Ms. Sandhya Surendran graduated in 2007 from NALSAR Hyderabad. She kick started her career as a lawyer with Amarchand & Mangaldas and Suresh A. Shroff, some big corporates like Infosys and first start-up Unicorn — InMobi. After working with a global media and entertainment company, she started Lexic, a boutique legal and business consultancy in 2016 and merged her practice with BTG Legal to head their Media, Entertainment & IP Practice as a Partner.
Here, we stole a chance to get a sneak peek into how she got into the Media and Entertainment law industry.
1. Could you please start by giving the readers a glimpse into your journey as a law student? What was your motivation to study law?
It is a funny story, actually. I had decided that I wanted to become a lawyer at a very young age. I was probably nine years old when I told my family about it, and they played along. At that time, however, it was not an informed choice. I enjoyed solving crime because those were the kind of books I was reading and in my mind at that age the second-best alternative to being a detective was being a criminal lawyer, simply because it was more respectable. That thought however died down, but when the time came to choose a stream, I was very clear that I did not want to take up science. I really liked mathematics, language and social studies; law seemed like the obvious choice. On a lighter note, at that time, I was very glad I did not have to study science to become a lawyer.
We did not have CLAT back then, there were separate entrances for every law college.
When I started doing my research for law colleges, there were only three National Law Universities -NLSIU Bangalore, NALSAR, Hyderabad and NUJS, Kolkata, and I took the entrance exams for all three. While I was in the waiting list for NLSIU, NALSAR just happened. I had a friend who suggested that I should apply there, and since I wanted to study in a different city, it made sense to give it a shot.
2. You founded Lexic even though you did not have any prior experience working with the media and entertainment industry. What drove you to start your own consultancy?
To be very honest starting “Lexic” was an impulsive decision. I met with an accident on my way to work in 2016, post which I realised that I was at a stage in my professional career where the work culture that I had been exposed to from the start finally got to me and I decided I wanted to do things on my own terms, without the added baggage of workplace politics. There was a point when I even considered leaving law and go back to deejaying (because I used to deejay in college). However, I knew that deejaying would not pay my bills, so I started freelancing and working as a legal consultant, but I always knew that I wanted to do something in music. When I started out, I did not even have a name in mind, Lexic came about because one of the startups needed a formal name to raise an invoice.
Interestingly enough, it was during this period that I met my husband, who is a musician and he encouraged me to do more as a lawyer in the music industry. Over time, I had artists reaching out to me for help or clarity on royalties or a contract that they were about to sign. I was always interested in intellectual property and the music industry and as a result I had access to the information that artists needed help with, so the shift in gears to becoming a full-time media and entertainment lawyer was quite organic. In 2009, when I moved from private practice to in-house as a “tech” lawyer, the tech industry was evolving and being a technology lawyer meant being associated with the IT/ITES industry. Today, however, tech is an umbrella term, and I was fortunate that my career trajectory followed tech to media and finally to entertainment, where I am now at the intersection between IP and technology.
While the decision was impulsive, I am glad that things panned out the way they have because that decision got me to a place where I get to work on things I truly enjoy and am interested in. I got lucky, I guess, to be at the right place at the right time.
3. What were the key lessons that you learnt when you started out on your own?
Starting off on my own, I realised I needed to multitask, I had to go beyond being just a lawyer — from knowing how to design a profile that caught the client’s eye, to figuring out the format for an invoice, understanding what billing cycles worked best, to chasing clients for unpaid invoices, to identifying opportunities that would help me get more clients. I have had to do it all by myself — without realising what I was even doing, perhaps. In a large firm or an organisation these aspects are outsourced, but doing all the “not so glamourous” work has taught me a lot more in the last seven years about the business side of a legal practice than any other role has. It is important for anyone who decides to go independent to be open to any sort of work, no work should be too small for you.
As a lawyer you have to be prepared to learn something new every single day. You need to be able to say that you do not know something, regardless of how experienced you are, because it is literally impossible to assume that you know everything about a matter you are working on. If you are not able to learn something new on a regular basis, you will stagnate as a lawyer. Consistency goes a long way, so does determination and hard work — at the risk of sounding cliched.
That being said, it is important to remember that no work should be at the expense of your health and your peace of mind. You need to also learn to say no, regardless of what people around you are saying, because if you burn out, all the effort you have put in to build your practice will go for a toss. I personally think we do not talk enough about burn out and mental health in the legal profession. As a young lawyer when I started out, we were not as aware of mental health, and how toxic work environments impact mental health. Which is why today, as a manager and/or mentor, I am very careful with my choice of words, because I know and understand the impact that some words have had on me as a young lawyer and the toll it took on my mental well-being and self-esteem. There is a difference between tough love and putting someone down, which is often forgotten. I am truly grateful and happy that today, these conversations are mainstream and haters aside, I feel Gen Z has helped creating a space where mental well-being is an important aspect of work-life balance.
