In Conversation With Suchita Saigal, General Counsel, Cleantech Solar

When Suchita's sister was preparing for her entrance exams to various law schools, she started going through her books and notes. And that's how her fascination towards a career in law began. From getting through NLSIU, Bangalore to working in top law firms and MNCs, Cleantech Solar's General Counsel talks about her illustrious journey and much more in this interview with Krishnendra Joshi, Editorial Lead, BW Legal World.

Formative Years

Suchita, would you please tell our readers what motivated you to pursue law as a career?

When my sister was preparing for her entrance exams to various law schools, I started going through her books and notes. I found the sections on reasoning and logic very fascinating and that motivated me to sit for the entrance exams to the 5-year national law school courses. I got through to NLSIU, Bangalore and there was no looking back.

You started your career at a prominent law firm. What made you gravitate toward an in-house role?

Towards the end of my 7 years as a private practice lawyer, I started feeling stagnated and wanted to explore different avenues. I got an opportunity to join the in-house legal team at Apraava Energy (previously known as CLP India Private Limited). As a private practice lawyer, I advised mainly on project financing transactions. However, as an in-house lawyer, in a single day, I advise on a wide variety of matters ranging from financing transactions, and commercial contracts to disputes and regulatory matters. The range and complexity of matters that arise on a day-to-day basis are interesting and challenging in equal measure.

Work as an in-house Counsel

What is your team size? What does a day in your shoes look like?

Cleantech Solar’s legal and corporate secretarial team comprises a total of 12 employees. The team handles legal and corporate secretarial matters across India and Southeast Asia.  

As the General Counsel I believe that the team must partner with the business teams to ensure that business deliverables are met in a cost and time efficient manner and in compliance with the applicable regulatory framework. With this intent, I work with a wide variety of stakeholders (be it the business teams, shareholders or contractors) addressing queries raised, negotiating key commercial contracts, closing financing documents or brainstorming on the next steps to handle a dispute or a regulatory change. I can safely say that each morning brings in something new!

Across companies, management is increasingly relying on the in-house team to act as corporate advisor and tend to reach out to external lawyers for discrete tasks. I believe this approach is beneficial in a long run as the in-house team understands the ins and outs of the business and can provide advice having a deep understanding of the relevant context and commercial requirements.

Trends And Expert Opinion

What are some compliances unique to your sector?

The renewable energy sector has always faced unique challenges.  Land issues continue to be an area of concern. Also, there are several one-off developments which adversely impact the industry. For instance, last year, the C&I solar sector was grappling with inclusion of open-access projects in the ALMM order. Prior to this several states had tried to renegotiate tariff in concluded PPAs. If India were to aim to achieve its 450 GW renewable energy targets set for 2030, it would need to address the adverse impact of such policy decisions.

As an Important cog in the wheel, how would you rate India’s corporate governance framework around promoter-driven companies? Any glaring areas that need urgent attention?

In the recent past, Indian companies, including promoter-driven companies, have increasingly focussed on implementing robust corporate governance frameworks. To my mind, this change is a result of increased regulatory scrutiny as well as corporates voluntarily opting in for such measures acknowledging their long-term value. As the Chief Compliance Officer, I conduct sessions on the Cleantech Solar Business Integrity Program for our employees and such sessions help address any doubts and questions which are deliberated upon in an open forum. Also, we have set up an Ethics Helpline where anyone can anonymously report a violation of the Cleantech Solar Business Integrity Program. Such measures help build confidence in the business and are valued by internal stakeholders and clients.

Over time we would need to assess the implementation of such measures to ensure that they continue to remain meaningful and serve the purpose for which they are introduced. This is also true to the various regulatory changes which are being introduced to address gaps in corporate governance, there would need to be a check on the effectiveness of such changes and the ability to pivot if required.

Are companies doing enough in terms of women-friendly initiatives and flexi policies to encourage women in leadership roles?

Before we speak about women in leadership roles, we need to address the fact that, across the world, during COVID women dropped out of the workforce in record numbers. This trend continues in India and it is estimated that 19.2% of women dropped out of the paid workforce in India in 2021. A Business Line news article quoted an IMF blog by Christine Lagarde and Jonathan D Ostry in which they estimated that closing the gender gap for countries ranking in the lower half in gender inequality could increase GDP by an average of 35%. Hence, this issue needs urgent attention as there is a massive loss of talent pool. While there are deep rooted reasons for such developments, including the perceived role of women in society, corporates need to explore providing options to ensure it remains an attractive option for a wider employee pool. As a start, flexi work hours and work-from-home options are alternatives which have already been tested during the pandemic and can be easily implemented. 

This takes me to women in leadership roles, I think that one of most important aspects of ensuring women get to leadership roles is to train and mentor them for such roles. Flexi policies will help but to me it is more important to encourage their ambition and provide them with the tools where they can thrive and ignore the noise. Generally, I do believe that if an employee is able to establish themselves as efficient, competent and with leadership qualities in an organisation, they will be given the opportunity to grow.

I have had several women colleagues and friends who have mentored me through different phases of my career and I will be forever grateful for their guidance and trust in me.

Work-life Balance

Tell us about your life outside work. Any books or movies you would like to recommend to our readers? 

Outside work, I like spending time with my family, which includes an adorable indie dog. I recently watched the Elephant Whisperers on Netflix and absolutely loved it. It shows that humans and animals can build beautiful bonds. A book I would recommend is Virginia Woolf’s - A Room of One’s Own. 

Success Mantra

What advice would you give to aspiring and young lawyers who are striving to make a successful career in the legal profession?

Learn something new every day!

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