Associates, In-House Counsels & Advocates

Sonia Sahijwani Saini, Assistant Manager Law, Maharatna Enterprise shares about the challenges of working as a legal advisor at a PSU

Sonia Sahijwani Saini is a law graduate from Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi (2007-2010) batch.  She comes from a commerce background and pursued journalism at IIMC New Delhi before making the digression to the field of law. With Masters in Business Laws degree from NLSIU, Bangalore, instead of opting for a law firm/ litigation or a private company, she rather chose the non-conventional route and got an opportunity to work for a job in a public sector in 2010 as a law officer through campus placement. Her first stint was at a Miniratna public sector enterprise under the Ministry of Commerce. In 2014, she got selected in a Maharatna enterprise in the oil sector as a Law Officer With approx 9 years of experience as an in house legal counsel for a semi-govt set up, currently, she is working as Assistant Manager Law at its Marketing Office at Chandigarh.

Her debut novel ‘Yours Legally-a collection of short stories’ has recently been published by becomeshakespeare.com and is available online on Amazon, etc. In the interview, she has shared about the challenges of working as a legal advisor at a PSU, common mistakes made by people while drafting contracts and how law students can prepare for PSU jobs. 

What are the challenges of working as a legal advisor at a PSU? What is different from working at a private company as an in-house counsel?  What are the kinds of legal issues faced by you on a regular day?

To be honest and on a lighter note to start with, I never ever imagined that I will end up in a PSU! Though my father retired from State Bank of India, but like all ambitious young boys and girls my age, I always thought I would be either working in a private company or would be self-employed. However, to everyone’s and my own surprise, during the fag end of my LLB Degree, while I was applying for the campus placements, I willingly and voluntarily chose a lesser known public sector which was a ‘Miniratna’ enterprise under Ministry of Commerce based in New Delhi. I started out as a Management Trainee in 2010, got promoted to Probationary Manager and before being selected in my current job, I was last working as Dy Legal Manager with my previous employer. In 2014, I shifted to a different organization as a Law Officer and currently, I am working as Assistant Manager Law.

Experience of working in a PSU: Before I talk about my transition to a Maharatna enterprise and the challenges of working in a PSU especially in a mammoth organization such as mine, I would like to state why personally I feel,  I made the right decision by starting out from a small company. The biggest benefit I gained from working in my first company was the amount of direct involvement and interaction we had with the Top/Senior Management including the Chairman and Directors almost on a daily basis based out of the Head Office. It was amazing to see the amount of detailed attention that was given to the legal issues faced by the company by the Management and what impressed me most about the organization that there was no rigid hierarchy. Being a mere fresher with only a few months of experience, the seniors never made us feel any less and treated us at par with them. From civil writs to complaints under the Negotiable Instruments Act, from Arbitration claims to labour law matters, in my first job, I got exposed to diversified litigation and attended courts on an almost daily basis.  My experience and exposure in my first job definitely laid the foundation for my next assignment.

PSU vis a vis Pvt Sector:

Let me talk about working as an in house counsel of a public sector vis a vis a private sector. It is normally assumed that as an in-house counsel semi govt/govt set up, you are reduced to being a mere link or better said a liasoning officer between the company and the advocates on its panel who act as the real counsels. But for all those of you who still have these notions and assumptions, out of my own experience I would like to tell you that it is infact not true. With first-hand knowledge and information about the company affairs and its working and policies, I was and still not only given the freedom to brief and prepare our advocates for our cases but very often given the critical tasks of drafting and finalising the applications, petitions, notices on my own.

In a private set up, either you work as a corporate lawyer or as a litigating lawyer representing your clients in the courts, but being in the legal department of a public sector, you get to see the best of both the worlds. You not only get to deal with the company’s cases at hand but also learn to develop an expertise in a particular field for eg. being in the oil sector has given me immense knowledge of the kinds of issues an oil company faces and also made me acquire certain expertise in its agreements and policies. In a private sector, though one advantage is that with different clients/companies, you get to experience a variety of litigation, but I feel in the current set up, one needs to have a competitive advantage in a particular segment and excel in it if one is to thrive and grow in its career path. While on one hand there will definitely be a lot of flexibility in the procedures and work culture in a private company, a public sector on the other hand works and is based on well established set procedures, rules, guidelines and protocols which one is bound to follow.  But with recent innovative HR practices and much more critical roles being given to young officers, even the public sector companies are re-organising themselves to enhance the productivity of their employees.