4. You have worked in law firms and in-house roles, both have two very different learning curves. How did these experiences influence you and help you?
As a young lawyer, working at a law firm introduces you to a certain professional etiquette, which I believe is critical to the legal profession — like for example how to write an e-mail properly, or how you carry yourself, your body language in a client meeting, how to respond to professional e-mails, etc. These are practices that I still carry with me to this day. I am not saying that you do not get this training in an in-house role, but the law firm culture is such that you are trained to treat your clients with a certain degree of professionalism because you are technically a service provider, and the client is your customer. The in-house environment is a lot more casual. In a law firm it is a lot about the law, because being professionally qualified lawyers, you are expected to be thorough in the field of law that you are practising. On the other hand, as an in-house counsel, you need to know about the industry and the business your company is in, which means that you go beyond the law; it is not just textbook. As an in-house counsel, you have to be a lot more practical. You have to think about how things are going to play out and how it is going to impact the company, from a real-time perspective. You cannot give yes/no answers, because your company will want to know why — and you better have a good rationale for why you have said no to something that could potentially bring in a lot of revenue. As an in-house counsel, you have to double up as a business leader and also be mindful of your role as lawyer, who does not want the company to get into trouble. And perhaps the most underrated learning from working as in-house counsel, has been the importance of people management skills — you are dealing with non-lawyers, so you need to address their concerns in a manner that does not intimidate them. The law school myth of ‘if you cannot convince them, confuse them’ does not fly when you are an in-house counsel.
5. A quick look at your Instagram profile or even a YouTube search shows several educational clips by you. You also started your own podcast “Lex Talk Music”. While these have been great educational tools, they have also served the purpose of building a brand. How important is it for lawyers, especially in this day and age to build a brand for themselves to survive?
Things today are very different from when I began my career as a lawyer. The concept of social media was alien, and apart from having a personal Facebook profile, as lawyers, nobody was focusing on building an “online brand”. In recent times, I have noticed that young lawyers are often in a hurry to find a niche and build a “brand” around that. But honestly, I believe it is important to experiment a bit before you build a brand around yourself as a lawyer. You might not necessarily be good at something you are interested in right at the outset, the only way you get good at it is if you keep practising and doing the same work repeatedly. On the other hand, you might be great at something that you are not particularly enthusiastic about, but that might be worth building your brand around.
If I take my own example, my bread and butter is commercial transactions — commercial contracts form my base along with technology licensing. IPR as a practice area grew out of that repeated work through technology licensing transactions, and it led me to joining the dots in the media and entertainment industry, because the foundation of copyrights, trade marks and royalties lies in licensing. Honestly, my obsession with the music industry is not because I like copyright law but because I love music and have always been curious about the industry and its practices. That led me to asking certain questions which then allowed me to start a dialogue.
Long story short, there is no formula for building a brand. When it comes to finding a space you like working in, it can either happen organically or it may take some trial and error. These are two completely different scenarios but as a young lawyer it is crucial to give yourself the time to experiment, even if it means finding your niche a little late. I have noticed that a lot of young lawyers try to fit their professional journey to a specific timeline, and I often wonder who sets these timelines? There is no need to put the burden on yourself to build a brand from day one. If you force yourself to ingest information or learn something that does not interest you, it will over a period of time hurt your work quality no matter how much knowledge you accumulate. If you genuinely like something and you find yourself good at it, you will automatically start talking about it.
6. In a podcast interview, you mentioned that the role of a lawyer in the media industry is different, because you are dealing with people directly when compared to a corporation. What is the difference in approach, if you could give us an instance?
I think the primary difference lies in the varying degrees of professionalism in both scenarios. In the media and entertainment industry, unless you are dealing with a company in the industry, you canot really expect corporate “professionalism”. Which means you will have documents sent to you on WhatsApp for review, you will have clients calling you at odd hours, even on a Sunday, because artists are not looking at it as work — for them their work or product is themselves. As a lawyer you are not representing their “business” you are representing the artist themselves. Dealing with talent is entirely different because you also kind of double up as their manager. I always tell my clients that I am their sounding board, I have to be that neutral person that they can speak to. Sometimes it is not specific legal advice that you are giving them, but those issues could later on give rise to a legal situation and as their lawyer you have to be able to assess and pre-empt that. You need to be someone who builds trust with their client, and hence, your people management skills are of prime importance.
In my experience, I have felt that the satisfaction that I have had as a lawyer working with talent has been a lot more than what I have felt working with a corporation, because it is a lot more personal. You are a part of their successes and failures. While you will always have a professional equation with them, there is most definitely an emotional connection too. I also feel like art is extremely personal in any form, which is why the industry works in such a personal manner.
