Corporate counsel associations portray themselves as friend, adviser and management guide for in-house counsel. But are they delivering the goods? Gautam Kagalwala reports
In-house counsel are well aware of the services of corporate counsel associations (CCAs) that vie for their memberships. The associations strive to provide a support system for in-house counsel where they can network with peers and update themselves via professional development courses, publications and insights on best practice given by experts at the many forums that are available.
A range of associations currently serve India-focused in-house counsel, foremost among them are the Indian Corporate Counsel Association (ICCA), the Indian National Bar Association (INBA), the Corporate Counsel Association of India (CCAI) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), a US-based association that is expanding aggressively in Asia.
But in their haste to boost numbers and promote the next forum or course, are some associations missing the point of giving in-house counsel the profession-based issues and programmes they actually want to participate in?
Such may be the case, at least for some in-house lawyers, who have told India Business Law Journal that Indian and international CCAs need to be more proactive and represent the interests of the profession in a manner similar to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) or the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), bodies that strongly represent their business communities.
“Whether it is the ACC or the Indian associations, I think they can work more to understand the problems and challenges we face in different sectors and different industries,” says Debolina Partap, the general counsel at Wockhardt.
Lack of clout
Saugata Chakravarty, the general counsel for South Asia at Siemens, believes CCAs should take a leaf or two from the books of substantial representative bodies from other professions. “What I personally would like to see in these kinds of forums is for them to have a more strategic impact,” he says.
“If we take a clue from the independent bodies for chartered accountants or company secretaries, these have become very influential bodies. We do not have any such bodies for in-house counsel. We need to utilize these forums for more policy advocacy rather than let the industry forums do that.”
K Srinivas, the head of legal at Amara Raja Batteries, travels to Singapore often and is a member of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA). But he has not joined any CCAs in India. “The reason I have not joined is because they are not as vibrant,” he says.
Srinivas credits the SCCA for being very active in terms of discussions and events, with regular participation from the judiciary and the press. Not so much the SCCA’s Indian counterparts, which he says “are a relatively new phenomenon in India”.
So what are the true colours of India’s CCAs? Are they really performing so poorly that GCs would prefer to be members of groups in other countries? Of course this is not the case and in-house counsel also find much of value in the local associations.
“They have, over the past few years, become an important platform for networking and building connections,” says Shukla Wassan, the executive director for legal and corporate affairs (South Asia) at Hindustan Coca-Cola. She adds: “It is also a meeting point for exchanging views and ensures that we are updated with the latest changes.”
Himavat Chaudhuri, the chief legal and regulatory affairs officer at Tata Sky, says of all the bodies, only the Indian Corporate Counsel Association has reached out to him on a regular basis. “They have a nice selection of issues. If they do 10 talks and four are interesting for me, then it’s good enough,” he says. “Some talks are interesting to me, others are interesting to someone else. It’s great for in-house counsel because from our perspective we are not up-to-date on everything.”
Chaudhuri asks CCAs to get better organized, pointing out that in-house counsel are constrained on account of time and their physical location and need advance notice to attend events across the country. “Everything is last minute and haphazard, like everything else in the country,” he says. “It would be really great if they could have a scheduled calendar of events for one year, then people can plan and travel. We are bad at planning, the business itself is ad hoc, so our habits become ad hoc.”
He also suggests CCAs should organize events involving two or three parties such as Indian law firms, foreign law firms or in-house counsel, and adds some of the events organized at the moment have the feel of being straight-out marketing initiatives.
Partap urges greater participation by senior government officials in CCA events, noting that they are only present at perhaps one in 10 events. She contrasts this with events organized by the CII and FICCI, which she says “allow you to develop contacts within the government”.
Standing up for the profession
Despite criticism from some quarters that in-house counsel associations lack clout when it comes to policy advocacy or facilitating engagement with government officials, the CCAs are quick to state their achievements in this area.
Amar Sarwal, the chief legal officer and senior vice president of advocacy and legal services at the ACC, says his association’s advocacy efforts focus on issues that directly affect the professional role and status of in-house lawyers, attorney-client privilege, and practice and licensing matters.
“We may also weigh in on issues where a unique in-house counsel perspective exists. For example, in early February, we submitted comments to the government on the white paper of the Committee of Experts on Data Protection Framework for India, encouraging the government to develop clear standards to regulate cross-border transfers of data and avoid policies that could disincentivize corporate compliance with new privacy requirements.”
