Ms Payel Chatterjee is currently a partner at Trilegal, specialising in white-collar crimes and international arbitration. She has over 14 years of experience in the dispute resolution landscape, focusing on commercial arbitration, litigation and investigations.
Prior to joining Trilegal, she worked as the Litigation Head (Corporate) at Adani Enterprises Limited, where she handled pre-litigation strategies, supervised high-value complex litigation and arbitrations in international projects, and worked on domestic arbitrations in various sectors. Prior to that she was a leader at Nishith Desai Associates and worked for more than a decade.
1. Could you please provide our readers with some insights into your background, professional journey, and the formative years of your career?
I belong to the first batch of Gujarat National Law University (GNLU) and a proud alumnus of the university. My focus throughout my law school and internships has been on dispute resolution and made the most of it through participation in moot courts, client counselling and internships with Senior Counsels and litigation teams of law firms across the country.
I started my legal career in 2009 with Seth Dua and Associates in Delhi. Early in my career, I got the opportunity of doing a secondment which gave me an idea about the business side of law and working in an in-house department. Post Seth Dua, I worked for a decade at Nishith Desai Associates across various offices focusing on domestic and international arbitration, regulatory and employment litigation, white-collar crimes and investigations. Nishith Desai Associates gave me the opportunity to work on a wide range of matters across sectors and international exposure.
I moved to an in-house role thereafter for a period of almost two years to the Adani Group to head litigation at the Corporate Group level, which was one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences, to work with the biggest conglomerate in the country. As a disputes professional, having gathered the requisite experience from a business perspective, time was ripe to move back to private practice, leading me to join Trilegal as a partner in the disputes and white-collar crime practice in Mumbai.
2. In what ways did your undergraduate experience at Gujarat National Law University contribute to your professional growth?
Being part of a first batch of any law school, brings with it, own advantages and disadvantages and coupled with the recession when we passed out, was not an easy road ahead. I think my undergraduate experience helped me in developing some key qualities like perseverance and resilience, which is of utmost importance in our legal career.
While there was a lot of learning on the ground, experimenting, with no alumni to guide us, it allowed me and my batchmates to make our own mistakes, take risks and ultimately set the trend. We had the benefit of having an excellent faculty who took personal interest in building our careers, especially our then Vice-Chancellor Late Prof. V.S. Mani, guiding us at all stages. We did not have our own campus, as it stands today, but making the best of the available opportunities and going an extra mile to achieve our goals was the biggest learning in those five years to make it in the profession.
3. What motivated you to specialise in the fields of arbitration and white-collar crimes? Additionally, could you highlight the key skills necessary for excelling in these areas?
Growing up I saw my grandfather, who was a practising lawyer in the High Court for 50 years, everyday go and argue. The thrill of being in a courtroom excited me which led to the natural progression of choosing law and disputes as my core area of specialisation. At the start of my career, I focused more on litigation but with the move to Nishith Desai Associates, opened a career in arbitration — both domestic and international and allowed me to do a fair share of work both on the ad hoc and institutional side.
Being a junior, I think the involvement starts with legal research, drafting and assisting the counsels in arguments, which I have enjoyed thoroughly. With India’s economic development and focus on compliance, ethics, and governance, we have seen a rise in white-collar crimes. This led me to shift my focus on internal investigations and white-collar crimes, specialising in a niche area. Like any other area, the key to excelling is hard work, however, being updated with the latest law, recent judgments, and willingness to learn are critical to being successful in the initial years.
4. As the Vice-Chair of the Steering Committee of the ICC Commission on Arbitration, what specific responsibilities and tasks are you involved in?
As the Vice-Chair of the Steering Committee and being the only representative from India, it requires me to share primarily experience of users in India with ICC Members. I also share proposals and suggestions from the Indian National Committee to the Commission for their approvals and deliberation on certain issues as well as for greater involvement of the Indian arbitration fraternity. We discuss on constitution of Task Forces and subject-matter or topics that require discussion or publication as well as actively contribute to the ICC Working Papers. The idea is to have representation from the Indian sub-continent and spread the awareness of ICC in India, its unique advantages, and benefits.
As part of my journey, we have conducted an internal meeting of the National Committee Members, had orientation session conducted by the Commission to address all global participants as well as have discussions with the members to address jurisdiction specific requirements. We have also submitted proposals from Indian Committee members which are currently been deliberated upon. I work closely with the Commission members and the Regional Director of ICC and Executive Director for ICC India and actively participate in the work of Task Force.
