The number of organisations creating in-house legal teams in order to reduce dependencies on top law firms is increasing at a fast pace. This growing trend is in pace with the increasing number of regulations that corporations are expected to be in compliance with, which among others include labour, data privacy, tax regulations, etc. For some organisations, it makes more financial sense to have their own in-house function rather than engaging external lawyers and firms. What is clear is that there are a lot more in-house opportunities now, than there were a few years ago. Take a look at LegalBots.in 'Jobs' page, and you will understand what we are talking about!
So, are you cut out for an in-house legal role? How is it different from working in law firms?
We interviewed Debosmita Nandy, who currently works as an in-house counsel at one of the top private companies in India, ITC Limited, to learn more.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself. What motivated you to join the legal field? How was your law school experience?
I am an in-house counsel at ITC Limited. I am also keen on writing, having written both academic books and short fiction. Now I author a practical legal blog called The Five Things Checklist, where I provide practical tips about being a lawyer in checklists of five items.
As a young girl, I was greatly moved by the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and decided to pursue a career in law. Hailing from a middle-class family, my family could not fathom a career beyond engineering, medicine and chartered accountancy. It was an uphill task to convince them, but my parents eventually came around when they became aware of the possibilities.
I was lucky to clear my first entrance examination and get through the National University of Juridical Sciences, one of the best public law schools in India. This was the pre-CLAT era, where every college used to conduct its own entrance test.
The five years that followed were, without a doubt, the best time of my life. Apart from the study of law, I learnt valuable life skills, formed life-long associations, experienced hostel life and got a chance to thrive as an individual.
2. How did you begin your career in law? When did you decide to move to an in-house role from a law firm and why?
I got an offer to join the dispute resolution team of Khaitan & Co, one of the foremost law firms in India in Calcutta in my campus placement. The next three years were a very steep learning curve for me, having no prior idea about the practical sides of litigation. Over time, I became conversant with the nitty-gritty of litigation and learnt valuable lawyer skills like drafting, briefing, and appearing before a court.
Then I heard of an opportunity at the in-house team of ITC Limited and decided to explore it. My decision was mostly driven by the fact that the ITC in-house team is one of the most well-known in the country and I was keen for the next challenge in my career.
3. What does an in-house legal team at a big company such as yours do? What are the responsibilities entrusted to it?
Any in-house legal team is the legal and regulatory gatekeeper of a company. We are supposed to ensure that the company is compliant with all laws, and defend them when any question of non-compliance arises. We are also supposed to identify risks in the company’s activities and help in mitigating them.
Next, in-house teams ensure that the company’s interests are protected in its contractual obligations. And lastly, in the event of any litigation, in-house teams form the first responder team to defend the company.
4. What are the challenges faced by an in-house counsel? Also, what are the biggest challenges faced by you as an in-house counsel in light of the pandemic?
I would say that the challenges faced by an in-house counsel are the same as those faced by any lawyer, new in the profession. Our lack of practical training in law school requires us to adapt to and learn in our profession quickly. The initial years are high-stress because we are all trying to get our foot through the door. However, once we have gotten an understanding of our roles and responsibilities, it becomes easier to handle our work.
My biggest challenge working remotely in the pandemic stems front the fact that I am the mother of a young toddler. Managing her expectations, separation anxiety, coupled with household chores in the absence of any support and work from home set up proved to be challenging for me. Of course, with the passage of time, now I have managed to find my groove with remote working and my daughter ‘sends me off’ to my home office after I have spent the early morning with her.
5. How would you tell our readers about the difference between working in a law firm and with independent counsel? Who is an in-house role more suited for?
There are a few key differences between working in a law firm versus working in-house :
Law firm lawyers are specialists, in-house lawyers are generalists.
As an in-house lawyer, you are supposed to understand the business of your company very well. Operations, marketing, finance, sales, processes, IT - every other function has its role to play in a company. Once we understand them all, we are able to advise the company better in answering their day-to-day operational queries. You have to own your advice and even assist in their execution. However, as a law firm lawyer, you can provide your opinion by adding disclaimers. You are usually not responsible for the execution.
In-house teams go beyond the law to provide their advice. Not every answer is found in the pages of a bare act or ratio of a judgment. A lot of business rationality comes into the picture while advising. Not so for a law firm lawyer. They only have to analyse the law and provide advice.
To answer the second leg of your question, I don’t think there is a fixed set of personalities for whom one type of career would suit more than the other. The law firm or in-house - they are two sides of the same coin. As long as you enjoy the law, you will find ways to find joy in work in any path you choose.
6. Can you tell us a bit about your website (legal blog) and YouTube channel “The Five Things Checklist”?
The Five Things Checklist is a practical legal blog, where I write articles on the practical aspects of being a lawyer, based on my 12+ years of experience. Topics range from contract drafting to litigation management to career to productivity tips and practical ideas. My idea is to bridge the gap between what you learn in reputed law schools in India and what you ought to know when you join the profession.
The Youtube channel is my repository of videos called “Mentospeak” where I chat with senior lawyers from diverse backgrounds to get their insights about the many opportunities that a legal education provides.
7. Can you tell our readers about your short stories? Please tell us about your writing experience and how it has helped you as a lawyer.
I have been writing short fiction since I was young. Publishing in school magazines and children’s newspapers led me to take writing more seriously. There was a time when I used to maintain a popular literary blog and put up my short stories there.
My first stint in traditional publication came through a short piece in the Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul - On friendship. My short story “The Unseen Boundaries of Love” won second prize in a contest by Rupa Publication and was published as part of the anthology “An Atlas of Love” by Anuja Chauhan. Later, another of my stories “She Chose to Live” was published by Readomania in their anthology “Defiant Dreams”.
The opportunity to write books on Forest Laws and Environmental Laws arose in my college. I collaborated with a professor and colleagues from college to author and edit these books. They were a great learning opportunity for someone like me who is always keen on writing.
Presently, I am working on my first novel.
Writing has immensely helped me as a lawyer, because, at the end of the day, one has to tell a story in a pleading or a contract. My ability to visualise how a plot turns has allowed me to imagine risks and pitfalls in a contract and how a court may interpret my facts. Of course, one doesn’t have to write stories to be a good lawyer. As long as you hone your knowledge of writing crisp, clear, persuasive, coherent, logical pieces, you will turn out to be a good draftsman.