In conversation: K Satish Kumar, Global Head – Legal and Chief Data Protection Officer, Ramco Systems

Kumar has worked for some of India’s most established, multinational, technology-based companies over the course of many years. He reflects on the ever-evolving GC role in a fast-growing tech company.

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

K Satish Kumar (SK): I am a commerce Honours graduate with a professional qualification from a premier institution in law and, in addition, I am a certified cost and management accountant (CMA) from the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India. The two professional qualifications have helped me a lot in my career progression. Basically, I started off my career thinking to be in the finance trade – I wanted to be a cost accountant or a financial professional in the corporate world. I went into the finance department of a corporation but I always had a passion towards law, and the management thought I had an aptitude and took me into the legal department. In any organisation in the corporate world you will have a very big finance team but the legal team will be very small, so getting recognised for all your work is easier if you are in the legal team. Fortunately for me, I had both the qualifications and having commercial knowledge and a professional degree in finance gives me additional edge.

GC: Was it quite straightforward at the time, making that transition from finance to legal?

SK: It was not a very straightforward move. But I had the qualification in legal and, at that time, the opportunity also – the legal department felt my legal knowledge would be useful to the organisation. So I think I was the right man in the right place – that is how I would put it. The opportunity came, and I grabbed it with both my hands and that’s it. And I haven’t looked back from there.

GC: You have predominantly worked in the software technology sector. Was this an area you were always interested in?

SK: I always wanted to be in the new technology sector. I started my career in the late 1990s when the first wave of the Internet was storming the world. I was very much interested to be in this new technology, and I got my first opportunity with Satyam Infoway back office. I have my footprints in some of the leading software technology companies, like HCL Technologies, Polaris Software Ltd (later on the product division became Intellect Design Arena Ltd) and now with Ramco Systems Ltd – a leading software product company with a global presence. My working experience in HCL Technologies, Intellect Design Arena Ltd and Ramco Systems greatly helped me to hone my legal negotiation skills.

I also have experience working Fortune 100 companies like Chemoil. I had a different experience, working as a senior legal adviser to Brigadier Waleed Zawawi – one of the royal families in the Sultanate of Oman – but my passion has always been in the technology sector.

GC: What are the major trends in the software industry that impact on your role as general counsel?

SK: There are a lot of challenges in the software industry. Ramco has a global presence – we have presence right from Europe, the Middle East, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and we are taking our footprint to other countries as well. So we have presence across the globe, and that really gives me additional challenge with respect to complying with the requirements of each of the geographies. As a GC of a multinational global company, I cannot say that I am not aware of all the legal regulations in, for example, Japan. And not only the regulatory aspect, I have to deal and interact with lawyers across the globe. When negotiating and closing an agreement, most of the time I have to travel to meet face-to-face with the lawyers.

The other aspect, I would say, is that the business team is present across the globe, and requires support. The expectation from the business team is to support them round the clock. Matching up to the requirement of the business team in different time zones is a challenge on its own. I get calls from early in the morning right through the day, till I settle down to a call from the US late in the evening. I am on my phone right through the day. So a fast-growing product technology company like Ramco Systems is really a challenging environment to be in.

GC: You also have data protection under your remit. What challenges does this particular aspect pose for you and your team?

SK: Data Protection is the new addition to my existing role as the general counsel. With GDPR coming into effect on May 25th 2018 there was a lot of expectation among the clients and within the organisation as to the evaluation of our privacy set up within Ramco. As the general counsel with experience in privacy law, the mantle of chief data protection officer fell on me. I gladly accepted the role and started the journey into the privacy world. Slowly we have mapped ourselves with the privacy laws across the globe such as Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, India, South Africa, Canada, etc.

I think that GDPR has been the forefront of the privacy laws across the globe and, post that, I’m seeing a spate of privacy laws coming up everywhere. But to be very frank with you, I see the Australian Data Breach legislation [the Australian Notifiable Data Breaches scheme] to be the toughest of all the privacy laws.

The challenges that we face in data protection are manifold. Ramco must keep up with protecting not only a customer’s personal information, but also sensitive personal information. Data has grown exponentially over the last decade, and poor security practices continue to put many organisations at risk of data breach. Personal identifiable information (PII) is one of the biggest concerns of data privacy. The veracity and volume of data in our technology-driven world is ever increasing, hence it becomes overwhelming to handle millions and possibly even billions of data records.

The other major challenge that we face is the cost of maintaining data privacy. A single data breach can cost organisations millions of dollars in lost revenue. If the data is breached, the organisation faces intense regulatory penalties from an array of regulatory bodies. We have to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment that, among other considerations, identifies the nature of personal identifiable information collected from the customers, where it is stored and how it is transmitted. We have to establish the data protection and privacy policies and monitor and enforce them continuously.

