In Conversation with Suresh Kumar Sharma, General Counsel, Partner, Deloitte India

Delve into Suresh Kumar's remarkable journey from being a stenographer, through the meticulous world of Company Secretaryship, to the challenging arenas of law. But Kumar's talents stretch beyond the legal; he's also a professional mandolin player, bringing a unique blend of artistry into both his vocations. In this interview, Suresh Kumar talks about lawyers he admires, stresses the importance of making legal language plain and direct, and offers valuable insights into AI, governance, regulatory compliance, and the everyday challenges faced by general counsel, all in a dialogue with BW Legal World's Ashima Ohri.

Ashima: Let’s turn the wheel of time, what sparked your interest in law and drew you to the role of a general counsel? 

Suresh: I was in my 3rd year of B.Com. degree course when I attended a career fair.  On the suggestion of a friend of mine, I instinctively chose to study Company Secretaryship.  At that time, I had little understanding of what the qualification really meant, except that it is a valuable professional qualification.   My father advised that I study law as it would complement my Company Secretaryship qualification.  At that time, I thought law would be a nice-to-have add-on qualification and studied law.  I never imagined that I would one day be General Counsel. 

I did reasonably well academically in school, so I had other options as well – e.g., science and engineering (but I felt that might take away time that I wanted to invest in learning music); I could have chosen to be a Chartered Accountant but that meant surviving on stipend during those initial years which I was not willing to.  

While I came from an economically humble background, in my mind I had big dreams for myself and was willing to work hard and smart for those dreams.  Only, I was unaware of the path my career would take.  To support me and my family financially, I started working as a stenographer in Godrej & Boyce whilst studying for Company Secretaryship and Law.   There was a 5-year period where literally all the leave of absence I had taken from work was used in preparing for and giving professional examinations or learning pursuits, and none for vacation!

I worked for a few years in the Corporate Secretarial team in Godrej & Boyce, also playing the role of a Company Secretary for one of the group companies.  I am grateful to the wonderful professionals there who helped me learn the ropes and, importantly, what it means to be a true professional – especially, Percy E Fouzdar. 

I was assisting Percy in some cutting-edge legal and corporate work including joint ventures, which drew me more and more towards core legal.  To widen my knowledge base, I also completed master’s in financial management. 

Around that time, I got selected for a role with Thomson Reuters (Reuters then) to lead the legal function and also be Company Secretary.  This role was both an opportunity and challenge.  ‘Challenge’ because I had to initially be an individual contributor, set up legal processes and framework, and build a team – all the time, trying to find answers to complex business challenges.  E.g., we had to come up with a solution where the terms and conditions for a service had to fit within a 160-character SMS message limit; for the same service line, we also came up with a voucher-based contracting model given that the service was provided to lakhs of subscribers.  Thomson Reuters provided a fabulous opportunity to interact with some of the best professionals across the world.  The work was intellectually stimulating and, to top that, the work environment and the colleagues I got to work with helped me develop myself as a professional and also share the benefit of my experience with other professionals.   

The more I worked in law the more I was fascinated by how intellectually stimulating and fulfilling it is as a profession.  

After a brief stint with CRISIL, I moved on to be General Counsel at Deloitte India.  In the last 8 plus years that I have been with my firm, I continue to work with the finest of professionals both within and in the industry – people who are very accomplished in their professions, who hold themselves to the highest levels of integrity, and most of all, are good human beings!  

Law as a field continues to interest me given the intellectual ‘kick’ it gives in finding solutions to some of the most complex matters and, in the process, enabling business.  

Ashima: Who are some legal professionals you admire, and why? What lessons have you learned from them?  

Suresh: There are so many fabulous legal professionals that I have had interacted with and whom I admire.  Any names that I give here would mean I have missed mentioning many (and apologies for that).  Nevertheless, to answer your question and to name a few of the many legal professionals that I admire – Janak Dwarkadas, Senior Advocate (apart from his professional calibre, I like his sense of humour and the smart quips he comes up with both in and out of courtrooms); Zia Mody, Managing Partner, AZB (for her incisive intellect); Pallavi Shroff, Managing Partner, SAM (for her calibre, clarity of thought and humility); Anuj Berry, Partner, Trilegal (for his professionalism and clarity of thought); and Manmeet Singh, Partner Saraf & Partners (for his sharpness, grasp and ability to brief counsels highly effectively). 

Ashima: What would you say is your favourite quote or book related to law or leadership that resonates with you? 

On leadership, I found a book titled “First, Break All The Rules” by Gallup very useful.  It’s based on interviews of the world's leading managers and what they do differently.   A General Counsel’s work importantly includes being responsible for several professionals’ career.  This book shares practical and deep insights on what approaches to leading teams have worked across the world. 

Another of my favourite books is “A Whack On the Side of the Head” by Roger Von Oech. This is a book on how creative people think.  I find this so useful for lawyers because it helps you with ideas on coming up with alternative thoughts which, in turn, can help you to think differently to find creative solutions to real-life business challenges. 

Ashima: Which tech tools or resources do you find most valuable in your day-to-day work as a legal officer?  

