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How to Reach the Top of the Corporate Legal Ladder - LCI Talk Interview with Shreya Maheshwari - General Counsel, LOTS

'The problem where it arises is - Right is not what is required, Apt is what is required' she said, and continued - 'and I think the biggest issue which you would face is your disagreement on letting the business (board) do what they want to do and how to handle them at that point of time without annoying everybody.

LAWyersclubindia set its GC Talk series rolling with a very charismatic, cheerful, successful and insightful personality - Ms. Shreya Maheshwari - GC Lots Solutions.

She, in conversation with LAWyersClubIndia's Assistant Editor Raghav Arora, answered a few questions with the kind of clarity and articulation that one would expect from a General Counsel. In the span of nearly 1 hour she told us about her journey to the top of the game at a very young age, her days as a student, her roles and duties as a General Counsel for a multi-national company, her experience in litigation Vs corporate field, the ways in which she tackles stress, and difficult situations with the company she works for and also the importance of a cup of coffee.

In addition to that, Shreya very humbly allowed us to address her as 'Shreya' for the interview. You can find the complete video at -


Here are the questions that she enlightened us on during the interview -

So Shreya! To begin with the conversation - You are a law graduate from DES Law College and you have had a commendable curricular and extra-curricular record. You completed your diploma in Entrepreneurship, Administration and Business Law after which you started pursuing the CS course.

What I want to know is why did you pursue law and further decide to invest more in your education? Also, would you define yourself as a student in the erstwhile?

Thank you, first of all, for having me on the platform.

To answer your question, I think, law was never my first choice. I had dropped a year after 12th to get into the medical field. As the faith permitted, I am wearing a black and white coat right now. And, so much so, I have cherished every moment of being a lawyer. So, to start, as a student, I am not going to say that I have been a student for any teacher to always look up to, but, at the same time, I have never been a student whom the teacher would not look out for.

As a student, I always made sure that my curricular was upto the mark; it need not be excellent, it need not be down into the gutter, but a decent mark from where I can start my career with.

If you go and ask about me in my college, they would definitely know me but how much they would appreciate is questionable. But yes, I enjoyed my education. And I kept pursuing it, because as a lawyer, I think that we never stop learning.

And with the volatile state that our country is in, every single day, there is some amendment or the other coming in and as a lawyer, I think that a lawyer remains as a student throughout.

Ok, Shreya, you were a volunteer at 'Teach for India' campaign and also the campus ambassador afterwards.Then, you were also in the placement and the research cell.

So you were obviously one of the students, whom everyone looked upto. So, the question  is, how did these experiences make you skillful as an individual and helped in your holistic development so as to take you where you are today?

Both, being a volunteer and then the Campus Ambassador for 'Teach for India' were very very different experiences and totally way apart from each other. When I was a volunteer, I was teaching kids of about 1st, 2nd standard; while I was only teaching them English, there were incidences which taught me how to empathize and how to sympathize and both the things have very different meanings.

And when I was an ambassador, it helped me understand how to build and how to tell a senior or junior why they should take an initiative to build in something. So, creating a value for somebody and helping them understand the value of the same is what I learnt. But, what I built during this whole period and as a placement cell co-ordinator too, is that I learnt the nuances of tackling a senior. It was very difficult to justify their ways of dealing with their career. Managing expectations, empathizing, and emotional tackling! I think these are the things which I still apply to my career today as well, when I deal with my juniors, my seniors - how to tackle the expectations. I think that was the platform from where I learnt all this.

How was your journey to the top of the ladder? You were a legal counsel first, then you also worked in another company as a counsel, then you came up to be a general counsel. Have you considered any other profession apart from being a lawyer?

After becoming a lawyer, I think I have never considered any other profession and I thank my stars that I am not a doctor killing somebody on a stretcher. But, if I have to comprehend that how have I grown in this system - it has been a very exciting journey from the law room to a corporate house. It's a very different domain - one side you are a problem shower and on the other side, you are a solution provider. So, when it comes to you being a solution provider, you are more to do with the business, you are more to do with what needs to be told to business and how well it has to be told and ensuring that how the laws should be taken care of, while you are dealing in the best form of business. If I were to say, how I tell my people in here, I really have to manage the expectations of each person in here. When the board comes to you, asking for your advice, it actually comes to you looking out for a solution. So, how to tackle their expectations and get them to a place to agree to you along with the compliance with the law? - I think it is the most experiential thing that I have learnt during this whole ladder process. And how long did it take me to be here is - I think if I would have to double my time is to what I have spend in any organization because, I mostly worked day and night during my work hours - because when you work in a legal team and company is likeours, they believe that you have to get into the speed while executing, as soon as possible and you really need to put in a little more extra effort to be there where you have to be and where you are expected to be.

