In Conversation with Soumee Bhatt, General Counsel, BankBazaar, India
Interviewed by Ashima Ohri and Krishnendra Joshi | BW Legal World
Please allow us a peek into your illustrious journey in law. Where did this journey begin, who were your mentors, and what keeps you busy when you’re not working (hobbies)
I have been working as an in-house counsel right after graduating from law school. Currently, I am the General Counsel for BankBazaar, India, where I head the Legal and Compliance functions and advise the senior management on strategic legal and regulatory matters, public policy, corporate governance, risk management and government affairs.
My journey from being a young counsel from campus trying to navigate through the nuances of the corporate legal world to a senior legal professional and finally being the head of the legal department has been nothing short of an ongoing learning and uplifting experience. With the gold medal in my kitty, I landed up with an offer from Axis Bank as part of the campus interviews that kick-started my career in the legal fraternity. I still fondly remember my days as a young lawyer in the corporate legal team at Axis Bank where I along with my peers very passionately spent a great deal of time ‘burning the midnight oil’ just as any junior associate in a law firm would do. My next stint was at ICICI Bank’s corporate legal group where I extensively advised several lines of the bank’s business ranging from retail banking, corporate banking, international banking, structured finance, capital markets, wealth management etc. My hands-on experience working very closely with various cross-functional teams and senior leadership paved the way and prepared me for my next role- which was for one of the fastest-growing private sector banks- RBL Bank. This was going to be far challenging from what I had done before and a game-changing experience for my career as a banking lawyer, as I was entrusted to help build the Legal function alongside the then General Counsel of the bank (from whom I have learnt so much) as part of the core leadership team of the corporate legal department. Having worked in well-established and process-oriented legal departments before, I was ready for taking up this task that included setting up legal risk cultures, legal risk mitigation, advisory to senior management on matters of strategic importance, drafting policies and legal manuals, standardizing contract templates, building and mentoring teams, recruitments, empanelment and management of external lawyers/law firms, conceptualizing and implementing new projects and learning sessions for an internal and external audience, etc. Thus, my stint at RBL Bank prepared me for taking on the next level in my career- being the General Counsel.
My personal struggles have taught me that health is most important in one’s life– and above everything else. I am hence a big fitness enthusiast, an amateur boxer and strive to attain newer levels of finesse with every passing day. I also love to read, travel, and enjoy performing arts.
What does a day in your shoes look like in your current role?
My day usually starts with taking stock of my calendar items and then connecting with my team. Most of the days there would be pre-scheduled calls with the Management or Heads of Departments. There are also days where we end up fighting fires – dealing with unanticipated challenging situations. I also spend some time every day in getting myself abreast with any new developments in the legal field.
What are the three biggest challenges/risks that you are facing right now in your business sector? How in your opinion can these bottlenecks or roadblocks be best handled?
Firstly, to my mind, the country needs to work towards improving financial inclusion for augmenting economic growth by extending financial services to the underbanked segments of the population. Fintech players have the ability to bring consumer credit to a larger section of the population through contactless digital platforms. This is even more true in the post-pandemic world when we just realized how technology can help in ensuring business continuity in the darkest of times.
Secondly, financial literacy and educating the consumer on personal finance matters are also the need of the hour to ensure that the consumer interest is always protected and safeguarded. Financial service providers must recognize this and play their part in uplifting and educating the consumers in a free and fair economy.
Thirdly, ambiguity in regulations can create a challenging environment for businesses to thrive and flourish as it leaves room for subjective interpretation. The clarity in letter and spirit can go a long way in ensuring that all market players have a level playing ground thereby eliminating chances of predatory practices. Further, while there is always a need to regulate a particular sector especially financial services, the regulations should be framed with the aim of not stifling innovation but to provide a secure and mature environment encouraging innovations in any sector. I feel that the industry should continue having regular dialogues and a clear line of communication with the regulatory authorities to achieve this end.
Are lean legal departments the future of in-house teams? Would you please share your thoughts and vision of CLDs of the future?
Legal departments should be tailor-made to suit the needs of a particular organization and there cannot be a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. Size of the in-house legal team also depends on the expectations of the Management from the function and various other factors like cost-consciousness or confidentiality issues in engaging external counsels, business needs and exigencies, and so on.
At the cost of sounding cliché, I would say a team that can adapt to change will be the team that survives the test of time, as change is the only constant. Adaptability to organizational changes, professional resilience, and ability to accelerate business growth and transform oneself to suit the needs of the times will be the distinguishing factors for the CLDs in future, irrespective of the team size.
As companies become more and more cost-conscious, has business automation found more acceptance with in-house legal departments? How does your organisation leverage AI and LegalTech within the legal function?
Technology can sustain business continuity to a large extent (of course there are other enablers like sound and mature leadership!) even in trying times and most of us have embraced the use of technology to fuel business growth. We have built a technology-driven Legal and Compliance function at my current organization which is a step in the right direction.
Having said that I believe that automation in Legal function should be implemented with the purpose of reducing cost and increasing bandwidth of available resources and ultimately accountability resting with human interface. Further, automation in Legal field would be appropriate only to certain functions and there can be no alternative to human strategic thinking and a legal bent of mind!
Your message to the new crop of lawyers wanting to make a mark for themselves in this industry. What other than hard work is a mantra to success?
Hard work is definitely the starting point, but I can share from my own experience that in order to distinguish oneself, one must have a “plan”, a strategy for your own career path and work hard towards achieving the same. Also, as it is important to know your own strengths, it is equally critical to know your weaknesses- and devise what might work the best for you.
As a final note, would you please recommend to our readers your favourite book or movie/series that left a lasting impression on you.
Book: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg
Movie: The Pursuit of Happyness
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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