Legal Era in Conversation with Badrinath Durvasula
Senior Vice President and Head of Legal, ESSAR CAPITAL, BADRINATH DURVASULA, holds forth on his professional journey, the essence of leadership, working from home, books and more…
1. You joined ESSAR as its Senior Vice President and Head Legal in Mumbai on June 1st this year, at the height of the COVID pandemic. What challenges did you face, and how have you gone about tackling them, in your organization and outside?
I'm the one who looks at every adversity as a kind of opportunity and COVID is no different. I joined ESSAR when all economic activity had ground to a halt. That's where legal professionals step in to ensure that justice is done, sometimes by way of a unique proposition. When ESSAR's promoters and senior leaders contacted me saying there was a wonderful opportunity where I could offer my expertise and exposure, I accepted the challenge with two things in mind. One, what is it that I can give to the organization. Two, what can I resolve economically and what is going on in this domain. And in the last three months, I have deep dived into issues bothering the organization and there is enough opportunity to resolve quite a few issues going forward. To sum it up, COVID is a big opportunity for legal professionals, especially those who think positively that it creates a value proposition otherwise it is arrested hope. So going forward, I want everyone to think positive because COVID has not yet ended. I don't know how far it will continue but we are going to face this kind of a reality in future as well.
2. Prior to ESSAR, you served as Vice President and General Counsel at Hindustan Construction Company, which has more than 90 years in the realm of engineering and construction, real estate, infrastructure, urban development and management. What did the role involve and what were the key takeaways?
Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) has been in existence for more than 90 years and they have executed some landmark projects. However, when I joined HCC, the challenge was twofold; one, quite a few projects were choked due to dearth of finances and two, operational monies to the tune of 6,000 Crore were locked in various courts. So it was a chicken and egg situation where I had to deliver the projects to get the monies but I didn't have the monies to deliver the projects. As a legal professional, the key issue before me was how much monies could be unlocked from the courts and other institutions where they were locked. Subsequently, we won a number of matters in the Supreme Court and were able to unlock around 1,000 Crore but about 5,000 Crore remained parked with the legal system. Still, we were able to run the show and satisfy some bankers with the 1,000 Crore but we continued to go through a very tough financial situation. The current situation too would be very challenging for HCC unless and until some structural changes are made. As legal professionals, we need to work together in these times to see that value is unlocked.
3. You've been around for more than 25 years and have worked with giants such as ADANI GROUP, HCC and now ESSAR CAPITAL. How did you develop leadership qualities and how did each organization help you reach where you are today?
Each of the organizations I worked with was going through a unique situation; it wasn't only about finance but also about project delivery, visionary metrics etc. If we can, as leaders, business leaders and legal business heads, align the thought process to what the organization really wants, half the battle is won. The legal system, courts, petitions, challenges etc. are only part of the story. The other part is what the organization really wants and how well we ensure it is fulfilled. Be it in any company, legal professionals must go beyond their own domain and first understand the business and what is going on in the system. Once you are aligned to the business, key decisions will be made accordingly.
Secondly, leadership is about holding all stakeholders in absolute comfort. A legal professional is one that people keep coming to with some problem or the other. You need to keep your cool and deliver what you are supposed to. At the end of the day, the one who gives you money (client) is God and must be benefited, consideration of merits notwithstanding.
Thirdly, a leader is but a set of factors. It's your stakeholders, your team and your people, and finally, your entire company as such. So taking them along, mentoring them the way they should be mentored, giving the right virtues and exposing them to difficult situations, and allowing and enabling them to take decisions is what constitutes leadership. Wherever I worked, I constantly practiced all these three traits. Today, there are lots of people who are my ex-employees etc. but we share a wonderful bond.
4. You've led in-house legal teams of varying size and strength in the course of your career. What qualities should a GC look for in an in-house counsel?
