Ashima Ohri

A business economist, lawyer, and writer.

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"Routine work would either be automated or outsourced, which will provide opportunities to law departments of high quality and business focussed work." Akhil Prasad, Country Counsel, India, Boeing

Top General Counsel Akhil Prasad talks about his inspiring journey in law, key learnings from Covid 19, company law departments of the future and much more in this exclusive interview with Ashima Ohri, Managing Editor, BW Legal World.

Many Congratulations on featuring in BW Legal World’s General Counsel 100 list for the year 2020. We’d love to know about your journey so far, most memorable experiences, and your thoughts on receiving this Award. 

Thanks a lot to the entire team of BW Legal for the award, which is extremely dear to me. An award in no less than a report card that a student expects after an examination, a pass is good but if the marks are with “distinction”, it makes you feel that the hard work is being recognized. So it’s a wonderful feeling to get a “distinction” from a wonderful publication that is BW Legal World.  

My journey as a Company Secretary started almost about the time the Indian economy opened up in 1991, about three years later than the historic announcement in the Indian Parliament. The experiences of working with great brands under BK Modi group (Xerox, Olivetti, Telstra, Continental) from 1993 to 2000, taught how joint ventures are successful and the value of a multi-business large law department. Then from 2000 till now, my journey has been with the world’s largest corporations like Electrolux, GM, Disney, Fidelity and Boeing, has been simply excellent. All of these corporations brought same products, services, values, cultures and traditions to India, which made them successful for so many years across the world. I have been fortunate to be a part of the team to make them successful in India. 

As a General Counsel of these corporations, I have been very fortunate to work with some of the very best business and legal professionals, across the world and it is no short of an admiration that these organizations are great, due to the people they hire and the practices they adopt.     

What do you attribute your success to? What would you say has helped you emerge as a top General Counsel in your industry? 

I would think that all professionals are successful because of teamwork and solutions that we collaboratively provide to business. The businesses in India, especially after the economic liberalization of 1991, have seamlessly aligned with global business, which is due to foresight of its business leaders and I believe also of its law departments. A General Counsel owes its success to the opportunities that businesses have provided for an integration of the role with senior management, which makes it essential to have a deep understanding of business, continuous learning, provide a timely, high quality advice and to find a way to navigate businesses in unseen, uncertain or volatile situations. I have tried my best to listen attentively to the problems that the businesses are facing and try and come up with timely and effective solutions.        

What advice would you have for others who want to set off in a similar direction?  

Firstly, my philosophy on work-life balance is that your work should be as valuable as your family. After all, most of us spend about the same (or more) time with our colleagues, as with our family, so colleagues are also family. I mean it literally and not as a concept. One needs to be as candid on work-related matters (and also colleagues’ personal matters) with your colleagues, as we are with our family, which helps build relationships that last for a lifetime. If we build relationships that would last your lifetime, then you as a family with your colleagues will be able to achieve unprecedented things at work and make all of you successful. 

Secondly, the need for constant learning. The boundary of domain expertise will diminish and organizations will value people, who are willing to stretch and find solutions to any problem that business is facing, whether it’s from your domain or not. Therefore, to meet the demands of business, one has to keep the mind sharp with constant dose of education and knowledge. Organizations of today, devote a lot of support on learning and we need to find time to do it. The more diverse organizations you work for, as has been my career so far, the greater is the opportunity to learn.  

Thirdly and perhaps most important, is to pursue one’s hobbies. Often due to our tight working time zones, we tend to overlook our family and hobbies, which could result in early burnout. So one’s capacity to work is enhanced if the mind works at something, it loves. So hobbies must be pursued, no matter what. We all have 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, so we have to optimize and give importance to everything: 

Work: Family: Learning: Hobbies – Achieve a balance… with practice, we can.        

What have been your key learnings as the legal gatekeepers of your company from the year past and what are your predictions for the future? 

The biggest learning of the past year or so is to how to make organizations resilient and sustainable. Covid has adversely impacted a large section of business and people. Many businesses have folded and unemployment has risen like never before. Therefore, the focus has been to ensure that despite lockdowns, how you ensure that the impact on business and people is minimized and the well-being of employees is maintained. For any General Counsel, a lot of time has been devoted to working with the senior management and support them in keeping the business functional and motivate employees with a positive frame of mind. In addition, we have been fortunate to have the opportunity to serve people, through CSR initiatives on health and education, which has been extremely satisfying. The future may see more waves of Covid and disruptions, however, with a phenomenal effort by Governments, pharma and healthcare companies on vaccination and care, we will adapt and overcome the pandemic. I am waiting for the day our PM makes an announcement that masks are no longer necessary and it is life as usual and as it’s meant to be. The day is not far.   

 An experience, matter or person that left a lasting impression on you. 

I have always idolized my parents. My father, Dr. Anil Prasad, who left us about 26 years ago, was a medical practitioner at our hometown in Meerut. He used to treat patients for free, even paying for their medicine and food from his own pocket. Still, a mystery how he did that. As a child, when I used to go to his clinic, I still remember that I had to wade through a sea of his patients to go and sit on his lap. His patients were mostly poor and under privileged but the love they had for him (and for me as a kid) cannot be described in words. Money mattered little for my father, as he did unpaid service to his patients. He never spoke to me about money or lack of it but his work spoke for itself. Likewise, my mother who retired as a Professor of Zoology has a large admiration and followership. Our home at Meerut was like a large family, whether relatives and friends were always welcome, which was only because of my mother and my father.  

I still recall a day an old woman, who barely had full clothes, come up to our house, when my father was away. As we waited for my father to arrive, she told me how she worshipped my father, as he treated her son for some severe ailment, which he survived due to his treatment. She said they had no money to pay, my father paid for everything and God saved him. She gave me three cauliflower and said that due to poor weather, the crop they sowed had failed but she preserved these for my father as her gratitude!! She said your father is a “messiah for the poor”… So many instances like those still are fresh in my mind and motivates me to do whatever I can for others, not make money a priority but help everyone, respect human relationships and stay humble.       

Company Law Departments of the future: LegalTech tools that are transforming the traditional methods of in-house legal work in India

I have witnessed a transformation in the size of the law departments that we used to work in. As technology has advanced, not only within the office but also with how you interact with regulators, the size of the teams has been rationalized. Digitalization is also transforming legal work on documentation, filings and conducting meetings. With advancement of artificial intelligence and smarter tools, routine work would either be automated or outsourced, which will provide opportunities to law departments of high quality and business focussed work. It’s an evolution that is inevitable. As a part of global organizations, we are learning best practices and are exposed to the use of technology to use legal work. Many legal teams in India are now providing excellent support on international work. Further, as businesses go international so does the opportunity to the General Counsel to expand geography and jurisdiction. These are very exciting times.     

What keeps you busy when you’re not working? Any favorite book or movie/series that you'd like to recommend to our readers. 

I must admit that due to Covid, working from home has its own advantages, as the travel time to work can be optimized for other things. I try and use the time to pursue my hobbies, which has been tennis, golf (if lockdowns permit), learning vocal music, and play the keyboard (works effectively through online mediums with my teachers). The idea is fitness, hobbies, and learning. Besides this, I love to catch up on reading business and current affairs magazines on my tablet. Of course, OTT has been one of the must-dos, late nights with the family. One of the series that I completed on OTT was “Better Call Saul”, which I really enjoyed and recommend.  

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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