In Conversation with Sandeep Chowdhury, SVP & Group General Counsel, HCC Ltd

As a young boy, Sandeep was privy to seeing his father and uncles practising law. In an exclusive conversation with our editorial lead, Krishnendra Joshi, Sandeep sheds light on his days at Calcutta University, his biggest influence in life, the evolving role of a General Counsel and much more.

Mr Chowdhury, would you please tell our readers what motivated you to pursue law? What were your days at the University of Calcutta like?

I belong to a family of lawyers. In fact, I am the 3rd generation. So, the law is in our blood. From my childhood days, I was privy to seeing my father and other uncles practising the same. Hence it became an automatic choice for me.

I think I had the best moments of my educational life during my stint at Calcutta University. It was a combination of fun, studies, and games. It takes time to get to know people, and once you know them, you make friends, you will feel comfortable, and you start loving the college experience. In my college life, along with studying, my friends and I enjoyed a lot of other things. We travelled to lots of places, had new experiences, and learned many new things. Our college's canteen was a remarkable place in my college life as whenever we got time, we used to chill in the canteen.

You started your career with M/s Khaitan & Co. What prompted you to transition to an in-house legal role?

Joining Khaitan was a very good decision. I got to learn so many different facets of law. Got an opportunity to work with one of the brightest minds in the legal fraternity. 

Having said so, I felt that growth (during that time) was an issue. Some seniors were awaiting partnership status. Also, I wanted to work with good MNCs. And when I got an opportunity from Walmart, there was no looking back.

You are the Group General Counsel for HCC, one of the largest infra and EPC companies in India. What does a day in your shoes look like? What are your roles and responsibilities as group GC?  

HCC is one of the largest and most renowned EPC companies of the country. No two days are the same in HCC. The work is extremely varied. There can be a lot of pressure to respond to matters urgently, and there is a lot of putting out fires. On a typical day, it consists of speaking with the counsels, working on agreements, property law, employment, dispute resolution, and everything in between. This is all the ‘business as usual’ (BAU) work. I also spend a good amount of time on team projects to improve the way the legal team works – such as document automation or preparing training materials etc.

Your legal career has been nothing short of an inspiration for many aspiring and young legal professionals. Who are the mentors you have looked up to and admired? How have they helped you in shaping your career?

My Dad is my foremost mentor. He instilled in me the value of hard work and ethics. He has many traits which I respect and admire and have always tried to emulate. Dad has always been a provider. He is a hard worker, friendly, outgoing, family-focused, and goal-oriented. Dad gave me confidence, support, and constant encouragement. He was (and still is to this day) my biggest cheerleader and I always knew that I could go to him for anything. 

How exactly has my father influenced my career? My father taught me correct principles so that I could govern myself, and following these principles has exerted a positive influence on my life and career.

In your two decades of illustrious experience, how have seen the role of a General Counsel evolve? 

Twenty years ago, the role of the GC encompassed a slew of administrative tasks, while private law firms oversaw more complex legal work. Fast forward 20 years, the General Counsel has become a prominent position within the corporation. With a refreshed loyalty to the Company and a direct advisory role to the board of directors, today's corporate counsels are becoming increasingly investor-facing and are even widely recognized. General counsels are now as important as the CFO due to the prominence of today's business and society issues. Today's boards and CEOs are looking to the GCs for guidance beyond legal. Whether regarding regulation, investigations, or ethical demands, General Counsels now have a huge impact on company operations in a very global sense.

Are in-house legal departments in large corporates becoming as good as a mini law firm?

I personally feel in-house counsels are more attuned and familiar with the business. They are the ones who know the facts and the nitigrities much more than an external counsel/law firm and hence, are in a better position to provide the solution.  At the same time, expensive hourly billing rates by top law firms have seen legal costs escalating for most companies. Hence, there is a steep increase in demand for in-house counsels who can execute faster or provide legal opinions in double-quick time and thus help boardrooms take faster decisions. This is different from the earlier crop of in-house lawyers who primarily acted as the firm’s interface with the law firm. The earlier in-house lawyers were rarely involved in deal-making or live transactions, which has changed in today's scenario. In-house legal teams are continuously trying to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Cutting costs is one of their focus areas. This means they develop better processes, better systems, and standard operating practices. In a nutshell, to me, inhouse legal departments are much more than a mini law firm where there is a perfect blend of faster turnaround time and cost reduction by using the latest technologies. 

Could you please briefly tell us the changes, challenges and impact of the new labour codes on employees and employers?

India has been trying to reform its labour laws for the past 18–20 years, to bring them in line with the present workplace ecosystems and allow for more uniformity across both the organised or unorganised sectors.

In a historical move, it is finally all set to replace 29 existing labour laws with the four new labour codes, dealing with ‘wages’, 'social security', 'industrial relations’, and ‘occupational safety’, with an objective to rationalise, consolidate and simplify complex labour legislations.

With the new labour codes, significant changes in organised and unorganised sectors are expected to overhaul workplaces by improving working conditions and revamping existing processes to achieve company outputs more sustainably.

Work from home brings unique challenges. How is HCC handling potential employee productivity and mental health issues? Are leaders, in the pandemic era, learning to be more flexible and sensitive towards their teams?

Working from home has its benefits and challenges. To me, the same also vary depending upon the industry one is associated with. HCC conducts some unique HR-related programmes /training, which, inter alia, helps in focusing on mental health thereby increasing productivity.

No denial of the fact that companies and leader are becoming more flexible and sensitive towards their team members. The concept of work life balance in taking the front seat.

What are your views on pre-litigation strategies for in-house legal departments? Do we see more thrust on ADR mechanisms in the near future?

While in-house law departments frequently retain outside counsel to prosecute and defend lawsuits brought by and against the company, preventing and managing litigation is a significant responsibility of many in-house attorneys, whether they are trained litigators or transactional lawyers with little or no litigation experience. Below are some important points that an inhouse legal department should consider while laying down their pre-litigation strategy:

Risk evaluation 

Prefiling investigation 

Timing and costs of typical lawsuit 

Where to file suit 

Alternative Dispute Resolution 

To avoid the increase in the cost of litigation and the time frame a policy linked to it, I feel that there will be much more thrust on the ADR mechanism in the near future.

What are the top trends that are going to transform the inhouse departments in the near future?

Many factors will impact how deeply and broadly corporate legal departments embrace the changes facing the industry. There will be regulatory hurdles to overcome before legal departments can fully realize the benefits of evolving technologies. There will be internal resistance to changing traditional service delivery models. Most importantly, there will need to acknowledge the evolving role of the legal department—from traditional, reactive lawyers to a strategic business unit composed of top legal minds and strategic, process-savvy operators. The best way to predict your future is to create it. Legal departments can determine their destinies and decide if and how they choose to embrace innovations in technology, new service delivery models, and increased operational efficiencies. No matter what future a legal department envisions for itself, it will need to start forming a strategy and vision for how to get there today.

Would you please recommend a book that has left a lasting impression on you?

The book that has left a lasting impression on me is,

“How to win friends and influence people” by DALE CARNEGIE.

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