Suresh: I find contract lifecycle management and litigation management tools and legal information services/portals to be very helpful.  In particular, the more the tools are able to integrate into our workflow and are simple to use, the better they tend to work in real-life.  

Today, we are living in a world of information deluge and a fast-paced environment.  The sheer ability to have access to relevant information on tap quickly is so helpful.  

Ashima: Looking ahead to 2024, what legal developments are top of mind for you and why? 

Suresh: Looking forward in 2024 (and beyond), I see an increased use of AI or AI based tools that help to reduce time on matters that a legal professional could avoid spending time on.  That time can be used for more useful things.  However, with AI there are also legal challenges, especially on intellectual property law.  The law on AI will keep evolving – these are things that will touch not just our country but many around the world.   

Another development is that of data protection. For a country of our size, population and complexity, this law can touch so many.  Organisations will need to gear up to respond to this law as it evolves.   

I also believe businesses will need to be prepared to meet and respond to growing regulatory and compliance requirements. 

Ashima: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as GC in today's global legal climate?

Suresh: The business is increasingly getting complex.  The demands on service providers and professionals are ever-increasing.  All this in a legal and regulatory environment that is evolving at a rapid pace.  This is true not just for our country but also for all major economies.  

Regardless, a key challenge for General Counsels is how do they help their organisation to navigate effectively in a fast-paced, in a dynamic environment.  Many a time, the CLO/GC is faced with finding answers where the law may not be as clear as one would wish.  

Ashima: As a General Counsel, what are some specific actions or support you wish to receive from law firms/external counsel to better assist you in your role?

Suresh: I believe law firms in India have evolved over time.  What I find to be most helpful from law firms is an approach that helps us as in-house counsels to deal with our challenges – be it understanding our unique situations and challenges, helping with practical, actionable advice, providing useful and periodic updates on the matters the law firms are helping on and also communicating in ‘plain and direct’ language (unfortunately, GCs do not have the luxury of time to read through several lines of text to identify the point being made!!)

Ashima: In your industry, what are some of the upcoming regulatory or legal changes that will impact organizational compliance or business operations?  

Suresh: My answer to this is not limited to any one industry.  Many organisations in India would have to (if they have not already done so), find an effective solution to comply with data protection law.  The law in our country is evolving; however, Indian businesses that have a cross-border reach are already well ahead in this journey.  Compliance with data protection needs not just legal support, but also support on other critical aspects – importantly implementing our advice into the organisation’s workflow, information security, controls and systems (and thankfully, at Deloitte we have a professional team of experts in this area which helps us with the implementation).  I believe not just in our industry but generally across industries, CLOs/General Counsels will need to work closely with other professionals both within and outside.    

I also see increased governance and compliance requirements – be it FEMA or changes to law due to international commitments of our country.  

Our country already has a strong anti-corruption law.  You referred to the other laws such as new criminal law and evidence law.  I believe organisations will need to review the impact of these laws and also other regulations that are evolving, continue to evaluate their impact on their organisations and help them to comply with them. 

Ashima: How do you see the role of CLOs/GCs evolving in the future? Will AI impact team sizes and strengths?

Suresh: A CLO/GC will have likely seen things that have worked and things that haven’t. This puts them in a position that is valuable to businesses.  I see the GCs/CLOs working even more closely with leadership in helping them to take calculated business risks and avoiding pitfalls.  

In my view, AI will seep into our workflow as lawyers.  AI would also present an opportunity to see where we as legal professionals add the most value and adapt our approaches.  E.g., if an AI could help to automate some of the routine tasks and has been tested to provide consistent results, AI would be a good fit for that.  Also, I see AI helping GCs/CLOs to deal with a challenge that stares at them every day – how to really do more with ever shrinking available time, how to quickly glean critical, relevant information to aid in decision-making.  

Technology has always evolved and will keep evolving.  That has not necessarily reduced roles but transformed roles.  I think developments like AI will transform roles.  I also see technological solutions helping lawyers to do more meaningful work. 

Ashima: What are your hobbies or passions outside of your legal work? How do they help you unwind and recharge?  

Suresh: Off legal work, I play Indian classical music on the mandolin professionally.  In my view, the kind of inner peace that Indian classical music gives is unmatched.   Interestingly, just like in legal, there is a lot of interpretation involved in Indian classical music.  So, in that sense both my professions complement one another. 

I also enjoy swimming, badminton, driving and cooking.  Swimming helps me to relax and unwind and at the same time help to stay in shape!!

Ashima: If you could leave our readers with one actionable piece of advice to advance their career or personal growth, what would it be? 

Suresh: Get your focus right – as a lawyer, your dharma is to protect your client’s (or stakeholders’) interests in a lawful, practical and ethical way.  Do your dharma.  

Understand your organisation, its business and environment challenges, and use your unique knowledge and skills to find practicable, lawful and ethical solutions.  Appreciate that your business colleagues’ role is not easy and they look to you for help.   Push yourself to provide ‘actionable advice’. 

With increased complexity of the business, legal and regulatory environment, I am often finding myself using these phrases – “find your way” and “make it happen”.  There are times when you don’t have precedents to work with or clear answers.   One really needs to dig deep to come up with solutions.  

Last, but not the least, do not compromise on ethics and integrity.  

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