Rajiv Bakshi is currently working as the Legal Advisor at Dabur India Ltd. Previously, he was the General Counsel of JSW Steel since 2013. In this interview, Mr. Bakshi throws light on the battles faced by the legal fraternity and talks about the importance of mental health awareness.
Please tell us about your journey so far.
My life has been the roller coaster ride of a middle class boy from old Delhi. I earned my law degree from Campus Law Centre, Delhi in 1983. I started my career in 1984 with Shriram Foods and Fertilizer Industries (a unit of DCM Limited) Delhi. Salary has never been my sole motive but the opportunity to learn and grow in the legal field were my goal.
On my first day, I was assigned the task of handling labour disputes in courts, initiating disciplinary proceeding against delinquent employees. At that time, there was lot of militancy in Union and industrial jurisprudence was evolving. My boss was a hard taskmaster, very bold and quick in decision making. For a raw junior straight from college, his thinking and style of functioning in later part of his career, is greatly influenced by his first boss. He did not teach me principles of labour law or how to draft a petition, I learnt the court procedures and drafting while on job. At that time, appearance of advocates before Labour Court and Industrial Tribunal was not permissible without leave of the court. This gave me ample opportunity to represent the company before court as management representative and I learnt drafting of pleadings, recording evidence, framing issues, fighting on burden of proof, etc. on job. In my long career, I have felt that every in-house counsel and upcoming lawyers must have trial court experience because foundation of every case is laid in the beginning. I have worked in all four metros in different companies like ICI, Jubilant Organosys, Lafarge, Godrej and JSW. At every stage of career, I was on a learning spree. I came to Mumbai in 2007 by choice as I wanted to learn about capital markets, banking and finance, and Mumbai being the financial capital of India provided ample opportunity.
- Before moving on to corporate law, you have worked in dispute resolution back in 1984, how was your experience in two different areas?
My exposure to corporate law and transaction work started in the year 1989, when I joined ICI India Limited (a subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries) at Calcutta (Kolkata). It was a new experience for me to work in Corporate Legal Department of a MNC headed by an eminent general counsel, who was designated as Company Solicitor. Corporate law was more of compliance nature and general advisory to business heads on various commercial issues. It involved lot of desk work and it came to my notice that few of my corporate colleagues had never stepped into courts. I noticed that if a lawyer or general counsel has clarity on fundamental principles of law, it will be easier for him to deal with all issues arising under corporate law. Most of eminent corporate or transaction lawyers before liberalisation in 1991, were primarily dispute resolution lawyers. Since they had conceptual clarity, within no time, they established a large practice advising their clients on myriad of commercial issues including drafting agreements on merger and acquisition, joint ventures, foreign collaboration, transfer of technology, and other transaction work. I have always believed that for a transaction lawyer, knowledge of litigation from enforcement perspective is important. Any covenant or clause in a document should be able to stand scrutiny of court. A successful corporate or transaction lawyer is equally adept in dispute resolution.
- Would you like to discuss the struggles/pressures you have dealt with while being the general counsel of Ace Companies?
The role of a General Counsel has shot up exponentially and has undergone a major metamorphosis. He must help the company to achieve its commercial objective while complying with laws in an atmosphere which is complex, uncertain. This leads to stress as the GC of the company is expected to be conversant with all branches of law. Whether it is transaction work, documentation, tax-related issues or litigation, he is expected to be hands-on in each discipline. He is expected to be aware of all changes in law, regulations impacting the business. I have worked in an MNC, but my real challenge was working in a promoters-driven companies. All promoters, I have worked with were extremely sharp with strong business acumen. They had very little time, generally impatient and expected a quick and short response to their query. I faced this stress but to overcome that I built a strong team of legal professionals in my department, empowered them, and utilised their strength to supplement my weakness and not viewed their strength as a threat to my position and authority. The promoters were not interested to know the legal exposition of law which was acting as a bottleneck to their plans. Any communication to them had to be brief, well articulated, and crisp with a solution. I understood it early and focused on finding a solution to every problem, and it is my belief that if you learn to focus and stick ruthlessly to the point, you will always get a solution. It is also important for a general counsel to maintain cordial relations with his counterpart in a joint venture. In my career, I have encountered a deadlock situation on a non-compete issue with our JV partner. The issue was getting escalated to a conflicting mode but since I had a good professional relationship with my counterpart, we were able to resolve the issue and JV was called off peacefully.
- As more people are willing to speak about mental health, what might be the causes of mental illness in legal fraternity?
The prime reason of mental health issue among legal fraternity is insecurity in legal profession. This is true for a transaction lawyer as well as in-house counsel. I have seen that barring few, most of the lawyers irrespective of their standing at the Bar, still suffer from insecurity. Fear of a losing a case and a client is a disproportionate burden in their minds, which often lead to stress. For a client, there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests. An upcoming lawyer entering legal profession carries a fear of failure. He feels that any adverse order or observation from court is end of his career. This leads to a stressful situation. I have seen medical issues related to mental health is more prevalent among litigation lawyers. Unlike a transaction lawyer, a litigation lawyer must protect his reputation on a daily basis. Very often liberty or dignity of a client depends upon performance of the lawyer and any mistake by the lawyer can cause incarceration or substantial loss to of his client. He may win three cases for a client but if he loses the fourth case, the client will without any hesitation give the next brief to some other lawyer. This fear of losing a case, and a client, also leads to insecurity which ultimately reflects on his health.
