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In Conversation: Amit Thukral, Assistant General Counsel at Monsanto (India Region)

In Conversation: Amit Thukral, Assistant General Counsel at Monsanto (India Region)

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Amit Thukral is the Assistant General Counsel at Monsanto, India Region. In this interview with Bar & Bench, he discussed the general trends with respect to in-house counsels, working with external law firms, the state of IP protection in India and the liberalization of the Indian legal market.

Bar & Bench: In terms of practice areas, what work is done in-house and what is outsourced? Do you see a general trend towards decreasing the amount of work out-sourced?

Amit Thukral: We do a lot of work in-house and outsource only what is necessary. The diverse range of issues keeps the team happily engaged but very busy as well.  Being an Agriculture Biotechnology company, we do a lot of the sector- specific specialist work in-house. Also a lot of generic legal work is also catered to in-house. We practically do all our licensing, real estate, data protection, regulatory advocacy work in house. Almost 80% of the business transactions including cross border are done in house.

Invariably M&A, litigation, some Tax & commercial advisory and employment law issues are referred to external lawyers. I do see a general trend towards decreased outsourcing. It certainly has its advantages in terms of bringing in cost efficiencies and also helps in improving team engagement by offering rich diversity of legal work.

B&B: While deciding on law firms to engage, what are the factors that are taken into consideration? Do you prefer sticking with established firms or are you open to trying out smaller, newer law firms?

Amit Thukral: We look at the sectoral or practice area specialization that a particular firm would bring in. We also look at building sustained relationships with our external lawyer/law firms and appreciate the benefits of the same. We are always willing to work with smaller, newer law firms and that decision is based on the issue at hand.

B&B: What is the size of your legal team?

Amit Thukral: The legal team in Monsanto India comprises of 4 Attorneys and 1 Company Secretary.

B&B: What is the approximate annual spend on legal fees? Could you give a ratio of the expenditure on litigation and non-litigation work?

Amit Thukral: The annual spend on legal fees is confidential information. I can tell you that the budget is commensurate to doing business in a dynamic and heavily regulated sector.

B&B: As an in-house counsel, what do you see as some of the challenges you face while dealing with Indian law firms? Any particular aspects that you think require immediate change?

Amit Thukral: Mature Indian law firms have certainly come of age however it is a long road and the journey has just started. Some of the challenges relate to accountability, fee structures, client attentiveness and absence of a service oriented culture. I would say that reassertion of being in a service oriented industry and recognizing its related ethos requires immediate attention.

B&B: Sticking with this theme, what is your opinion of the fees charged? Do you see a change in the fee structure given the current economic scenario?

Amit Thukral: In my opinion, the fees being charged law firms and counsel chambers are mostly commensurate to the experience and skill being brought to the table as well as the complexity of the issue at hand. I don’t think in today’s competitive environment, law firms can afford to be un-reasonable.

That said, some complex regulatory or commercial litigation can be frighteningly expensive and it is easy to balk at the fee being charged by counsels. However, the important thing is that it is the client’s choice to pay the fee being quoted and as long as that choice is exercised judiciously, everything falls into place.

B&B: Monsanto is a fairly common participant in court proceedings. How do you decide on which Senior Advocate to engage and what has you’re your experience with them so far?

Amit Thukral: I think it is wrong to say that Monsanto is a common participant in court proceedings. Being in the Agriculture and crop protection business, we do defend some proceedings that are initiated under relevant statutes. If a particular matter requires the attention of a Senior Advocate, we usually rely on the advice of the lawyer/firm handling that matter.

My experience of working with Senior Advocates has been professionally gratifying and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity of working on matters that see many of the great names in action. The Senior Advocates represent some of the best talent that is available in the legal community and they deserve the recognition that is bestowed upon them.

B&B: Liberalization of the Indian legal market – Your thoughts?

Amit Thukral: I support the opening up of the Indian legal services market as it will provide wider choice to clients as well as wider career options for lawyers.