Shreya

Great! So, you have been a General Counsel for such a huge firm. I want to know what learning curve one has to follow to become a General Council for a firm like this? What/Who you have been most grateful to?

I think through the entire process, one should definitely know the law. That is unquestionable, I would say. Along with knowing the law, you have to be a really hard and sincere worker. You have to invest in yourself and in the company, you are working for.

Not just knowing law can make you reach the position of a GC or a head legal or leading a department in a big conglomerate. What you need to be in a company is to be a business person, a business partner! In a company, you should treat every person coming to you as a problem, as a client for you in a law firm. You should be answering to this person, as if you are going to be answerable for everything you write in that email or paper or any word you say.

Definitely, hardwork is what it takes to be there. Just knowing law will not solve it and just only hardwork will also definitely not solve it.

So, whom are you most grateful to and what are you most grateful for?

I think 2 people I would give all the credit to - one, who handed over this current position to me. That is Akshat. I have been working with this person for about 3 and a half years. I was working with Akshat in IBIBO earlier and I am working with him here as well and I am definitely grateful to him. I have learnt a lot from him.

The person I have been most grateful to is my main partner in the law firm, which is Mr. Sharan. He has been a mentor throughout my life till today. Any problem which comes in, I only have to give him a call and he is up for me.

One thing I would like to tell anybody in this profession is - Maintain Your Network! Network is what will take you places.

Also, learn to take the senior's advice, because that's the best thing which will help you anywhere in your career.

So, Shreya, you have been in this field for many years now and you have seen the ups and downs and you have seen the corporate industry boom. So how was the corporate field when you started off and how it is now? What is the change that you have seen as far as the 'legal' is concerned?

If you call me a veteran in my field, I don't think I am one. I am a very very tiny piece in the Indian legal arena right now. I have about 7 and a half years or 8 of experience. There are a many people with a lot more experience sitting in the similar type of positions. What has changed, since the time I have started and today, especially in the corporate world, I think, is that the lawyers used to be specialists at one point of time, now they are more of a business partner.

They understand business and they definitely should, because if you don't understand business, you will not be able to provide them a sound advice. For advising and helping the clients within the company, you need to understand their pain points; you need to understand what they need from you. You need to understand what is the solution they would want you to provide in accordance with the business and profit maximization, and ensure that you are not still going away from the law? So, I think, the approach itself has changed. More than a specialist, you are more of a solution provider - you are more of a business partner than a lawyer. Once, you enter into an in-house job, you become a business partner. While you might be running a tiny little law firm inside the house, you still ensure that your approach helpsall the people inside the company to grow faster.

So, when we talk about you becoming a business partner with the business itself, what are the duties you have to provide as a General Counsel and what is the ratio between the business management and the pure legal counseling that you are providing?How do you part them?

I think it's a hand-to-hand process. It's always a shake-hand from both the sides. On the legal front, I might be teaching the team every single day to learn and unlearn what they have learnt and learn again. While on the side of the business, I, myself have to learn and ensure my team is also learning the business. And, we already have about 3 stores in India. What we normally do, as an example, we sit and then ensure that people are also aware that our team exists. You create a branding for your own team. We ensure that we are visiting the stores on and off, telling people to be compliant, we are taking trainings around the stores to tell them how to be compliant, what needs to be taken care of when an officer turns up at the store; What needs to be done in an incident something arising out of POSH.

So, these are the things which we have to manage and if I have to rate it in terms of percentage - Before I was a GC, I think, it was more of legal work than work as a business partner. I would have rated it to be about 60-40 in ratio. However, as a GC, there is a lot to do with managerial work, setting up the expectations and setting the right expectation! So, I think that I will rate it at about 70% managerial and 30% legal.

Tell us something about LOTS and all about cash and carry business?

LOTS is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a company called Siam Macro. These guys are in Thailand, so all of our board members are Thai members and on in & out basis, they visit and we ensure that their expectations are set right. They understand how it works in India while for them, the biggest difficulty they face with us is - here we have a lot of regulations and a lot of compliances which need to be done.And our compliance lawschange very frequently.

What is meant by cash and carry is basically - it's a very old concept; bring-in cash and you carry away goods. The old terminology is still being used; however the business has boomed up to a different level. We have multi-storey stores where we see an entire different chain of customers coming in. Our customers may range from kiranas to multinationals. When you enter our stores, you may see any product under the hood like you would see in any retail store. So, you will see FMCG goods, non-food, then you have, I think all the pulses, anything you see under the sun, it's there. We take have a little market for apparels as well. So, this is what the cash and carry is all about. How they are different from retails stores is that they are really huge stores. When you enter into one of our stores, it would like a double or triple of what a Big Bazaar would look like. So, I think the foreign firms like Siam Macro, Walmart, Metro - they are doing the similar kid of work and they are in cash and carry business.