5. The Supreme Court of India has been emphasising on the importance of arbitration and mediation over lengthy court processes, what do you think about the future of dispute resolution in India?
The Supreme Court under our current Chief Justice of India has taken huge strides and moved at the speed of thought, introducing virtual courts, e-filings, encouraging arbitrations, referring arbitral institutions for appointment of arbitrators. The Supreme Court of India in the last couple of years have laid down the law on major issues impacting arbitration including validity of unstamped arbitration agreements, unilateral appointment of arbitrators, challenge to awards by non-signatories, enforceability of emergency awards. The newly passed Mediation Act, 2023 reflects our strong urge to encourage alternate modes of dispute resolution and create a culture of mediation in our country. All these steps clearly reflect the current mindset of moving away from long-drawn litigation and instilling faith in alternate dispute resolution system. Change has begun with more corporates moving to mediation/arbitration and amending their clauses suitably with changing times.
6. In the context of international arbitration, diversity has been a significant topic of discussion. What are your thoughts on the importance of promoting diversity within the field of international arbitration, and how do you believe it can positively impact the practice and outcomes of arbitration cases?
The importance of promoting diversity and gender equality in international arbitration cannot be doubted. The number of women in arbitration is still less in our country though active efforts are being made consciously to ensure there is gender and ethnic diversity, but the figures are still miniscule. Arbitral institutions maintaining list of arbitrators have consciously taken active steps to promote diversity and included women in their list to provide a balanced composition and promoting young women as arbitrators. I think men and women together need to join hands to support women grow in the profession and provide opportunities to portray their skills and abilities. The culture once built will go a long way in encouraging more women to join the profession and focussing on dispute resolution.
7. You are a prolific writer and have been awarded for you research and paper presentations. Please share your research methodology on legal propositions and how to know at what point there is exhaustion of research?
Frankly, there is no end to research and the same can go on. I have enjoyed writing on various legal issues — not just primarily on arbitration but other issues involving antitrust, whistleblowing, internal investigations. I think the idea is to enjoy the process and ensure that any written piece on a particular topic is looked at from all aspects, so that no point is missed out. While writing on a contemporary topic and doing a comparative study, it is critical that we look at the jurisprudence in India and other jurisdictions to ensure a holistic picture can be provided to help readers understand the situation better. Writing requires two main aspects — research and structure of the piece itself. Writing becomes easy if these two key aspects are taken care of.
8. Please describe the differences you experienced when transitioning from being an in-house counsel at Adani Corporation to becoming a partner at Trilegal?
In-house and private practice are two sides of the same coin. I moved to an in-house role after 12 years at private practice which was actually a transition for me, understanding the corporate culture and functioning within a conglomerate with multiple portfolios, working across different departments involving operations, legal and finance teams, and most importantly understanding the business side of law. Moving back to private practice has been something which I have always known and rather a familiar territory. Partnership, of course brings added responsibilities and a sense of ownership, one is just not responsible for their own work but the team at large.
9. Considering the increasing scrutiny on corporate conduct and compliance, what advice would you give to companies and organisations to prevent and effectively respond to potential white-collar crimes? How can they ensure robust compliance frameworks?
Prevention is better than cure should be the motto for corporates to avoid getting embroiled in any such disputes. The rise in white-collar crimes in India has moved by leaps and bounds. In the last few months itself, we have witnessed disclosures and reporting on non-compliance with ethical and governance norms by large conglomerates in the country which should act as an alarm bell, for the entire corporate world. Having a robust framework is a must followed by proper training and effective controls being established in the system. The corporates need to instil an ethical culture and ensure that policies are implemented and not conducted as a tick the box mechanism.
10. In the midst of a busy schedule, how do you rejuvenate and find inspiration to continue your work with enthusiasm?
I enjoy travelling and look forward to my holidays which keeps me going and rejuvenates me to get back to work.
11. Finally, is there a motto or mantra that you live by, in your professional life?
Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard. I am a firm believer of this quote and live by that mantra. The key to success is consistent hard work. I was once told that given the nature of our legal profession, which can be stressful, it is extremely important, we take one day at a time, and I have followed it over the years. The legal career is a marathon and not a sprint and not everything can be achieved in one day.