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Ashima Ohri

A business economist, lawyer, and writer.

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"You have to move from being a crisis counselor to someone indispensable in the planning stage itself." Anil PM, Head - Legal & Compliance, Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance Co. Ltd.

Anil PM sheds light on what has helped him emerge as a top General Counsel in the industry. He also talks about his day at work, key learnings from the pandemic, most awaited legislation in 2021, and much more in this exclusive interview with Ashima Ohri, Managing Editor, BW Legal World.

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 attribute my success to my team, my solution-oriented approach, my ability to keep calm during a crisis, my quest for doing things better, and of course, luck. Approaching issues with an entrepreneurial bent of mind have helped me resolve them optimally for business while keeping regulatory risk at a minimum.

I believe it to be my duty to develop my team by empowering them and providing them with an environment that is filled with learning, variety, and respect. Innovation and use of technology are at the core of what I do and this has stood me in good stead throughout my career.

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

For an in-house counsel, in addition to knowing the regulations governing your business, it is important to know the business itself, in-depth. You cannot expect a place on the table with just legal interpretation. Your ability to craft business-centric outcomes while steering clear of regulatory landmines gets you that seat. You have to move from being a crisis counsellor to someone indispensable in the planning stage itself. To achieve this, one needs to stay curious, humble and develop good interpersonal relationships while maintaining a strategic bent of mind. Also, being agile and able to execute are no longer business attributes and are equally applicable for in-house lawyers.

Would you please share with our readers the array of work you handle at your organization. What is your in-house team size, and would you please allow us a little peek into your routine at work?

I currently head the Legal, Compliance and Fraud Prevention Unit at Bajaj Allianz life Insurance Company Limited (“BALIC”). My role includes ensuring that BALIC conducts its activities in conformity with all applicable laws, regulations, internal policies and procedures. Continual compliance risk assessment of company practices together with the development of internal policies and procedures, compliance training and protocols, is also my responsibility. I also serve as a liaison for all regulatory bodies as well as maintaining relationships with relevant bodies and trade associations like Life Council, CII, etc. The opportunity to be involved in moulding regulations and designing approaches to mitigate the adverse impact of any regulation, through my work with these industry bodies and the Insurance Regulatory Development Authority of India (“IRDAI”), are the highlights of my current role and I view these as my contribution to the insurance sector with whom I have a long association.

Between these three functions, I have around 62 team members. The in-house legal team consists of 23 members.

In what ways has your business sector/industry been impacted by the pandemic and the subsequent second wave? How long would it take for the industry to revive?

Insurance, like other ‘old economy’ businesses, was considered a sector where Work from Home (“WFH”) could never be implemented. The pandemic has turned this concept on its head. Last year, we managed to close March (the biggest month for an insurance company) remotely and we continue to do a majority of our activities remotely even during the second wave.  We have seen benefits from WFH and are making this a permanent fixture of our work culture.

Apart from the initial phase of the pandemic, we have seen an uptick in interest in life insurance products. This is because of people being reminded of their mortality and the need to protect their loved ones financially. This demand continues even during the second wave. However, there are challenges. With customers being locked down at home and averse to going to medical centres, face-to-face sales and in-person medical exams became nearly impossible and required the industry to navigate new ways of doing business. We had to innovate using tele/video-based medicals, App-based form filling, etc. to meet the protection needs of our customers. The IRDAI has also given numerous dispensations to enable the sector and the customers to deal with the challenges posed by the pandemic such as OTP based authentication instead of wet signatures, issuance of policies digitally, etc. The pandemic has fastened the pace of regulatory reforms, enabling insurers to not just leverage technology but also to cater to evolving customer needs and aspirations. 

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 key learning has been that having digital capabilities, be it for business as a whole (solicitation, processing applications and issuing policies) or for the legal department in particular (online contract execution, digital updating of cases, etc.), not only enables business but also impacts our ability to capitalise on the surge in customer demand.

