Hindustan Construction Company Limited (HCC Ltd.) is one of India’s biggest Engineering, Procurement, Construction, and Project Management companies. Incorporated in 1926, the company has executed a bulk of India’s landmark infrastructure projects.
Sandeep Chowdhury joined HCC Ltd. as their SVP and Group General Counsel in 2022. With decades of experience as a seasoned GC and legal leader, Sandeep was hired to streamline the legal function of HCC Ltd.
“The legal function at HCC Ltd. was working in silos when I joined. I was brought in to optimise the function, make it transparent, and set up sustainable processes so the legal team could take ownership of big-ticket litigations and settle them independently.”
Before joining HCC Ltd., Sandeep was associated with various companies and law firms, including Khaitan & Co., Bharti Walmart, Baxter India, Coca-Cola India, Advanta Seeds, UPL, and Ola, where he not only headed legal departments and built teams from the ground up but also navigated a variety of legal risks to ensure compliance.
In a conversation with SpotDraft, Sandeep shared a glimpse into how the legal team was before and after he joined HCC Ltd. He also shed light on the steps he has been taking to streamline the legal function, reduce legal spending, scale the team, and make the legal team approachable.
Being a GC at startups vs. enterprises
As a veteran in the legal industry, Sandeep has a lot of experience working with companies of various sizes and types. And for him, there is a massive difference in how legal departments operate in fast-growing startups compared to enterprises.
“At fast-growing companies, most work gets done in the eleventh hour. The management tends to be extremely pushy, and therefore, the legal team is expected to come up with ad-hoc solutions. Enterprises, however, are more structured as they want the legal team to envisage disputes and develop solutions that would work in the long run.”
Sandeep suggests all GCs should take a process-driven approach, especially when building internal workflows and scaling the legal team.
“GCs should always work toward understanding all intricacies of the business and build sustainable solutions within the four corners of the law. Never try to find shortcuts, as they might backfire.”
In his initial days at HCC Ltd., Sandeep worked toward identifying critical problems in the business that the legal team could help solve. Now, his focus is to structure the legal team better and build processes within his department that would eventually help solve the most daunting business problems holistically.
Bringing legal to the forefront at an enterprise
The first thing Sandeep noticed upon joining HCC Ltd. was that the legal department was working in silos. Although the company had enough resources to manage the workload, the legal team was not assembled efficiently. Therefore, there was no transparency in the work and effort the legal team was putting in.
Sandeep devised a plan of action to optimise the legal team, putting into perspective the work that usually comes their way.
#1 - Leveraging an AI-powered tool to streamline the litigation pipeline
“I have one primary goal at HCC Ltd. - translate the legal team from being a cost centre to a profit centre.”
Being a large-scale construction company, HCC Ltd. is prone to numerous litigation matters at any given point in time, that too in multiple jurisdictions. As a result, the company works with the top legal counsel and Tier-A law firms to settle litigations and disputes. Therefore, their legal spending in this regard is exceptionally high.
“HCC Ltd. is a pioneer in handling litigations in the construction space. There are various judgements in courts that refer to our precedents. We have a good litigation database, and we want to leverage it better by implementing an AI-powered tool that would help us with relevant precedents from the cases we have previously settled and ultimately reduce the time we clock with external counsel.”
Sandeep believes that, by leveraging such a tool, the legal team will not only become more time-efficient but also reduce the overall legal spending (in setting litigations) by almost 20% of the budget allocated to them.
#2 - Being proactive and gaining more influence across the organisation
Historically, the legal team at HCC Ltd. was never in the front seat. The team used to work only on a set of assigned tasks, and hence, for a long time, there was no progressive step undertaken to optimise their workflows.
“While my team is doing great in completing legal assignments, we are working toward making the legal team more involved in company-wide operations.”
Sandeep has started a process where members of the legal team participate in meetings with key business personnel where operations are discussed.
“By attending these meetings, the visibility of the legal team into key business units and major business operations increases. Moreover, they navigate potential operations from a legal standpoint and get an opportunity to put forth legally binding solutions that work in favour of the company.”
By doing so, Sandeep has achieved two critical things:
- A fundamental change in the mindset of stakeholders that the legal team is not a blocker but a business enabler. Now, operational teams look up to having members of the legal team attend meetings and provide legally-binding business rationale.
- The legal team now has real-time visibility into company-wide operations and actively participates in enabling the business.
Sandeep understands that although the team is taking slow steps toward engaging actively with stakeholders, it will take more time for processes to change fundamentally.
#3 - Aligning legal with business objectives
Sandeep suggests that legal team leaders should go beyond attending operational meetings. They should have 1:1 sessions with various stakeholders, such as decision-makers from the finance and HR teams, periodically.
