Conversation with Wipro General Counsel Inderpreet Sawhney

Conversation with Wipro General Counsel Inderpreet Sawhney

Bar & Bench

Bar & Bench Editor Pallavi Saluja spoke to Inderpreet Sawhney, the General Counsel of Wipro. She has more than 20 years of legal experience and has worked both as a Partner in a law firm and as in-house Legal Counsel. Inderpreet Sawhney talks about initial years of her career, the differences between working in a law firm and as in-house counsel, her role as GC, the evolving position of in-house-counsel, legal department at Wipro and her future plans.

Bar & Bench: You have been in the profession for more than twenty years now. What made you choose law as a career?

Inderpreet Sawhney: For me law was an accident. I did not start out looking for a career in law. When I finished my graduation, there was very little guidance that was available regarding career options. So I just decided to do my masters in economics. In the mean time, one of my friends suggested applying to the law faculty. Those days there was no entrance test and admission was based on undergraduate marks. So I asked her about the last date for applying and she said, “Today is the last day”. I filled up the form and submitted my application two minutes before the window shut down. So basically it wasn’t a profession of choice. I don’t come from a family of lawyers that is not what you saw among people of my generation. Now the scenario has changed a lot. After I finished my LLB from Faculty of Law, I was not sure what I wanted to do, so I did my masters in International law in Canada and thereafter I started my legal career. So there is nothing specific that made me decide to do law. It was a series of coincidences I think.

Bar & Bench: Talk us through your journey from your first job to your current role as the General Counsel of Wipro.

Inderpreet Sawhney: I started my career with a law firm called Remfry & Sagar where I spent about six months. Then I moved in-house to ITC where I spent little less than five years and that’s what I really see as my first job where I did a variety of work. As a young new attorney, I handled the trademark portfolio. ITC was in the consumer goods space so that was another part of the portfolio. I did a lot of marketing distribution contracts especially for sponsorships. A part of my work related to indirect taxation. It was really big at that time so that’s where I got my grounding in law and then in 1995 I relocated to the US for personal reasons.

At that time it was really difficult to sell “India”. Today “India” is out there. There are many lawyers who have gone from India and have made successful careers for themselves. So I went to the US, took the bar exam and started working and practicing and stayed in the same firm (The Chugh Firm) for close to fourteen years that I worked in the US. I started as an associate with the firm and went on become a partner. I first started work in LA and then moved to Silicon Valley with literally one paralegal. We hired one office administrator and grew that office. When I left we were a staff of about fifty people. So that was an exciting journey. It was the process of building the firm’s brand, acquiring the clients, hiring talent and then doing the work and delivery also. So there was a whole gamut of experience and then, when this opportunity came up, I moved back to India after sixteen years. So it’s been a long time. The only thing that I will qualify here is that even when while I was in the US I did a lot of work with India based companies. A lot of my clients were in that space and I understood the space. A lot of my clients were technology based companies and I did lot of cross border work. So there was a sense of comfort taking up this job from a skill point of view and so here I am six months later settling into the job.

Bar & Bench: It must have been a big change returning to India after spending the last sixteen years in the US.

Inderpreet Sawhney: It was a big change but as I said there were several touch points with India. I would travel frequently and when I would come to India, I would spend time with our clients. I would sit in their offices and understand what their requirements were because these were all Indian companies doing business in the US. I wasn’t doing India-related legal work for them but their head quarters were here.

On a personal front, yes visiting India and living in India are totally different ball games. So I am taking the good parts and dealing with the challenges.

Bar & Bench: You have been in-house legal counsel for a large Indian group and prior to joining Wipro you were the Managing Partner at The Chugh Firm in Silicon Valley. What are the differences between working at a firm and being an in-house counsel?

