- Quirk NLS
Being an In-House Counsel at Hindustan Unilever: An Interview with Sharwari Pandit
The interview was conducted by Chiranth S. (Batch of 2025), Rhea Prasad (Batch of 2024) and Digvijay Singh (Batch of 2023). It is a part of our #AltCareers Series. The cover image is by Akshit Singla (Batch of 2024).
Sharwari Pandit graduated from Law School in 2017 and worked as a Legal Manager at Hindustan Unilever Limited. She is currently pursuing her M.B.A. at Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management. In this interview Quirk spoke to her about her time at Law School, working at Unilever and pursuing an M.B.A. at Cornell.
Part 1: Navigating Law School
Quirk: Tell us a little bit about your time in law school, what committees were you a part of, what kind of activities were you interested in, and what did you prioritise overall?
Sharwari: I was quite the enthu-cutlet in Law School. In my first year, I was elected Class Representative. The CR stint was a great way to get to know my batchmates and seniors better. As a first year CR, I was able to work with my batchmates on those early teething problems at law school, and represent their interests, which was a great experience.
As a first year, I dabbled in everything – I did mooting, debating and ADR. I was also a Junior Co-opt for the Student Advocate Committee (Stud Ad) and the ADR Board. In my second year, I learned to prioritise the activities of which I was a part. So I did an international law moot, and a lot of ADR events and debates. I also served as an Editor on the Socio-Legal Review. By my third year, I decided to find my groove and identify the things I want to zone in on. So, I picked journals, ADR and competition law. I served as an Editor on the National Law School of India Review (NLSIR), did a competition law moot and worked as a Research Fellow at the Commons Cell. ADR remained an area of focus, and that year I won two competitions with my partner. I absolutely fell in love with the activity! Throughout this time, I also focused on making sure that I was doing well academically. I believe that at Law School, we have a thriving academic culture, and one needs to take out some time to enjoy those subjects – at least I did.
My fourth and fifth year was more about doing my internships and figuring out where I wanted to go from there. I interned with two top tier law firms and Unilever in my third and fourth year.
Within Law School, I served as the Deputy Chief Editor of NLSIR and the Convenor of Stud Ad in my final year. It was a great learning experience from a leadership and management skills point of view. Apart from releasing our issue of the NLSIR and organising a symposium on e-commerce laws, we started looking at how one could popularise the journal through better circulation. We focused on increasing visibility and made all the volumes available on JSTOR.
In my final semester, I did an exchange semester in London at Queen Mary University, London. I took a mix of business and law courses, because I knew that I was going to go into an in-house position. It was an enriching and unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend it, provided it is financially feasible. So yeah, that’s my time at Law School.
Q: Looking back, is there anything you regret not trying, or something that you’d wish you’d focused on less?
S: I think that when you enter Law School in your first year, you feel an enormous pressure to do everything. Every committee will make you feel that if you don’t do that activity, you’re going to fall behind. MCS might tell you, “Oh my God, if you don’t moot in your first year, you’re never going to get anything done” and it may be the same with other committees. But that’s absolutely not true!
If you can manage to balance a lot on your plate right off the bat, go ahead. But most people struggle with it initially, and I did as well. If I had to do things differently, I would have gone a little slower in my first year.
However, I will say that it makes sense to take the first two years to try doing most things law school offers at least once. I fully believe that. I just think one should pace it well, because NLS is rigorous, and it is academically very challenging. It’s important not to have Shiny Object Syndrome, and to build the maturity to pass on an opportunity, especially in your first year.
Q: And is there anything that you regret not trying?
S: I think I should have picked up sports a lot more – we have a very active and encouraging Sports Committee at law school. Team sports, in particular, have the ability to foster confidence and a collaborative spirit – I realised that a little later into my time at Law School. At that time I was at Law School, women couldn’t go to the football field except for very restricted hours, and Nagarbhavi was not the safest.
As an expatriate woman brought up in the Middle East, I did not have that kind of confidence to claim outer spaces on my own. In my second year, some of my male friends were really into running and encouraged me to pick it up.So, I started going for short runs with my friends in the Bangalore University campus, and it was great! One year into it, I built the confidence to start running on my own. I realised that a lot of women at law school had started running at that time as well, and it was great to have that community to train and grow as runners.
