Remember That a Job Well Done is a Reward in Itself

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After spending over seven years at the Bar in Coimbatore, covering a wide spectrum of civil law work both in litigation and transactions, K. S. Suresh joined ITC in 1990. ITC is an Indian conglomerate with a diversified presence in fast-moving consumer goods, hotels, and other businesses. Presented with the opportunity to independently handle an ‘exciting’ variety of work, touching almost every branch of the law, K. S. Suresh rose through ranks becoming ITC’s General Counsel in 1998. With wide ranging expertise and experience in corporate laws as well as litigation, he has guided many important legal issues to successful resolution for the Company...

Legal Era (LE): You started out in 1983 in Coimbatore in the chambers of C. S. Venkatasubramanian, a respected senior lawyer. What were the main takeaways from this experience at the very beginning of your career?

K. S. Suresh: After completing my law degree in 1982, like many of my classmates, I was not really keen on litigation as a profession. I was interviewed for a couple of jobs, and even landed an offer. However, when the opportunity arose to work as a junior to a highly respected and busy trial court advocate like C. S. Venkatasubramanian, there was no further thinking.

Looking back, I am convinced that that was the most important decision I ever made. I have long come to believe that one does not become a complete lawyer without a decent trial court stint. That is where you witness due process in its intended form, besides, of course, getting to apply and test the core jurisprudence relating to property, contracts, succession, personal law, insolvency, torts etc. Naturally, I was exposed to Civil Court practice across diverse subjects. Mainly, there were property and money suits. There were also a few trademark cases and even a suit for malicious prosecution. Since my senior was a standing counsel to several banks, there was good deal of property opinions also. From time to time, I also doubled as a clerk for our office, dealing with the Registry, noting Court Diaries, filing and following up summons, batta, copy applications etc.

LE: You started out mainly on the civil side but were inspired by your senior to develop a keen interest in Constitutional law. Please elaborate.

lawyersK. S. Suresh: It all started while studying some of the state land reforms and land ceiling laws in the context of some trial or property opinion. I came across quite a few articles, including some of my senior’s, on the constitutional aspects of these and other laws. I read some of the landmark judgments and became absorbed by the legal discourse in them. This is how my interest began, and it developed into a hobby of examining the vires of statutes and state actions that I came across. This meant delving into the purpose and conceptual framework of enactments, rules and executive action. I also used to closely study the important constitutional amendments of that time. I remember the one to enable prolonged Central rule in Punjab, and examining whether the President had the power to refuse his assent to the amendment.

LE: As far back as 1989, you argued a public interest suit in a local court in Coimbatore and secured an ad-interim mandatory injunction for the removal of certain arbitrary traffic restrictions. Please share your experience with us.

K-S-SureshK. S. Suresh: Section 91 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which provides for a suit against public nuisance used to be invoked against private parties. In this case, the suit was against the police, filed by my senior and another colleague from our office, seeking revocation of a one-way traffic restriction on a broad arterial road which was a connector to the courts from our office. After an extensive (ex-parte) hearing, the learned Munsif first granted a mandatory injunction, which is a rarity. And later, after a personal site visit, he substantially confirmed the injunction. This suit was an eye-opener for me, in that it disabused me of the notion that I then had that an action against the State could only be brought by way of a writ in the High Court.

LE: The contrast could not have been starker when you joined ITC in 1990. What were the challenges you faced?

K. S. Suresh: Well, in the sense that I was now part of an organization with time-honored hierarchies, systems and practices, it was very different from a small law office with a lot of freedom. However, the company’s friendly employee culture enabled a smooth transition for me. What really was a challenge and a welcome one at that was to learn and work on new areas of law like, taxation, labor, intellectual property, monopolies and restrictive trade practices, arbitration etc., and major international and domestic transactional work, IPOs and such. There was also the opportunity to closely work with counsel of the Supreme Court and the various High Courts. Of course my court stint was a great advantage and it helped me navigate the issues with confidence. At a personal level, the main challenge was of frequent travel, leaving home a young family to cope with a new city.

LE: You’ve said that working in a large organization can constantly whet the intellectual appetite of lawyers besides improving and perfecting their professional skills. Please elaborate.

K. S. Suresh: In addition to dispute resolution like litigation and arbitration, a multiple business corporation offers the opportunity to constantly deal with a wide range of transactional tasks and advisory, touching a variety of laws that affect the different product and service categories. It forces the in-house lawyer to study the law in a business context, which in turn enables and enriches their understanding of business imperatives. From time to time they would have to return to the same provision of law, but in a different context, making them explore if there were newer interpretations to it. This helps them hone their skills at advising businesses to maximize benefits while ensuring compliance with the law. The constant learning gets even better when the organization gets into new lines of business.

LE: You joined ITC’s highest executive body, the Corporate Management Committee, in 2009. What do you attribute this achievement to?

K. S. Suresh: It has been said that the role of a General Counsel is that of a lawyer-statesman, which is why GCs are often invited to the top decision-making body. I think organizations see them as counsellors by virtue of their ability to look at business actions through the prism of law and ethics, while being mindful of the constraints of the operating environment.

LE: Not many people have had the privilege of working with a single organization for nearly three decades. What endeared you to the organization for so long?

K. S. Suresh: It primarily has to do with the kind of organization it is. A professionally managed organization with a number of business divisions, ITC has traditionally had a strong compliance culture. Naturally, the Legal function is accorded its due respect, which affords the in-house lawyers tremendous freedom to fearlessly express their views to clients. But the lawyers must also be able to vindicate their position with cogent reasons. This requires them to be on top of the problem, thereby forcing them to constantly learn. Secondly, even in my early years with the company, besides transactional work I was entrusted with several highstake taxation, Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) and arbitration matters. The work – particularly the research part and the formulating of legal propositions – was fascinating, and always intellectually and professionally enriching. Above all, the organization’s strong culture enabled healthy interpersonal relationships between its employees, and instilled a deep sense of belonging.

LE: What are the learnings from your rather long stint at ITC?

K. S. Suresh: The sheer breadth of legal issues that one encounters in an organization like ITC presents a goldmine of learning opportunities for a student of law, and even of business. So professionally, I learnt something or the other each day as an in-house lawyer. But, more significantly, you come to realize the importance of team-work and alignment of purpose in any organizational endeavor. And it is the job of a leader to set clear goals and ensure cohesive action to achieve them. Above all, since not every effort will yield the desired result, it is useful to remember that a job well done is a reward in itself.

LE: How do you wish to plan your days post ITC?

K. S. Suresh: Resuming practice is a natural choice, but I hope to be able to focus on a few complex and challenging issues of law that offer scope for fresh insights. And perhaps, write a blog on unconventional legal ideas. But more than that, I dream of devoting some time to therapeutic pastimes like traveling, reading, gardening and walking my pet Labrador.

LE: What is your advice to lawyers who are part of or looking to join large in-house legal teams?

K. S. Suresh: Whether in-house or otherwise, specialization has become the byword for legal professionals. It is my view that specialization often results in remaining unexposed to the other fields of law, even as one ends up getting familiar with a limited area within the field of specialization. My suggestion to young lawyers would be that they should invest time to know something of everything and everything of something.

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