Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

Every once in a while, a person comes along whose dreams are so bold, whose style is so outrageous, whose entire being is so un-Philadelphian, that he’s bound to change our city just by putting his mind to it. Is Ajay Raju one of those people?

“I use a lot of metaphors,” Raju explains, now in his office. “Because I’m not a native speaker, I supplement by using metaphors to further explain.” He tells a story from his early legal career in which he flew to Florida on behalf of a client and faced down a table full of opposing lawyers whose delays were pushing the company toward bankruptcy. “Accept the cadaver now,” he told his adversaries, “or sift through the maggots later.” Then he got up from the table and caught a flight home. He swears it’s a true story and that the other side blinked. As proof, he points to a bust of a horse’s head on his office windowsill, a gift from the happy client in that deal that references the famous scene in The Godfather.

Dashing out of the Temple conference as soon as he finished talking, Raju had bundled into his Porsche Panamera Turbo and made a beeline to the City Avenue studios of 6 ABC to tape an episode of that Sunday’s Inside Story. He’s had a seat at the current- events roundtable regularly for nine years, initially invited, he says, to be “the dark-skinned Republican.” As he’s aged, his views have drifted consistently toward the center.

After the show, he chatted with host Monica Malpass, who wanted extra insight, not about that day’s main topic, the proposed Gas Works sale, but about the new wine cellar he was installing in his Society Hill home. Then it was back to the office, where he organized an impromptu lunch at the Union League with some members of his legal team. More special-order salmon and salad, and a chance to compliment his co-workers (and himself) on the fact that in their first month at Dilworth Paxson, they brought in nearly $2 million in revenue. As we walked back to his office, an older black man who recognized Raju from TV stopped him on 15th Street. “All the guys like you who think they can solve the world’s problems appear on Sunday morning,” he said.

Raju thanked him and kept walking. “That was elegant,” he said. “I like it when they insult you and make it seem like a compliment.”

When Raju joined Reed Smith as a partner in 2004, most of his experience and expertise was in commercial real estate, telecommunications law and India. Spurred by his younger brother, who used a Fulbright scholarship to return to India and study the liberalization of its economy, Raju founded the Global Indian Chamber of Commerce in 1999 to serve as a sort of nonprofit investment bank, advising on the burgeoning business opportunities on the subcontinent. He almost never set foot in a courtroom, and really didn’t like to call himself a lawyer. In fact, one reason he drew the attention of Reed Smith was that he didn’t charge by the hour — a very un-lawyerly thing.

During a short stint with Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Raju developed a working team, many of them non-lawyers, that he organized by adapting logistical practices borrowed from Walmart, UPS, hospitals, and the quality-based management theory called Six Sigma, which was all the rage at the time. By designing a workflow that allowed high-priced attorneys to get involved only when important decisions were required, he was able to charge a fixed fee, betting that efficiency would make the flat-rate billing profitable. “If a skyscraper can be built with a budget,” Raju has said repeatedly, “why can’t you tell a client what their legal work will cost? Law has always seemed to me like a conspiracy against the laity.” He wasn’t alone or first in introducing the so-called “alternative billing” model, and it’s gained increasing acceptance in recent years.

“I just happen to work in a profession where judgment, relationships and strategy intersect,” he says now. “We could do law. We could be a PR firm, private equity, lobbying — whatever.” Beyond his practice at Dilworth, he has interests in a number of companies, including a business-process outsourcing firm in India called Indigo Global, which was run for a time by his younger brother, Vijay, who is also a lawyer. His other businesses are just about the only thing he declined to talk about on the record.