In Conversation with Shalinee Kulshreshtha, General Counsel, Dentsu International

Shalinee's father wanted her to become an engineer but destiny stirred her career to a road less travelled in those days. In this interview with Krishnendra Joshi, BW Legal World, she talks about her fascinating journey in law. and also shares her views on corporate governance issues in promoter-driven companies, women-friendly policies at workplaces and much more

Formative Years

Shalinee, would you please tell our readers what motivated you to pursue law and what were the formative years of your professional career like. 

Honestly, I call myself an accidental lawyer. I was a non-medical student and as it used to happen in those days, my father wanted me to be an engineer. It is an interesting story that I got selected for one of the prestigious engineering entrance exams but my father did not want to get me admitted there as they did not have a hostel. Since all entrance exams were over by then, I was left with no choice but to go for B. Sc (Computer science) but I did not want to do it because both my elder sisters had undertaken that course and I wanted to do something different. Its interesting that right, when I was having this conversation with my father, the result of entrance exam for LL.B, was declared where I got selected and got a rank as well. Both of us did not remember that exam as I had appeared in that exam only so that one of my father’s friend’s daughter sees it as prestigious and something everyone wants to get into (as her father aspired her to go for Law degree). Ultimately, I told my father that I will do law. There was reluctance on his side despite being a practising lawyer as coming from a small town, it was felt that there were only two avenues available after Law degree - Either you become a practising lawyer or a judge (if you are intelligent enough to crack the exam, which is also not guaranteed) and till date, we don’t have a female lawyer in my home-town. So, while I appreciate my father’s point of view now, I just became adamant to become a lawyer without knowing what opportunities it may offer to me in future. 

I started my career as a practising lawyer, and worked with an Advocate on record in the Supreme court and a law firm. I got exposure to working with corporates and enquired from the in-house counsels about the work they do and found it quite challenging. That curiosity made me make a switch to the corporate sector. I worked with DuPont as the first company on the corporate side and never felt like going back.  

Your journey as an in-house Counsel is a source of inspiration to many lawyers. Who are the people you have looked up to in the profession?

The list is long. All my managers, Business leaders, mentors, peers, team members and above all, my family. I have been fortunate to work for great leaders like Sanjay Gupta, Suparna Sarna, Ajay Kumar, K Gopal, Deva Ramamoorthy, Amal Thakore, Jan Strebniok, Ladislav Janousek, Victor Miller, Pritam Bhavnani, Arijit Ghosh, Bjarne Philip Tellman, Danette Joslyn-Gaul, Carrie Tang, Cinthia Nespoli, Sharan Jaswal, Nick Tomlinson and Alison Zoellner. I am sure this is not the full list and I really need multiple pages to be able to capture others. I would like to mention Shukla Wassan, who was at some point of time, my formal mentor and that relationship continued forever. On top of everyone, my husband has been a great source of inspiration behind what I am in my career today. Also, my father, who is a practising lawyer has been a great inspiration for me for his values from the very beginning. 

Work as an in-house Counsel

What is your team size? What does a day as General Counsel at Dentsu look like? 

Including myself, we are a small team of thirteen professionals that includes lawyers, company secretaries, a graduate, and a chartered accountant. My day starts with meetings/ conference calls starting at 10 AM until 6 PM. Post that, I have focussed time to read stuff to be able to evaluate emails/ documentation to provide strategic guidance to my team and Business. These meetings are focused about leadership priorities, business as usual, solving complex issues and strategizing on Business wins/ priorities. 

How has the role of General Counsel evolved over the years?

General counsel traditionally was seen as someone who would come into play when you have a litigation. However, these days general counsel plays a very important role as far the business growth is concerned. He is seen as a business enabler and someone who is helping the company shape up its strategy over the years. The General counsels help businesses understand what business propositions/ models may be beneficial for the growth of the company by evaluating the risks and considering the risk mitigation measures.

Trends And Expert Opinion

How do you see compliance frameworks changing with the emergence of AI?

While AI makes life easy, if used properly/ in a controlled way, it, at the same time, poses some threats/ risks that need to be carefully evaluated. Businesses would need to conduct risk benefit analysis of how AI is benefiting their Business and what cost they may have to incur to mitigate the risk associated with its usage. It may vary from Business to Business. If it makes sense for a Business from value proposition standpoint to leverage AI, they may choose to go for it. Further, the law relating to AI is evolving. So, one needs to equip themselves with the changing law to make the most out of the usage of AI. If not handled well, it could only increase the burden and cost associated with such compliances.  

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

My personal experience had been that promoter driven companies do not take the same approach when understanding the value of legal compliance and importance of following ethical standards as mature conglomerates do. This exposes them to liabilities and risks, which sometimes is disproportionate to the Business value they bring. Gone are the days when you needed a lawyer when you were party to litigation. In today’s time, the legal professional plays as important a role in shaping the Business as any other Business professional. The legal teams help in conducting the risk assessment and mitigation that helps Businesses in considering their overall short term and long-term strategy.  

Are companies doing enough in terms of women-friendly initiatives and flexi policies to encourage more woman leaders like you?

I would like to think yes based on my personal experience and what I know from colleagues from legal fraternity. There was a time when I had gone for checking legal compliances of a factory and I was supposed to be stationed there for days and they did not have female toilet also. But the organizations like Dentsu follow a progressive approach and do so much for their female employees that it certainly makes a difference and motivates more and more female workforce to join the company. There are manager trainings to eliminate any unconscious biases, facilities of special infrastructure to comfort working mothers and pregnant females. There are flexi policies on where to operate from. 

Work life Balance

As a woman leader in the profession, how easy or difficult it has been for you to maintain work-life balance?

It has certainly not been easy. There are always trade-offs. It really depends that at a given stage of your career, what’s your priority. There were times when I consciously chose a non-travelling role when I had a small baby and was willing to work from only 9 AM -5 PM and prepared to compromise on my growth in the company. It would have been unfair to think that I will not contribute to the growth of business as much as others do and yet get full benefits like others. So, having that understanding is also very important. However, there were other stages when I have work really long hours as well. A professional has to handle multiple priorities. However, if you are able to put a structure to it, it’s not as difficult as it may look in the first place. I had parked specific times in my calendar for family and work out. This helped me ensure there is time for everything. But, yes, there were days when something critical came in and needed to be addressed the same day, so I was probably not good at making that time. However, that was a well thought decision I had made, and my priority then was to support my company on that critical task.  In my view, one needs to be clear on what is their priority at that hour. Support from my husband and son had helped me not worry much on work life balance. We have clear bifurcation of domestic tasks between my husband and me and that really helps when someone shares the responsibility. My son is aware of my commitment towards my job and is very supportive as he has grown in an environment where he has been very independent from the time he was born as I started travelling for days when he was 7 months old. All in all, it may not be easy but once, you plan things, it’s not hard as well.

Success Mantra

As someone who has been successful in breaking the glass ceiling, what advice would you give to young woman lawyers who are striving to make a successful career in the legal profession? 

  1. Have the faith in yourself, never say no to anything just because you are a female. I can tell from my experience that there is nothing which men can do, and women can’t. It’s just you must have that belief. 
  2. Be clear about what your expectations are from your job and work towards it.
  3. Don’t shy away from putting extra hours, when needed. That’s what brings the belief in the system that they can count on you.
  4. Be honest and maintain highest level of ethical standards. It’s easy to gather technical skills but your integrity is something that lets you stand apart from others. 
  5. Learn and understand your Business. That gives you an extra edge over another lawyer who may have the degree but is not able to provide business solutions.
  6. Last but most important, be empathetic. Take others along in your journey.

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