Interview with Vikram Shah

Vikram is an associate editor at fiftytwo.in. He has previously worked as a copy editor with Mint Lounge and a trainee solicitor at the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. He graduated from NLSIU, Bangalore, in 2014.

Q. Hello, it’s a pleasure to have you with us! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your life at law school? What extra-curricular and co-curricular activities were you involved in?

I am currently an Associate Editor at a digital publication called FiftyTwo (fiftytwo.in). Our parent company is called All Things Small. We publish one journalistic story or reported essay every week. These are 5000-word essays on topics ranging from politics to diplomacy to sport to culture—it could be anything as long there’s an Indian or subcontinental connection.

Before this, I worked as a copy editor at Mint Lounge, which is the weekend features edition of the business daily, Mint. And before that, I worked at a law firm called Herbert Smith Freehills for a couple of years. I was in the London office for a year and a half and then Tokyo for six months.

I went to NLSIU, Bangalore which I started in 2009. Law school was the best five years of my life. Till that point, I think a lot of us were quite transcribed by the places that we grew up in. My batch had people from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh to Rajasthan to MP and of course, people from Bombay, Delhi, and Bangalore. It was great. I feel like there were a lot of things that I understood only in theory before I went to law school, even in the context of this democratic and republican experiment called India. In class, you’re learning about things like the Constituent Assembly Debates, the Ahom kingdom of Assam, the sociology of caste. Outside the classroom, you’re taking in the experiences of people who’ve grown up in different parts of the country. In short, the whole thing just blew my mind open.

Regarding extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, I was pretty into quizzing. I wasn’t great. Quizzing is something I still do. And I’m still not great. It was also a reason to get out of campus and explore Bangalore. It also gave me the opportunity to get around South India a bit: we’d get on a bus or a train and go to quizzes in Coimbatore, Chennai, Cochin, Goa.

I used to play a bit of football. I was also involved with the law school’s Entrepreneurship Cell. So I got to meet a bunch of like-minded people in the E-cell, people who were very seriously thinking about careers outside the law, even from law school itself.

Q. After Law School, you worked as a Graduate Solicitor at Herbert Smith Freehills as part of a training contract for nearly 2 years. How did that happen? Did you ever envision that you would shift careers outside the legal field while at law school or even right after graduation?

Yes, I had a premonition in law school that maybe law is not the career for me, long-term. But I was not even close to convinced so I definitely wanted to give the legal world a shot before I came to any sort of grand conclusion. I think the training contract at HSF was the perfect opportunity to do that. I did apply to McKinsey. I was quite keen to work in business consulting because of my interest in entrepreneurship at the time. But I didn’t even make the shortlist.

Then, in the summer of 2013, I went and spent a month in the UK with HSF, which was a fantastic experience really. I mean, it was summer in London so what could go wrong? You were getting paid to intern, wear a nice suit and have canapes. They take very good care of you. I met some very interesting people, especially a man called Bob Moore, who was a partner in the corporate group. And I sat in his office for a couple of weeks. And he was a great guy, a very interesting person to talk to, not just about the law, but all sorts of things. And London, my god, I was just blown away by the city, and the kinds of things one could do even outside work. So when there was an offer at the end of that internship, it was a no-brainer.

Q. Could you tell us a little bit about your stint as a Copy Editor at ‘HT MINT’? What does the work of a Copy Editor entail and what made you choose such a career post your time at HSF?

I think the genesis for this phase of my life starts after I came back from Japan, which is where I did the last six months of my training contract. I took some time off, travelled, burnt a lot of money. And then, in true millennial style, I saw a tweet from the editor of Mint on Sunday saying they’re looking for fresh voices. So I just shot him a cold email about an article I wanted to write about an island in Japan. He ran that piece, and then asked me “Do you have something more for us?” And that’s really how it started. So I started writing pieces on cricket, I wrote a couple of travel pieces, “obscure stuff,” as some of my friends call it. I was staying with my parents so I didn’t have to pay rent.

