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India Business Law Journal reveals the country’s leading in-house counsel and corporate legal teams in our very first awards. Gautam Kagalwala reports

For the inaugural India Business Law Journal In-house Counsel Awards, we have sought to identify and honour the best and most talented individuals in this demanding profession at a time when perhaps they have been needed most.

In a normal year, a general counsel dons many hats, among them that of legal adviser, a trusted voice to the board, a business strategist and compliance manager. But in this period when the pandemic has brought about so much disruption to society, businesses and the economy, the role of in-house counsel bear greater significance.

General counsel have been relied upon to ensure profitability and support the company with lowering costs where possible. In-house counsel have also still had to execute deals across borders, carry out difficult negotiations, execute dispute resolution strategies, and minimise risk to their companies to the greatest extent possible in these risk-prone times.

Our research process for this year’s awards saw strong participation from senior general counsel from various industries, as well as partners at prominent Indian and foreign law firms. After an extensive seeking-out process that saw nominations from many deserving and talented in-house counsel, the editorial team has finally arrived at a list of winners for both individual and team awards.

We would like to express our gratitude to the nominees who participated and supported the creation of the inaugural IBLJ In-House Counsel Awards, and offer our heartfelt congratulations to all the winners.

Vidyut Gulati, Bharti Airtel Group
Vidyut Gulati
GC & Director of Legal
Bharti Airtel Group

Vidyut Gulati, the general counsel for the Bharti Airtel Group, wins the General Counsel of the Year award.

Gulati also wins the individual award for the Technology & telecoms category, and she and her team win the Technology & telecoms team award.
Gulati has extensive experience in leading and structuring transactions spanning cross-border acquisitions, joint ventures, projects and private equity deals. In her current role, she shapes the group’s policy initiatives in the telecoms sector and is a member of the Airtel management board.

She has also led complex regulatory litigations, international disputes, policy initiatives, bilateral investment treaty arbitrations, multi-party negotiations and transactions involving public and private companies, as well as government undertakings. Her team consists of more than 60 lawyers across India and South Asia.

“Vidyut is a dynamic and versatile leader,” says Naval Chopra, a partner at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co in New Delhi. “[She] can effortlessly transition between corporate, capital markets and dispute resolution matters. Vidyut has also created a fantastic team of in-house lawyers and commands the respect of both her business and in-house team. It is a pleasure to work with Vidyut and it is always a learning experience.”

Tech Mahindra wins IBLJ’s In-house Legal Team of the Year award. The team also takes out the award in the IT services category.

The Tech Mahindra team is headed by global general counsel Vineet Vij, who wins the individual award for the IT services category.

Tech Mahindra

The in-house team of more than 75 lawyers is spread across India, the Asia-Pacific, US, UK, Mexico, Europe and Israel, and caters to clients in more than 75 countries.

Each region is headed by a regional assistant general counsel and the team provides litigation, M&A, IP, compliance, regulatory and advisory legal support to its group companies worldwide.

“Vineet is a star general counsel,” says Ajay Bhargava, a partner at Khaitan & Co in New Delhi. “[He is a] true leader who supports his business teams with full zeal and enthusiasm.”

Ajay Bhargava, Khaitan & Co

The legal team has negotiated and closed deals worth more than USD7.5 billion in total in the past year. This includes execution of a USD1 billion deal with a leading US telecoms player for leveraging IP services, and a USD1 billion outsourcing deal with a leading insurance giant covering its operations in the US, UK and Asia-Pacific.

The team also helped the company to successfully defend and win against a money laundering claim and attachment order worth USD114 million before the Supreme Court.

Actively involved

Anubhav Kapoor, the director of legal affairs at Ford India, wins the individual award for the Automotive category. Kapoor has 27 years of experience and has worked with prominent companies such as Ford, Tata Technologies, Cummins, Domino’s Pizza India and Polaris.

In his current role at Ford, he has advised and worked with the board, CEO and senior business leaders of Ford’s various group companies on strategic and legal aspects, future growth and business planning. Kapoor has also been actively involved in areas such as compliance, litigation, corporate governance and intellectual property.

“As a corporate secretary he has extensive experience in dealing with high-visibility boards,” says Sonal Verma, a partner at Dhir & Dhir in Mumbai. “(He) has handled complex matters including those related to board management, corporate governance, insider trading, private and public offerings.”

In the previous year, Kapoor has been busy providing legal support to the company with the onset of the BS (Bharat stage) VI emissions regulations in April 2020. This has involved providing advice on matters relating to environment law, recall and warranty liabilities.

Chandan Sand, senior vice president (legal) and company secretary, head of aircraft acquisition and financing and procurement at SpiceJet, wins the individual award for Aviation, shipping & logistics category.

Sand began his journey at SpiceJet as an executive in the legal and secretarial department back in June 2001. Now, his SpiceJet in-house team has more than 30 lawyers divided across the departments of legal, corporate affairs, procurement and aircraft acquisition, leasing and financing.

