Ashima Ohri

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

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In Conversation with Monica S. Pirgal, Director & Head—Legal and Company Secretary at Lowe’s India

In this exclusive interview, Monica S. Pirgal talks to Ashima Ohri about her journey in law, women in leadership roles, in-house legal operations, coexisting with LegalTech and more.

Monica S. Pirgal is Director & Head of Legal and Company Secretary at Lowe’s India. She also serves as Executive Director and Board member at the company. Monica is a seasoned and experienced strategic attorney with over 15+ years of experience in handling legal, secretarial, regulatory and compliance functions at Lowe’s India, Goldman Sachs, PwC, Subex and as an independent legal practitioner.

Ms Pirgal, you are the first one in the family to work and pursue a serious profession as you mentioned offline. We’d love to know more. Would you please share with our readers how this journey has been so far and at what point in life were you certain you wanted to be a lawyer.

Firstly, thank you for featuring me in this section.  I am truly humbled and honoured with this opportunity of providing insights into my personal and professional life so far. 

I come from a Jain community, which is patriarchal to a very large extent. The women in our family were expected to manage homes and raise children, as their ultimate life goal. However, my father, being the eldest amongst his 5 siblings and unlike them, was extremely progressive and wanted to live his dream through his children.  He encouraged us to excel in whatever we did including studies, as he himself could not pursue higher education. Since I excelled in my studies, pursuing further education was an obvious choice for me. In my entire extended family, I can proudly say that I am the only professionally qualified female to be pursuing a full-fledged career. To my good luck, I also found a partner who has been extremely supportive of my career. During my times of self-doubt, my spouse becomes my cheerleader all the time. 

Though I wanted to pursue further education, becoming a lawyer and a CS was more by chance, than by choice.  But today, I would not like it any other way!   My parents were not in a position to guide me in my profession/ career choices.  My best friend’s father, who was a banker, asked her to take up law and CS.  I took it up with her to keep her company and completed both the courses! That’s how I landed in this profession! 

What does it take to be Head of Legal of your stature? 

Self-belief is one of the essential attributes to be successful in my role, and more so as a woman.  If you don’t believe in your abilities, no one else will.  The qualities which have helped me succeed in my career are my confidence, hard work, and attention to detail. Once you know your job, it does not matter even if you are the only woman at the table, which happens more often than not.  

We all face obstacles, some big, some minor in our careers but I never say “no” to anything that comes my way.  I am always up for challenges.  Also, to my advantage my organization has been extremely supporting in ensuring diversity and inclusion not just in words, but in spirit too. I know of a lot of wonderful and successful women who are in the legal world.  So, it gives me comfort that I can always fall back on my fraternity in case I need help or support. 

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

From my family, my father has been my greatest inspiration as he instilled unwavering will power in me.  My biggest strength and support has been my spouse who has been like a pillar by my side, pushing me to take up challenges and being selfless. 

I get immense inspiration from my manager for five years, based out of Lowe’s US.  His style of managing people, dealing with stakeholders, strategic and positive thinking has always made me want to become like him.  I am like a sponge when I talk to him, trying to absorb all his phenomenal qualities! He has influenced me the most till date in my career.  

As the head of Legal, one is tasked with keeping the company compliant with the ever-changing regulatory and legal landscape: what does this exactly entail? Would you please allow us a peek into your role at Lowe’s.

At Lowe’s India, I head the legal & corporate governance functions. Here, the culture of compliance exists, without any negotiation. The management in India and US are extremely supportive of being on the right side of the law at all times. With the ever-changing legal landscape, I am required to keep up with the latest updates applicable to the company.  

Along with my day job, I attend workshops, external sessions and continuously read up on the upcoming changes. There is a lot of peer learning too that happens through various WhatsApp groups. I also have a team of 8 members who help me in this challenging and demanding role.  

Has being a CS along with a lawyer given you an edge in your professional journey and career?

Absolutely.  I feel I am better lawyer because I am a qualified CS too. There are various corporate law angles that a lawyer has to think of, while doing a head legal role. E.g.:   While executing a contract, I check whether the other party is “related” and if yes, do we have the board approval in place?  This gives me an edge over non-CS lawyers as it ensures better compliance and makes the chances of missing out on regulatory approvals or filings fairly slim. 

