In Conversation With Bijoya Roy, General Counsel, South Asia, Pernod Ricard
As a young girl, Bijoya was introduced to the world of law through legal fiction by her grand uncle. Little did she know that reading the likes of John Grisham would lead her on a remarkable journey in law. In an exclusive interview with Krishnendra Joshi, Bijoya takes the readers down memory lane and gives a peek into her early life, her greatest inspiration, work as a General Counsel, future of inhouse legal departments and much more.
Formative Years and Mentors
Ms Roy, would you please tell our readers what motivated you to pursue law and what were the formative years of your professional career like.
Growing up, I always heard of the accomplishments of various doctors and engineers within my extended family. There was never any mention of lawyers. Turns out, the only individual in my family who had pursued law (one of my favourite grand uncles) had never gone on to practice it, choosing to join the air force instead. This same grand uncle introduced me, as a young girl, to the world of law through legal fiction (Earl Stanley Gardner, John Grisham to name a few) – and the dream was born. In some ways, I have always been a rebel and so the path was clear by the time I was 16 – to become the first lawyer and the first female lawyer in my family.
Who have been the people that have inspired you in your journey and how?
Personally, my greatest inspiration has always been my maternal grandmother. A woman born well-ahead of her times, she spoke fluent English, was very well read, rode horses and sang like a nightingale. More importantly, despite her affluent upbringing, she never shied away from hard work or adversity. She knew her mind and wasn’t afraid to speak her truth, no matter the odds. She cared enough to help people without discrimination, and she lived her values till her very last day. She instilled the same confidence, determination, resilience and kindness in me that has led me down the professional journey I am on.
Professionally, I have always been in awe of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Again, a trailblazer and a woman well ahead of her times who fearlessly spoke her truth.
Work as General Counsel
What does a day as General Counsel look like? What are your roles and responsibilities as a GC?
No two days look alike for me or for any GC for that matter. That’s the joy of in-house work. As a general counsel, my primary role is to support my CEO and the broader organizations leadership in their vision by delivering sound strategic advice, be the gatekeeper for all regulatory matters that may impact the company, be the custodian of its reputation and promote the interests of the company in broader forums.
A large part of the day goes in supporting transactional work – creating the legal and compliance strategies that support our business and help it grow sustainably. The rest of the day is a mixed bag of handling crisis, developing and mentoring talent and supporting the broader advocacy agenda for the organization.
Jack of all trades’ or a ‘legal business strategist’, how would you describe the evolving role of an in-house counsel today?
I feel in-house counsel today need to be a bit of both. In my opinion, being a generalist is far harder than being a specialist given the sheer spectrum of work an in-house counsel is expected to manage and support effectively. In-house counsel are expected to seamlessly switch advisory from one area of law to the next at a moment’s notice.
Despite that, I do feel it is good to have a core strength. The greatest strength an in-house counsel can bring to the table is the ability to see both the forest and the trees at the same time. In other words, the ability to do what is needed in the given moment while also having the vision to see a few steps ahead and plan for it.
Evolving Leadership role amid the pandemic
How do you see leadership roles evolving amid the pandemic? Would you say that working and managing teams amid the pandemic has brought unique leadership challenges?
The pandemic has caused a level of chaos and uncertainty that the world has probably not witnessed since the world wars. Covid-19 has acted almost like the great leveler – it hasn’t mattered how rich or powerful you are or how high you are on the corporate ladder. People have succumbed to the virus irrespective.
I believe that has therefore brought a fundamental shift in how we need to define leadership. It is not merely an issue of tackling virtual teams and virtual collaboration. I was lucky enough to have a lot of experience in running virtual teams. In an earlier global role, I only had 2 lawyers co-located with me while the vast majority of my team were spread across 9 countries, so I am familiar with the challenges on that front.
I feel it is a lot more to do with gravitating towards thoughtful leadership now where your core can no longer be based merely on profit motives but needs to be based on kindness and values that protect and promote the mental and physical well-being of your team. In a disconnected and fearful world, leaders now need to strive far more to set a vision that makes employees feel secure, connected, included and heard.
