Ashima Ohri

A business economist, lawyer, and writer. Editorial Consultant for BW Legal World.

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"Clients need the comfort of human intervention and analysis rather than just the AI.” Seema Jhingan, Founding Partner, LEXCounsel

Ms Seema Jhingan speaks with Ashima Ohri of BW Legal World in this exclusive interview to shed light on the New Education Policy; franchise-model businesses in India; the advent of legal technology; helping her client bring the very first resort time-sharing concept of holidaying to India; her journey in law and much more.

Ms Jhingan, you have a vast experience in the areas of Mergers & Acquisition, Infrastructure, Telecommunications, Venture Capital & Private Equity, Education, Media & Entertainment, Franchising, Software/IT, Business Process Outsourcing, General Corporate and Commercial.

Would you please take us down the memory lane and share with us where this illustrious journey began and what point did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?

I wanted to be a lawyer since an early age of 9 or 10 years, possibly from class fifth onwards. My father was a senior in-house legal counsel with a financial institution and my great grandfather was a judge in the pre-independence India, so law was part of my family pool. But growing up, law and its nuances or practice were not part of our family discussions so my interest in law as a child was primarily driven from my simple belief that legal system is the upholder of justice, keeping the society free from disparity and inequality.

I started my career as a young lawyer in 1994 with Singhania & Co, when there were few women lawyers and fewer corporate law firms.  After a year in litigation, I found my true calling in corporate, commercial, and transactional law which I greatly enjoy to date. It was an exciting time as India was on the cusp of economic liberalization post the new 1991 industrial policy. This gave us extensive opportunity to work with foreign investors on cross border transactions. From foreign collaborations to joint ventures/technology agreements to shareholders agreements, exchange control regulations, minority protection, foreign exchange remittance and regulatory investment approvals, I got a great exposure in core corporate and transactional matters which prepared me for my role as a founder and corporate partner of LexCounsel, Law Offices.

In your long career, while you must have faced so many hurdles, is there any incident that you found particularly challenging to handle? How did you power through the problem?

During my initial years as a young lawyer, the challenge of supporting international clients in their investments in India to briefing my seniors correctly gave me many sleepless nights. I recall one such matter of time-sharing holidaying which was a new business concept in the mid-nineties with no precedents or legal sanctity in the recently liberalized India. Internet was still not common so global precedents were unavailable. This project was due to be launched in India provided we gave the client a confirmation that the concept of resort time-sharing by its members was legally tenable. From extensive study of the then foreign investment regulations to meetings with officials and presentation of international experience on the project (curiosity international print magazines) to seeking government’s acceptability to the concept and subsequent compliances were challenging but deeply satisfying as the client successfully launched the very first time-sharing concept (which later became a common way of holidaying). 

One other transaction that really challenged me was channelizing of foreign satellite bandwidth for Indian use. Though the foreign satellite policy was in existence, its actual implementation by ISRO and the government’s receptivity to the concept was a suspect. A Chinese satellite being launched by a US-based company for use by Indian telecom companies not only required security clearances and approvals from various Indian ministries, it also required ISRO’s approval for slot coordination in terms of International Telecommunications Union regulations. The project was not only complicated and time-consuming but riddled with geopolitical nuances as well.

How has Covid-19 impacted your practice? How is your organization staying futuristic?

Covid-19 has hit all of us unexpectedly, but a strong IT support and technology-enabled research tools assisted our Firm (LexCounsel, Law Offices) to continue working as before. Video calls and chats versus physical meetings with clients and colleagues have become the new norms. Sharing regular updates, analysis, and write-ups on Covid related regulations assumed urgency to keep clients updated, and our Firm also collaborated with a European law firm in preparing a compendium of pandemic related regulations, their enforcement and impact on businesses. From a work standpoint, the focus of the clients shifted from projects, investments, and expansion to preservation, scaling down, employees, real estate and service providers non-payment and termination issues. Litigation practice is still operating partially as most courts are yet to re-open physically. While the nature of the work has shifted, the practice is holding firm and strong albeit under the new environment. 

You have spoken extensively on the topic of Franchise-model of business in India. What would you say is the biggest stumbling block in our path today and how do we get past it?

Yes, I regularly speak at the start-ups and franchise conclaves and sourcing the right kind of capital - seed or growth funding, is one of the biggest challenges for businesses today. Sustainability of business considering the depressed sales and revenues coupled with continuing staff and recurring expenses is worrying a lot of entrepreneurs. The Government of India has launched various debt funding and guaranteeing packages for small and medium size enterprises to bring liquidity in the market. Other than debt funding, many private and venture capital funds are keen to invest in technology enabled ventures which can be considered. Basically, in this difficult time, the businesses will need to collaborate with industry, seek support of its workforce and service providers and sustain through cost reduction and external funding. 

