In conversation: Dr Akhil Prasad, Director, Country Counsel – India and Company Secretary, Boeing India

With a 25-year in-house career at iconic global corporates like Xerox, Electrolux, General Motors, Disney and Fidelity, plus two PhDs under his belt, Prasad shares a sprinkling of his accumulated wisdom.

GC: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what it was that prompted you to work in the law?

Akhil Prasad (AP): I’m a first-generation lawyer. My father was a medical practitioner and my mother was a professor, so neither of them were in the legal field. I faced a lot of failures in my early life. I wanted to do medicine, I applied to many colleges, but I could not get through. Then I switched my CV from science to commerce; I did very well in my Commerce Bachelor’s degree, but then I failed miserably – I could not get admission into MBA colleges. I could clear all written exams, but I could not clear the interviews.

So I thought, let’s try my luck with law, and thought ‘let’s internationalise law’, which is usually a local profession. And as the luck would have it, I did company secretary in India and UK, Bachelors and Master’s degree in Law in India, a PhD in Commerce and doctorate in Law in India, Solicitor of England and Wales, a Masters of Law from Northwestern University, USA and Business Administration from IE Business School, Spain. So it kept on growing. Now I am grateful that my organisation has sponsored me to go and study at Wharton for the advanced leadership programme.

It has been a long journey of about 25 years, during which I have been fortunate to work as general counsel and a member of the board of directors of some really big names. I started with Xerox (1993-2000), then I did my stint with Electrolux (2000-2002), then I did General Motors (2002-2005), then The Walt Disney Company (2005-2007), Fidelity (2007-2013) and now Boeing (since 2013). It has been a really diverse experience across different industries, a big learning, but it turned me into a corporate lawyer with specialisation in M&A – although, in India, in the legal function, it’s everything under the sun.

GC: Once you made that decision to pursue law, what made you go and work for a corporation rather than work in a law firm or as a litigator?

AP: I initially wanted to go in for practice, but I lost my father very early so it was more that I had to support the family – me and my mother and my wife. I took the rather safe course of a general counsel, so to say, rather than venturing out into a more risky legal practice. It was 25 years ago since I found that the practice side was risky, so I became a corporate secretary, at Xerox. Having been exposed to a multinational like Xerox, I kept on educating myself about various types of corporate law in India, and then international laws, as I grew in my career with different companies. International law became very, very important to me, and then I started to like corporate life more than the practice side, because the corporate side gives you a lot of diversity, a lot of management and business opportunities, and the chance to work with people having diverse capabilities, not essentially within the legal domain. So that was something I started to enjoy.

GC: You’ve done a lot of postgraduate study, including a doctor of laws in media piracy. Can you tell me about that area of interest?

AP: In fact, I have two PhDs: one PhD in Commerce, the other is a doctorate in Law. My PhD in Commerce began when I started my career with Xerox and, in those days – ‘95, ’96 – there was no interconnection of stock exchanges and investors faced lots problems, so my research was about better international practices overseas and how India can learn and adapt, mostly on the investor protection side.

The doctorate in Law in media piracy began when I became the general counsel for Disney, and that was in 2005. Whether it’s music, film or publications, there is rampant piracy in media, so I decided to look at some of the actions that should be taken in terms of enforcement, which should help develop the media business. For example, one of the things I wrote about in my thesis at that point of time was distribution of music. About 95% of music and a large number of films were prone to piracy, so one of the recommendations was that we should have some secure form for distribution of music and films. The music industry has since seen a transformation with digital distribution platforms like those offered by Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Star and others, which are secure distributive forms, and they have minimised the piracy and enhanced consumer experience with digital content. Film and music streaming is big business now, and Disney too is making lots of commitment in this area.

GC: Studying for two PhDs must have been enormously time-consuming outside of your actual day job?

AP: Yes, as I did all my education while working (no study leaves), it did stretch my day to 20 hours a day – it was a lot of effort. But effort well spent, and I think I’m quite happy with what I’ve done so far.

GC: As you’ve touched upon, you have worked in a variety of different sectors. How has that been? Have you found that the legal role differs substantially across those sectors?

AP: I have been very careful in my career that I don’t label myself, so I never repeated an industry. When I looked for other opportunities, I was really fortunate that my employers looked at me as a legal specialisation, who could fit into any business. About 70% of my role was as a corporate lawyer, as a general counsel. But it also gave me a 30% opportunity to learn the business and adapt myself to the legal requirements of that particular kind of industry. Xerox was office automation, Electrolux was white goods, General Motors was automobiles, Disney was media, Fidelity was IT, ITES and private equity and, now, Boeing is aerospace and defence. So I enjoy my role as a general counsel, having worked for different industries and learned about their business aspects, which keeps one’s mind fresh and you are able to learn and contribute better.