What are the technical and niche laws that we have to learn and execute.Especially in reference to being a GC in a firm like LOTS which has a lot going under one umbrella?

One of the main niche laws which I learnt in this place was the Food law,because the biggest chunk of our focus is a lot on food. So, we deal in a lot of food laws. Other than that, what I had to learn was Metrology Law,Insecticides Law, Drugs and Cosmetics Laws - all of these laws you don't get to learn in academics or as a part of the curriculum in the LLB. So, these are a few laws which have a very niche market and users. Only the food FMCG companies, I think, are reading these laws.

How do you differentiate 'Litigation'- like hard core litigation - dealing with IPC, Constitution, CrPC AND dealing with 'Corporate' laws like Food, Business and other laws?Considering the work load you have, the environment, the culture - So how are they different?

To start with, I think there is not much of a difference - I read the same laws! I still read IPC, CrPC and Constitution as well because I still have to apply all those procedures and rules while I am dealing with the company or any problem which might come in - like you may have to file an FIR for a company, you are still dealing with CPC and maybe CrPC also. So, there is not much that has changed about reading the law, and it still reads exactly the same.

However, at the same time, they are definitely different sides of a table. While I was in litigation, I was in a very nascent stage, an infant in my career for that matter, and that was a very restrictive area. Although, I was given a very good liberty from my senior to go, argue and be present in the court for taking up a big hearing. However, it was definitely a niche area that I was handling - I was handling Commercial litigation for commercial companies. So I was still connected with companies/corporate world. That hasn't changed much. When I used to look into a contract, as a litigator, I used to find a problem in a contract.

When I became a corporate lawyer, I started building up contracts myself. So, the experience all in all is almost a like experience for a lawyer, I don't think it changes much. It remains the same as you are reading much of the things.

From a 'remuneration' point of view, I think, yes, definitely the commercial practices do pay you a lot higher in the later run. But, as a litigator, if you have built a career, I think it is merely the starting which takes you a little time, while it acts as a trampolineafter that; literally jumping to the stars once you have got hold of it. So, I don't think so you should actually compare the remuneration part at all, because in litigation you jump a couple of trampolines in reasonable spans, while in corporate you keep jumping. So it is a staircase-like situation. So, yes, remuneration, I don't think there is much of a difference.

The environment, definitely drastically changes. You are surrounded with lawyers in litigation, whereas, when you sit in a company, you are occupied by the board, and here you have to be more answerable. You have to be approachable and you have to go hands in hand with the business if you have to survive.

When you are a litigator, I think you have to do more with drafting and solving a problem and that too from a very different perspective. You do not initiate with solving the problem, you rather initiate with finding a problem. As a litigator, I think I would be a bread earner for myself while as a lawyer in a corporate company, I think I am a bread earner for a lot of people in the company itself. And, in LOTS or any other company, I think you get to deal with a lot of people around you who have no legal knowledge but you have to ensure that they still respect you for what you are telling them to agree to and you have to ensure that you tell them how to agree with you. So you are setting the expectations right, you are making them agree to your notion and making them understand that whatever they might be saying might be correct but may have a flip or a similar side to it. So yes, agreements are the major expectations here, while in the law firm/cabin, I think the people, who are mainly lawyers, around will be agreeing to the same position and getting along very well. In an in house-job, you will always findit a little difficult to get everybody in the same page, you might be able to get them on the similar pages, I would say.

What about the courts'/judges' reaction - How easy are they on litigators and how easy are they on those in corporate?

In corporate, I think you don't get to appearin the courts most of the time being an authorized representative to the company, while in litigation definitely your core practice is to appear before the courts. So, I don't think that there is barely any comparing between them. While as an in-house counsel, I might be appearing only as an authorized representative by helping the seniors out to understand what the matter is and briefing him/her on and off, while in the litigation, I might myself be standing up in the court and explaining to the judge what we are doing.

So Shreya! You are obviously going through a wave of emotional stress. How do you strike a balance between the superiority that you hold here and the approachability that you have to maintain?