Additionally, opening of the legal market will lead to better regulation of the sector, adoption of global best practices and creation of level playing field conditions for all lawyers enrolled with the Bar Council of India. It will also lead to improving the certainty of applicable law leading to certainty of doing business in India.

There are a host of benefits however there is also merit in the suggestion that the practice rights should be made available on reciprocal basis. Having qualified as a Solicitor in England and Wales and having seen first hand the ease or difficulty of qualification (depending on how one sees it), I think it only fair to reciprocate the entry conditions. On a broader level, the regulation of legal sector should be made more robust, transparent, dynamic and non discriminatory to keep up with the changing times. Being closed and guarded is not in the interest of anybody.

B&B: At Monsanto, you must be dealing with biotech and IP-related matters on a regular basis. Do you think lawyers working in this field require a science background?

Amit Thukral: I do deal with biotech and IP related issues and it is a continuing learning curve. As an in-house lawyer, one tends to seek out specialist advice as and when required, so in that sense a science background is not necessary.

However in a specialist role, it is definitely an added advantage.  Lawyers are required to break down complex scientific and technological issues into easy to understand briefs. It would be relatively easier for a lawyer with a technical background to do that.

B&B: Your opinion on the current standards of IP enforcement/protection in the country?

Amit Thukral: IP protection in the country definitely needs to improve. As India becomes an R&D powerhouse, it needs to have robust mechanisms to protect IP. A whole ecosystem needs to be created viz Specialist IP courts, training to law enforcement, public sensitization towards respect for IP, education etc.

Baring a few high courts, most of the judicial system is not adequately equipped or sensitized to IP issues. Even the enforcement authorities, barring those in a few metro cities, are not sensitized to IP theft. This situation needs to improve from ground up if India wants to continue to be seen as an attractive investment destination. Most IP owners have little confidence in adequately protecting their IP and / or ensuring adequate returns on their investment in creating that IP, when it comes to India. This needs to change.

B&B: Could you tell us a bit about your journey to your current post? Where did you graduate from and why did you choose to study in England?

Amit Thukral: Around 13 years ago, I started out as a practicing advocate at the High Court of Punjab and Haryana where I trained in constitutional and administrative law matters. Being a first generation lawyer, I felt the need to add additional qualification, perspectives and experiences to my profile as a lawyer. That is how I decided to pursue a Master of Law degree in International Economic Law at the University of Warwick and take the QLTT route to qualify as a Solicitor on the Rolls of England and Wales.

I then returned to work for a boutique IP firm in Mumbai followed by working for and advising India’s largest FM Radio business, a leading Satellite TV operator and now the leading agricultural biotechnology company in the world. My journey has enabled me to work on cutting edge issues in the area of IP enforcement, IP licensing, Regulatory and public policy advocacy, complex regulatory and commercial litigation. I have worked with think tanks, with Industry Associations and interest groups. I have fought with and against competitors and activists; have defended PILs and anti-trust actions. The journey so far has been thoroughly enjoyable and I am looking forward to the exciting years that lay ahead.

B&B: What are the differences while working as external counsel compared to in-house?

Amit Thukral: There are many differences in the roles played by an external counsel compared to in-house counsel. As an external counsel, you can present legal options and advise your client regarding the path to follow where as an in-house counsel; you decide the path that your client follows. So you are that much closer to owning the advice given.

As an in-house counsel, you are expected to be first port of call to the management and the board and you are expected to give sound commercial advice. As an external lawyer, your clients rely on you for legal advice and not necessarily for commercial advice.

B&B: There is a perception that an in-house role means a better work-life balance. Your thoughts?

Amit Thukral: The working hours for an in-house lawyer are broadly the same in comparison to an external lawyer, but the working conditions tend to be more flexible and one can perhaps manage their time better.

At the same time, the luxury of enjoying time off owing to frequent court vacations is not available to in house lawyers. Personally, I feel that creating a work–life balance depends on the individual and not on the role. The demands and expectations of any competitive role, be it as an in-house lawyer or as an external advisor are such that there will always be pressure on your work – life balance.