In Conversation with Sheetal Talwar, Dy. Gen. Counsel, Tata Chemicals Limited

Sheetal was at crossroads after finishing her graduation but her father's golden advice led her on a rewarding journey in law. In this exclusive interview with Krishnendra Joshi, BW Legal World, she talks about her formative years, gravitating towards an inhouse role, day at work and much more.

Formative Years and Mentors 

Ms Talwar, would you please tell our readers what motivated you to pursue law. You were a commerce graduate. How did the transition towards a full-fledged in-house legal career happen?  

Like most young Indian graduates who had passed out in the early 1990s, the choices we had to pursue our higher studies were limited to a few select professions, like engineering, medicine, accounting or law. After having graduated in Commerce, I was in a similar dilemma at this crossroad of my life. I turned to my father for advice, who himself is a Law graduate and a Chartered Accountant. He saw certain personality traits in me which he knew would equip me to take on Law as a career; intellectual capability, a confident demeanour, oral communication skills combined with a practical approach to the world. So armed with the right aptitude, skill sets and a natural inclination to stand up for what is right; I took up Law. Three decades on, it turns out, that he was right. It has been a great, unending, and exciting journey, and I am still learning. 

Moving from one transition to another, you were a litigation attorney at Kanga & Co for the first five years of your career. What prompted you to make the switch to an In-house role? 

In today’s world, there is a constant need for professionals to enhance their knowledge and upskill themselves to create a positive impact in their chosen field and become well-rounded leaders. I completed law and started my career as a litigator with Kanga & Co. Here I realised that  Legal professionals must cope with conceptually challenging issues, assessing cases and related statutes, and continuously reason with logic and clarity while researching complicated legal issues. Having worked with almost all the partners then in the Law firm; it was apparent that each partner had a niche in a specific field and worked in that particular area. From Banking, to Property, to Insurance, to Litigation, to Company work and lots more; all that one can think of my law firm had it all. The theoretical knowledge gained from books is tested on the field and your performance and reactions to situations define you and evaluate your readiness for the professional acumen. After five years with Kanga & Co, primarily a litigation attorney and providing opinions as well, I realised I had a lot more to learn. Tata Chemicals had all of it, where I knew I could learn and grow. So here I am in Tata Chemicals Limited, from an Assistant Manager to now being a Deputy General Counsel.  

Who are the mentors that have inspired and guided you in your journey?  

I have been fortunate to have many guides who have helped nudge me to being a better human being every day. They have helped me identify, realize and hone my strengths towards the closest state of perfection as possible. I am steeped in admiration and gratitude to them and share deep bonds of respect and trust with them. These people include senior partners in law firms, corporate leaders, general counsels in the legal profession, and behavioural scientists. Some of them have become my best friends and confidantes. And even today, my father remains my guide, my mentor and my anchor. The constructive criticism, given in the most encouraging manner, only helped me to strive for the best. Not only did they show me the path as to what was blocking my internal energies to flow smooth but they also spoke to me and guided me to introspection and self-realisation. I would consider having a mentor being driven enough, only to succeed along this journey called life.  

Mentorship is a two-way street — a relationship between humans — and not a transaction.  

What does a day as Dy. Gen. Counsel at Tata Chemicals Limited look like? What are your roles and responsibilities? 

We are a lean and close knit legal team at Tata Chemicals. So all of us wear multiple hats, ensuring timely, quality deliverables each time, every time. My role for instance goes well beyond that of a legal counsel. The subjects I have to deal with or give opinions on are diverse and varied. From corporate, to plant issues, to finance and administration, to sales and marketing and of course to intellectual property and environment and advice to all other teams that may seek it. A typical day is filled with structured and unstructured meetings and collaboration with multiple teams and the leadership.  