Digital transformation helps companies to connect with customers in different ways that include providing easier access, more choice, speed, and cost-effectiveness. Digital transformation is no longer a luxury for the future, but a current necessity. Given that, what keeps me up at night is the Legal Department’s ability to support enterprise-level digital efforts. It is not just about having the necessary skill sets but also the right mindset -  the ability to accept and adapt. According to Gartner—only 19% of in-house legal teams are positioned to support enterprise digital efforts.

Any significant legislation or decision of the top court that has been a welcome change or has been rather mistimed in your opinion. 

The significant legislation that I await is the Personal Data Protection Bill (“PDP Bill”) which is currently under the consideration of a Joint Parliamentary Committee. Given that digitisation also involves the use of large datasets, to identify unknown correlations, predict outcomes, optimize delivery, mitigate risk, and tailor solutions to consumer demands and expectations, the provisions of the PDP Bill, which has been formulated to deal with how personal data is collected/stored/used will have a significant bearing on company business models, practises and operating principles. Considering that India does not have a stand-alone law to protect personal data (protections which are available are contained in a mix of statutes, rules and guidelines), the PDP Bill, once passed, will ensure that concepts like data privacy and data security are given the focus and attention that it requires.

Specific to the insurance sector, the recent Insurance (Amendment) Act, 2021 is a key piece of legislation. It has increased the Foreign Direct Investment limits in Indian insurance companies to 74% from the earlier 49%. Corresponding to this amendment, the Indian Insurance Companies (Foreign Investment) Rules, 2015 was also amended to permit foreign ownership and control, subject to certain requirements/restrictions. This is a good development as the earlier amendments in 2015 increasing foreign ownership from 26% to 49% did not find any takers as there was a requirement that the Indian insurance companies be Indian owned and controlled. With this being removed, we can expect more inflows into insurers and more deepening of the sector.

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

I have had the good fortune of working with or under numerous individuals who have influenced me in their respective manner and fashion. I vividly recollect the day I had gone seeking placement as a junior with M/s. S Venkatesan & Uma Venkatesan. I was told by Mr Venkatesan that the very day was as good a day as any to start with the firm and I was handed a brief and pointed to a desk to start my engagement with the firm. Another episode that remains in my mind is involving MR. Antony Jacob then CEO of Royal Sundaram Alliance Insurance Company Limited where I was working as a Legal Officer. I had written to an Insurance Ombudsmen seeking a review of his order citing certain infirmities. This drew the ire of the Ombudsman who had written to Mr. Antony Jacob citing his displeasure at such communication. Instead of giving me a dressing down, Mr Jacob took me along for a  personal meeting with the Ombudsman wherein this issue was sorted out. It is my endeavour to ensure that I practise and pass on such largesse’s and generosity that have come my way.

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

As I said earlier, with businesses embracing digitisation, it is no longer for in-house legal departments to stand as mute spectators. There is growing pressure from C-Suites on the in-house teams to follow the standard operating procedures applicable to the other parts of the business. There is pressure to integrate with the business and that means, among other things, to function at the speed of business; to harness data for internal operations and customer knowledge; to be proactive, not reactive; and to provide holistic, interdisciplinary solutions, not legal recommendations. Data is replacing conjecture; customer satisfaction is paramount; and in-house teams are increasingly called upon to deliver expertly, measurably, collaboratively, and cost-effectively.

Currently, we use tools for contract and litigation management (including case updation) and compliance management. Our contract execution process is now online with OTP/Aadhaar based signatures. Our Fraud Prevention Unit uses data analytics, facial recognition, voice analytics, etc. to detect and mitigate fraud. Further, claim investigation is an automated process. 

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

I am a firm believer in Robert Urich’s quote about “A healthy outside starts from the inside”. I like to start the day with a run or with bicycling. This distresses me and keeps me in a frame of mind to tackle the day’s challenges. Over the pandemic period, I have become a consumer of podcasts and series like The Knowledge Project by Shane Parrish and Invest Like the Best with Partick O’Shaugnessey have helped me broaden my horizons and satiated my curiosity for new technology, concepts, and businesses. My love for travel is currently curtailed due to the pandemic and I hope to resume it once the situation improves.

 

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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