Journey from a Lawyer to a Business Counsel

I graduated from law school in 2001. Back then, going to law school was somewhat of a “default option” for college graduates who couldn’t figure out what they wanted to be, or at least had not yet done so. Most of my friends in the neighborhood and my cousins were pursuing medicine, engineering or a science degree and most of the parents thought that is the only sure bet to make a decent living, irrespective of the career interests of their children.   I wasn’t quite in that category. Even though I had my science background in pre-university, I actually liked studying humanities, and with the limited contact I had with the legal profession I found it very interesting. I was successful to get the nod of my parents to pursue Law, thanks to the civil litigation matters in the court which my father was fighting during that time.

university-of-mysore-647_091516054616.jpgUniversity of Mysore

As I started my career as a lawyer (I prefer to call myself a social engineer!) in one of the most reputed law firms in Bangalore, I have come into contact with the various clients – individuals, small business houses, NGOs and corporates – the good, the bad, and the ugly, all interesting and unique in their own way. They have challenged me with problems that are always different, interesting, and intellectually stimulating—sometimes entertaining, but it was never boring. The result has been the personal satisfaction that I am not sure could have been achieved repetitively and on the same level doing anything else.

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The compensation and the perks of working in a reputed law firm can be quite enticing. But at some point, every lawyer experiences burnout. Maybe it is the 60 -70 hours workweek and the endless paperwork that accompanies, after a few years at the firm, I asked myself if there isn’t a better way. That’s when the prospect of becoming a member of a company’s in-house legal team seemed alluring. Both law firm positions and in-house positions have their perks and drawbacks, though. The trick was to determine where myself, my skills and my lifestyle requirements, will fit most comfortably. Working in-house can be significantly different than working at a law firm. First of all, in-house lawyers have only one client-the company- they work for. That means there isn’t any pressure to be a rainmaker or recruit new clients. And since my sole client pays my salary, I don’t have to worry about billable hours.

Karnataka-High-Court-min.jpgHigh Court of Karnataka at Bangalore

Being an in-house lawyer is a bigger and interesting career opportunity. We should be very clear on the scope and nature of our responsibilities. Need to understand the intricacies and complexities of the business to become an important business partner. Know the limits of your time and of your expertise. Understand the basis on which you may hire an outside counsel and develop a good relationship with them. Stay abreast of legal developments. While law firms usually do a great job of circulating developments within the firm, in-house lawyers may find themselves more isolated. To fill this gap, I rely on law journals, online portals, magazines, e-mail updates and law firm “client updates.”

Law is a system of rules that are enforced through governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Being interpreted or redefined, law is always changing – it is never static. Law is a mirror to know how individuals in a society relate to one another, their values, what they consider worth pursuing in life, and how they define their own personal freedom.But sometimes the norms clash with formal laws, and the result is counterproductive for all. While laws that conflict with norms are likely to go unenforced, laws that influence behaviour can change norms over time. Since law is meant to maintain order in society, it becomes imperative for it to evolve and amend itself in order to cater the needs of changing equations.   

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India’s business legal framework is also not an exception. Enormous changes happened in the last few years in corporate governance, compliance & enforcement, intellectual property laws, competition law, labour laws, SEBI guidelines, disclosure norms, auditors, mergers & acquisitions and other investment laws. As a consequence the concerns about good corporate governance have increased phenomenally – and all of us realised that the transparency in corporate governance is essential for the growth, profitability and stability of any business. Because of the volume and complexity of regulations around running business, compliance is a major challenge for many organisations.                          

It is critical for entrepreneurs to have basic legal knowledge. While startups innovate to disrupt society in general, and laws of the land have to catch up to them, there are specific legal aspects that every entrepreneur should be aware of. To ensure better compliance, it is important to raise awareness of the legal environment to business leaders, who are under an increasing personal liability for things going wrong.

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It is always tough for a General Counsel to define parameters to measure commercial value added by his team, and difficult to create a measurement system suitable for the legal function. But this is the time for all in-house counsels to consider a fundamental rethink of their status function and role. It is important that the in-house legal teams should change its approach and strategy to the rapidly evolving business environment to add commercial value to the business. Today’s in-house counsels must be a deal maker, dispute resolver and a business consultant.

After closing an important contract negotiation with a prestigious government agency, some of my colleagues mentioned that they kept forgetting that I was a lawyer during discussions. I took this as a compliment that I was able to transcend my self from a corporate lawyer to a business counsel! We’re here to help the company achieve its commercial objectives while complying with its legal obligations. For me, the importance of the legal department being commercially aware is important; that’s both of the business and of the business environment in which we operate. That enables the delivery of high-quality and commercially-sound legal advice so that business leaders can make good decisions.

© suresh babu kalarikkal