A key focus area for the local associations has been bar council licences. Kaviraj Singh, the secretary general of INBA, says his association has advocated to the Bar Council of India (BCI) that corporate counsel be able to keep their bar council licences.
Currently, rule 49 of the Bar Council Rules states that full-time salaried employees cannot be advocates and must surrender their licence at the time of taking up employment.
The ICCA also plans to tackle this issue, and says it will approach the BCI after the body holds its elections across the country in March this year. “There is scope for a healthy discussion on this issue,” says Ashok Sharma, the founder president of the ICCA. Sharma says his association has also taken an active part in discussions with the BCI and the Ministry of Law and Justice on the opening up of the legal sector to foreign law firms.
Discussing other areas of advocacy work, Singh says INBA has promoted the issue of data protection for the past three years and has submitted a proposal to the government on the matter. “Now you see the government is legislating on this,” he says. “We are currently raising the issue of artificial intelligence and its potential misuse. We are working with the film producers association to fill another gap: movies in India are censored, but web-based TV channels, such as Amazon, Prime and Netflix, don’t face this requirement to censor their content.”
INBA submits a report with recommendations to the government and other stakeholders at the conclusion of each event. “I would say 75% of our suggestions made at INBA events on policies were accepted by the government,” says Singh.
Keeping pace with change
While consulting on compliance was once their primary duty, in-house counsel now hold powerful positions within the corporate structure and are required to have strong business acumen, and engage in wider functions, including risk management, corporate restructuring and intellectual property protection, while simultaneously looking after the interests of various internal and external stakeholders.
Some in-house counsel feel that the CCAs have been slow to embrace these wider functions, and that as a result, their events and programmes focus too much on law at the expense of other key areas, such as accounting, budgeting and people management.
“People often forget that our first role is that of business enablers and protectors,” says Rajneesh Jaswal, the head of legal and compliance at Metro Cash & Carry India. From my limited interactions with CCAs nationally, I believe that more often than not they tend to only scratch the surface of topics like the role of in-house counsel. [They] often get hijacked by heavy discussions on legal minutiae which may be relevant to litigation counsel, but not so much to in-house counsel.”
Sharma says the ICCA will work on developing new events to cover these areas, while Singh notes that INBA has been holding conferences on data privacy for the past three years.
Clearly the roles of in-house counsel have grown. To stay relevant, corporate counsel associations will have to keep pace.
What membership offers?
The Indian Corporate Counsel Association (ICCA) holds seminars and roundtables, with some events being supported by the Department of Commerce or the Department of Legal Affairs. The association has six events planned for this year in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, in addition to its General Counsel Conclave in Goa. On an advocacy level, the ICCA says it provides feedback to regulatory authorities on reforms in legal, administrative and corporate governance matters. The association offers global connectivity through its associations with In-house Counsel Worldwide and the Asia Pacific Corporate Counsel Alliance. The ICCA reports that it has focused more on attracting event delegates than members, and says that over 600 in-house counsel attend its programmes. It is currently overhauling its membership structure.
The Indian National Bar Association (INBA) says it offers a platform for in-house counsel to network with peers, lawyers and government officials, and considers its function to be similar to that of a think-tank. It states some idealistic goals in its mission statement, including to “reform the Indian legal system” and provide “quick justice to its citizens, which leads to the nation’s economic and business growth”. The association holds around two events per month for its members. Women’s empowerment and the prevention of sexual harassment are stated as important themes for INBA this year, with events, surveys and book launches planned on the topic. The association will also hold courses on investment law, negotiation and drafting this year. INBA’s membership base extends beyond in-house counsel, with private practice lawyers and other professionals among its stated 10,000 members. Kaviraj Singh, the secretary general, says it has the largest number of in-house counsel in India.
Established in 2013, the Corporate Counsel Association of India (CCAI) says it promotes the common professional and business interests of in-house counsel through information, knowledge and experience sharing and continuing legal education, as well as providing a platform for networking and advocacy initiatives. It currently has around 100 members and claims its uniqueness to be the fact that it’s the “only association for in-house counsel, of in-house counsel and by in-house counsel in India”.
The US-based Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is a global behemoth with 43,000 members, 200 of whom are in India. It is seeking to expand its presence in India and plans to offer more region-specific content, such as continuing legal education and professional development events, research and publications. In what could be attributed to the “Weinstein effect”, named after the once-powerful Hollywood film producer, the ACC will hold an event on sexual harassment prevention in the workplace in India in March.