“While I have a seat at the table in all meetings with the upper management where key strategies are discussed, I encourage my team members to have 1:1 sessions with team leaders from other business units at their level. This way, they can contribute more to business operations, and the company will, consequently, be more legally compliant on a granular level.”
- Finance Team: In these 1:1s, the team can understand and legally vet upcoming financial strategies.
- HR Team: The team can leverage these meetings to familiarise HR policymakers with updates in labour laws, processes, & policies and ultimately help the company become more streamlined.
“By doing 1:1s with stakeholders, my team members not only get familiar with short-term and long-term business objectives but also take progressive steps toward accomplishing those objectives. The business grows, of course, but at the same time, my team members grow in confidence when they see how their contributions have bolstered the revenue stream of the company.”
Enabling the business: effective communication & enabling transactions
Sandeep knows that most business units think approaching the legal team would slow down their transaction/deal. But that’s a myth.
“We understand that the growth and sales team want to close transactions quickly, but we approve transactions only after conducting thorough diligence. As in-house counsel, we want to enable transactions, but for that, customer-facing teams should be proactive in approaching us. We want to be seen as a team that supports all business units to grow, but diligently.”
The first step stakeholders need to take is to approach the legal team proactively - figure out potential blockers in their upcoming transactions, and work toward minimising the impact of those blockers. This way, the legal team will run diligence promptly, and deals will follow.
Here’s what Sandeep and his team are doing to come out as approachable entities:
#1 - Communicating in business language and not legal jargon
Sandeep ensures that his team delivers presentations and pitches ideas/solutions in the tone of a business GC and not in that of a legal GC.
“For legal GCs, everything is either in black or white, and they do not try to explain why a proposed roadmap or transaction might not happen. But, a business GC understands the nuances of the business and communicates solutions in a language that most stakeholders understand - business rationale (numbers, metrics, etc.).”
When the legal team uses business jargon to address roadblocks, stakeholders understand the problem better and try to find legally-binding workarounds.
#2 - Finding workarounds to enable transactions for customer-facing teams
There might be instances when a customer-facing team member wants to close a deal as soon as possible, but the legal team finds some critical issues while conducting a diligence check.
“In such cases, the legal team should not say ‘no, the transaction can’t happen.’ Rather, they should explore ways wherein the customer-facing team member could approach the transaction in a way that does not break any laws. Once the legal team makes the transaction happen by finding a workaround, the notion of them not being approachable will fundamentally change.”
For Sandeep, a pivotal aspect to optimise the legal team is function building. In the next section, we have shared the approach that Sandeep undertakes to scale the legal team.
Building legal functions for the future
Sandeep believes GCs should consider hiring for a role only after thorough research and having a structure for the legal team that will work in the long run.
“You don’t want to hire people first and then assign them a role. A more suitable approach is to go to the drawing board, pin down your requirements vis-a-vis the business, and then hire for those roles that will make maximum sense.”
There are two crucial things that Sandeep figures out while hiring for his team:
- If the business has multiple entities, does he need legal heads for all? Or hiring just one Head of Legal would do the job?
- The type of lawyer he wants to hire -
- Corporate-driven attorneys (product counsel, privacy officers, etc.)
- Business-facing attorneys (commercial counsel, etc.)
How to find the right fit for your legal team?
While hiring for a role, Sandeep knows which business unit will need maximum support from that resource. So, before rolling out an offer letter, Sandeep ensures that the potential candidate gets on a call with the functional head of the business unit.
This achieves two things:
- The candidate receives a clear idea of the work they will be expected to do if they join the company.
- The functional head of the business unit understands if the candidate has the required skills and expertise to do the job they want him to do.
“I have built the legal teams of numerous companies from the ground up, and this approach has always worked for me. Finding the right fit is crucial to building a sustainable legal team.”
“Once you are at the top of the legal ladder at a large enterprise, you have to transition from being a specialist to a generalist. You will need to be flexible enough to switch between roles and have enough tricks up your sleeve to mend the wrongs and do the needful.”
According to Sandeep, the key to optimising the legal function at a large enterprise is not just being able to mitigate legal risks. GCs should be driven enough to facilitate growth, both personal and professional, for their team members. Sandeep does that by taking his subordinates to various conferences/events where he speaks as a panellist.
“As HOD of the legal team, my role is not only to navigate and manage legal risks for the company but also to help team members grow in their careers. I take them to legal conferences and events where they diversify their networks, discuss the work they have done, and further their legal knowledge on niche subjects. Consequently, they gain confidence, which reflects in the work they do.”