How is your team and organization responding to the Covid-19 crisis? 

Lowe’s India is a Global Capability Center of Lowes US and we do not have retail business in India.  COVID-19 crisis is real and unique to all of us.  Our challenges in US and India have been very different.  From India, we have been working harder than ever to support the US technology teams as we saw significant shift in sales moving online during this pandemic.  We have extended maximum support to our associates during this time of need by ensuring everyone is working from home, providing additional time off, better insurance cover, expenses reimbursements, allowances, etc. to show that we care. 

What in your opinion has been the biggest change or challenge in the legal operations of in-house legal departments in the last few years? 

In-house legal departments continue to stay lean while supporting large businesses.   The biggest change I have witnessed in a few years is nurturing talent in house with an intent to decrease reliance on external counsels, except for complex matters. 

The positive challenge I have seen is the seriousness and emphasis towards compliance at all times.  Irrespective of budget constraints, keeping the company fully compliant at all times is a priority for my organization.

How have you leveraged innovation to navigate uncertainty or tailored your tech-strategy to meet the operational requirements of your in-house legal team? How do you think Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Analytics will shape the corporate legal departments of the future? 

Technology is here to stay and will change the way we look at things, in all fields, with legal being no exception. There are some very innovative, easy to use tools that we have implemented to manage our compliance health and contracts management.  Frankly, what automation can do, should NOT be done by lawyers! 

Artificial Intelligence and related solutions may definitely aid the legal fraternity but can never replace a real lawyer and our creativity to solve problems.  We will all co-exist. 

In this day and age, other than good legal acumen, what are the other important skills you’re looking for in lawyers joining your team?

More than the skill, I look for the “will”. Skill can be taught, but will cannot be. I would rather prefer a hard-working team member who is willing to learn and challenge himself/herself, than a lawyer from a pedigree school feeling entitled but unwilling to take on more. “Bias for action” checks the box for me.  

The other attributes that I look for in my team members is their understanding of the company’s business and finance acumen.  If you have to move from an operational lawyer to becoming a strategic partner, you need to think like an owner of the company to ask the right questions and enable the right decisions. 

If I were a lawyer with some diverse experience wanting to make the shift to an in-house role, what should be my first step? Any golden piece of advice from the treasure trove of your experiences in the industry, success mantra or tips for lawyers wanting to move to an in-house role? 

If you want to move in-house, you need to have a mindset of becoming a “business partner/enabler”.  As a practicing lawyer, one is used to dispensing straight forward legal advice to their clients, irrespective of the business impact to their client. However, as an in-house counsel, equal importance is laid on business and compliance.  You have to be a creative business lawyer while being in-house, which is different from being just a lawyer in practice.  When I moved in-house after 5 years of practice, I had to quickly learn to change my style to be successful as an in-house counsel.  Five page opinions on a subject had to be shrunk to half a page, being to the point—minus all the legal jargons! 

Ms Pirgal, you’ve recently authored a very insightful article on how the pandemic will shape PoSH Compliance. I am sure our readers would love to understand from you whether, for instance, asking a woman colleague to come on a video call or conference after office hours, (with work and personal hours having no clear demarcations anymore) can be considered harassment under the PoSH Act? What would be your recommendation to ICs during these times?

Harassment is perception based.  What is harassing to one individual may not be the same to another.   Consent is the key factor which should unconditionally be given by your colleagues prior to any interactions irrespective of the mode and time of the day. 

While this should not be construed as legal advice, my recommendation to the ICs during these times would be to invest more time and effort in preventive measures like curating training modules for your employees to understand where to draw the line,   amend your policy to include instances of harassment while working from remote locations,  run online awareness campaigns, etc. 

Other than work, what else keeps you busy? Would you please share your interests and hobbies with our readers.

Being a mother is a full-time job.  With two full-time jobs, when I find time, I also like and enjoy singing, listening to music, cycling.  During this pandemic, I realized that I developed an interest in cooking!  

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

To keep me inspired, I turn to self-help books.  One of my favourites is “The power of your subconscious mind” authored by Joseph Murphy. I live by the quote— “Character is what you do when no one is watching,” which I feel defines you as an individual.  For a professional set up, I wholeheartedly believe in the quote by Peter Drucker— “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” as I am a firm believer of having strong organizational culture. 

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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