In conversation: Amar Sundram, National Director – Legal and General Counsel, EY

Sundram reflects on the challenges of compliance in a global world and winning the trust of the business.

GC: Can you tell me about your background and how you came to work in the law?

Amar Sundram (AS): I graduated in History (Honours) from Kirori Mal College, North Campus, University of Delhi. After graduating, I joined the law course in the Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, which was a three-year course. This was one of the best law colleges in India, and as my journey progressed, history took a back seat and law became interesting. I was picked up during the campus placement and selected from 200 students as an in-house law trainee with DCM Shriram Consolidated Ltd, which was a manufacturing set-up in the small industrial city of Kota, Rajasthan.

GC: What made you want to join a company, rather than going to a law firm or becoming an independent litigator?

AS: To be transparent, it was not my preferred option, but it came by as a university placement. I decided to take a chance, to get a view of how being an in-house lawyer works, and what that organisation looked like. My initial thought was that I would stay for six months and then try something else. But the initial exposure was so good – there were a couple of high stakes litigations and I was given a chance to interact with two of the most senior lawyers in India in the Supreme Court. As my interest started developing, my inclination and desire to continue with law as an in-house counsel continued, and therefore I continued with my in-house career.

In 1997, I was elevated to the position of heading the legal department in one of the chemical plants where DCM was expanding, in another industrial city – Gujarat. This gave me an excellent opportunity to learn and interact with regulators and government officials, and get involved in inspections and understanding different components of the business, while interacting with various plant heads for different verticals. Meanwhile, I completed my post-graduate degree in law, an LLM from University of Delhi.

GC: What are the main challenges of your role currently?

AS: Heading the legal and compliance function of a large organisation like EY, with more than 17,000 employees including more than 450 partners spread across various service lines, is in itself a challenge. The ability to articulate the solution, taking care of the concerns and problems and then finding a common business-legal resolution that is acceptable to multiple stakeholders is a challenge I face almost on a daily basis. Instilling a culture of ethics, integrity and compliance by addressing the workforce in town halls across ten cities has been an interesting journey.

GC: What are the major challenges facing the consulting sector currently in India?

AS: This is not specific to EY, but for consulting organisations, like any other organisation that is product-driven, or any specific sector-driven organisation, what is happening today is there is a lot of new legislation and a lot of new regulations have come up. The economy is growing in India, there is a lot of investment and, therefore, new challenges are also being thrown open. The regulators have become very, very vigilant, and therefore the biggest challenge for any organisation that is into consultancy or that is product-driven is compliance. The old-fashioned style of working where organisations felt you can manage the work and not be compliant is history now. Today, organisations have to comply, and they have understood the ground reality that if they are not compliant it will hit their business. So in a consulting organisation, the challenge is more in terms of understanding the regulations and ensuring that we are on the right side of the law.

GC: What do you think has driven that? Why is compliance so much more important now than it was in the past?

AS: Ours is a global organisation, which has a presence across many countries, and globally people are seeing a trend in the change to law. Now law is no more a domain that is internal to a country – there are laws which are global laws, there are laws which have implications outside of one country. Legal has become a truly global function – this was not the scenario some five or ten years back. When organisations become global, the challenges become global.

GC: Can you tell me about your legal team at EY in India?

AS: When I joined EY India some seven years back, there were just two junior lawyers. Now there are 15 competent lawyers in my team looking after the entire legal function for India and Bangladesh, with added functions of compliance and secretarial.

GC: Can you talk about the journey of growing the legal team, and any major learnings you picked up along the way?

AS: The journey was not easy, as the legal department was initially seen as a cost centre. Generating confidence in the entire workforce, including the senior leadership team, of our ability to deliver and prevent litigation (and thus the expense), was indeed a journey well accomplished. Today, the team is competent to handle any problem and has been well groomed to represent the general counsel office. We work like a law firm, and any new legislation or new judgment that impacts the current business or is otherwise landmark is debated amongst the team. Knowledge is shared and each team member contributes.

GC: What’s your proudest moment or biggest achievement?

AS: The fact that the employees and the leadership across various service lines treat the entire legal team as their trusted and reliable advisers. They don’t hesitate to come to us at the first instance of a problem, even if they have committed some lapses, and to open up and discuss the issue with complete confidence and transparency – knowing full well that all their problems will have a solution from the general counsel office.

GC: What was your strategy for developing a close relationship and trust between the legal team and the wider business?

AS: The biggest step I took was to reach out to people – give them confidence, give them a decent hearing. And be available when they need me – so it is not that I am available only when I am available, but I am available when they want me to be available: taking calls, responding to their queries, meeting them, taking that express step to interact, understand the business, understand their problems, understand what they are doing and how law is embedded in their role and functionalities. How we can be helpful and how we can contribute, rather than waiting for them to come up with a problem and then giving a solution. I took the step of reaching out to the people, understanding, and asking them the question ‘how can we help you?’

That was a journey, a gradual process of transformation happened where people started believing that the legal department is fully integrated into the business. Their objectives and our objectives are common: we also want to do business, we also support them within the legal framework. And when the objectives are common, there will be a meeting of minds – and that is how people develop that trust.

GC: What have been your biggest challenges, and what did you learn from them?

AS: ‘Never give up’ is the mantra that I learnt in my career. There is no problem that does not have a solution. I have a policy for all my internal clients: please come to me with your problems; I will embrace your problem as mine and will provide you with a workable solution.

The message for young lawyers, which I give while delivering honorary guest lectures in law universities, is to read and write. A senior IT professional once asked me why people are now choosing law as a career and why lawyers are so successful. My response was that a good corporate lawyer has the ability to see the future direction and the ability to articulate his thought process, which no other professional has.

GC: What do you see as the big events or challenges on the horizon over the next year or so?

AS: The regulatory environment across the world is changing. One regulator is now interacting with another regulator. This is a digital world and the world of data. New legislation is being enacted and the thrust is compliance rather than contravention of law. Issues like insolvency, data privacy, arbitration, eradication of corruption and insider trading law compliances are going to be the main challenge that any organisation in India will be grappling with in the next three-to-five years. Organisations across all sectors will need a strong and competent in-house legal team to address these challenges. Breaches are going to be expensive, and will hit the business hard in this world of ‘media trial’.

GC: How do you think GCs and legal can have an impact in this world of ‘trial by media’? What can they do in this sphere when issues can be less tangible than a financial penalty?

AS: As you have rightly said, financial penalty is just one aspect. The media has become, especially in the Indian context, very, very sensitive and they love picking up news which excites, and which can catch the attention of the people. So reputational risk is something that is paramount to us. We do not want to be seen as an organisation which has issues, which has concerns – we want to be seen as an organisation which is compliant. We are very conscious of our reputation, we are very conscious of how people see us.

Our entire business is based on trust, and that is where the general counsel office has a big role to play – to ensure that the entire workforce, all the employees work, in tandem with the internal policies, they work in tandem with the laws, and any violations or any perceived violations are quickly resolved and people are taken to task. We are very firm in terms of enforcing our policies, we are very firm in terms of telling them: this is the applicable law, this is what the law says and what you are doing is not the correct way of doing it. The objective is to convince them.

In my organisation, people are receptive, they are compliant, because that is how the organisation. In an organisation of large repute we believe in compliance, we believe in not violating the law. That is an organisational culture and gradually everybody gets along with that policy.

GC: Would the legal team be involved if there was bad press arising from some kind of violation?

AS: Certainly, absolutely. If there is any kind of violation, any kind of internal disciplinary proceeding, the GC is always involved and always consulted and we do a very fair and transparent investigation in order to bring out the truth.