The Dy. Gen Counsel at Tata Chemicals is well respected and trusted. Responsibilities such as establishing Greenfield projects and steering the gamut of commercial, legal and structural negotiations of businesses including engineering procurement and construction, project management and all regulatory clearances, ensuring compliances; all come under my work purview. As a progression in my Career path, am now responsible for and Head the Legal Compliance of a larger vertical which includes the plant operations as well, Corporate Legal work with my senior, the Innovation Centre dealing with technology and collaborations and I also take care of the entire IPR portfolio of Tata Chemicals, enforcing and protecting it; all this apart from being the Compliance Lead of the Company, covering all Businesses. And I continue to learn.  

You have been working in an in-house role for 20 years. In your experience, how has the in-house role and corporate legal departments evolved over the years? 

The past 20 years have seen a dramatic growth in the size, prestige, and influence of the internal legal counsel and it has only continued to grow. 

Strengthening in-house legal departments entails lower legal costs; internal lawyers may give straight cuts and legal advice based on their intimate knowledge of the company’s business and culture. They advise to do business within the Legal parameters taking into account the Business requirements. Inside lawyers are better positioned to be the guardians of the company’s corporate citizenship and long-term interests and values.  

Now with over one and a half year into the pandemic, the impact of covid-19 coupled with a change in company’s expectations, the legal implications of every business decision requires more attention than ever before, especially with the global situation being so fluid and dynamic currently. But nonetheless, change is inevitable. And over the past decade, there have been countless legal developments that changed how attorneys practice law. 

It has been a company-wide journey to emerge as an organisation led by science and technology. It has also changed how we approach legal issues. We get more work done in less time and our decision making is faster.   

Change is inevitable and not a choice; the faster one accepts it and adapts to it, the better off you are.  

Corporate Legal Departments of the Future 

The use of AI in legal practices is already occurring and is poised for even greater adoption. How do you see Artificial Intelligence disrupting in-house legal departments? Do you see AI changing compliance management frameworks in a big way? 

Technology and Digitisation have helped the legal department to evolve over the last decade. There is no argument that the legal industry is one that will benefit the most from digitisation of workplaces for several key reasons. Digitisation has created new opportunities and practice areas such as regulation and legal advice for data protection, privacy, digital ethics and cybersecurity.  

Having said that; the role of AI and its application in legal work is limited as yet. While it can make processes easier, it cannot replace compliance management frame works with human intervention. This is on the basis that a lawyer’s role requires so much human judgement, intuition, advisory skills and empathy that it will be a very long time (if ever) before AI could fully take over. Strategies thought of by human beings are also important and cannot be fed into a system. While AI can help us in faster turnaround times for cases and in due diligence on contracts, human intervention and checking will also be required. For example, certain words could be misspelt and thus be unreadable by the machine and interpreted differently, grammar and punctuations may not be correct and or certain clauses could be interpreted differently. So you need somebody to go through these manually. 

In compliance there is strong need for human understanding and intervention as it involves the nuances of the human nature. Organisations are built with people and the legal departments hold them responsible for their behaviours and act as gatekeepers to ensure lawful conduct of the business.   

 Leadership and Inclusivity 

The pandemic has not only changed the way we work but also the way we manage our teams. What are the top three leadership challenges you have faced while working amid the COVID crisis? 

When the government mandated virtual work, everyone had to shift their priorities.  

This, coupled with increasing uncertainty around timing of the recovery, was raising the fear factor for everyone. So naturally, the primary concern was for the safety and sanity of my colleagues and family at home.  

The challenges faced by a manufacturing company like Tata Chemicals were different from a services operation like a law firm. And we were working hard to minimize disorders and preserve business continuity.  

The key challenge was to maintain a semblance of normalcy, while following government protocol and our own internal standards, values and compliances to the letter. Striking this balance between getting things done and operating "business as usual" in the midst of these crisis was the most challenging job. As one famous leader is known for saying, "define reality and give hope."  What remained critical was maintaining and building morale with the teams and ensuring performance. Displaying deliberate calm and composure, unbounded optimism, and of course communicating all this effectively and not pouring your own stress on colleagues. It led to a re-think of key decision-making processes in order to enhance trust, transparency, and teamwork. Within the legal function we had to adapt quickly, as court hearing moved to virtual platforms.  Remote workforces and online courts are just the beginning of a transformed legal function and the new models that will drive dispute resolution. Keeping disruption to a minimum, when disruption was the norm was the key learning. 

