In Conversation with- Sandeep Bhalothia, Head, Legal Affairs Section (Legal, Regulatory, Risk, Compliance & Contracts) at Augmented Era and Partner at Node.Law

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

What is your current role? How exciting is it for you? How do you describe your legal career?

Let me begin by appreciating the work that SuperLawyer has been doing for the past few years. I used to read the interviews on SuperLawyer when I was in law school, and it gave me immense inspiration, hope and guidance.

I started as a Legal Manager and sole legal counsel of Augmented Era when it was a start-up. Now, I am Head of Legal Affairs, and the group does more than 100 million USD (B2B) with several business verticals like apparel manufacturing, software development, financial education platform, events and marketing.

I have seen my role and the company grow significantly over the past three years, with now presence in more than ten jurisdictions.

This role will always have a significant impact on my career, irrespective of where I work in future, as it has exposed me to high stake deals, cross-border negotiations, emerging technology transactions etc.

I also had the opportunity to lead the regulatory hearing in 4 jurisdictions which ultimately resulted in administrative closure – a rare opportunity for young lawyers.

Having said that, the role came with its unique challenges. I was new in UAE and graduated just one year ago from law school.

When I was offered this role in 2019 after cracking the last interview round, I started having a second thought. I thought that I might be biting off more than I could chew! We all occasionally have self-doubts. But as William Shakespeare once said, “Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt.” So, I went ahead with the opportunity, and it turned out to be the best decision of my career.

Now I primarily work on technology, data protection and regulatory compliance issues, which I thoroughly enjoy.

What struggles one has to be prepared for when practicing as a legal professional in the UAE? How can networking help in both corporate and litigation areas?

It is not easy to provide a comprehensive answer to this question. The struggles an individual would face in UAE will vary depending on their past work experience, from which jurisdiction they graduated, what was their practice area, and whether they have a bar registration in India and other jurisdictions like the UK, USA, Canada etc., or not.

The ability to draft and speak in Arabic, a law degree from the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, or some other prominent common law jurisdictions and a bar registration in those jurisdictions can ease your life when looking for a legal role in UAE. However, these requirements are not mandatory for all roles. I do not have any of these and am doing fine.

Finding a corporate lawyer role in the UAE is easier than finding a litigation lawyer. UAE’s legal system is unique, and the court hearing before local courts are in Arabic with some exceptions like ADGM and DIFC, and that would be one of the biggest hurdles for someone who wants to be a litigation lawyer in UAE.

Nevertheless, I don’t see any challenge in UAE that cannot be tackled for someone who wants to practice commercial and corporate law, whether in local law firms or in an in-house role. Every year I see dozens of lawyers in my network moving from India to UAE.

Those who can break into this jurisdiction from India highly rely on transferable skills like contract drafting, regulatory compliance, outstanding legal research capabilities and networking.

Networking, to some extent, is like preparing for war. You might not see the immediate benefit of it, but all the hard work and time invested in networking will ultimately be helpful when you plan to make that shift to a foreign jurisdiction. Networking takes time, so I would recommend that the readers start early.

You were great in academics and was awarded with the Distinguished Alumni Award on graduation What impelled you towards your goal?

I would disagree!

I was never great at academics, or at least l do not believe so. I used to be above average and would score high in some subjects that sparked my curiosity. However, I never prioritised academics over other meaningful exposures.

The Distinguished Alumni award was given to me not because I was great at academics. The selection committee’s decision was based on overall exposure to various activities.

I participated in debates, negotiation and mediation competitions, client counselling competitions, publications, a variety of internships, semester exchange (Tsinghua University), was briefly active in sports, etc. I was doing everything that I can get my hands on while ensuring that I don’t blow a hole in my academics.

I enjoyed all these different experiences that Jindal Global Law School provided rather than just “going through” law school. And I guess that is the reason why I received that award.

How do you see the role of Virtual General Counsel emerging in coming years and what roles and responsibilities do they play?

During the recent pandemic, we have seen that legal departments around the world have become more cost-conscious.

Even big companies have started giving serious attention to outside counsel expenditures, and recent economic headwinds have further pressured the in-house legal department to cut costs.

It is still manageable for MNCs, but it gets further difficult for start-ups or smaller organisations to get the best legal advice for their fast-growing operations. And that is where Virtual General Counsel come in. It is a relatively new concept, but we can see many tech companies and start-ups accepting this model.

Virtual General Counsel is a lawyer who usually works full-time for a law firm or is an independent practitioner and is hired by a company to act as their General Counsel, but the twist is that such a person will not be a full-time employee of the company that has hired its services as “Virtual General Counsel”.

Such lawyers would act as “Virtual General Counsel” for more than one company, depending on their time commitment. Companies prefer this because they can hire an expert from private practice to advise them on day-to-day legal issues and rely on their growing expertise; companies don’t have to bother about hiring an internal General Counsel and can avoid the cost associated with immigration, visa, insurance etc.

Sometimes, in such an arrangement, the company gets the entire law firm team as their Virtual General Counsel giving the company on-demand specialist expertise at a low cost, where there will be a single point of contact from the firm, more like a Relationship Manager.