I think maintaining my superiority has never been my concern. I always believe that till the time you know your facts and till the time you know your law, you will be able to maintain your own stand in a room. So, if you are clear with your thought process, you don't need to be a superior or junior to be telling that, and that is what I tell to my team as well. If you are correct, you are correct - you just need to tell it in the right way. And you need to understand the aura at that point of time. You have to know how something is to be told. So, it's about how you should handle your problem and from which side and with what approach you need to handle the problem from and with. It's not always that you can shoot it right into someone's face. But sometimes that is the best option. If I were to suppose that a problem might come from one of the directors to me, I have to ensure that one, I have to understand the kind of problem and take a legal stand on it and give a little time to understand how they can prefer and agree to my legal viewpoint as well, while driving their business in compliance with law. So, I think that is where it all stands through. I don't think supremacy has anything to do with it. It has more to do with the relationshipyou have with your business partners and the people within the companies. You need to ensure that what you are saying is very well researched upon. See, when a director, at a certain level, approaches you with the problem, they sometimes do have a solution with them, sometimes they are only checking up with you to ensure that their solution is right. Sometimes, they might be just checking out with you if you are the right person or if you are doing the right thing and whether you are the right person for them, sometimes they might not know and you will be giving them the right advice. So, what you need to do is - you need to be very well researched. Even, when I deal in with the law firm as an advisor, I make sure that whatever question might come in, I already have an answer to it because you need to be 100% sure of what they are going to do is right and you still question them on the xyz new things which they may have to go through, because when you work in a legal department in an in-house company, what you need to ensure is that your costs are minimal and your output is the maximum. So, I think that is the very best way - to be well researched and fact-based. You gotta be ready with precedencies in any cases, which is not short or in any field.

How do you contain and manage the stress, if you go through any?

Definitely! There is a lot of stress. I think the best way to contain this stress is sometimes go for some coffee before you revert something back to somebody. One thing that I was taught by my mentor at one point of time is whenever you are very annoyed with something, don't answer it at that point of time, give it some time, let your anger settle down, because in anger, you tend to reply something else than what is right and even something that you do not intend upon. So, stress management is very important for a corporate counselor in a company because every single day may be stressful, it's in your hand how you turn it around. If I were to say about how it has been at LOTS, it has been very stressful but at the same time, it's been very enjoyable as well.

The more work you have, the happy you are -  is the funda I have in my life and I think that has got embedded into myself. I embed into myself that I have to grow with this stress and only thing you need to put away this stress is - just be silent for a little while and jump back when you are relaxed. There is nothing that you need to be stress about.

Any experience that you have had, which has not been very well with the board or with the people you have around? And what are some challenges that one needs to be ready for when somebody is entering into the corporate field and aspiring to be a General Counsel, having to multi-task so much and having to be at so many places at the same time?

Definitely, there are multiple occasions where you will have difficult situations with board and your business partners in the company because when you are a lawyer, you have a tendency of showing everything right and telling everybody what right is, however the problem where it arises is - right is not what is required, apt is what is required at that point of time and I think the biggest issue which you would face any time is your disagreement to let the business people do what they want to do and how to handle them at that point of time without annoying everybody. See, when it comes to business, everything is about earning money and that is how you are also earning your bread, right? So, there are times when the board will disagree with you and so will you disagree with the board. However, you have to make sure that you bring them on the same platform. There are times when you want to agree or disagree to something and the board may agree / disagree with your approach also. So, how you manage it is what it takes to be there and how to answer the board, how to relevantly quote the law to them and how to put it forward to them is the key to the success. I think and you need to make sure that whatever you tell them, you are backed up by the law, backed up by your research, you should be sure about the precedents which have been passed in the country. You should be sure about what has brought you up to that decision. You should have a complete base or a background to come to a rational to say no to something. When you say 'No' to business, you are a road block and you don't want to be one and I think for a very long time, the legal departments have always been a road block to businesses, but I think, I can proudly say here that I am no more a road block to the company. I am rather a more hand-on-person with these people and they are happy to have me on board for almost everything from reviewing the terms & conditions to advising the board on how to execute strategies.

How important is the designation of a General Counsel. How important is your personality here and how has the importance of the job increased or decreased through time?