The first thing is how good the candidate is at expressing his view i.e. is he a mere follower or someone who speaks his mind. This is only to assess whether the candidate is potentially in a position to put forth an argument or viewpoint before a leader so that a decision can be taken. The second thing is whether the candidate is a team player or an egoist. In many interviews I put up a question only to see whether the candidate will continue to stick to his own stance or will consult his colleagues, take their collective view and then come back. The third thing is capability of the candidate. For this, commitment is required as well as adherence to timelines. If a candidate is going to take 3 days to draft a petition, never mind that the task can actually be done in one day, I need to know his plan to tackle the issue. The fourth thing is leadership abilities, whether the candidate can take over my position at some point with the rider that the company has to be in the right hands with this person.
5. Please share your experience of how the legal industry as well as the role of the GC has evolved over the last couple of decades?
More than the GC's role, the kind of seriousness/importance given to it has gone up by leaps and bounds. Earlier, there was an organizational flow and finally, a decision was taken by somebody in the system. Today, however, stakeholders immediately call up the GC whenever any decision/action is taken. By the same token, the GC and not the MD or President is pulled up by the management and Board.
That said, there is a great amount of opportunity. There are three levels at which I can deliberate. Level 1 is the kind of responsibility to which individuals have grown. For instance, at ESSAR, I'm actually called a MD for some functions but there is a difference in nomenclature. Level 2 is where salaries, even those of FRESHERS, have risen by leaps and bounds. Level 3 is the most important where everyone realizes that legal is integral to deliverance of the company which was not so earlier. Today, the legal and HR functions are on par with the financial function and everybody takes legal very seriously.
6. You have earned a formidable reputation in the in-house legal market. What is the secret of your success? How have you balanced ethics, compliance, transparency and accountability in reaching this position?
I don't think I have earned a "formidable" reputation but I am definitely looked upon as a person who has worked in the industry. My success comes from factors we've already discussed and a few I'd like to add. The first is networking is very essential, be it a small or top guy in the system. There are at least 100 good firms one can look up to, be it in Mumbai or Delhi. Remain connected, nurture the relationship as you never know when it will come to your rescue. Every day, I ensure that I touch base with at least one person with whom I haven't spoken in the last one year and that makes a huge difference. The second is read judgments as they give you a deductive analysis of the Judge's mind and in turn develop a deductive ability to present your own matter. The third is to get sobriquets like "formidable", you need to keep writing. There are multiple occasions where I write within and outside the organization and for magazines. The fourth and last is you need to have a wonderful relationship with legal firms as they are the ones who will back you in times of difficulty. For example, if you have to go to the Supreme Court, you need to go to a set of people in the capital who can deliver and that's what makes you successful. People may shy away from saying they have friends in Judges and in the Judiciary but there's nothing wrong with nurturing such friendships provided the lines are strictly drawn.
7. Going forward, how will the troika of Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Analytics shape corporate legal departments?
The troika is very much required, like oxygen. In the legal world, analytics is nothing new; it was there before, is there now, and will be there in future. Similarly, the name artificial intelligence may be new but it is just a situational analysis; what is the likely situation and outcome? Artificial intelligence is a decision tree analysis (like you see in a flow chart) and all lawyers are good enough at it. What they need to know is how to operate a computer and do analytics on a spread sheet. I am happy to share with you that most universities today have introduced these facets.
8. You have a Masters in Nuclear Physics, Masters in Business Administration and Masters in Commercial Law from the University of Mumbai. Why did you decide to become a lawyer and not a scientist?
A very interesting question, but the path took me that way. I started with Nuclear Physics, joined the BHABHA ATOMIC RESEARCH CENTRE where I was put in charge of some contracts and I thought I might as well know the law better which is where it started. Since I moved into the legal domain, however, the opportunities were far more. Also, in law unlike in science, one cannot predict any kind of outcome. Most legal professionals would know that before you approach the bench, you have to factor in at least 100 situations and 100 questions. What should be the answer to a particular question or how best can one escape the bench are things we need to plan which is not there in any other profession. But my science background was particularly helpful when looking into ports at ADANI or refineries at Reliance Industries.
