In Conversation with Ojasvita Srivastava, General Counsel, Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific, Securitas Group

In this exclusive interview with Krishnendra Joshi, Editorial Lead, BW Legal World, Ojasvita talks about her formative years, her days at V.M. Salgaocar College of Law, the evolving role of a General Counsel and much more.

Ms Srivastava, would you please tell our readers what motivated you to pursue law? 

I never aspired to be a lawyer growing up. In fact, I had never met a lawyer till I was in Class XII. I was a science student till class XII studying Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Biology. Like the rest of my classmates, I was also planning to become an engineer. However, I secretly hated Chemistry and didn’t want to read a word of it. After I wrote my engineering entrance exams, I met the then Additional Advocate General of Goa, Adv. Vilas P. Thali through a family friend. I visited his office and was intrigued by the profession of law. It was he who inspired me to take up law as a profession. I had been an excellent student throughout my school life, so my family was not in favour of me taking up law as a profession instead of engineering. However, I convinced them otherwise and became the first lawyer in my family. 

I joined the office of Adv. Vilas Thali as an intern even before I started my LLB course. I interned there for more than 3 years spending close to 6 hours a day in his office and visiting courts, meeting clients as well as attending briefings with senior counsels. I realized I have a natural affinity for law. Not only did I top the entrance exam at my law college, but I also continued to receive a merit scholarship throughout my LLB course. I paid no tuition fee at all for my graduation. 

What were your days at V.M. Salgaocar College of Law like? How did you create your opportunities in terms of internships and exposure?

V. M. Salgaocar College of Law is an old college established 50 years ago. Although it is not very famous, it is accredited grade A by NAAC and has done some exemplary work in the field of legal aid for which it has received recognition globally. It also boasts of excellent infrastructure, with a huge library spread across 2,500 sq. mts and it is located just 100m from the beach. 

As students, we got excellent opportunities to participate in moot court competitions as the college used to bear all costs including participation fee, stationary, travel, stay, etc. Back in 2006-07, online research portals were notas common, and so the college would even sponsor our trips to Delhi for a month to study at libraries while preparing for international moot court competitions. Thanks to the college, I participated in several national and international moots and won several awards. 

In terms of internships, the college timings were quite convenient. Though 75% attendance was mandatory, we used to have only 5 hours of lectures, 5 days a week. The classes were between 12 noon and 5 pm, allowing us time before and after college for internships. Given law is a profession where practical experience is just as important as bookish knowledge, if not more important, it allowed me to learn the nuances of court craft while still studying in college.  

Is a master's degree in law important for a successful career in your desired practice area? Please mention other important certifications useful for Law students and lawyers in this age and time. 

As I mentioned earlier, in the legal profession, practical experience carries a lot of weightage. You cannot become a successful lawyer by simply getting an LLB degree, though it is essential to get a sanad. So, your success as a lawyer does not depend on your qualifications or even which college you graduate from. 

However, a master’s degree is done with an intention to specialize and to expand our horizons. Especially an LLM abroad allows you to network with other lawyers across the globe who practice the same area of law. It does give you an edge when working in a global environment. Getting a good understanding of comparative laws, an exposure to other legal systems like civil law and Islamic law systems is very useful in a regional role like mine. Besides the obvious networking opportunities, it also allows one to grow in a more holistic manner. I truly believe my LLM from Queen Mary University of London has opened doors for me that would have been difficult otherwise. 

You are the General Counsel, Securitas Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific, Securitas Ltd. What does a day in your shoes look like? What are your roles and responsibilities? 

As the General Counsel, I overlook legal management, contracts, compliance, corporate governance and Values and Ethics aspects for the region Africa, Middle East and the Asia Pacific. On average, almost 60% of my time every day is spent in attending calls with various colleagues, clients, and stakeholders. In a leadership role, relationship building is just as important as legal work. My work is mostly structured around my plans and projects that are part of my business plan for the year. But as lawyers we are also crisis managers, so new challenges keep coming every now and then. Besides being involved in the day-to-day business of contracting, litigation management, M&A transactions and compliance, I am also involved in investigations that are escalated via the Securitas Integrity Line i.e., Securitas internal grievance redressal portal. It is this last work as the gatekeeper of Values and Ethics that makes a General Counsel’s role is more than being just a legal advisor in a company. 

Who are the mentors you have looked up to and admired? How have they helped you in shaping your career?

My mentor is Adv. Vilas Thali who inspired me to join the legal profession. He is the former Addl. Advocate General of Goa and an expert in election laws. As a schoolgirl, meeting him was what inspired me to take up law as a profession and start my career in litigation. He taught me the nuances of being a lawyer, both the professional and the soft skills – how to always be ethical, how to approach a matter in the most logical way, how to interact with clients and fellow lawyers, how to research, draft pleadings, interpret laws and communicate clearly in plain English. These are practical skills that are not often taught in law schools but are essential for any lawyer. 

In addition to Adv. Thali, Mr. Subramanian Ramaswamy whom I call Ram Sir, the former General Counsel of Honda and Escorts, has also been a guiding force in my career as a General Counsel. The life of an in-house lawyer is quite different from that of a litigation lawyer. It was Ram Sir who guided me on how to be a good General Counsel and carve out a niche for myself, how to move from being looked at as a support function to becoming a business partner.  