I also wish I would have stuck with debating a little longer. At that time, the debating community was an extremely male, testosterone-driven environment. It was very rewarding as an activity, but the environment made me feel unwelcome, excluded, and in some instances, unsafe. So I subconsciously let it go. But I wish I had stuck on with that–a critical mass of women in debating would have made the community more welcoming to other women!
Q: You talked about how you did corporate internships in your fourth year. So how did you decide to try the Management Training Program at Unilever?
S: I did litigation internships in my second year and third year. My first litigation internship was with a law school alumnus, who was absolutely wonderful (I’m still friends with him) and the second one was with a senior counsel at the Bombay High Court. However, I realised that a career in litigation was not my calling. In my third and fourth years I did corporate law firm internships at two Tier-1 law firms. During my second internship, I found an area of practice that I liked, which was competition law. I was very happy when my internship got converted to a pre-placement offer.
But a few months later, Unilever (HUL) came to campus. When I saw their presentation, I was amazed at the kind of work their in-house legal profiles offered. I resonated with the kind of energy that the team had and I immediately wanted to explore the company. Everybody was free to apply to the internship under RCC rules then, so I immediately put my hand up. After the shortlisting and interview process, Unilever offered me an internship in the Unilever Leaders Internship Program.
Once I was at the internship, I knew that this was the place I where I wanted to be after Law School – there was no doubt in my mind. I value a good work environment and I’m innately enthusiastic and energetic. I like trying out new ideas and I thrive in collaborative workplaces. With Unilever, I found employers who mirrored these qualities. They are extremely interconnected as a workspace, high energy and very driven. Even though the impression of in-house counsels is that they work from a back room making contracts, it cannot be further from the truth at HUL.
My internship project in 2016 with HUL was to map the best standard of privacy practices across the world and then devise a program for their Human Resources function. This was before any Privacy Bill had been introduced in India and it was two steps ahead of everyone. That was the scale of their ambition.
Since my internship was for six weeks, I anticipated that I would only be able to complete part of my project. But the kind of mentorship and tutoring I received was extraordinary. We completed the project and even moved on to implementing parts of it within the six short weeks. I had a dedicated tutor (a law school alumnus who continues to mentor me to this day) and a senior mentor who oversaw my project, as well as a ‘buddy’, who served as my go-to person for everything – from how to use the printer to building networks within Unilever. I had never delivered more work in six weeks, and I had been able to go home at 7 o’clock every day! The atmosphere was incredibly collaborative and results oriented, and that definitely contributed to a great internship.
I think the second part of it was the Management Training Program itself, which is enormously exciting. The Unilever Future Leaders Program (UFLP), is Unilever’s flagship management training program and has been run for a few decades in India. Every year, it trains a cohort of graduates from elite schools across the country. I feel very privileged have been offered a spot on the program to this day.
Q: How difficult was it to steer off of the mainstream corporate job path and choose to become an in-house counsel. What factored into your decision?
S: Within Law School, when you’re in your third or fourth year, there is a narrow idea of what defines a ‘Law School Stud’. It is generally someone who does an LLM, is a partner at a law firm, or has been designated Senior Counsel.
The definition of a ‘studly job’ is very limited and it’s difficult to see beyond that in your third, fourth, or even fifth year. Your sources are often limited to your immediate seniors, and they have all chosen the same thing because their immediate seniors have made choices like that. It kind of becomes a cycle that feeds into itself. So yes, it was a difficult decision to make for me at that time.
I chose to become an in-house counsel primarily because of my dynamic experience at HUL. What really clinched it for me was a specific instance during my internship. We had to take a call related to a competition law issue. My boss told me to go ahead and research on the issue because he knew I enjoyed working on competition law matters. I did what we were trained to do in most other internships – I went to my boss and told him, this is what X research says, this is what Y research says and this is the analysis. I did that well, because we’re good at research at law school. Then my boss said, “That’s fine, but what are we going to do? You have to tell us that. Give me a solution I can take to the business. I am going to close my eyes and do whatever you tell me, because that’s the job at a company.”
It was that kind of ownership that I really enjoyed, which distinguished it from a regular corporate job.The fact that I found a very good culture fit within the organisation also helped me make the decision. Once I had clarity about my own decision to pursue this opportunity, the fact that it was slightly off-beat did not deter me.
