Evolving Roles of General Counsels: From Cost Centers to Strategic Business Partners

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June 18, 2024
Evolving Roles of General Counsels: From Cost Centers to Strategic Business Partners

In Conversation with V R Shankar, President and General Counsel, Hindalco at Aditya Birla Group

Previously viewed as a department solely focused on expenses, legal teams have undergone a significant shift. What are the key factors that have propelled legal teams from a cost centre to a strategic partner within organisations?

With significant regulatory changes, a conscious civil society, and progressive judicial pronouncements, the cost of doing business, particularly from a stringent governance point of view, has become a reality. Businesses have also come to realize the contribution in-house lawyers make by being proactively involved in business decisions and the benefit of planning potential risk mitigation that can avoid unnecessary costs later. Having said that, lawyers also need to play their role as solution providers rather than naysayers. We must develop a deep understanding of every aspect of business and advise as enablers. Own and play the role of Business Legal Managers and not just in-house lawyers, where business comes first. Increasingly, businesses have realized this aspect, involving in-house lawyers well ahead of time, and that has changed the role and expectations tremendously.

Can you share the impact mentorship had on your professional journey? In your current role, what are the opportunities you get to mentor young talent?

I have been privileged to receive mentorship throughout my professional journey, and I continue to cherish each day with the sound advice and direction I have received. The first and best lesson I have learned in my professional and personal journey is to be authentic in all situations. In my current role, a big part of my team is young. That, by itself, is an advantage as it provides me the opportunity to connect and interact with them, hear them out, and, in quite a few situations, learn from them. I have both structured and unstructured conversations with the team and provide guidance and support wherever required. Additionally, some senior colleagues from other functions also provide mentorship to the team, which enables them to get a perspective that is not limited to the legal space.

With the recent surge in data privacy regulations (e.g., Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023), many companies are struggling to comply. Do you think in-house legal teams in the technology industry might benefit from adding specialists in data privacy to effectively address these challenges?

Undoubtedly, the surge in data privacy regulations like the Digital Personal Data Protection Act of 2023 poses significant challenges for companies, particularly in the technology industry where data handling is central to operations. In-house legal teams would indeed benefit from adding specialists in data privacy to effectively address these challenges. In-house lawyers, even in non-technology industries, have to up their game to keep pace with the changing laws and challenges that accompany them, so as to be capable of not only advising the business but also being part of the change. Data privacy laws are still nascent in India; however, several global jurisdictions have extensive experience in this area. In-house lawyers can learn from this experience and benefit particularly in risk mitigation, creating crafted compliance programs, and being ready to comply with enhanced data governance requirements.

How do you think technology is helping you excel and drive more efficiency in your team? Beyond existing tools, are there any specific legal tasks you find most time-consuming or frustrating that you think future technology could solve to make in-house legal teams more efficient?

Technology plays a crucial role in enhancing efficiency and productivity within in-house legal teams. Beyond existing tools like document management systems and electronic signatures, AI offers several areas where technology could further streamline legal tasks and processes. There are many areas in legal departments where technology is currently used, but more innovation is possible and forthcoming. Particularly in contract analysis and review, legal research, automating standard document creation, archiving, and leveraging AI-based metadata analysis for tracking governance in contracts. With rapid changes in existing laws and the enactment of new laws, automating compliance management is another key area where the use of technology could be further enhanced, and analytics could be implemented. Technology will be extremely helpful and important, particularly in the context of data privacy compliance management.

While existing technologies have contributed to efficient operations in in-house legal departments, there is still significant opportunity for further adoption of technology to streamline legal tasks and processes. The adoption of AI would be a game-changer in enhancing productivity.

What do you think are the three most important skill sets that both recent law graduates and seasoned professionals need to develop in order to excel in these dynamic in-house legal environments?

People who know me and are reading this would relate to it. The big miss, particularly with young lawyers, is their willingness to read beyond their work-related requirements. Newspapers have been replaced with quick-read apps. Reading judgments and staying updated is a significant gap. In my view, in-house lawyers, irrespective of the number of years in the profession, should keep updated knowledge from a range of skills beyond traditional knowledge. This includes deep knowledge of business and business acumen, adaptability (as there are no tailor-made situations in life or work), and communication and collaboration, which are critical skills that each should practice and be conscious of. Critical thinking and a problem-solving approach are essential. Examining issues from multiple perspectives, anticipating risks and potential mitigations, and providing pragmatic solutions that are compliant yet meet business objectives are vital.


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