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Starting his career before the Kerala High Court, Rajeev Nair subsequently worked in a number of in-house legal departments before shifting to Hewlett-Packard in early 2012. In this e-mail interview with Bar & Bench, the Country Counsel (India) shares his thoughts on what makes a good in-house counsel, the opportunities of growth an in-house counsel enjoys, and his experience with corporate law firms.
Bar & Bench: What is the size of your legal team?
Rajeeev Nair: The Hewlett-Packard (HP) India Legal team comprises of 15 lawyers two of whom are also qualified Company Secretaries, and an Executive Assistant.
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?
RN: The choice of law firm is mostly driven by the nature of the matter on which external legal advice or support is sought. For an in-house legal team that understands the local legal scenario and the nature of external support available, I do not believe a policy decision of engaging only a particular category of firms would be required. In HP India we have availed legal advice and support from the biggest and established law firms, to start-up firms and practicing individual lawyers. We prefer to approach external counsels who understand issues from a business perspective and who are able to partner with the in-house counsels to help identify compliant and practical business solutions.
B&B: 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?
RN: I cannot recollect any major challenges while engaging with Indian law firms. Most of them understand the requirements of the present day corporate client and expectation on the deliverables. They are happy to partner with the Business and in-house counsel, and also extend flexibility in the engagement and billing models considering the nuances of specific assignments.
B&B: A number of tech companies have been expanding their legal in-house team and reducing their external legal spend. Is this something that you see taking place at HP as well?
RN: I believe that the in-house legal team and external counsels have their own distinct roles to play in their own spheres, and neither can replace the other. To have a cost effective legal support delivery model, an in-house legal team must be scoped and resourced to handle all routine legal matters relating to the organization, and the foreseeable portion of other legal matters including planned initiatives. The in-house team should therefore be resourced to cover at least 90% of the organization’s total legal support requirement, though such a team would in reality be able to cover much more than this, at times even 100% of the support requirement.
Organizations would confront issues in areas where the in-house legal team does not have expertise or where due to the levels of complexity or limited bandwidth, external counsel support is required. These are areas where law firms should be engaged for advice and support. The target baseline of 90% while scoping and resourcing works best for in-house legal support delivery, both from the efficiency and cost perspectives.
B&B: You have served as in-house counsel for a number of large enterprises. What do you think makes a good in-house counsel?
RN: Organizations expect in-house legal teams to provide compliant and practical solutions on business issues that do not expose the organization to unforeseen risks. A sound understanding of the organization’s business, the factors that drive its revenues and the legal/regulatory environment in which it operates are therefore essential for an in-house counsel. In a multi-national organization this understanding would also need to extend to the legal and regulatory position in other countries where the organization is headquartered or based, and which can have an impact on the conduct of its business in the country. In addition, in-house legal Managers also have the responsibility to build and retain a talent pool which can ensure continuity in legal support to the organization without disruption. In my opinion, a combination of all the above attributes delivered in a cost effective manner defines success for an in-house counsel.
B&B: Could you tell us more about talent development among in-house lawyers in your organization?
RN: Talent is a key focus area for us at the Office of the General Counsel in HP. We strive to be ‘talent makers’ by identifying, nurturing and growing the right talent within the organization to take up future leadership roles, rather than being ‘talent takers.’ This is done through a ‘Talent Factory’ approach envisioned by HP’s General Counsel. This approach focuses on hiring the right talent at the entry level and developing them to create a talent pipeline which will take up leadership roles in the Office of the General Counsel in future.
B&B: What are the growth opportunities for an in-house lawyer?
RN: Most organizations today have in-house legal teams, with the size of the team depending on the size of its business, spread of its operations, and the legal complexity in its area of operation. In addition to geographic responsibilities that require mostly generalist capabilities, growth opportunities are available through specialization in various streams like support for specific Business Units or in specific areas of law.
B&B: Why did you study law?
RN: I must admit I had no serious inclination towards law while in school, though I had a fascination towards the profession from characters in some of the movies I have seen or books I have read – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ being the most powerful influence. Once I finished school and had several course options ahead of me, making the decision in favour of law wasn’t difficult.
B&B: Could you tell us a bit about your career path from law graduate to in-house counsel?
RN: I started my career as a practicing lawyer before the High Court of Kerala at Cochin, attached to the office of Mr. P.G.K Warriyar and subsequently with M/s K Srikumar & Associates. I began my corporate career with the Legal Department of Hindustan Lever Limited (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) in their southern Regional Legal Department at Chennai. I worked for around 7 years as an in-house counsel in the financial services sector, working for ING and HSBC group companies. I held the position of Vice President Legal & Compliance at HSBC’s Insurance JV in India until December 2011, before taking up the position of Director, Country Counsel – India with Hewlett-Packard.
The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Hewlett-Packard. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.