We have to further ensure that there is clear organisational accountability for privacy and data protection, apart from having a strong coordination among key stakeholders – the compliance team, information technology team, security team, etc. We implement comprehensive training and build employee awareness of risks, particularly what is expected of each employee to protect the organisation. Further, we ensure that the subcontractors have a similar security set-up as Ramco have. We ensure that we do not have misplaced or unverified reliance on third-party providers that have access to Ramco’s own information or that of our client information. We also design and implement robust monitoring and testing of privacy and data protection risks and related controls.

The breach level index for corporates is ever increasing. In Ramco, we have a strong data protection system and maintaining that level is a very big challenge for the office of the chief data protection officer.

‘The challenges that we face in data protection are manifold.’

GC: Does working for a software company mean you have cutting-edge software tools in your in-house team? Can you give any examples of your use of technology?

SK: Lawyers across the globe are not tech-savvy. Especially in the private practice world, where, at least that I can see in India, they are on the Dictaphone, they are dictating and somebody else is taking notes and then typing it and getting it signed from the lawyers.

But for us, fortunately, we are working in a technology company and that helps us to embrace technology with both hands. We are digitising all of our contracts. We have documents for the past 20 to 25 years, so it is a huge task, and I have paralegal staff who are managing this, to monitor when the agreements are expiring, when to renew, and communicating it to the business teams.

We also sign documents online, so we can track negotiations online – at what stage the document is in, which department has the claim. So email communication is literally removed now. We are tracking all the communications online and document tracking is completely done online. Gone are the days ten years back when I was the legal head at another software company and all the communication and negotiations were happening through email.

GC: Can you tell me about your legal team at Ramco?

SK: I am fortunate to have a very strong legal team at Ramco. Currently we have a strong, four-member team and we plan to expand it. Each member of my team carries more than ten years of experience and the legal team put together have over 50 years of hard-core legal experience. Each member of my legal team is capable enough to head a department of their own. In order to avoid monotony of work or redundancy we allocate all types of work to every member of the team equally.

While selecting the team members, I ensure that the candidate has the right aptitude. Knowledge can be learnt if a candidate has an aptitude. Hence, selection of the right candidate is very critical for the department. I also ensure that my team members learn at least one new legal aspect every day. I have weekly knowledge-sharing sessions within the team so that each member knows and grows together. I ensure that the legal team has a healthy environment and is transparent. Each member can handle any of the tasks in the legal department – be it IPR, litigation, contract negotiation or coordinating with counsel.

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

SK: Over the next year or so, the expectation of business acumen from the legal department is going to increase. General counsel are expected to have an international mindset. There is more expectation of supporting the business team, especially on deal closure and the privacy aspect. The budgeted cost for the team is also going to be a major part.

Looking forward, we are going to see more of artificial intelligence/machine learning in the legal department. In-house counsel will be the first to adopt the AI/ML before it is taken on in a big way by external counsel. Already we are using technology in some form in the department and we are going to see more of such in the coming days.

GC: How do you think AI/ML will be used and will be useful for in-house teams?

SK: Basically, I have experienced candidates in my legal team ranging from ten years post-qualification experience to 15 years. Whether it be a lease rental agreement or a $100 million business agreement, I’m using the same resources. I am sure I can use them in a much more beneficial way in the closure of bigger contracts if I have better artificial intelligence or machine learning software which can take care of the routine stuff – a non-disclosure agreement or a rental lease agreement. I can spend the time of my legal resources for a much better team; an organisation which will increase the top line and give value addition to the company. I am trying to maximise productivity through the technology that is coming in.

GC: When do you think this technology will come in?

SK: In somewhere between six to 18 months, I am looking to have that in my system.

GC: You do quite a lot of pro bono work. What drives your involvement in this area?

SK: I think all professionals should be involved in some activities which give back to the society. We derive a lot of benefit from this society; society has made us what we are today – experienced professionals. We owe something back to the society.

I feel that everyone in their lifetime has one or other legal problem. There are people who may not be able to afford the best legal advice. I think that is when we can step in and make a major difference.Any counselling, direction, opinion or genuine advice will make a world of difference to these needy people. For me, it doesn’t really cost much. But it gives me immense satisfaction when I see the smiling face at the other end after my counselling or legal advice.

I decided to reach people through social media – Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Google were some of the mediums which I adopted to reach the people. It was very successful, I was surprised at the response levels of the people. In a very short period, I had a fan following club of over 7000 people. People approached me with various problems. Some wanted to know the process to adopt a child, some wanted to reconcile with their spouse, property disputes among legal heirs, child abuse, work place bullying or abuse, sexual harassment – all sorts of things. I ensure that just as I give some time to my family, I also give some time to society. I ensure that I give at least three hours on a Saturday and three hours on a Sunday for my pro bono work, and the rest of the day is for my family. This has given me a lot of moral satisfaction.

During my early career, such pro bono legal work provided me a training ground, providing early opportunities for depositions, building client relationships, arguing motions, first-chairing trials and other valuable work experience to build skills and confidence.

Nowadays, charitable and pro bono legal work provides me opportunities to meet people with very different backgrounds and interests whom I may not otherwise meet in my daily life. Fundraising for charities, serving as a board member for a non-profit organisation and the like have connected me with local business leaders and led to new friends.