Part 2: Working at Hindustan Unilever – The Importance of a Dynamic Work Environment
Q: When you did join the management training programme, how was it different from a typical corporate law job? What were the skills that you picked up and what was your role that distinguished it from a purely legal path?
S: In law firms they put you on rotation for 1-2 years depending on the law firm. You try different teams within the firm and eventually pick one to continue working with permanently. With HUL my programme was completely different. The management trainee program is a 12 month program that starts right after graduation. You become a part of a cohort, very similar to how you are part of a batch at NLS. A typical cohort consists of around 70-80 trainees, and I was the only lawyer in my cohort. Everyone else was a post-MBA candidate or an engineer. It was a collection of people from diverse educational streams, with different experiences, and very different thought processes. I learned a great deal from my peers, and the diversity of thought and skills was truly enriching after 5 years at law school.
I did sales, marketing/brand management and supply chain, among other stints. I spent three weeks in a manufacturing unit in Pondicherry, and that was an incredible on-ground experience. I saw all my favourite FMCG products being made, and also learned about labor relations and practical applications of the labor laws we had studied. For our rural immersion, we spent around a month in a village, and this was one of the best experiences of my life. We stayed in the village itself, and taught at the local school for one month with other management trainees. I also had a project, which was to find ‘Alternative Sources of Income for Women in the Village’. It was an amazing, irreplaceable and humbling experience.
After that I worked for a month with the legal team in Singapore, on a project for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The cherry on the cake was that around a year after leaving law school, when I had started missing campus life again, HUL sent us back to IIM Bangalore for 4 weeks, where we completed the ‘Executive General Management Programme’. At IIM, we were taught by great faculty in a beautiful campus, and the program seemed to have come full circle. I particularly enjoyed our courses in marketing and strategy, and still refer to some of the case studies we used.
Q: After the Management Training Programme concluded how did you transition into being a Legal Counsel at Unilever?
S: The Management Trainee program facilitates this transition. It is partly customised based on your intended function – for me, it was legal and business. My management training stints included training with the legal teams partnering different functions. Because of this program, I got a chance to be a part of an incredibly diverse management trainee cohort and community within HUL, while also specialising in my function as an in-house counsel.
Another way the program helped me transition is by giving me a network of colleagues and friends across all parts of the company. This becomes important as HUL is the kind of company where there is a lot of emphasis on collaboration and cross-functional learning. It is very people-driven and everything starts with a meeting and a conversation with someone. That’s how most projects and ideas kick off. Hence, it is always good to have that community.
Q: What does your job as legal counsel at Unilever look like, what does it entail?
S: The company has different functions, such as sales, brand management, supply chain, finance, etc. Each function has a team of lawyers supporting them. To give you an example, right after I completed my Management Training Programme, I was sent to Delhi. My job was to partner the North India sales branch and our factories in North India. I worked with a Regional Legal Manager, who was the legal head for that region. As a Legal Manager, my job basically entailed dealing with legal agendas and issues related to the sales and supply chain function in North India.
We also managed a core litigation portfolio, and were trained to manage it with great ownership and involvement. Our litigation portfolio for a region would include any case registered by or against HUL in the region (North India for me). The case could be in a District Consumer Forum or the Delhi High Court or the Supreme Court – it was something we had to manage with equal ownership. It was a steep learning curve and great exposure to work with lawyers across the spectrum- high court lawyers, senior counsels, consumer lawyers, among others.
In most regions, there is a significant chunk of ADR work as well, and I enjoyed further developing this muscle. One of my richest learning experiences was leading a mediation for a major long-lasting labour dispute. It was a very complex mediation andI learned a lot from the legal counsel we worked with. It also entailed a lot of responsibility to represent the company and take the right kind of decision, but at HUL they give you that kind of authority and ownership early on.
The other thing we ended up doing in the regional offices is that we provided day-to-day legal support for all the supply chain factories. Things like domestic enquiry and a large number of other compliances, which are just labour law concepts in your head, became part of our job.
I also worked on two to three global projects like a competition law project for Bangladesh and an organisational behavior project for our global team.