Inderpreet Sawhney: Before I talk about the differences, I want to qualify that the in- house role has also changed a lot since when I was here in my previous avatar. I remember as a young attorney, I would go visit the law firm that we would engage with and it was not unusual to see four or five in-house counsels sitting there and waiting for the lawyer to show up. Those days are over now. It’s typical for the lawyer to now come to you and I think that is indicative of the way the legal profession in India has evolved and has matured. We are now at the same level as the service levels in the western world. So that’s one stark change that I see from my previous experience. Nobody at that time would have thought it to be appropriate for a lawyer to go make a sales pitch to an in-house person. It is very commonplace now. In my last six months, I have met many lawyers.

Another big difference between being in-house versus practicing is – when you are an outside counsel, you sort of come in on a project-by-project basis and when you are in-house you are here every day. So I see my internal clients on a daily basis and when you give advice you also look at a bigger picture. When you are an outside counsel, you put on your specialist hat and you start passing down the legal nuances and say these are your legal answers, these are the options and you leave it there.

When you are in-house counsel, you have to go an extra step, participate in decision making and risk evaluation process. Also, when you are in-house, you become more of a generalist than when you are an outside counsel. People would go to an outside counsel because he has cross border work experience and that’s why we want to consult you but whereas when you have the in-house position, one day you may be asked about employment law in India, another day you may be dealing with some issue in the United States, some relating to M&A transactions. The variety is huge. From my perspective the other big difference that this job is multi-jurisdictional as we have operations in 54 countries and the focus might be more in certain locations. I still have to oversee the process of legal requirements/compliance and other areas. These are some of the highlights I would say between the two profiles.

Bar & Bench: How has the position of an in-house counsel changed over the years?

Inderpreet Sawhney: I think there is more expected of an in-house counsel now. We, at Wipro, use outside firms very sparingly. We go to them when we need some super specialist advice or if we have some litigation matters, where we do not have the infrastructure. So we expect more from an in-house counsel today. We want them to research, we want them to analyze and we want them to be embedded in the business process. So that’s one difference that the law firms are being used sparingly and people are going to them for specialized advice. That’s the big difference.

Two, when I was practicing, it was a little unusual for people to be hired from the campus in in-house positions. I had about six months of experience going in but I was probably the only one. Most people in in-house positions would come with some law firm experience and that has also changed. We now hire people directly from campuses so we are trying to create a cadre of our own people.

Third, in our area of work the challenges of working outside of India also arise. So while we have some lawyers in some geographies, we don’t have lawyers necessarily in all of the geographies where we have presence. So even though we use outside counsel, understanding the nuances of those geographies is very important.

Bar & Bench: Can you share with us your current responsibilities as a General Counsel? Also, what is your role in the legal function of Wipro?

Inderpreet Sawhney: I have an overall responsibility for legal function of the company, which includes compliance. So if you look at what the legal department provides today, we are like a mid -sized firm and we have our own practice areas. We have a large contracts team, which negotiates and finalizes all of our customer contracts. Then we provide support to our M&A team where we look at M&A transactions and the legal firm is involved. We have IP team which supports the business and its IP needs and then we have the compliance team. In the compliance team, we look at multiple areas like employment law, which is big because we have 130,000 plus work force. We are very hands on with the process of dispute resolution especially when it is pre-litigation because that is where we can make the difference. We try to resolve issues, mediate etc. so that is another big chunk. Then with regard to compliance, we do training of our entire workforce whether it’s in the area of ethics code, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the UK Bribery Act etc. So all of these are initiatives under the legal department and then I also have the shared responsibility for secretarial department. So that’s how our legal function looks like and my role is managing all of these different functions, dealing with issues that get escalated to me, advising the management on legal issues. Some of our role is reactive whenever there is an issue and we are also looking at a proactive role where training is a part of whole process, evaluating systems and also managing the teams. That sort of defines my portfolio.

Bar & Bench: Can you tell us about the legal department at Wipro – in terms of size; structure; kind of work profile etc.?

Inderpreet Sawhney: We are approximately fifty people in the team. Most of them are in Bangalore but we do have smaller teams in the US, Europe and Japan and also in Delhi. In India, we have a small set-up in Delhi.