I believe such arrangements will become more prominent in tech start-ups where in-depth legal advice is required at a competitive cost over the coming years.

We are excited to hear the reason you opted for MSC in blockchain and digital currency, also what privacy issues does blockchain invite along with itself in coming times?

I have always been fascinated by technology, especially how the law has to always catch up with it. I started reading about blockchain in my second year of law school (2014), and after coming to UAE, I got lucky to work on some blockchain and digital currency projects. This further increased my interest in exploring this domain in-depth academically.

It was in 2020 when I first thought of doing this MSc from the University of Nicosia but pursuing it along with my current job seemed daunting, so I shelved the idea. However, at the beginning of 2022, we had some additional projects in the company where I was supposed to advise extensively on emerging technologies like blockchain and NFTs; therefore, it seemed a logical next step, and that is how I ended up being an MSc student (distance learning) along with the current full-time job.

The University of Nicosia is arguably the first to provide a full-time degree course on Blockchain and Digital Currency. Their modules mix law, policy and technical aspects of blockchain and digital currency. I would recommend this MSc to someone who wants to dive deeply into blockchain and digital currency. It provides a comprehensive understanding of what is happening worldwide in this space from both legal and technical aspects and what we can anticipate.

Regarding the privacy issues that blockchain brings with it, one can argue that it makes it difficult to regulate it. It is not a privacy issue but a regulation issue because of privacy. Like in the case of cryptocurrencies that are based on “Trustless”, “Decentralised”, and “Immutable” blockchain, it becomes challenging and unfeasible to fully regulate such cryptocurrencies.

Firstly, there is a lack of one target as no single entity controls cryptocurrency like BTC.

Secondly, the proliferation of pseudonyms makes it nearly impossible to identify the accused.

And thirdly, it is difficult to establish the jurisdiction and governing law because the cryptocurrency network is not restricted to one specific jurisdiction; some jurisdictions treat cryptocurrency as property and others as currency.

Even void or voidable crypto transactions can be entered on the blockchain, but a transaction entered on the blockchain is not legal by default, but it does, in most cases, make it irreversible.

GDPR requires the identification of a “data controller”, and public keys used by natural persons for cryptocurrency transactions on blockchain may constitute “personal data” under GDPR rendering GDPR is applicable to “processing”, “collection”, “use” or “disclosure”.

Recital 26 of GDPR states that data which has been “pseudonymised”, and could be attributed to a natural person by using additional information, is information on an identifiable person.

And French data protection authority has observed that public keys constitute personal data if it is connected to a natural person.

In the absence of an identifiable data controller, the GDPR cannot be enforced as data subjects enforce their rights against the data controller under GDPR.

In cryptocurrency transactions, miners, developers, and users of the network determine the purpose of processing personal data.

All these players might be hiding their real identities and located in separate jurisdictions, complicating the enforcement of GDPR.

Such situations make it challenging to access who is the data controller, where they are located, how data subjects can enforce their rights and whether it is feasible to do the same.

This is one challenge, but I am sure there is a way around it.

You worked in multiple jurisdictions, how was that experience and being  a lawyer how tough it was for you to adjust according to different laws and regulations?

Switching jurisdiction as a young and first-generation lawyer is challenging. I had to understand the new legal system, find opportunities, make new friends, get active in networking, read, understand new laws, adjust to a new culture etc. But eventually, one can manage all these challenges, and after a few years, when you look back to the time when you started, you develop a lot of respect for lawyers who have come before you.

I will not say it was easy, but also it is not impossible. Many lawyers migrate from their home jurisdiction to a foreign one, and they were my inspiration. I silently looked up to them and focused on improving.

I have been pursuing online courses since 2013. I am a big fan of virtual learning. Whenever I felt that I lacked academic and technical knowledge on a specific topic, I would look for an online course and devote myself to it until I was confident that I had some grasp over it.

I continued this habit even after moving to UAE, and that has been of immense help.

What made you start your own legal consulting company and how well is it going for you thus far?

The Node.Law focuses on delivering legal consultancy services to start-ups working on Web3, NFT, Digital Currency, Metaverse, Blockchain, and FinTech space. It is a new venture, and I co-founded it with my friend from law school, Aman Garg, who is also working in Dubai.

In the last few years, we have seen increasing demand for legal support in emerging technology, and since both of us are interested and have been working in this domain, we thought of extending our support.

It has been an exciting journey so far. In such a short time, we have advised on several projects and our firm is retained as Virtual General Counsel on a 1-year contract by two fast-growing start-ups.

How would you describe your career up till now? Where can we expect you in upcoming years?

I am blessed with a supportive family, friends, mentors and professors from law school. They all have played a significant role in shaping my career. I am doing what I love to do, and this will continue in future.

I plan to finish my MSc by next year and then focus on growing Node.Law.

Would you like to give some advice to the law students?

There are only two ways to be good at something. First, by in-depth reading and second, by working on it. If something excites you, then make sure you immerse yourself in extensive reading to have the required confidence when you get an opportunity to work on it.

Reading and continuous learning are inalienable parts of a lawyer’s life.

Get in touch with Sandeep Bhalothia-

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