General counsel: Business partners and thought leaders
More than 90 percent of the companies we examined have a GC or an in-house head of legal (see figure 1). Over the past few years, more of these legal leaders have moved beyond the functional mold to play roles as more agile business partners, with a say in larger strategic decisions.
Industries that have a GC today
In the past, most Indian companies relied on external law firms for critical decision-making, with more junior internal legal professionals assisting with day-to-day obligations. More companies today are transitioning to strong in-house legal functions, not just to reduce costs but to have firmer internal awareness on the legal goings-on of the business (see figure 2).
Sectors that have a GC today
Traditionally, GCs are more focused on compliance and litigation, and less on core strategic direction. In big conglomerates, the GC role tends to include the policy, compliance, corporate secretary and crisis management functions. However, newer businesses in industries like technology are focusing on strategy-minded GCs who have a strong understanding of the inner workings of the business. Since law revolves around products that constantly evolve, these legal heads are expected to be one step ahead of regulations; they must be able to not only interpret the law but also help play a solution-oriented role in innovation and solve for how their business and legal advice will be operationalized.
General Counsel: India compared to the rest of the world
Developed markets like the United States and Western Europe have an advanced understanding of the importance of strong legal talent. GCs in these regions commonly report to the CEO or the board of the organization.
India is more of a mixed bag. In some mature, well-governed companies as well as newer, often tech-focused organizations, the legal head reports to the CEO. However, most established Indian conglomerates have their chief legal officer reporting into another functional head, such as the CFO. In these countries, legal is still seen as a “support role” rather than a business driver. Overall, less than 40% of Indian companies have a GC with an executive team or board-level seat — significant progress over the past five years, as more GCs are seen as trusted leaders and key decision-making partners, however, still a long way from developed market levels.
As Indian companies become more global in nature, GCs are progressively getting involved in formulating companies’ overseas strategy, working with peers and other functional leaders in framing the thought process behind doing business internationally, and the legal requirements of that.
In developed markets — particularly the United States — the maturity of the market means that generally they have more legal risk. GCs in these markets are more accustomed to aggressive litigation and intrusive legal principles; they also are working in a free-market economy with less regulator involvement. India, on the other hand, is quite different, with heavy regulator involvement in business. This could be why GCs are not universally seen as strategic partners, as they regularly deal with more tactical issues.
Diversity and inclusion among India GCs
As India’s economy gears up for the next phase of growth, diversity and inclusion is top of mind for all leaders. Still, gender diversity remains fairly uncommon at Indian companies, with women making up only 23% of general counsel (see figure 3).
The technology, media and telecom sector leads the way with the most female GCs, followed by financial services (see figure 4). Men are most commonly leading legal at Indian companies, whereas multinationals are more likely to have a female GC (see figure 5).
Diversity Across Industries
General counsel backgrounds: Law firms vs. in-house
As more Indian companies embrace succession planning and mentorship in improving legal function performance, both for larger regional roles and global
roles, our research finds that companies most commonly look to top law firms to find their top legal leaders.
Almost 36% of GCs started their careers at a law firm (see figure 6). Firms offer great training grounds for diverse industries and sub-functions. Yet, even as they have become more professional over the years, work there can be grueling and demanding, with work-life balance issues and much smaller scale than international counterparts. Individual growth within a law firm can be difficult, as people are evaluated on their ability to develop their own book of business and bring in their own clients, and as gaining “equity” in family-run law firms can also prove hard. Therefore, many bright minds at law firms, desiring more strategic roles, seek out in-house opportunities.
% of general counsel that started their career with a law firm
With “crowding at the top” at firms, the in-house roles can offer more attractive opportunities to do good work with a more strategic mindset. The balance is that when “practicing attorneys” move in-house, they technically must give up their license and cannot return to litigation or become judges in the future.
% of GCs with CS Qualification
% of GCs with Broader Legal Roles Encompassing Risk, Ethics, Governance, Corporate Affairs etc.