I strongly feel that at present, the public sector companies have completely turnaround, undergone a facelift as you could say and with the number of professionals like me opting for them these days, they are definitely now most sought after. And let me tell you, it is not just about the job stability, fixed income, job security and the perks associated with it. True, those are definitely add on benefits which act as great incentive to apply for a govt/semi-govt job, but being in a public sector myself now for past 9 years, I can easily say that the job responsibilities and work pressure is no less than in a private sector company.

My current company is spread across the length and breadth of the country and is a popular and known name to all. In my current role, I feel an elevation not just in terms of the magnitude of the organisation and the number of people we deal with on a daily basis, but also in the critical nature of the legal cases involved which affects not just my company but the general public indirectly as well.  

Challenges and issues: Coming to the challenges being faced by us, they are umpteen: with respect to the litigation aspect, we have to multi-task a lot of issues; handling hundreds of cases pending before various forums on a daily basis and engaging counsels for proper representation, ensuring no case goes unrepresented, getting replies/counter affidavits filed on time without any delays and most importantly to make rigorous efforts to not have any adverse order passed against the corporation which may act detrimental to its commercial interests. In cases where such orders are passed which do happen frequently, utmost priority is given to such cases by the legal department. For us to be able to defend the corporation and to make sure our advocates are well briefed and aware, it is imperative for us to be also thorough and well versed with the company’s various policies, guidelines and rules and regulations. That is a huge challenge in itself and requires being up to date all the time.

To add to the above, as in house legal officers of the company, we not just take care of all the legal cases filed by and against our company for our respective locations but also perform a much more critical role that is of giving our legal opinions to the multiple legal issues we deal with on a daily basis.  With the increasing litigation and active litigants, each company these days strives to protect itself and its commercial interests by way of inserting suitable and appropriate legal clauses in their contracts and agreements to safeguard itself. Whether it is vetting of such agreements, drafting suitable bonds, undertakings, deeds on a case to case basis, handling RTI issues to giving our opinions in land-related matters, the role of law department in a public sector company cannot be undermined.

I urge all of you law graduates out there to definitely give PSUs a chance. It will be worth it.

You studied strategy for a year at IIM Kozhikode. What did you learn? How do you apply that at your work? What are the 3 most valuable things about the strategy that you can share with your readers so they can benefit from that?

Well, let me begin by saying, strategy is a common word, and all of us are using it all the very time in our personal and professional lives both. We just don’t realise it. While I was in school and college, I always devised a strategy on how to prepare for my examinations. Nothing was ever random or unplanned. Each day before the exam was well planned as to what shall be studied on which day and it was always my endeavour to finish everything 1- 2 days in advance. Even writing an exam was and continues to be a strategy. From how to frame my answer on how to highlight the most critical points, from how to go step by step in a maths paper so to say on what sequence to choose while answering the questions, everything required strategy. While I was into sports, there was always a plan on how to outperform my opponent. From using his/her weakness to my advantage and on using my own strength against her, the strategy was and is very much a part of each sport being played in the world. And while we are in the professional world, don’t you think we are always following some mechanism, some process, approach and plan?

Hence while in 2017 I was browsing through the courses at IIM, I could apply to, the course on Strategy Management caught my attention. My interview wasn’t easy though. It took me a while to convince the professors why a journalism cum law graduate is interested in this management subject. Once selected, I felt completely out of place since I was one of the youngest in my batch consisting of VPs and senior executives. And without a doubt, I was the only lawyer. But the course and the time and resources we invested in it was definitely worth it.

Coming to what I learn there and how do I apply it into work well to sum up in the one year course, we studied strategy management in detail, from analysis to implementation, from evaluation to modification, we were apprised of the phases of strategy management. With the help of interesting articles, readings and real-life case studies, it opened my mind immensely. Since I am working in a mammoth organization and for me to be able to grow professionally and academically it is imperative for me to understand how companies work, how they make decisions, how big companies sometimes unexpectedly fail and what kind of strategies companies use to outperform others.