Making a living out of freelance writing in India is really difficult, in most cases. In a few months, I had this sense of wanting to get a taste of what it’s like to be in a newsroom. I was missing the sense of having a peer group, of being able to talk to someone whose desk you can just walk up to and have a chat. And luckily, this was around the time I saw a tweet about Mint Lounge looking for someone on the copy desk. And in Delhi, that too, which is where a lot of the action in journalism is, for better or worse.

In journalism, there’s the reporters who go out and report stories and write them. And then there’s a desk, a bunch of people who sit in the office and edit these stories line-by-line. They ask the reporter questions like: why haven’t you covered this angle or that angle? Or what do you mean when you say this? They ask hard questions, clean the copy up, make it crisp.

So the role of the copy editor at Lounge was slightly different. There wasn’t so much line editing as ordinarily involved in a copy editor role. But the fact checking culture was quite strong on the Mint Lounge desk. There was also a bit of writing headlines and straps—strap is the thing that summarizes the piece a little bit after the headline, the one or two liner. So our job was to send the reporters fact-check queries and to liaise with them. I got a good sense of email communication and liaison with writers while I worked at Mint. I also went beyond the call of duty a bit and did some writing and reporting for Lounge. I worked on this in my own time, and averaged about a story a month.

The best thing that happened to me at Mint was that I met some great people who taught me a lot about how the industry works. The business of journalism, so to speak. Those chai breaks at five o’clock and long nights at the Press Club were my real initiation into this world.

Q. You are currently an Associate Editor at ‘All Things Small’. Could you tell us a little bit about this initiative and what drew you to this as a career? What does a typical day in your life look like?

All Things Small is a true stories-focused company. The idea is to produce quality non-fiction content across platforms. So we have three main divisions. There’s the studio division which does video work for brands, short-form content for YouTube. The endgame, of course, is to do long-form content (documentaries, limited series) for OTT platforms and the studio is working hard towards that. Then there’s the podcast division, which has been doing some phenomenal work over the past year and a half. The marquee production is a podcast called Mission ISRO that the company has made for Spotify. It’s about India’s space program, narrated by Harsha Bhogle. There’s another show called Maha Bharat, narrated by Dhruv Rathee, that the company does for Spotify.

And then there’s FiftyTwo, which I’ve already told you a little about. The aim with our stories is to scratch one or two levels deeper than the surface. The company’s overall philosophy is quite cinematic. So, even at FiftyTwo, we have a kind of cinematic approach. We love stories that are narrative driven and character driven. Something that has a beginning, middle, end. And, you know, something that people can get immersed in.

Now, about a typical work day. Well, there’s the commissioning. Part of this is coming up with story ideas, and then approaching potential contributors. We also receive a lot of emails and pitches from people who want to write. So four of us on the editorial team have a meeting every week and we assess those pitches to decide whether we want to go ahead with it or not. That’s the commissioning side of the piece.

And then there’s the actual editing side. We sit down with stories, we line edit them, we rewrite, we suggest structural overhauls. These are 4000-5000 word pieces. Often, it’s the first time contributors are writing a story that is this long. So we work with them to shape the story.  This is my favourite part of the job—rewriting and reshaping stories.

Thirdly, there’s the more general kind of administrative tasks like sending out contracts to writers, keeping our story database in shape, sending out invoice emails. So yes, those are the three main pieces of my job: commissioning, editing, admin and liaison.  

Q. What were some of the challenges that you faced as a part of the process of making a career switch from the legal field and how did you overcome them? What factors did you take into consideration before making the switch?          

The big factor is financial. You make a good amount of money even when you just start out in a corporate law firm. And that only increases as you progress in your career path. And it affords a kind of lifestyle that is very attractive because of the perks and everything that comes with it: you have money to travel well, you don’t have to think twice before buying something you like. That is a big deal for a 25-year-old. I felt less guilty about quitting HSF because there was a bit of money in the bank. You’ve been brought up hearing about how important it is to have savings, enough for a rainy day, so you have to fight your conditioning a bit, to quit a solid job.