We like our legal team to sit with their businesses and so if a lawyer is supporting a particular vertical, they will sit with that business rather than sit as a legal team. We also do internal meetings for the legal team, where we can interact as a group. All of the lawyers in the legal team are part of either one or two practice areas that I described to you earlier. Either they are doing contracts, compliance M&A, IP support or they are “geo lawyers”. So the geo lawyers’ roles will cut across several practices. They will get support from the team in India but they end up taking calls on issues in their jurisdiction.

Bar & Bench: What factors do you take into consideration while appointing external legal advisors?

Inderpreet Sawhney: There are some law firms that we have had long term relationships with and we will continue to engage with them because they have been our partners over an extended period of time but what we are looking for from law firms is truly their value addition. We don’t want them to do what we can do. We want them to be able to work with our team. So that if there is project that they are working on and there is some part of that can be done by the in-house team, we would like them to offer us that flexibility and say that we agree that X percentage will be done by the in-house team but there are certain parts that the outside firm should do, so we like that. Also, depending on the issue, if the issue is complex and of high visibility we will go to a top tier firm and we will look for a brand name. Otherwise we look for boutique firms, which are smaller in size but still have lawyers with good experience and have the specialization that we need, to be able to assist us.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on liberalisation of Indian legal sector? Will the liberalisation of the Indian legal sector have any perceptible impact on your choice of external counsel?

Inderpreet Sawhney: I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon if you ask me. Do I believe if it should? I really do. I think if the Indian legal Indian sector is opened up, it will just uplift the whole legal practice. I have already seen the big shift that has taken place. Law firms were virtually non-existent or there were just legacy firms that were carrying on for generations. Those days are gone. People are now graduating from law school and in couple of years are putting law firms together and are doing really good work. So to that extent the law landscape has changed. But still there is a difference in the quality that you see in the service that you get from an international firm.

So if international firms come to India, I believe it will raise the threshold for us. All of these lawyers who are doing this wonderful work will become the part of the landscape because those skills are still needed. Will it change the outcome in how we hire? It depends on what the scenario looks like. If some of these Indian law firms are folded in to those international law firms, I guess we don’t have a choice. Will we go to a firm just because of a brand? Unless it’s a high profile matter, which requires some kind of branding, I don’t believe so. Sometimes if we are doing a project across the globe, then we like to use a firm that has presence everywhere but typically we will take the effort of identifying the firm that works for us in that jurisdiction and just build that relationship. So we have used some firms in different parts. We have used them in the US, used them in UK and in Middle East, if they have that bandwidth. Other places we have just gone and picked the local firm and worked with them. So both the models have worked for us.

Bar & Bench: In terms of quality of client service and work product, do you think the Indian law firms can face competition from the international firms?

Inderpreet Sawhney: I think so. I think where the Indian law firms would benefit is from creating the infrastructure, understanding that when you are dealing with clients what all issues need to be taken care including data protection, the kind of facility you offer to the client and so on. All of that will change. But I believe our Indian lawyers are at par with international lawyers. In fact some of them are working in foreign law firms, so there is no reason why they will not be able to compete and I believe that if foreign law firms come in, these are the people they will hire.

Bar & Bench: What are your long-term personal plans and goals?

Inderpreet Sawhney: Right now I have just moved into this role. So my objective is to do this with a lot of passion and bring to it all of the experience that I have. Enhance our team in areas that we think needs enhancement. We are doing some hiring right now. So that’s what my focus is. If you would have asked me this question a year ago, I would have never been able to guess that I would be sitting here in India. This decision to move here and take on this role was actually taken in less than couple of months if you can believe that.

For now I am just going to focus on this. It’s a wonderful team that we have here so I will continue to build on that legacy and add greater value. There is always room to do more and improve. So that is my short term, mid term and long term vision.

Bar & Bench: How do you unwind?

Inderpreet Sawhney: Running is actually a passion of mine and I did a lot of it in the last six months before I moved here. I like to run half-marathons. That is really my way of unwinding. I like going to the gym and doing some cardio exercise. I need to find some good trails and some good running clubs here.

Wipro also sponsors a couple of marathon programs and I will be participating in them.

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