7. There has been a lot of debate surrounding generative AI when it comes to artist rights — take for instance the use of AI to mimic an artist’s voice. How can we achieve a balance between development of technology and artist rights?
There are two aspects to this, if you talk about using someone’s likeness or voice to create something new, there is still a violation of personality rights. It might not exist as copyright specifically because it is not present in a tangible form, but it is still intellectual property and protected. There are different connotations to how generative AI uses existing images or voices of people to create something new. My stance is that technology should not evolve in a manner which replaces artists. Honestly if you ask me, I do not think it can, because what AI can do, at best, is mimic an artist. A legitimate use of AI mimicking an artist’s voice would be one where the artist gives an exclusive licence to use his/her voice for a monetary composition each time a sound recording is created. AI should be looked at in the same manner as any other technology, which is as an enabler. We cannot be using AI to wipe out the income source of an entire group of people, like voice over artists for instance. The tech industry should understand and respect this aspect.
If we take a look at judicial precedents, such as in Anil Kapoor v. Simply Life India, 2023 SCC OnLine Del 6914, an injunction was granted against websites displaying pornographic content using Anil Kapoor’s likeness. From a basic Article 21 standpoint, using someone’s likeness without their consent does violate their privacy and their right to live with dignity. Though intellectual property is an extremely important aspect, especially in the entertainment industry, we also need to understand that it is just one of the angles in the context of AI. The larger question that needs to be answered is whether AI should be allowed to do something simply because it has the capacity to do so.
It is an interesting time that we are living in. There is a lot of conversation happening around the use of blockchain and NFTs to protect artists, wherein it is used to track the usage of generative AI in creation of new content, which will then compensate the original performer or creator. I believe that the future lies in this convergence between blockchain and AI.
8. I could not help but notice that you tend to share a lot of information not just with respect to the Indian industry but worldwide on social media. It shows an inherent curiosity and interest. How do you maintain that after all these years?
On a lighter note, I have never thought of myself as someone who is motivated, so it is interesting that you think so. I think it started off as a strong urge to stay relevant by being updated on everything that is happening in the industries that I work in. As a kid, I really liked reading, which led to a habit of consuming information constantly. I have Google alerts set for a bunch of topics and read up on industry updates every day. At this point it has become a part of my routine, so much so that if I do not do it, I feel like my day is incomplete. Of course, there are days that I switch off, but as a lawyer you are constantly consuming information because you never know when you may need it. Sometimes, I do wish I could archive some of the information that I know I will never need again to create some extra space in my brain! But jokes apart, I believe your motivation is directly proportional to your interest, which is built out of curiosity. Curiosity leads to interest which leads to motivation.
9. Not many are familiar with the phrase “exhaustion of a search”. What are your views on it?
Personally, I believe that the moment you start seeing repetitive information and realise that nothing new is coming up you have reached the threshold. It is important to know when to stop, because otherwise your research will not take you anywhere. More so today, given the volume of information there is, it is very easy to get lost. Something that I implement for myself as well is having an outline or blueprint of sorts before I start researching. It helps me compartmentalise my research and sift out the repetitive information while allowing you to cover all bases.
10. As someone who is heading a team, what is the sort of culture that you seek to inculcate?
Thank you for asking me this question because I was thinking about it the other day. Firstly, there has to be respect, it is a core value. I believe in a culture where the people I am working with can come and tell me that there is something wrong with the approach I am taking. Which also means that I want to be in a position where I can listen to them without getting petty. It is a continuous learning process. I will learn from my teammates as much as they will from me because that brings a fresh perspective.
Second is not being afraid to get things wrong. Everybody on the team is an adult, some might have been here for a bit longer but that does not necessarily make one better or worse than the rest. I have made it a point to always tell my teammates not to be afraid to mess things up. I believe that if a mistake has been made or things have gone down south it is not the end of the world as long one is responsible, accountable and honest. It is important to always access your worst-case scenarios, and then work from there.
Lastly and most importantly, ensuring that there is a balance. Your work is an important part of your life, but it is not 100% of your life. If you cannot create a balance between the two, you will not be happy either in your personal life or professional life.
11. If you could give any parting advice to students or young professionals about to set foot into the real world, what would it be?
Do not take yourself too seriously and do not let others disrespect you. Stay consistent, you do not have to work for 100 hours a week to get ahead. If you hold yourself accountable, you will be able to do a decent job and make a name for yourself. As banal as it sounds, timelines do not matter, you have your entire life to figure it out. The younger generations definitely have it tougher these days, because the competition has increased significantly. However, please remember that there are also that many more opportunities in the world to prove yourself, which are not going anywhere. Lastly take chances, you never know what might work for you.