The other factor I contemplated was the medium-term, if not the long-term. Did I see myself doing what people 3-4 years ahead of me at the law firm were doing? The answer was no. Of course, I don’t mean to throw shade at corporate lawyers. I met some of the most intelligent, motivated people at a corporate law firm. I mean, we have this impression of law firm jobs being slightly straitjacketed, where there’s no scope for people to think outside the box. But in my two years at HSF, I saw people display unconventional and creative thinking even within the scope of the legal field, and that was very instructive. Anyway, to come back to the point, I simply couldn’t see myself doing this, say, in 2020 (it was 2016 then).  It was a temperament thing more than anything.

When it comes to the actual switch—the reason I gravitated towards writing-editing—I think the simple reason is that I care about words. I care about how sentences read (even if very few people actually read them), how sentences sound, how words are placed next to each other. The thing I like about writing is that your name is directly associated with a piece of work. There’s no intermediary between you and the reader. I’d done a bit of writing while I was in college. I used to write for a website called Sportskeeda. And that was the first time I got a sense of what it’s like to get validation from a stranger on the Internet. That was transformative for me. Just the idea that someone out there has read a line that was born in my head and grew up in a Word file on my computer—that was a big rush.

Q. Has your legal background helped you in anyway in your current professional journey? Are there any unexpected skills that you brought in from law school to your career today?

Not directly for sure, in the sense that I’m not drafting contracts. But I feel like the five years in law school and two years at the law firm are central to how I process and interpret information. Even now, there are people who tell me ‘Why did you waste a seat in a premier law school if you didn’t want to practice?’ But to them I say I wouldn’t change those five years for anything, because it literally wired my brain a certain way.

You don’t take things at face value—I think that is the greatest thing about a legal education and some legal work experience. You’re okay with sort of digging a little deeper, finding out more, making sure you’ve covered all your bases. That sort of healthy scepticism is very useful in my line of work now. And this is to say nothing about the friends you make in law school, people you’d take a bullet for.

And now, at a more specific level, if you’re editing stories about India, you’re invariably dealing with a mix of politics-policy-culture, why the country is the way it is, where we’re going from here, how we got here. Many of these questions do get linked with the law. I’ll give you an example. We published a piece in December last year, called The Woods. It’s a backroom story about a litigation (Godavarman vs Union of India) that changed the trajectory of environmental policy in India. A legal background comes in handy when you’re working on a story like that: you know where to find the case law, you know which part of the judgement you need to look at, you already have a working knowledge about the tension between the executive and the judiciary.  

Q. Most of our readers are students of the law or are law graduates. What advice do you have for those who want to take up a career based on their passion but feel limited to the conventional career options in the legal field?

I’d say don’t fall into the trap of thinking your degree will be a ‘waste.’ In the beginning, especially when you’re in law school, it’s very easy to get swayed by this thinking, right? This idea of waste and ‘using your degree’ is something that’s ingrained in Indian society. Try and resist it, in your own way.

The other thing I’d say is to give the legal field a shot, unless you’re 110% sure that you don’t want to. Even if you’re 90% sure, just for that 10%, work with a law firm, do a litigation internship, work in a court. And I’d say if you’re still not 100% sure after five years of law school, which is completely normal, then get a full-time legal job. There’s a lot to learn even if you hate every moment of it. The learning curve is so steep when you’re a fresher at the big bad workplace. So even if you’re working 16-18 hours a day and are just fed up, you will learn things. And I think you realise this only when there’s some distance from the experience. When you’re doing internships and when you’re in your first fulltime job, ask questions to your seniors, ask questions to people that you’re working with. Gather information, and then take a call for yourself.

Also, those of us who’re privileged enough—people who don’t have to take a corporate job to pay off loans or don’t have to send money home—ultimately end up doing the things they really want to. The moment we want things bad enough, we try and make it happen. That’s just how we are wired as human beings. So fight the feeling of being trapped in a situation. I’ve been there and I think it’s easy for that to spiral into negative thinking. People who have some degree of social and financial privilege invariably have space to manoeuvre and ask themselves: is this what we really want to do?  

Find out more about Vikram Shah –

  • Twitter Handle: @vikramshah1991

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.

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