A luminary in the legal realm with a diverse portfolio, shares his transformative journey from litigating lawyer to acclaimed General Counsel – “A Riveting Conversation with Dr. Mukul Shastry, Renowned General Counsel and Executive Director of Cube Highways”

This interview has been published by Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

Dr. Shastry,  We are extremely delighted to have you with us for this interview.  Could you please introduce yourself for our readers and share the pivotal moments that led you to pursue a remarkable career in law, leading to your current role as the General Counsel and Executive Director at Cube Highways?

At the outset let me thank Super Lawyer, it is absolutely my pleasure to be here with you. As regards my journey, I belong to a family of lawyers and judges. My father was a judge (District Judiciary), other uncles too judges and lawyers. Therefore, doing law was something in the blood. Post my studies I started as a litigating lawyer before Rajasthan High Court, Jaipur handling cases such as criminal bails, civil miscellaneous appeals, arbitration petitions, MACT appeals etc. As I was bright in academics, I completed my Masters (securing second rank across university) and also cleared UGC-Net in my first attempt. Hence, I was given a part time teaching assignment in Rajasthan University, Jaipur. 

During that time Competition Act, 2002 was enacted which intrigued me as to why we need a law to regulate competition in the market and I enrolled myself in Ph.D. working on the hypothesis whether Anti-dumping duties would be relevant once Competition law comes to force. However, as there wasn’t much material in Jaipur at that time, my Ph.D. supervisor guided me to go to National Law University, Jodhpur. 

At that time in NLU, Jodhpur, Prof. A.K. Kaul was the Vice-Chancellor who was an expert of Trade & Competition Law. He was kind enough not only to guide me but also to tell me what all materials I must read to understand the conundrum in other countries before I can start researching Indian markets. 

Prof. Kaul goaded me that I must not sail in two boats. On one hand, I was practising law in Jaipur and on weekends was coming to Jodhpur to do my research. He insisted that I focus on one thing and I chose academics. At that time there was a vacancy in NLU, Jodhpur and I applied and cleared it. This is how my academic journey started. 

After spending three and half years at NLU, Jodhpur and post completing my Ph.D. I wanted to work with a regulator. As during my research, I understood that the regulators’ perspective is the most important to execute the sector specific legislations. This was 2009 and at that time Competition Commission of India where I wanted to go did not have any vacancies, but RBI came out with Legal Officers vacancy. I applied and wrote the exam. I topped the All-India RBI Legal Officer – Grade-B, 2009 examination. 

This is how my journey as a central banker started. In RBI I spent time giving legal advice to different departments such as Foreign Exchange Dept., Banking Supervision Dept. (DBS) etc. I spent around five and half years in RBI. After that I took a sabbatical and prepared for GMAT. I applied to IIM, Ahmedabad (India’s premier B-School) and got through. I did my MBA from IIMA (PGPx – One-year full time) and from there I was placed in RPG group, Mumbai.

This is how my corporate journey started around a decade back. In the RPG group I used to handle the legal profile as well as the SPOC for a DBFOT project – Bikaner Sikar 440 KV line. I learnt the nuances of corporate life and applied my learnings from litigation, academics and regulator mixed with knowledge learnt at IIMA. 

From RPG I went to Adani Group handling ports and logistics legal matters and then to Welspun Enterprises as Head Legal and now the General Counsel for Cube Highways.  

Your journey includes a diverse range of roles from litigating lawyer to teaching criminal and competition law, and now as the General Counsel and Executive Director of Cube Highways. How has this varied experience shaped your perspective on legal practice, and what unique insights do you bring to your current role?

An interesting question. The experience as a litigator turned academician turned central banker and then General Counsel has taught me different things. I understand how the court systems work and thus it helps in giving those advice from the perspectives of court practices. At times despite one’s case being strong on merits, it can have technical glitches and that can be disastrous. Therefore, I am extremely cautious as to how not to give those technical lose points whether it be laches, delay, non-response to a letter, conflict etc. 

The academic knowledge helps me in doing in-depth research and those theoretical questions and acumen laced with practical prism helps in zooming in to minutiae details. The experience of a central banker helps in understanding how a bureaucrat will look into the decisions taken by a corporate. 

Thus, the advice which I provide is holistic from litigator, academic, regulator and a GC’s perspective. This helps in much nuanced and sophisticated advice. 

You’ve achieved a remarkable academic milestone with qualifications like LL.M, Ph.D. in Trade & Competition Law, MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, CS, and CAIIB. If you could go back to your early academic years, what advice would you give to yourself, considering the wealth of experience you’ve gained over the years?

Well, if I sit in a time machine and go back, the advice I would give is that at times in pursuit of the different academic knowledge one loses focus on other good things in life. I now see my younger colleagues who are in college and along with being bright in academics are also focusing on hobbies such as sports, drama, singing, writing, playing some instrument etc. I still rue that I have not developed any such hobby that is necessary in shaping up your personality. 

Thus if I could rewind, maybe I will pursue one or two courses less but would love to learn acting or singing or dancing or maybe play some sport like cricket, chess or badminton and  a much more engaging level. 

Apart from your legal prowess, you have an extensive academic involvement, serving as Chairman, Industry Advisory Board at Amity and as a Ph.D. guide at two National Law Schools. What drives your passion for academic engagement?