You have conducted workshops on ‘Outsourcing Legal Services–Meeting Expectations of In-House Counsel’. There’s a favourable market for ALSPs and LPOs in the western countries where SmallLaw has increasingly been leveraging the LegalTech services offered by these companies. How do you see that in light of the Indian market? 

Technology, in the form of automation software, artificial intelligence, blockchain, communication systems, online platforms, is enabling legal industry to perform certain tasks which are normally viewed as requiring human intelligence, such as making decisions based on data, evaluating judgements, translating languages, reviewing and making contracts, recognizing speech and objects. AI specifically, has the ability, to mimic certain operations of the human mind. However, technology is just an enabler and not likely to replace lawyers in analysis or procedural aspects of legal practice, art of advocacy, negotiation, or structuring of complex deals. The legal profession is a sum of many complex variable or unpredictable elements, judges, clients, witnesses, the facts of each specific case are generally never the same, and there are elements of empathy and intuitiveness involved. I conducted a debate at a conference in Moscow last year on how automation in the legal profession is likely to take place and can it replace lawyers and not surprisingly, the answer was a definitive no. The current pandemic has accelerated the need to automate many functions and tools are increasingly being used to complete repetitive or remedial tasks via automation. Still, the difficult times has shown that clients need the comfort of human intervention and analysis rather than just the AI.

Since you are an advisor to many companies in the education industry, would you please share your thoughts on the New Education Policy, the roadblocks, and the ways to build this sector further?

Reforms in the Indian school and higher education systems have been long overdue, and NEP 2020 marks a significant shift in the long-standing and established rote and herd learning education practice followed in India. The focus of NEP 2020 is not only on improving the quality of education, but also on curbing commercialization of education in India, using and integrating technology to improve multiple aspects of education, allowing entry of foreign universities in India, promoting research culture, establishing multi-disciplinary institutions, ensuring continuous teacher training and education. The intent is to reduce the current poor employability of educated workforce, the deficient learning outcome and to develop cognitive skills of students. While the introduction of NEP 2020 and the proposed reforms in the regulatory regime is a positive step for revamping and streamlining the school and higher education segment, the actual results and changes will depend on ground level implementation of the proposed reforms by the states and regulatory institutions. 

From the treasure trove of your experiences, what is one piece of practical advice you would give to someone starting out as a lawyer or looking to specialize in a particular field?

Law is a tough field and requires long committed working hours with loads of deliverables, opinions, fillings, conferences, arguments, and submissions and can be sometimes challenging. To avoid stress and anxiety, it is advisable to enjoy the work and bring purpose to ones’ everyday work especially in these trying pandemic times of work from home. One needs to ‘cope’ only if the work is forced and without internal motivation. Also, keeping some downtime for self with family, yoga/exercise, travelling, books or other hobbies can be great stress busters. Bring meaning and purpose to your goals as a lawyer and remember that majority of the barriers and roadblocks are in our minds and we can walk past them. 

Who are the people who have inspired you the most in this profession and how?

Professionally, my first partner in charge, Mr J.  K. Gupta inspired me tremendously. He has always encouraged us to read the facts minutely and carefully to weed out all unnecessary details and assess the core of the issue that the client wants to resolve or achieve. Client matters and projects have changed but the practice of reading thoroughly and reaching the essence of an issue has stood the test of time. Zia Modi is also inspiring for her dedication to work. Personally, Mahatma Gandhi and from recent times, Sudha Murthy inspire me greatly.

With the emergence of LegalTech and AI in the Indian legal market, other than good legal acumen, what are the other important skills you’re looking for in lawyers joining your team? 

Clients choose an adviser not only because he or she is the best but also due to the level of trust and comfort the client shares with the advisor. Other than looking at just the willingness of a lawyer to work hard with diligence and consistency (which are a must), we also consider the business-oriented approach, open and positive attitude, work ethics,  attentiveness to details, analytical skill and overall awareness of a lawyer during our intensive interview and written ability skill test. 

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. As a final note, would you please recommend to our readers your favourite book, quote, or movie that left a lasting impression on you.

‘Power of being Present in Now’ by Eckhart Tolle is one of the most powerful quotes that I live by and strive to achieve. Ability of the mind not to engage in make-believe stories and being fully alive in the present moment is the key to mental sharpness, agility, and happiness.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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