I think it is very important to have a General Counsel in a company, while the need of this has increased with time definitely. The companies would work on the basis of the consultancy and grow and still need one and still utilize the external law firms to do their legal work. However, with time, you need a business partner on and off to understand the legal nuances of your business, understand the integrities of the company's expectations, company's values and company's intrinsic  to help them understand what is the law of the company and how the company can work in the right manner to be compliant with the law. I think, with time, the need has really increased. With the amount of changes in law, you need to be abreast with every change which is coming in. You need to abreast with everything that is happening around the world. From keeping the recent changes in food law in check to keeping clients satisfied. I will give you an example.Anything printed on the food now has to be checked against the FSSAI Law and whenever there is something which is not right, anyone can come to the store and we have to get up and still ensure that we successfully tackle the situation. So, there are times when the supplier may actually go ahead and agree to what he has done wrong. At times they don't. So, that is where your expertise comes. That is where your understanding of law and your understanding of business comes in. You need to understand where to fight and where not to fight. You need to understand where to make a balance between being a Corporate Lawyer and a Litigator. There are times when you would not want to spend more money on the litigation but get a concrete order so that you don't face something similar later in the company. But, there are times where you would agree and let it go and agree to the penalty which is being charged to you. So, these are the few nuances which only a person sitting inside the company and understanding that the business can address efficiently.

How strict are things here and how strict are things in the other countries where LOTS has its function? How much under surveillance are we when it comes to laws like food laws and other niche laws? How much we should be worried about the penalties and the scrutiny?

Our parent company being a public company, we are under a much of radar. So, we have to be 100% compliant in India because everything which is done here or anywhere around the world for our parent company, because they have a lot of foot prints in other countries as well, like Cambodia, Vietnam and China, we have to ensure that everything is compliant in India and ensure that they are compliant in Thailand as well because it has a ripple effect on them. So, we are very strict in compliance with laws. We have to be sure that whatever is being done here is reported in Thailand. While you may say that the legal team of both the places are really small, however, we still have to address each and every query by ourselves. So, to give you an example, I think, with all the litigations we do, the major litigation we face now-a-days is that of and for Food items, because food business is one of the biggest business because chunk of the business we have and a lot of food officers keep turning up at the store for inspection at the time of registration of the licenses. So, that is when we pick up the stuff. They do tell us how to be compliant, so we have to ensure in all possible manner and business takes it in a very good gesture because they also don't want cost coming to them.

So, where do you see the Corporate Law as a profession going, 3 to 5 years down the line, the students who were aspiring now to be the General Counsels or enter into the Corporate field, so what do you advice them?

One thing I would definitely advise them is - Work in law firms or as a litigators for sometime, because you should definitely know that side of law. You should understand what the court procedures are, because when you don't understand the basics and when it comes to you to handle litigations in the company, you might turn out to be a very person in that, you might sound ignorant at times as well. These are some of the basic things which I have found lacking in people who have started right into the in-house jobs because they might not actually understand how the court works, unless they have done internships there definitely. So, I would say to anybody who wants to be a Corporate Counsel at one point of time, should have definitely law firm or litigation experience - you get to learn on a very vast scope of laws, while when you reach a Corporate house, your boundaries becomes a little niche because you are working more or less on the same laws which have more in relation to your company's side of business, while the litigation will teach you the rest of the sides of the business and you might get a much bigger exposure or a much bigger clientele firm. When you sit in a law firm or you litigate, you get to learn to handle 10 clients at one point of time and these 10 might have 10 different types of problems. When you sit in an in-house job, you might have 10 different problems but they relate to the same business and you are to address them in the same lines. So you might be learning 10 different sides of law but focusing on one niche point while, when you are sitting on the other side, you are looking at a much bigger area of the legal world.

What is the magnitude of the influx or out flux that we are looking at in the corporate field and how much is the corporate field ready to take in? How many people are needed as of now?

I think if you look at the recent past like of Snapdeal, Flipkart and Walmarts, these guys have created huge legal departments for themselves. Recent biggest news which I read was of Snapdeal closing an entire Merger & Acquisition transaction with their inhouse legal team. I think the utilization of the lawyers have increased over a period of time because one of the biggest reasons is impacting the cost of the company. Legal departments have always been considered as a cost centre. It's the ability of the lawyer or the head of the department or the lawyers inside the department that they can actually turn the cost center into revenue center.

Thank you Shreya, it was an amazing experience with you and the clarity with which you deliver and the enlightening way in which you speak is very inspirational and there is so much to learn from you.

So, wrapping it up, I want you to give a message to all the people on LAWyersclubindia platform and the aspiring young lawyers.

First of all! Thank you so much for having me on-board. What I would like to tell everybody in this field is - be in the practice of learning, un-learning and learning again because that is how our courts are also working, creating precedents all the time and utilizing the same or ruling out the same and doing it again as well. So, the more you learn, the more you research and the more you learn the law and you are able to address a question thrown at you in a better and a much researched format and a very good backing up with law, the better are your chances of going places. And, I think the key to success still remains hard work. As it has always been said by our ancestors and our predecessors, hard work will matter definitely; it doesn't matter which law college you come from - it will take you tothe place where you aspire to reach.

 

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on 06 February 2020
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