From being looked at as an administrative head of the in-house legal department to being seen as an advisor to the business. The industry-wide perception of a General Counsel is changing. Your thoughts on the evolving role of a GC over the last decade.

I would like to take a step further and say that the GC role has further evolved from an advisor to the business to a ‘business partner’. Most GCs today are part of management and sit on the boards of companies. They have a seat at the decision-making table and their opinion is valued in deciding the direction of the company. A General Counsel is someone who helps the company grow by contributing both from her legal and commercial acumen. This is the reason why General Counsels today also have in-depth understanding of the business itself. The GC of a fintech organization is well versed in the latest blockchain technological developments just as the GC of an automobile company is well versed with the latest developments in the automobile sector. They are not restricted in their role to simply legal matters like new labour laws or RBI regulations. A good GC anticipates the upcoming laws in a sector and also follows public policy discourse in the area of their business. It is a result of this shift in outlook and approach that we now see many GCs elevating to the position of COOs and CEOs. 

Would you please tell the readers about your NGO ‘Project Abhimanyu.’ 

‘Project Abhimanyu’ is a pro bono, voluntary initiative and a registered NGO. It aims at increasing access to career opportunities in the legal industry by providing free guidance, career counselling and skill development to law students and young lawyers. 

Project Abhimanyu endeavours to increase awareness about opportunities and career options available in the legal profession to students. It works assiduously with first generation lawyers and students from various colleges across India.  It was started in July 2015 and we have so far worked with students from more than 80 colleges all over India. There are more than 70 Mentors on board Project Abhimanyu including law firm partners, General Counsels and senior lawyers that provide pro-bono service to the cause. Besides providing one on one guidance to students over email/ phone/ face to face, we also conduct career workshops in colleges and run comprehensive training programs for young lawyers. 

What is your definition of diversity and inclusion? What would be your suggestions for ensuring diversity and inclusivity in corporate legal teams?

I believe when inclusion leads, diversity automatically follows. By inclusion, we mean, equal opportunity without any biases. Steps towards inclusion could be like ensuring that there is a vast range of individuals from different backgrounds who are shortlisted for a given role. It would then be a matter of their own merit as to who is finally recruited. If we ensure that there is fairness in shortlisting candidates and the selection panel is free of bias, diversity is very likely going to be a by-product of this process. 

As far as the legal teams are concerned, they usually do pretty well on diversity and inclusion. My observation has been that there are usually more women than men in legal teams across the globe. Most organisational diversity demographics in fact benefit from the diversity statistics of legal teams. This is a good indicator and should be institutionalised.  The openness to includethe  LGBTQIA+ community is also laudable and appreciable. The legal community in law firms/ litigation may lack the level of transparency in recruitment and be may therefore give an advantage to someone from a legal pedigree, however, the in-house community is largely open and based on merit. 

What are the top trends that are going to dominate the in-house departments in the near future?

In my opinion, the top trends that will dominate the in-house departments in the near future are automation, use of AI, compliance with data protection laws and CPD for lawyers. 

The world post-Covid is far more digitized than the world in 2019. The world was forced to adopt technology in all spheres of work and entire court system went online in a matter of few months. In sync with this trend, in-house teams also have adopted several steps toward automation of basic processes in compliance, policy management, matter management and disputes. Chatbots have replaced emails to the legal team with clarifications around company policies. Another welcome trend is watching the growing use of Artificial Intelligence to do basic contract extraction at a much faster rate than done offline by a lawyer. The accuracy of this work is also promising; however, human intervention is still needed and the machine cannot yet be relied on exclusively. So, the trend of AI assisting lawyers in increasing efficiency and speed, thereby increasing the speed of doing business is a win-win situation for all. 

The other major trend that will be on the top of the agenda for many in-house teams is the growing environment of data protection laws. Recently China imposed a fine of USD 1.2 billion for violation of its new Data Protection law. With more and more countries enforcing a data protection law with its unique compliance requirements, employees working remotely and data flowing freely across jurisdictions, compliance with data protection laws will be a major focus area for MNCs in our region. 

Besides these, I believe that Continued Professional Development (CPD) for in-house lawyers is an important focus area. In the background of increasing competition, companies not having fully recovered from Covid, most world economies yet to recover, high inflation rates, and labour market shortages in many countries with increasing unemployment rates; it is all the more important for continuous learning and skill development of in-house lawyers. In most countries in our region, CPD for in-house lawyers in not institutionalised and is rather overlooked. In the near future, it is important to focus on this aspect in order to ensure that the right support is available, and recession does not adversely affect young legal talent. 

Would you please recommend a book that has left a lasting impression on you?

The book that I fall back to make sense of the world and find peace; is the Shrimad Bhagwat Gita. It is easy to assume that the world we live in is the end all and above all. In the rat race of the corporate world, it is the Bhagwat Geeta that helps to stay grounded with reality and be cognizant of how insignificant we really are in the multiverse of realities. I am still learning how to ‘be involved without being attached’ in work and in life. For anyone who is also trying to make sense of the world, I would highly recommend reading it. 

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