With air travel grounded when India was in the grips of the pandemic, Sand had to navigate his company out of an incredibly difficult situation. A significant challenge was to lower costs and overheads that would be borne by the airline during this uncertain time, with aircraft leases being a big area of expense.

Sand and his team worked with the owners of the aircrafts to devise a mechanism where the company would pay for the time that the aircraft were utilised as per the existing demand.

“Chandan is possibly the epitome of a general counsel,” says Sidanth Rajagopal, a partner and aviation finance lawyer at K&L Partners based out of London. “With the aviation industry facing unprecedented stress, [he] has been the go-to person for the company to cover all its bases – from dealing with their creditors to finding new businesses and avenues to ensure the airline continues to remain at the forefront of Indian aviation.”

Dealing with the unprecedented

IndiGo wins the team award for the Aviation, shipping & logistics category. The legal team of 20 people is based out of the airline’s corporate office in Gurugram and works closely with business teams in the corporate office and across several locations. Priya Mehra, the general counsel of IndiGo since 2017, left the company in November 2021.

The team is full-service and caters to all departments within IndiGo, namely aircraft acquisition and finance, engineering, commercial, information technology, airport operations and customer services, human resources, administration, operation control centre, flight operations and IFly (IndiGo’s training academy).

Notably the team was involved in the purchase of 300 aircraft from Airbus comprising A320neo, A321neo and A321XLR aircraft models. The entire transaction was handled in-house and involved drafting and negotiations across multiple jurisdictions.

After flight operations were suspended, IndiGo was amongst the first airlines to commence chartered flights to retrieve passengers stranded overseas and provide assistance in repatriation efforts. To facilitate this, the legal team successfully drafted and negotiated all charter service agreements with counterparties in record time in order to meet an increasing demand for charters with otherwise limited access to skies.

With the devastating impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector, to augment availability of cash reserves for the business, the legal team worked along with stakeholders and concluded the sale and leaseback of certain owned assets such as aircraft and spare engines within record time to create additional cash reserves. All these transactions were done remotely across multiple jurisdictions and were closed seamlessly.

Dhruv Paul, Watson Farley & Williams

“I have first-hand experience of seeing this team deal with a number of unprecedented issues with great aplomb,” says Dhruv Paul, a partner in Watson Farley & Williams’ aviation finance and corporate groups in Dubai. “In my opinion, the IndiGo legal team is made up of a team of very bright and driven lawyers who help IndiGo successfully navigate issues ranging from Indian consumer and regulatory matters to complex cross-border and structured transactions, all of this in a fast paced and [often] challenging environment.”

Nitin Mittal, the general counsel of Signify, wins the individual award for the Consumer & retail category. As the GC, he is responsible for all legal, compliance and governance matters for India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia and New Zealand. Mittal is part of Signify’s leadership team for India and has worked with business leaders on a variety of issues including sales, profitability, people, culture and processes.

He was involved in closing some multimillion-dollar project deals for the company in the past year, and has been keenly involved in grooming and mentoring team members to take on larger roles.

“Each transaction [involving Mittal] has been a learning experience,” says Shrutikirti Kumar, a real estate partner at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co in New Delhi.

“[He] adds a business perspective to each legal discussion and at the same time has a keen eye for safeguarding the interests of the organisation,” says Kumar. “In a real estate transaction that we worked on, Nitin, with his focus on the big picture, supported and enabled us to piece together various pieces of the transaction to successfully close the transaction.”

To foster e-learning initiatives at the company, Mittal has developed a new contract management learning module for the Asia-Pacific region with case studies, illustrations and graphic animations to understand key legal aspects. He has also helped developed an e-learning module to train sales staff and educate them on key legal aspects of the business.

Providing a vision

Ajay Kharbanda wins the individual award for construction & infrastructure category. He is the chief legal officer (north and west) of GMR Group and leads a team of 22 lawyers. Kharbanda is part of the senior leadership team at GMR Group and is responsible for providing a vision and guidance to the company’s airport vertical.

He manages matters such as those pertaining to financing of businesses through debt capital market transactions, and dispute resolution of critical and high-stakes matters, including regulatory issues, before different regulatory forums including high courts and the Supreme Court.

Kharbanda says his in-house legal team has been critical for the financing and complex structured initiatives of the company’s airport businesses. The team is independent and able to handle transactions internally, while the dependency on external counsel is low and on an as-needed basis.

Kharbanda successfully led the legal team in a USD450 million green bond issue of Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL). The complex transaction was completed in about 50 days. His team was also successful in obtaining a stay order against the property tax demand of more than INR21 billion (USD277 million) against DIAL.

The Larsen & Toubro (construction division) (LTC) team wins in the category of Construction & infrastructure. LTC is the flagship of L&T’s business operations, which contributes to more than two-thirds of L&T’s net worth. The team is led by the head of legal, Amba Prasad G, and comprises 26 in-house counsel and para legal staff spread across six locations in India and the Middle East.