At HUL, your role as a legal counsel changes every 2-3 years. So after 2 years, my roles was changed to a completely different profile. I was asked to return to our Head Office in Mumbai to work with an amazing team called the ‘Centre for Excellence’. The team was almost like a start-up team within HUL, and it worked on creating future facing technology-based products for the company. It involved another steep learning curve – this time about technology, e-commerce, product management and digital marketing. I also worked on tech laws and privacy, which I’m very passionate about. Most of my work revolved around law and technology. To give you an example, I partnered ‘Shikhar’- an e-B2B app created in-house by HUL.
Given the flatter structure of the team and the fast-paced environment, it was a very ownership led role that pushed me to grow. There is also a massive intersection between law and business, so I am required to know how data flows, how our technology works, the absolute nitty-gritties of the business and often even provide strategic advice that isn’t purely legal but relates to opportunities for growth. It remains my favourite role at HUL!
Q: So how exactly is being an in-house counsel different from a typical corporate job?
I think mainly you get a large exposure to different areas of the law and business which you wouldn’t get at a law firm. In a corporate firm one usually builds expertise in specific areas of practice, so there is more expertise but not as much exposure to different areas of law. What a law firm does offer you is the ability to work with many clients. So you get to work across industries, and on very cutting edge problems. This may not happen consistently in an in-house role, because you’re going to work solely with your company.
I had the benefit of working with an MNC like Unilever which is spread across so many products and industries that you still find something new to learn everyday. But broadly put, in a corporate firm you’re restricted to one area of practice across clients, while in an in-house role you’re restricted to one client across many areas of practice. Take your pick!
Q: You’ve talked about the various skills you’ve had to pick up, what was the learning curve like?
S: My roles have offered a tremendous growth curve and it is often extremely demanding. As a freshly minted management trainee, most of your colleagues are people who have had more experience than you and you really have to grow into the role as fast as possible. Everyone had already been working for 4-5 years in my team. They had more professional experience and understanding of the law in a practical sense, and so to keep up with them my growth curve had to be significant.
I also learnt a lot of things that are not about the law. I enjoy being curious about different things and I place a great value on learnability – the skill to learn a lot of complex things repeatedly and fast. From that point of view the Management Trainee Programme was perfect. I was surrounded by people who had been doing completely different things. It really opened up my mind and made me look at my own skill sets a little differently. There were gaps I could identify and skills I could pick up, so that I could look at problems and ideas from a more composite lens.
Q: Is there anything you don’t particularly like about your job?
S: There is nothing that I have strongly disliked. But naturally, in roles where you work on a range of things, there will be some things you like more than the other. In a law firm job, that aspect can be reduced. For example, if you join a team working on competition law, you’ll be doing competition law for the most part. But in an in-house role, the scope of your responsibilities is broader. You may end up working on compliance for an area of law that you aren’t particularly passionate about, but it’s still something you need to deliver on.
Having said that, I believe that every job has a percentage of things that are not enjoyable. I believe that as long as the percentage of things you do enjoy is large enough and gives you a lot of joy, the rest of it takes care of itself.
Q: You’re now pursuing an MBA from Cornell? How did you decide that that was something you wanted to do and how was the process?
Yes, I joined the MBA Class of 2023 at Cornell this August.I have always harboured a passion for learning and further education.Having worked at the intersection of law and business, I wanted to take some time to build a strong business and tech foundation. Through my work with technology law and privacy, I realised that the pace of technology-based disruption is very rapid. I wanted to take some time to roll up my sleeves and build a basic tech skills toolkit, so that I could effectively understand the products and technologies that I worked with in the coming years. Lastly, I wanted to have a greater scope of impact going forward.
The MBA at Cornell, with its strength in tech and consumer products, seemed to be a perfect fit. Cornell’s focus on collaboration, immersion-based learning and ethical leadership also resonated with my own values. Their small class size and flexibility to let me study a number of legal courses as electives sealed the deal for me!
I attended the Cornell Johnson Women in Business conference and loved the culture and spirit of the organisation. The application process itself involved speaking with the students and admissions committees at various events and preparing my application materials. I found great support from my mentors and colleagues at HUL all through. After the application submission and interview, I was delighted to receive my offer from Cornell with a Forte Foundation scholarship.
Part 3: Gyaan, Memories and Miscellaneous
Q: What advice would you give to someone who would want to pursue this career path?
S: I would recommend doing three things: network, intern and keep hustling.