Sector specific questions
What are the governance and compliance risks unique to working in a global ‘wines and spirits’ company?
In a sector as heavily regulated as ours, the risks always increase too. At Pernod Ricard, integrity remains at our very core. Our legal and compliance function is constantly striving to be the best of breed, taking steps to ensure compliance not just at a local level but at a broader global level.
How do you foresee India’s legal sector playing a part in India’s economic recovery?
There is a lot to do to manage the post-Covid world, as we limp back towards economic recovery. I believe the wider legal sector, including the judiciary and the legislature, will play an important and interesting role in this path to recovery, shaping the new norms needed to conduct business. From workplace/employment laws around vaccinations to laws related to travel and trade, there is a lot of formative work to be done to ensure that the architecture of commerce continues to flourish despite our new reality and the challenges it brings.
Diverse and inclusive workplaces
What is your definition of diversity and inclusion? What would be your suggestions for ensuring diversity and inclusivity in corporate legal teams?
Diversity is a celebration of differences and an acknowledgement that these differences create true strength. For me, diversity is certainly not limited to gender – I hope I am able to create a platform in the teams I have worked with till date where every type of diversity is celebrated, including diversity of thought. Inclusion, on the other hand, is ensuring every individual feels respected and heard. Every individual deserves to get access to the same opportunities without discrimination – a pure meritocratic system.
One of the things that continue to strike the strongest chord at Pernod Ricard is how focused we are, as a company, to drive the diversity and inclusion mandate. It is not mere lip service – it is ensuring we acknowledge the need for these differences top down including embedding it in our recruitment process itself. I have also, in the past, expected my law firm partners to ensure they are presenting us with a diverse candidate slate with the hope of creating a ripple effect in the broader legal sector. Lastly, I am a strong proponent of equal pay for equal work and, over the years, I have also constantly worked on ways to remove pay discrepancies between genders.
In house departments of the future
How do you foresee in-house legal departments changing with the emergence of AI?
I have sometimes heard my legal brethren claim that lawyers are so integral that we will outlive AI. I feel there is immense fallacy in that statement. Like any other sector, it is mission critical that we lawyers work actively to embed AI into our systems and processes.
At a time when our internal clients are demanding quicker turnarounds, more accurate advisory and enhanced risk appetites but with shrinking budgets, we will be able to truly live the pareto principle and focus our time on the blue chips while outsourcing the lower value work to AI. I also see tremendous opportunity for data mining using AI – all towards driving greater efficiency, tackling headcount challenges and creating a continuous cycle of improvement.
Moreover, the more we interact with AI, the more we help shape it and avoid any machine learning bias that may otherwise get generated over time.
From LMS to document management systems, is there a tech toolkit every company can adopt? What do in-house legal departments of the future look like?
Like any other decision, enabling legal tech really depends on the need of the hour for any particular company and what they are looking to solve for. I have often seen companies purchase complex legal tech with far too much functionality at premium prices. These may take forever to implement and then remain underutilized or worse, need to be uninstalled because of system incompatibilities or the like – which then becomes a project in itself.
My personal philosophy is to keep it simple. Identify the gap you are trying to plug or the work you are trying to outsource. Get your team engaged in creating an outline of the capabilities but be strict in trimming the fat – question what functionalities the team would truly use on a regular basis. Finally, see if you can find a provider that offers a platform of multiple products rather than a standalone product – this helps both with the price and support but also with future needs.
The in-house legal department of the future will be an analytics and tech-driven department, moving away from being the traditional cost centre to being more of a contributor. I believe teams will get leaner and geographic boundaries will get more fluid. We will still have specialists among us, but they and the broader teams could be based anywhere globally, with a greater emergence of temporary, flexible staffing. All in all, exciting times ahead.
Current legal developments
Having worked with a leading e-commerce company, what is your take on the new e-commerce rules? Do online e-commerce platforms need to worry?