9. Has the rise of LEGTECH and FINTECH made job prospects leaner for fresh graduates looking to enter this field?
My view is that LEGTECH and FINTECH are enabling and not impeding the progress of people entering this field. Reason being they are compelling students to learn about new facets and dimensions and how best to cope with them. The more the technology, the more the tools, and the better it is. For instance, when you look up an article on the Internet, at least 100 pop-up on a particular subject, each different in perspective. You read more and understand better…
10. The lockdown has blurred lines between the work and personal space. How are you coping in these times?
11. The latest tagline everybody is using is, "Work from home and work for home". What is your take?
I think I'm the happiest working from home (laughs). The first dimension is no travel and therefore a lot of time saved and stress eliminated. One can start work early in the morning, finish off, take a break and again reconvene. The second dimension though is you are committed to a greater number of hours where most meetings start at 9am and end at 10pm. In addition, I work for GCC countries that start working on Saturday and Sunday so I am working through the week, whether I go to office or not. The third dimension is you have enough time to read and spend on yourself. I was told by quite a few of my friends that they have learned yoga, music, the scriptures and Vedas… These things would not have been possible in a normal world. The fourth dimension is you are able to really focus on your work. In office, there is a lot of diversion in between when you want to converge on a particular matter. This is one time, however, when you can get to the bottom of an issue which legal professionals otherwise never get to do.
12. The Government is looking at Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) as replacement for Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR). What is your perspective on ODR?
It's time for transition though it's come a bit earlier than expected in the name of COVID. For almost six months, COVID has compressed timelines and brought an enabler in virtual - hearings, arbitrations, discussions and what have you. This is bound to stay and we need to align ourselves to it. In one of my arbitrations running into CRORES which could not have got dates before COVID, we got dates in quick succession and we were able to complete at least 15 sessions in one go. Similarly, I have the highest regard for the way in which Judges have transformed themselves from a physical bench loving disposition to a computer loving disposition. This has also helped people understand that they don't have to stand in Supreme Court hall no. 1 in a crammed fashion to hear what the Chief Justice is saying.
13. Sections 7, 9 and 10 of the IBC stand suspended during the pandemic and this is coupled with extension of loan moratorium with banks told not to tag loans as non-performing till further directions. What are the implications for India Inc. in general and the legal sector in particular?
Like Shah Rukh Khan says in the 80s film Baazigar, "Kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai", this is a kind of judicial balancing and equity being maintained by suspending these Sections for a while and prolonging moratoriums to a certain extent. From an economic perspective, it is an inevitable consequence. Today, it's COVID but it would have been the same if say China had attacked India leading to war. In times of distress, there are always challenges and we need to cope up with them.
14. There is much debate on the ways in which the Indian economy will bounce back post COVID. Will India still be able to become a US$ 5 trillion economy? What are the expectations from the government, and what is your take on this?
Unlike in the early 60s when we were an agro-based economy, we have now transformed into a service-based one where our robust service sector is our intrinsic strength. You are talking of a "bounce back" for which there has to be first a bounce on the ground. As we are part of the global economy, if the Americas, Europe, Far East and Australia bounce, we too will. If they fall flat, we too will follow suit. Forget a US$ 5 trillion or US$ 10 trillion economy, looking at the kind of growth we have, if our inner core is strong, we will be the first ones to benefit the moment the world bounces back.
15. What are your views on the farm bills?
My view is that they needed to happen and it is surprising that no political party before had them on its manifesto. Let's not look at why and how the bills were passed by Parliament. Let us instead see them for the kind of respect and economic independence they bring to farmers. Farmers will now have the functional independence to sell their produce across the country and will be relieved from the stranglehold of local landlords, local merchant societies or so-called APMCs, and the people who dominate them. I support these bills officially or otherwise since they benefit farmers.
16. What would you advise young lawyers?
I urge them to read these two books which left an indelible imprint on my mind and career. One is a 40-page book called "Who moved my cheese" about a small mouse which goes from place to place in search of food and develops a strategy to get its food. The other is "Sapiens" by British national Noah about how human beings evolved and left other species behind in their race to the top. Read the first for survival and the second for dominance; if both these things are there, one would be very successful in life…