At law school, ‘networking’ is perceived to be a dirty word. But networking can often be genuine and rewarding for both parties. Law School gives its students access to a very strong, warm and supportive alumni network. This network spreads across industries, geographies, roles and seniority levels. If you are interested in a career path, check if any law school alumni have done something similar and reach out to them. Ask them about their company/firm, the kind of work they do, and the kind of career paths that are possible in their field. You will be surprised by the number of warm alumni willing to help you navigate your next steps!
I’d also recommend doing an internship with a company. I definitely think doing an internship with a company – whether you convert that into an in-house role, or choose to go any other way – adds enormous value. In several instances, as lawyers, you will either represent or advise companies, and the people associated with them. For all these stakeholders, there is a lot of value added by someone with good business acumen and a solution-oriented approach.
Lastly, just figure out your fit and what feels right for you. This includes evaluating your fit on the kind of work and the culture of the company. A good thumb rule is that if as an intern you were not able enjoy the internship for a month, then you are unlikely to enjoy a full time role at the firm/company.
Q: Could you talk about your time at Ex Curia International?
S: I continued to be a part of the ADR community even after Law School. I believe that ADR has a lot of potential due to its ease of process and fast paced nature. Having managed a litigation portfolio in a company, I know first-hand how ADR can be a game changer for all the stakeholders in a dispute. In that sense, I genuinely think that ADR is a force for good.
I had coached some members of the Ex Curia International team, and I was happy to come onboard as an Adjunct Advisor when they offered the position to me. Through Ex Curia, I try to give back to the community by advising the team, judging/writing problems for ADR competitions or giving trainings and talks to build awareness about ADR.
Q: What is your favourite Law School Memory?
S: My most cherished memory is of my time at the Lib Ramp and the library and the many many nights that were spent there. Rushing to the canteen line in the 20 minute break to order ‘single idli, single vada’ and sampling Chetta’s unending list of bun-butter-something combos are memories that remain close to my heart. I think midnight barbs at Chetta and quad parties after submissions are some other things that no one from Law School can forget either!
Q: You mentioned earlier that you enjoy long distance running, does that help you destress after a long day? Do you do anything else to help you destress?
S: I love running!It is a source of physical fitness, happy hormones and friendships for me. When I was working in the North India branch at HUL, I was so enthusiastic about it that I managed to get my Line Manager to register all of us for the marathon. I first got them to run 5Ks, then we started running 10Ks, and it soon became something that brought us together as a team.
I also think running provides a great lens to explore a city and its communities. I remember the Airtel Delhi half marathon with particular fondness. We started at 5am, so it was very cold and dark. By the time we reached India Gate it was completely empty – there were only four-five of us – and the sun had just started rising. Watching the sun rise in silence over India Gate was a surreal experience. At Cornell, I sneak out for a run whenever possible. Cornell’s campus in Ithaca is famously ‘Gorges’ – full of botanical gardens, gorges, hill slopes and waterfalls. It’s a great way to explore a campus full of such history and beautiful architecture.
After law school, I picked up singing and continued my interest in public speaking. I was part of a band at HUL, and had a blast performing for our internal events! During COVID, I hosted virtual interviews and fireside chats with business leaders for audiences at HUL. At Cornell, I’m part of the Present Value Podcast team, and they are a great bunch of people. I’m learning to write, host and produce podcasts from end to end. It’s a very interesting medium of creating content, and I am eager to see where it takes me!
Q: Any last bit of advice you have for our readers?
S: I have two pieces of advice that I received from my seniors that I would love to share. In my first month at law school, my fifth year SBA VP told me to remember that ‘Law School is a great trampoline’ – you can to jump into anything that you like and excel. That, to me, is the truth. Law school gives us several transferable skills, that can be used to build careers in litigation, law firms, companies, IGOs, politics, non-profits, civil society positions, etc. But somewhere along our second to fourth year, we kind of forget that because everyone around us just focuses on one or two ways forward. But the law degree can be a plank to jump into anything that you want.
Another thing that people forget is that the pie is big enough for all of us. Right now, there are enough opportunities for everyone to pursue their aspired careers in various streams. If we do look proactively for something that does interest us, we are more likely to end up with an offer that we’re happy with and can stick to for a longer term. As individual law school batches as well, we are more effective as a collaborative team aiming to take each other to their aspired careers, than a batch that is fiercely internally competitive to its own detriment.
Thank you so much for this interview. I’ve always been an avid reader of Quirk!
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