From strategies on creating and sustaining competitive advantage i..e. business strategy to moving ahead to corporate strategy, from factors guiding companies on decisions as to make, buy or borrow to choosing whether to go for horizontal or vertical integration or related or unrelated diversification, we were given a detailed insight into all these topics and more which really opened up our minds to how companies really become successful and retain their competitive advantage.

Though there is a lot I can talk about which I found relevant to my personal as well as professional life, coming to what I apply to my work are the following three valuable insights which I took out of the entire course and which I feel each one can relate to in their life as well.

  • To raise your Core Effectiveness

core effectiveness/core competency in general means the main strengths of a particular enterprise, a company, a department or an individual which helps it to distinguish itself from others. In the context of law dept, it may imply the main strengths of the dept, the skills and resources it has which helps it to add value to the Corporation as a whole and gives the law dept a unique identity due to its critical importance to the organisation. In terms of an individual, I can say that one must try to look within and identify your strengths and weaknesses, do a SWOT analysis and identify your biggest competencies so that you can stand out from others in that particular expertise, area, the domain of work.  

To recognize your core capabilities (and constraints), enabling optimal utilization of resources: As a lawyer, one can use this regularly while applying our mind to the legal cases and identifying whether we have a strong case in our favour or not. We can work upon the constraints i.e. where policy/law is silent, where documents are not available and try to strategically use the points which work for us.  

  • Resource leverage

To have an effective strategy for leveraging resources and to ensure its positive impact on the organization

Resource leverage is a means to close the gap between an organisation or department’s resources, capabilities, competencies on one hand and its aspirations aims and objectives on the other hand. In the context of a law dept of any organisation or a self-employed lawyer, it may mean how to effectively utilise the resources available with the dept in order to have an effective functioning and obtain positive results for the Corporation. For closing this gap, the law dept needs to frame/define a strategic intent, a sense of direction about its long term strategic position which it wishes to achieve. Hence it means to leverage/effectively utilise its resources and competencies to achieve its aspirations/goals

  • Develop a competitive advantage

Therefore, strategies form an essential part of an organization’s effort(s) to achieve its long-term goals and objectives, having developed an understanding of the current business scenario, therefore, in this era of globalization where change is the only constant, the success of a business and of an individual too depends by and large on its ability to develop a strategy and implement it tactfully. At a time when we have hundreds of lawyers enrolling with the Bar each day, each lawyer has to act as a strategist in order to distinguish himself from others and to have a competitive advantage which is unique to itself. The work of a strategist does not simply end with identifying the long-term goals and formulating strategies accordingly. Instead, these strategies must be designed and redesigned and modified from time to time, in order to adjust to the dynamic external environment.

In your experience, what are the five most common mistakes people make while drafting contracts?

Law of contracts has been one of my fav subjects since my commerce graduation days at Delhi University. Most litigation in our country I have seen arises from poorly drafted contracts. If our agreements were clear, non-ambiguous, precise containing the suitable legal clauses, half of the lawyers would run out of jobs!!! Coming to the five most common mistakes people make while drafting contracts are as follows:

  • Leaving the date of execution or place of execution blank or incorrect dates surprising but true. I have often seen that private parties or companies for some reason make an error in this regard. At the time of execution, it is very important that the agreement is dated, even while signing the persons signing it must put a date on it. secondly, it is critical to know where the agreement is being executed as it helps in deciding the question of jurisdiction if and when any dispute arises. Either party gets an advantage in this regard wherein the date of execution which could imply the validity of the contract (5 years from the date of execution for eg) or the place of execution is ambiguous or simply left blank. I urge you all to avoid making this mistake.
  •  Unnecessarily long contracts having irrelevant clauses: it’s not the quantity but the quality that matters. While drafting contracts, sometimes they are so lengthy and running into so many pages that the essence of the particular contract goes missing and haywire. While it is important to ensure that no relevant clause is missed out on, what’s more, important to see is that clauses which have no relevance and are unrelated to the scope of the agreement are removed and a crisp agreement is executed which is easy to refer to and implement.
  • Omitting to have a dispute resolution clause: many times while vetting agreements, I have been faced with a perennial question, ‘madam, we doubt if any dispute will arise what’s the need of such a long dispute resolution clause? I only reply with mostly a smile first. I wish to explain that the aim of having a comprehensive contract is to safeguard us not just with the current scenario when everything looks positive and bright but to also protect us for any sort of eventuality wherein a dispute MAY or is likely to arise in the future. Please remember that a dispute resolution clause survives the termination of an agreement as well and if god forbid the other party stakes any claim, then having a well defined structured dispute resolution mechanism preferably arbitration with the clear defined procedure will help the parties from wasting unnecessary time and resources on litigation in courts.
  • Not choosing the right jurisdiction/no jurisdiction/multiple jurisdictions in a single contract: sometimes it has come to our notice that parties incorporate the jurisdiction clause but leave the place as blank. Or they do not have a jurisdiction clause at all. Even furthermore, they may execute the agreement say in Delhi, the parties may be in Delhi and Chandigarh (either party) and due to some error or having resorted to previous agreements, the jurisdiction clause is chosen as say Gujrat. This serves no purpose whatsoever. Always make sure that the jurisdiction clause is either mutually agreed upon or in standard contracts, it is the place where the party’s head office/ regional office/registered office is located. Or it could be the place where the contract is being performed. Having a well-established place of jurisdiction in the agreement itself can be extremely helpful in the event any legal proceeding is to be instituted or defended.