Christie Smith, the former vice president of inclusion and diversity at Apple once said the most important thing you can do to promote diversity is to say hello. What are the core values that guide you to co-creating diverse and inclusive workplaces? 

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies have always been an important focus of conversation for me and I hold these values close to my heart. I also serve as the Presiding Officer (Chairperson) on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) committee at Tata Chemicals. 

Women are now accepted in almost all roles across industries and gender equality has become a norm. My Company looks beyond; to create a workplace that is both diverse; where work opportunities are provided to individuals of different backgrounds, be it religious, gender, sexual orientation or socio-economic) and inclusive; where differences are valued and systemic barriers to participation are removed. A diverse and inclusive workplace is one that makes everyone, regardless of who they are or what they do for the business, feel equally involved in and supported in “all areas” of the workplace.  

I am a legal professional in an Indian manufacturing company and both domains have traditionally been male-dominated. I am fortunate to be part of an organisation like Tata Chemicals which has been very supportive and have demonstrated their belief in the necessity and the value add of D& I in the day to day affairs and as a part of corporate strategy and ensure inclusion and diversity at every level. Diversity breeds innovation. Diversity represents reality. 

Domain Expertise and Current Legal Developments 

Recently NATCO and Bajaj Healthcare have applied for compulsory licensing of COVID Vaccine. Do you think compulsory licensing could solve India’s vaccine wows or is it just one part of a larger picture? 

The vaccine licensing depends in a big way on the global geopolitical scenario. The last pandemic in 1918 had a very different World order. Medical science has advanced much since then. We have seen international interventions and every country is working to safeguard their own citizens and vaccine manufacturers. This may not be the last pandemic we see in our lifetimes and what we do today will set precedence in the future too. Compulsory Licensing may be a part of the larger picture and not a permanent solution.  

Work Life Balance and Life Outside Work 

What is your take on the notion of work life balance? Do you still get time to pursue your hobbies amid a busy schedule? 

For me, work life balance translates into good health and healthy relationships, both in my personal and professional life. Work-life balance remains elusive for many in today’s world of non-stop digital, social and professional demand. One does have to be “lucky to have” found one of the best work-life balance jobs; you have to constantly work on it.  

I prioritise health and fitness to balance and focus at work. Dedicating a few chunks of my time each week to self- care; whether it is exercise or yoga or meditation. I have started taking my sleep more seriously and I have begun to be much more mindful and deliberate about building in time to unplug and recharge.  Over the past few years I have managed to pursue what I am most passionate about, volunteering and mentoring kids who need me, spending time with them over the weekends, listening to them and sharing with them experiences, personal as well as professional. I play Golf as well and support various NGO’s. A visit now and then to the NGOs overwhelms me; the pandemic has stopped me from doing that currently. Spending quality time with family is extremely important to me.  

Balance to me is making choices and enjoying those choices.  

Parting Advice 

You have been in the industry for over 2 decades. What would be your advice to young and aspiring lawyers on creating a thriving and successful legal career? 

 As a recent law graduate, it may be difficult to navigate the world in such a challenging time. 

One of the most important tips that every young lawyer needs to know is to have faith. Things can get overwhelming and outright difficult. However, when you have faith in yourself first and then in things working out, you get to make your dreams come true.  

Keep reinventing yourself to survive and grow.  Life is all about unpredictability, and that is the fun in it. Success is a subjective term. It means something else for everyone else. 

To succeed as a lawyer and make a name of your own, you need to keep learning. Law is constantly evolving.  

Finally, you should also look after your physical and mental health. It is easy to overlook your health needs with so much to do. You cannot expect to be always on call and ready to work. It is important that you take some time off to focus on your well-being. And last but not the least, always keep a positive outlook; will help you survive and thrive as a legal professional.  

It’s all about trusting oneself and never quitting, give back to the Society; go beyond!  

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Sheetal Talwar General Counsel Tata Chemicals Ltd

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