- Do you have any chapter in your life where you felt that the stigma attached to the mental health needs to break and the legal fraternity is being unfair to themselves as they are only talking about their achievements but not the struggles.
At every stage of my career, I have seen my colleagues including paralegal stumbling down to pressure and not expressing their mental struggles like sleeplessness, and other psychosomatic illness like blood pressure, anxiety, and panic attacks. I have also seen people avoid speaking on anxiety and panic issues due to stigma attached to it. I have seen working relationship in my department breaking down due to behavioural issues arising out of stress that people go through at the workplace. I am not talking about mental illness or depression arising out of chemical imbalances in the body over which individual has no control. This should be accepted as a disability requiring empathy from all. I vividly remember one of my colleagues who was a senior partner in a foreign law firm, wrote to me that he was going on a sabbatical as his depression has come back requiring medication. Can anybody in India openly admit about his mental condition? The legal fraternity must accept it as a medical disorder and treat the individual with kindness and empathy. In my career, I have seen one case where my junior, who was otherwise very capable and dedicated, became an alcoholic to beat his depression. He suddenly disappeared for a month and switched off his handset. After searching for him over a month, I went to his house and met his family. I understood that he had a genuine problem requiring minimum two months rehab. He had a family to support. I confided in my boss and granted him special leave to recover. This was kept confidential between me and my boss, nobody else ever had any inkling of his disease. After he resumed, I protected him and did not assign him any complex assignment which could cause re-occurrence of his depression.
- Do you think we have enough support system to tackle the situation and how important is support from the family in dealing with mental health issues and can there be a safety net?
I honestly feel there is no support system as there is no awareness on the subject and people in general lack empathy to understand what the other person is going through. A safety net is possible only if self- help workshop is held in the corporate where people sit in the round table conference facing each other and openly speak about their struggles and seek support from their colleagues and if the senior bosses identify any mental health issues in their subordinates, their families must be alerted and advised medical intervention.
- We at SCC are trying to spread awareness about mental health. How do you think we as part of the legal profession or just even as part of society contribute to help reduce stigma around mental health?
It is good to hear that you are spreading awareness which is much needed in today’s stressful time. Spreading awareness will encourage society to accept people showing mental health issues. All of us need to develop understanding, tolerance, and empathy towards anyone suffering from mental health issues. If people around them react and reject them as difficult people, the mental health patients will suffer more, and their problems will be compounded. Seniors should not be condescending, control freak or do micromanagement of task assigned to juniors as it creates a stressful work environment and sucks the life out of juniors. Kindness and warmth by seniors be shown to struggling lawyers, juniors having difficulty in coping with daily life challenges faced by them. I have noticed that people do not speak about their struggles and silently suffer which in later part of their life lead to abnormalities. The corporates and Bars should consider appointing psychological counsellors so that struggling people can have easy access on a regular basis for counselling. One day in a month can be assigned as a mental health awareness day and lectures can be organised by experts to spread awareness.
- How do you remain mentally healthy?
Emotions are natural as it relates to release of hormones in our body. They are not in our control but what is within our control is action. Emotion arises out of thought which like action can be controlled with rationality. To illustrate, few people have a phobia of taking elevator as they fear that if it stops in between then they will get panic attack or palpitation. Therefore, they take stairs and kill the thought in the beginning. Peer pressure and office politics are here to stay in any job or profession. I do not base my decision on public or peers’ approval – this is unnecessary. I know my strength and weaknesses and my happiness does not depend upon validation from peers. I have my own definition of right and wrong, value and principle and if I feel I have done the task to the best of my ability then I am happy about it. Human brain is hardwired for survival. Moreover, to remain mentally healthy, we need to maintain balance in all dimensions of life, managing healthy relationships, financial stability, taking time to exercise, developing leisure time and hobbies as a stress buster.
- Please share your thoughts for the young generation struggling with mental health and at the same time trying to achieve a name in the fraternity.
No lawyer is successful unless he enjoys the law. It is not possible to treat the law as a job. It is a passion. There is a lot of struggle in the initial years. However, the more you struggle, the more success you will achieve. They should remember that law what is taught in colleges and what is practised is entirely different. It is not a debate or oratory and they have to struggle to get a break – it has a long gestation period. They should read biographies of eminent jurists and learn from their experiences. The young generation must understand that they cannot change the environment. All they need to do is to develop coping mechanism to deal with difficult situation they face in their daily lives. Right from delay in reaching the court due to traffic slowdown, absence of support staff, Senior Counsels not available on first call, deadline set by the clients are all part of daily struggles for which the youngsters need to develop a resilience in such a way that it does not affect their mental health. They should abjure flamboyance, ostentation and stop wasting their time in getting validation of their capabilities through various award sponsors. It is very tempting and is a major distraction from work. I have never hired any law officer or selected a law firm or counsel based on the rankings or ratings given by award sponsors.