The youth attract me a lot. Whenever I am with young minds, I feel a kind of vibrance which otherwise is missing in the drudgery of corporate life. Whenever I interact with them their pointed questions, their free-wheeling attitude and the fireside chat intrigues me. The kind of questions they pose at times challenge me to re-think about my own knowledge and practices. That gives the biggest kick which even the astronomical salary and posh perks of corporates cannot give. 

That’s why I make it a point to always find time to spend with young minds, to interact with them, share my life experience, learn from their perspective, and enjoy the vibrant energy all around. 

Beyond the legal realm, you’ve been awarded Forbes Top General Counsel, BW Business World Top 100 GC, and Atal Achievement Award. How do you balance the demands of a high-profile legal career with such accolades and recognition, and what do these honors mean to you personally?

Well, I have to thank Forbes, Legal 500, Business Worlds and Atal Award (Govt. of India) who have now started to recognize the General Counsels for the work they have done. It was not long back that General Counsels were not recognized, and many did not consider them lawyers. These recognitions have changed the perception in the past decade or so and I am extremely thankful to them. 

Therefore, these recognitions mean a lot and more than me personally it helps the younger people to opt for in-house roles which have different challenges than faced by a litigating lawyer or a transactional lawyer in a law-firm.

As regards balancing the demand, I must say that is the most difficult thing to do. But I make it a point that I allocate some time for these too as it is not only for personal satisfaction, but these inspire my younger colleagues to do great. Whenever, I have received any award it has inspired the people who know me that they must also strive harder to achieve such awards and to do good quality work. 

Your commitment to contributing to positive change is evident. In what ways do you believe legal professionals can actively contribute to making a positive impact on society and the business environment?

Nowadays legal professionals play a major role in any corporate. Their attitude, their approach to work, their work ethics play a critical role in shaping up the society they live in. Especially in a democracy, the stronger the legal fraternity, the stronger would be the democracy. To establish a rule of law and who better to ensure that than the lawyers and legal professionals themselves. 

Whenever, a legal professional handles a matter whether it be of environmental violation, bad business practice, corrupt or fraudulent act, tortious conduct etc. if the same is handled with full devotion and keeping in the mind the fundamental principles enshrined in our constitution and legal jurisprudence, it not only impacts the society or business but the culture and legacy. 

A wrong decision by the Supreme Court can shake up the investor confidence and wipe up the entire investment, which a developing country like ours requires. The government needs to be kept informed about the impact of the policy and bureaucracy approach and this primarily becomes the responsibility of legal professionals who along with handling litigation, transactional contracts are also responsible for regulatory interface. 

Every successful journey faces challenges. Can you share a specific challenge or struggle you encountered during your career and how you overcame it?

That is absolutely true. There can be no journey without its fair share of peaks and troughs. Well let me begin with sharing the biggest challenge. After spending a fair time in the government or regulatory sector when I joined the corporate sector the biggest problem was that now as a legal head, I was required to give solutions. Unlike the previous avatar of regulator or academician I was required to only put the legal position but now the task was to find the right and legitimate ways of getting the business done. 

The senior management would require the solutions to the given business problem and that required not merely to state what the law is but to devise solutions, sometimes out of the box to achieve the business objectives. The most important thing to be kept in mind was that the solutions still had to be within the four corners of the legal and regulatory framework. 

This required a sea-change in approach. I must say the learning at IIMA came absolutely handy. The syndi-approach of IIMA where the students were divided into a syni of 5 or 6 and they had to brainstorm and come out with solutions helped me in developing a wider horizon. Like in my IIMA days I had to interact with people who had worked in NASA or had come from a political background and that helped me understand differing perspectives. 

This helped me in quickly adapting to the needs of the corporate sector and slowly and gradually I started delivering. Like Cube Highways which is a Private Equity run platform, and the issues that I faced here are different from that of an Indian promoter company, however due to the ability to understand different perspectives and angles, I more often than not am in position to solve them. 

Away from the legal complexities and academic commitments, how do you unwind and recharge? Do you have any personal hobbies or activities that provide a break from the demands of your professional life?

Well, my hobby is to read fiction, especially good science fiction or thriller murder mystery. I have read all types of top sci-fi novels starting from The Foundation, Dune, Leviathan Wakes etc. My current favourite is Marissa Mayers’ Renegade. 

So, to unwind, I spend time reading these good prose while sitting at the comfort of my home. Sometimes, I switch off my phones and spend an entire weekend just lying down on the bed reading my favourite fiction novels. When I am not reading novels, I love to play gully cricket with my friends. 

Your work involves connecting with industry stalwarts and senior counsels. Outside of professional networking, what’s one piece of advice you would give to young legal professionals who aspire to build meaningful connections in the legal and business world?

Well for all my younger colleagues and legal professionals I have two pieces of advice. Firstly, as you yourself has stated, they must attend at least two or three conferences in a year and try to make as many connects as possible. Secondly, publish regularly and remain connected. I have always said that in legal field one has to publish or perish. Whether it is writing a simple piece on LinkedIn post or an editorial in news paper or in any magazine or on law blogs or anywhere, one must keep on publishing one’s thoughts. This helps in keeping you updated and build a network with like minded people. This also showcase your understanding of issues and at times these are seen by the senior general counsels and who’s who of the industry. That can help you land at your dream job.  

Get in touch with Dr. Mukul Shastry-

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