While there may be many more such common errors, the above I feel must be taken care of by individual/companies while finalizing and executing contracts.

If I want to work in a public sector as a legal advisor and I am just a law student now, how should I prepare myself and go about things?

Well as of now, most public sectors either have their in-house written exam or opt for a score of CLAT (Common Law Admission Test) for LLM exam. You need to enroll for the written exam and the company shall obtain the score automatically (if it is taking the CLAT score). Past years papers of CLAT or of the concerned organization if it’s conducting an in house exam should be easily available online.

A minimum of 1-2 years experience is generally preferred by most PSUs (albeit some which may also allow freshers without any experience to apply). At my time, my company asked for an experience of two years. After being shortlisted through the written exam follows the Group discussion and personal interview for which one must be thorough with the basic laws like CPC, CrPC, Contract Law, Company Law etc and procedures and the latest Acts which have come into force. Since most public sectors have an all India transfer policy you must be ready and willing to take up the post wherever it is offered and not be resistant to it. You will start as a Law Officer/Legal Manager/ Assistant Manager and promotions happen as per usual practice in approx 4-5 years time.  Once selected, be assured you have made the right choice.

You managed to write a novel. Tell us about it. It is very difficult for most to have the discipline to finish one. How did you manage to stay on track? Did you follow a routine? Many people think of writing a novel but never manage to. what is the secret of you actually being able to finish it? Tell us something we don’t know and can learn from.

Ahh, finally my novel. “Yours Legally” is something which is closest to my heart after my son and husband since it has been published in February recently after my son was born. It is my first novel whose draft was written years ago only to be modified and re-modified with my new and challenging experiences with the legal profession. Writing is my hobby, my passion and a form of meditation for me and I have been into it since school life. The idea to write a book was being nurtured since I was young and I truly feel when you are doing what you love, you put your heart and soul into it. Publishing a book with managing my infant was a tough task as I was sailing in two different boats at the same time. However, it was my sheer passion and dedication to see myself as an author which kept me going even after spending most nights awake with feeding and diaper changing sessions on the go. We all have a story to tell but most of us are rather scared of picking up that pen or laptop and penning down our thoughts. Perhaps we are just too lazy. As far as my journey is concerned, I was a habitual writer from diary writing, to writing articles, poems, working on my blog and once a week I always dedicated some time to express my thoughts and opinions. While working on this book, I made sure I write when my mind is free from any disturbance and it was mostly in the wee hours of the morning. The secret perhaps to me being able to get my book out in the literary world is my hunger to become an author and the fact that I never lost hope and patience.

Another thing which I wish to state is that one must write from the heart and the soul and not from the mind. I write what I feel deserves to be written not just to please and attract any particular reader segment. I write with a lot of heart and emotion, perhaps I am too emotional once I start writing but I feel that’s what it actually takes to be able to become a good writer at least as per my standards.

My book Yours Legally is a collection of six short stories inspired by true events related to the legal profession. Check it out on Amazon and Become Shakespeare.com.  If the back cover interests you, do buy it and give it a read.

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