By Jennifer J. Salopek, freelance writer based in McLean, Virginia.
It must have been "Perry Mason." Or maybe it was those other Stanley Gardner novels. But whatever it was that generated Naveen Raju's interest in law from a young age, despite having zero lawyers in the family, it was a powerful and lasting influence. In Raju's nearly two-decade career, that interest has deepened into a calling.
Raju, 41, is general counsel and senior vice president of group legal for Mahindra & Mahindra, Ltd., a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai, India. The company operates in 20 industries and 100 countries, employs more than 200,000 people, and earned $16.9 billion in revenue in 2015. Raju joined Mahindra in November 2014.
He has been employed as in-house counsel for his entire career, having joined the legal department at Associated Cement Companies, Ltd., upon graduation from law school. It is not uncommon in India to be hired straight out of law school as a corporate management trainee, he says, a move that gives participants a solid foundation for their future careers. "It helped me develop a good sense for how business is done," he says.
A Changing, Challenging Practice Environment
Raju became head of the legal department at the oil and gas business of Reliance Industries, India's largest private-sector company, in June 2000. He remained with the company for 15 years. During that time, he witnessed a sea change in the in-house practice of law. "The role of corporate counsel has changed significantly in terms of what we can bring to the business, especially in India," he says. "When I joined the profession in the late nineties, in-house lawyers were seen primarily as go-betweens with outside counsel. They are now viewed as strategic partners who are involved in setting the risk appetite of the company." Raju shared these insights and many more as a member of an international panel at the 2015 ACC General Counsel Summit in London, an experience he describes as "amazing."
"It was a wonderful opportunity to meet other in-house counsel, share views—we are all dealing with the same issues," he continues. Many of the questions he received from fellow Summit attendees concerned the legal environment in India.
"India's economy is growing, but there are significant challenges. Issues of regulatory complexity and delays, combined with frequent policy changes and corruption, raise concerns about getting business done," he says.
Raju describes India's common-law court system, inherited from Britain, as another area of concern: A huge backlog of cases makes any legal action a lengthy and unproductive process. "We try to avoid it if possible, focusing instead on risk management, conciliation and mediation, and arbitration," he says.
Establishing a Hybrid Structure for a Growing Department
When Raju was asked to join Mahindra, he was given a mandate for change, and an opportunity to implement ideas that he had developed at Reliance. One of his first moves was to establish a hybrid structure for Mahindra's 30-person legal department that positions lawyers on teams along the company's lines of business—automotive, farm equipment, etc.—as well as on such functional teams as litigation and M&A.
While at Reliance, Raju represented the company in a US$7.2 billion sale of assets to BP and in the formation of a marketing joint venture with BP for sourcing and marketing natural gas in India. He also led the legal support effort for the team responsible for developing the largest oil and gas field discovered in India, at a cost of US$13.5 billion, and represented the company in three other major joint ventures that it established in the United States.
"I had great grounding at Reliance," Raju says. "I was exposed to high-end transactional work, complex litigation, on an international stage."
Since joining Mahindra, Raju has concentrated his time on brand and reputational issues, compliance, strategic decision making regarding risk, corporate governance, crisis management, and department management. He describes his management style as "empowering with guidance," "not a micro manager," and says that he looks for commercially minded team players when hiring new legal department members.
The company does not follow an empanelment structure for its law firms and prefers to adopt a less formal preferred firm approach. Raju uses international and domestic firms, concentrating mostly on expertise for selection, noting, "We seek external input when we need it." Among its interests in the United States is Mahindra GenZe, which manufactures electric scooters and bikes that provide urban transportation solutions that address pollution, parking and other issues.
In a company as large as Mahindra, it takes a while to find one's way. "It took me six months to meet everyone," Raju says. Now that he's settled in, Raju is focused on several strategic initiatives for the coming year. They include completing the departmental reorganization into the hybrid structure, overhauling the knowledge management system, and implementing new document management and litigation management systems.
Looking back over the changes to the field, Raju concludes, "Large legal departments now are more efficient and cost-effective. They include specializations and ways of working that are tailored to the needs of the business. The role is considerably different."
For further reading, click here to download the ACC Docket article "Best Practices: Hiring and Training In-house Counsel in India” . The article focuses on the rapidly evolving role of in-house counsel in India, and the growing influence of legal over other departments. Indian corporate counsel must prepare themselves for compliance in multiple jurisdictions and be aware of the legal and ethical environs of the countries in which they are doing business.