I have been very careful in my career that I don’t label myself, so I never repeated an industry

GC: Are there any particular learning points that stand in your mind from individual sectors that have helped you grow as a lawyer?

AP: I feel that any lawyer will always be valued in the organisation if you are able to do a lot of problem solving, which may or may not pertain to legal problems alone. When you are a general counsel, your capability should be to be able to build up trust and confidence in your business partners, and that personal confidence comes with good research. Always you should have a mind to develop yourself and learn more about your business. The general counsel, sometimes, is the only person who knows about law in the management team, so he or she is a person who has to really translate law into something which can be understood very easily by the management team and other stakeholders. At the same time, the general counsel has to have an open mind to understand the business requirements, because unless you understand business it will not be possible for a general counsel to be able to offer value to the management team. The general counsel has to have a broader mindset: to learn more and be able to contribute more is essential. Further, I treat all my colleagues as my clients and all of them deserve my best services.

GC: Are there any major trends in the aerospace and defence that are impacting on your role as country counsel?

AP: The world is shrinking, and more so in the digital space and the artificial intelligence space. It’s a disruptive, competitive environment. For example, if you look at aerospace, it is not only a domain for very few companies, there are companies like Google, there are companies like Tesla, who are wanting to enter. Then there are the high-growth companies like Facebook and Apple and others. I think, to be successful, it is very essential for anybody, even a lawyer or general counsel, to really understand technology, as it has become a very integral part of any business. So it is essential for all of us to be able to embrace technology and we have to adapt to technology.

The second most important thing is communication, which is extremely critical to be successful in today’s world. A general counsel and his/her team should be able to effectively communicate with all colleagues in the organisation and should be able to explain law in a way they would understand and absorb.

The third thing I would say is responsiveness. Whenever there is a demand or a requirement of your client, it has to be done with urgency, the advice has to be qualitative, and it should be something which reaches your client immediately. In today’s world, anyone who can respond to the client’s need with urgency, quality and solving problems will be highly appreciated. Technology has made our environment faster and world smaller without boundaries, so response to client’s needs should be immediate and with a sense of urgency.

GC: What are challenges that you’re dealing with day to day in your role?

AP: Some major challenges in any industry are the regulations, especially when we are dealing with products or services which are highly regulated. The most important challenge is to be able to navigate business effectively amid the regulatory landscape. Whether it’s business in India, whether it’s in the US, or in China, a general counsel will be successful if they are able to swiftly navigate business across various geographies. Law is a very local subject, unlike other functions like finance or sales, which are more global, so today’s general counsel should make law as a global and international subject, through research and connections across the globe. That is why a general counsel’s biggest challenge is to be able to really understand the various landscapes of regulations across the world and be able to facilitate business growth, especially for global businesses.

GC: What areas of regulation are most impactful at the moment?

AP: Data is supreme for everyone. Therefore, I would say that the most important regulation is one on data privacy, which has enormous implications. Data collection, import-export across geographies, storage and deletion, per the global developments on data privacy, would require a lot of attention and diligence. We are looking at major initiatives that Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, WhatsApp, Microsoft and others are putting in this area, as the world is getting more and more sensitive on how companies manage data, and this has already become a huge risk factor for those who are not able to manage it well. Thus, data protection regulations, would require a lot of attention and focus from the general counsel’s office.

GC: Looking forward, what’s next on your plate over the next year or so?

AP: I am making a very conscious effort that I should be able to provide better and varied services to my clients. My ambition is to learn more on the business and management side, to learn more on the side of products and services that are being offered by my employer. I want to devote a lot of time educating myself on the finer aspects of business and management, and that is where I see I will be devoting my energies – to be able to provide better and varied services to my employer.

GC: Do you ever envisage yourself moving into a more business-related role?

AP: I would definitely like to look at myself on the business side. Having done legal for most of my career, if I am able to become a business leader one day that would be something which I really want to achieve.

GC: Is there another PhD on the horizon for you, do you think?

AP: You never know! You never know, because knowledge definitely helps you. Education and learning is what I will always continue. And what I have seen is, the more you do research, you train your mind and you learn new things, and that new learning automatically gets translated into better services for your client.