Key functions of the legal team include risk assessment, contract review and negotiation, support for contract management, IP rights filing, labour and industry-related disputes and compliance, as well as litigation and disputes.
As part of its dispute resolution efforts in the past year, the team successfully realised and recovered INR2 billion. The legal team also successfully defended or settled matters where LTC’s clients, sub-contractors or vendors had filed cases in court or invoked arbitration.

“The L&T Construction legal team handles disputes across jurisdictions with ease,” says Rajat Malhotra, a partner at Laware Associates in New Delhi who focuses on commercial litigation and arbitration. “They work like a small niche firm, with fantastic efficiency and expertise. Amba runs the team from Chennai and his experience spans highways, rail, hospitals, hospitality, etc., and he handles all projects with ease.”

Hands-on and proactive

Amit Kumar Das, general counsel and senior general manager – legal at Kirloskar Oil Engines, wins the individual award in the engineering & manufacturing category.

Das advises senior management on complex legal matters, manages external counsel and ensures legal awareness across business units of the company.

“Amit is a very hands-on and proactive GC,” says Rajarshi Chakrabarti, the senior resident partner at Kochhar & Co in Mumbai. “Working with him is refreshing, and his practical insights are particularly impressive and help in moving the transaction forward. We found his business sense to be very sound and he adds genuine value to the deal table.”

At Kirloskar, Das has developed a specialisation in M&A, contracts, litigation and IP. In the past year, he has successfully completed the acquisition of an electric pump set manufacturing company valued about INR4.5 billion. He and his teams have also completed deals without the aid of external counsel, including the acquisition of a pipe and wire business from a subsidiary worth INR200 million, as well as drafting and executing the JV agreement.

In the disputes domain, Das has focused on resolving longstanding disputes including one with a government undertaking. He also resolved a dispute and recovered outstanding amounts from a prominent retail company without getting into litigation, in addition to resolving a number of consumer cases out of court.

On the IP front, Das has been involved in the registration and implementation of the company’s new logo and its various product brands, including Optiqua.

Praveen Philip Thomas, the India Legal Head of SSG Advisors, wins in the individual award category for financial services. Thomas manages the legal function of the boutique investment bank alongside Arpan Chowdhury, the vice president and legal counsel.

He oversees tier 1 banking and finance partners and their respective teams across law firms in India, Singapore and Hong Kong to ensure identification and mitigation of legal risk. He ensures deep diligence at the outset to identify and mitigate key risks and constantly improve on market practices. With this approach, Thomas says SSG clients have had minimal to no need to approach the courts for dispute resolution despite having advised on more than USD2 billion worth of investments into India.

“Praveen has very strong fundamentals in analysing risks from an in-house counsel perspective,” says Shaswata Dutta, an executive director and senior counsel at Goldman Sachs in Mumbai. “His rich experience working across roles has also provided him with strong fundamentals. He has an excellent connect with law firms and lawyers, which really helps in his practice.”

Thomas advised on the acquisition of the indebted Altico Capital through a lender-led restructuring process outside the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC), which was the first successful NBFC restructuring completed outside the IBC process.

“This was a very innovative deal in the distressed debt market,” says Souvik Ganguly, managing partner of Acuity Law in Mumbai. “Praveen’s ability to understand complex transaction structures, identifying risks and assisting the business team to take the key decisions are important to enabling SSG India to do these transactions.”

Despite working completely from home in the past year, Thomas says the investment firm has grown exponentially both in terms of employees as well as capabilities.

Our Methodology

India Business Law Journal’s In-house Counsel Awards are based on nominations, references and qualitative information received from in-house counsel and other legal professionals in India and around the world. A nomination form was available on our website and promoted on social media throughout July and August 2021, and thousands of in-house counsel, lawyers at Indian and international law firms, and other India-focused professionals were invited to vote.

In the second part of the judging process, nominated in-house lawyers were invited to make submissions in support of their candidacy for the awards. These submissions, combined with thorough research and reference checking by India Business Law Journal’s editorial team, played an important role in the judging process. All in-house counsel in India were automatically eligible for inclusion in the awards process, and there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.

The awards are split into individual and team awards and include General Counsel of the Year and In-House Team of the Year, as well as a Rising Stars category.

The individual categories are: Automotive; Aviation, shipping & logistics; Banking; Construction & infrastructure; Consumer & retail; Energy & natural resources; Engineering & manufacturing; Financial services; Healthcare & life sciences; Industrials, chemicals & textiles; Internet & e-commerce; IP; IT services; Media, entertainment & sports; Real estate; and Technology & telecoms.

The team categories are: Automotive; Aviation, shipping & logistics; Banking; Construction & infrastructure; Consumer & retail; Energy & natural resources; Financial services; Healthcare & life sciences; Industrials, chemicals & textiles; Internet & e-commerce; IP; IT services; Media, entertainment & sports; Real estate; and Technology & telecoms.

This article outlines the achievements of this year’s winners. While space does not permit us to mention every winner – or print the hundreds of endorsements we received – each one comes highly recommended by their professional peers.

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