapter of the Indus Entrepreneurs and a member of the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce, he has helped foster cultural ties as well.

Four years ago Doogal and one of his partners formed the India Business Committee and they co-chair the group.

"We try and connect our clients here who do business in India with good lawyers over there who can provide them with solid advice," Doogal says. "We now also have clients in India who are doing business in the United States."

Doogal thought at a very young age that he wanted to be an attorney, but was tugged in the direction of business as he was growing up. Perhaps it's no surprise he ended up combining the two.

"I was in middle school when I decided I wanted to be an attorney," he says. "My grandfather was a High Court judge in India and I have a lot of uncles, aunts and cousins there who are also judges and lawyers. It was what was around me. After some inner debate, I couldn't see myself being a doctor or an engineer."

Doogal attended the University of Michigan and late in his undergraduate years still hadn't made the final decision on a career path.

"I was still leaning toward the law, but I took classes in political science, history, business, some engineering, but I always thought I would end up in business or law," he says. "The more I was exposed to the law, the more I saw it wasn't just the courtroom stuff you see on TV. I eventually realized that there was a business side of the law that would take advantage of the skills I was developing."

Once the law commitment was finally made, Doogal jumped in with both feet and attended Notre Dame Law School.

"I really liked Notre Dame, after not knowing much about it before I arrived," he says. "Having been at Michigan, I also had to learn not to hate their football program."

He found Ann Arbor and South Bend to be very different. In South Bend, a smaller town, there wasn't as much to do, but it felt to Doogal like a tighter community.

"I made great friends there. Also, Notre Dame is a much smaller school," he says. "My law school class was only about 120 people, with much smaller class sizes, while at Michigan it might have been 600. Because of that, the law professors all knew you and were very approachable. It was a really good experience."

The path wasn't without obstacles, however.

"The first year I considered quitting the law. Interesting, considering how much I now love what I do," he says. "Constitutional law, procedure, evidence ... I found myself asking, 'Wait a second ... what happened to business law?' It was tough when I sat down at the end of the year and asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' In the second year my interest really took off as I began to be able to choose some of my classes. I took a lot of classes in the business school, which actually got me back on track to what I wanted to do."

Doogal wasn't disappointed with his decision when he actually began practicing. He especially liked not having to be in an adversarial position.

"Being a business attorney is more of a counseling role," he says. "You're counseling corporate boards and CEOs on certain situations. A CEO called me yesterday in a sticky situation and said, 'What's your advice?'"

Another aspect of business law that he enjoys is the timeline.

"What I do usually has a start and a finish," he says. "We start a transaction, let's say buying a company, and in six months we're done. Litigation can go on for years in the court system."

The end of the process is also more satisfying to Doogal.

"For the most part, everyone is happy with the result," he says. "There's not really a winner and a loser. Someone wants to sell a company. Someone wants to buy a company. They both get what they want."

His first stop after law school was Miller Canfield.

"It's a great firm and I loved it there, but when Foley opened its Detroit office I saw it as a great opportunity. It was like a start up, but with the backing of a big firm and I got to grow as the office grew," he says. "I came here as an associate about 10 years ago and became managing partner less than a year ago. It wasn't planned in any way. Our former managing partner, a great guy, was my mentor. He hired me and helped me along until he left to join the new governor's administration. The firm tapped me as his replacement. It wasn't something I expected or ever thought I'd be in a position to do."

Becoming managing partner didn't mean he was leaving his clients behind. Doogal had to find a way to juggle both his new and old responsibilities.

"The biggest adjustment I had to make in the new job was time management," he says. "I was used to billing a lot of hours and spending a lot of time with clients. Now I'm managing an office, doing budgeting, finance. I'm still managing my clients -- clients come first -- but managing the office can be a full-time job. As I'm trying to find that balance, some of the office management becomes a night job."

He's glad he's been able to fall back on "the team" in making it all work.

"When you're a 'Type A Lawyer' it's sometimes hard to rely on others, but I've learned to do that."

Doogal credits intramural sports with helping him understand the value of teamwork.

"In both high school and college I played a lot of intramural basketball," he says. "I was pretty good. At one time I could actually dunk the ball. At a big firm like this we're always preaching teamwork and sports helped prepare me for that. A lot of it is trust. My five best friends today are the people I played basketball with the most. "

In addition to the foundation of friends, Doogal relies on family support.

"I'm definitely a family guy. My sister and parents and son are here, but the rest of my family is in India," he says.

With the distance, it's tough keeping in touch and he use tools like Facebook to help. He also travels to India on business several times each year to visit clients.

Closer to home, an eight-year-old son helps keep him grounded, sometimes literally.

"My son had his 'Science Day' yesterday and his project was about friction. He pulled me around on carpet, he pulled me on rollers ... that was my lofty role in the project!"

The other love of his life is the relationship -- especially business -- between America and India. He believes the potential for mutual benefit is nearly unlimited.

Indian law has many similarities to its American counterpart, with both having their common roots in British law, especially in the corporate law area.

"One of the other big business advantages for India, compared to let's say, China, is that English is the language of business in India," Doogal points out. "English is taught as a primary language in Indian schools and Indians are comfortable speaking it. Couple that with the fact that it's a democratic society and it really lowers the barriers that you find in some other countries."

"Also, in India patent laws are respected and intellectual property is taken seriously."

Doogal's practice isn't limited to the international arena.

"I have a very diverse base of clients," he says. "I have life science and biotech clients. Also a lot of automotive clients, venture capital and private equity clients. I'm not focused on just one thing, which might eventually get boring."

That automotive industry, as anyone in Michigan knows, has struggled in recent years.

"We've often come into a troubled situation and tried to help optimize the solution," he says. "Maybe it's bankruptcy, figuring out a way to restructure the company. Perhaps finding a buyer to bring the company out of bankruptcy with an injection of capital. There's a lot at stake. Jobs can be lost. Creditors are trying to recoup their money. It ripples down the chain as suppliers are affected. It's a tough situation but can be exciting when you know you have a chance to help."

When it comes time to relax, Doogal describes himself as a "beach guy."

"I get enough hustle and bustle in my everyday life and I'd rather go somewhere warm and relax rather than go to another big city."

And then it's back to the job he loves.

"An exciting thing about the type of business law I practice is that it crosses all lines," he says. "There are employee issues, international law issues, compliance issues and tax issues. I'm not the expert on all those things, but our firm has nearly 1000 attorneys and we have experts on all those things I can rely on."

Published: Tue, Jan 31, 2012