Yes, I believe the sector has a lot to worry about. It is maturing and is therefore in need of proper governance, which it hasn’t necessarily had so far. It is due time there was a thorough review of this sector, its impact on our broader industry and both the benefits and concerns it triggers for consumers. I am pro-industry but I also believe in sustainable growth that benefits every party concerned. I look forward to seeing the final roll-out of the e-commerce rules. We do need more structured and thoughtful regulations governing this space that supports both industry and protects the consumer alike. Currently, the legislations, while being well-intentioned, have been rather ad hoc.
Inhouse Legal Departments and ADR
What are your views on pre-litigation strategies for in-house legal departments? Do we see more thrust on ADR mechanisms in the near future?
Pre-litigation strategies are an absolute necessity, given the cost, time, effort and uncertainty associated with litigation. In-house teams, working with their business stakeholders, must have a clear vision as to what success looks like in any contentious matter. Litigation really does need to be a last resort, to be used when all else fails or because we need to set a precedent. The quality of advisory around pre-litigation strategies also separates the grain from the chaff for me – it shows me the quality of the legal talent at hand.
Given that our judicial system is strapped with huge backlogs and the cost of litigation escalates year on year, ADR is a valuable and probably still under-utilized resource to managing disputes. I definitely foresee ADR growing in importance, especially as a first forum to try and resolve disputes.
Work Life Balance and Hobbies
What is your take on the notion of Work-Life Balance?
When it comes to work-life balance, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Each of us have to tailor it to our needs. I have had the misfortune to work in organizations that glamorize being a workaholic. I once had a boss who would push me to work 17-18 hours a day and then go on to tell me I wasn’t doing enough. I am a strong believer that we need to stop glamorizing being a workaholic and working late hours. If you are doing that, you are probably not being very effective at time management and prioritization. If you are doing it as a leader, you are setting a terrible example for your team and the broader organization. While there may certainly be exceptional times when you need to burn the midnight oil (and I have had and enjoyed my share of those) because of a critical matter etc., it cannot be the norm.
Family comes first for me. My family keeps me sane, grounded and happy and that helps me perform better at work. Without work-life balance, I believe there would be a serious dip in my performance. I therefore try and emulate that same ethos for my team. My current organization is also a firm believer in this principle and offers a healthy and well-rounded work environment.
What keeps you busy other than work? Tell us about your hobbies? Any movies, work of art or books that have had a profound impression on you.
My biggest job is actually outside of work. I am mum to a 10-year-old with an abundant sense of curiosity and a startlingly vast repertoire of knowledge. He keeps me on my toes!
I am a lover of the arts. Be it literature, music or the music. I am a huge fan of Gustav Klimt and Botticelli and one of my favourite pieces would have to be the Primavera by Botticelli which is housed at the Uffizi in Florence. I am a film aficionado too. While I certainly enjoy the classic all-time greats, a simple film I keep going back to is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – it reminds me how, even the most unremarkable of people are capable of doing the most remarkable things in the right circumstances. It reminds me not to give up on my dreams. My favourite book has and will continue to be the 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Thoughts on Success and Advice to Young Lawyers
You have had a thriving career of over 18+ in the legal industry and have worked across multiple industries with some of the biggest names. What has helped you sustain success over a long period of time?
I am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have been given, the companies and teams I have had the good fortune to work with. While there is always an element of luck, the biggest thing for me was to never say no to an opportunity, even if it seemed scary or entailed a major change. A very wise manager and mentor once told me that the path to the top is rarely a straight line and that I should never be scared to zig-zag my way up there. I have always remembered that advice and stayed open to change and open to new possibilities. I suppose it shows given I have personally moved countries thrice and supported over 70 countries so far.
What advice would you give to aspiring and young lawyers looking to make a mark in the legal profession?
I hear a lot of leaders touting how humble they are when truly; their greatest enemy is their ego. To young lawyers, I say stay humble, in that you accept you will never know it all and you will always have more to learn. Stay humble such that you treat all your colleagues, from the CEO to the security guard at your company, with equal respect. Immerse yourselves in the businesses you support – you can never deliver value if you don’t understand your business. And above all, stay open to change. Change is the greatest catalyst of growth and you must welcome it, don't shy away from it, opting to stay in your comfort zone.
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