The word that describes Ashok Sharma best is simplicity. A quiet demeanour and gentle tone characterize the corporate lawyer who has been in the profession for 40 long years. A Fellow of CIArb, London, he is now practising as a counsel and sitting as an arbitrator. He is also the Founder President of Indian Corporate Counsel Association (ICCA), an association of in-house counsel of the public and private sector organizations in India. ICCA is a member of Asia Pacific Corporate Counsel Alliance (APCCA), an alliance of corporate counsel from Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Coming from a “vakilon kee family,” as he says with a wide smile, he retired from the position of Chief General Manager (Law), MMTC Limited in 2011. In his 26 long years with MMTC, he dealt with over 600 commercial, maritime, international arbitrations and court cases. He was also conferred the National Law Day Award 2008 for his ‘Outstanding Contribution to Practice of Law relating to Public Sector Undertakings’ in December 2008 by the then Prime Minister.
The Sharma clan takes to law like fish to water. Tracing the generations of his family of lawyers, he mentions that his grandfather Pandit Tilok Chand Sharma practiced in his hometown in Bhatinda, Punjab. “In my grandfather’s times, lawyers were known as pleaders,” he elucidates. His father, Harbans Lal Sharma, had studied law but joined the police. His uncles, Pandit Durga Prasad Sharma and Hansraj Sharma, were also lawyers, practising in Ferozepur and Bhatinda, respectively.
His children Garima and Rohan are lawyers too.
So as far back as things go, law has been the talk around the dinner table, laughs the family. “Whenever we get stuck on legal issue or case, we take his advice. As he has always been an avid reader, we also have the habit of reading books for they are the gateway to knowledge. When he was in MMTC, we would also travel to different places with him,” tell Garima and Rohan.
Citing his entry into the profession, Ashok Sharma recounts his fascination for the book-lined offices in his ancestral home and at his uncle’s home in Ferozepur. “My father also wanted me to study law, so I guess it was a natural progression.” But before this, there were some shaky steps toward another career. “During those days, IAS was a secure, good option, so I did make attempts at the civil services. I cleared the written exams once but could not make it finally,” he rues.
Enrolled in the Bar right after the law faculty exam in 1974, he joined H.R. Bhardwaj who later became the Union Law Minister. This proved to be a time to put all his learning to use. “A high-profile case we did together was the Vidya Jain murder case. This was a high point for any young lawyer,” he smiles. With his father facing a health issue, Ashok had to leave the profession and take up a job. Little was he to know then that he was soon going to take up the career of an in-house counsel. He joined the Punjab and Sind Bank as law officer. And after four years with Punjab and Sind Bank, he ended up with MMTC. This is where he shaped his career, beginning with the primary role of litigator, moving through shades of arbitrator, counsellor and business enabler.
“MMTC was then known as Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation. In those days, in 1986, it was a premier canalizing agency. But as liberalisation happened, MMTC’s activities expanded. Gold became a major metal to be imported; we started working on gold jewellery. During my term as head (legal), MMTC went into six joint ventures,” he recounts.
Even after his retirement, with a little more free time, he is busy organizing seminars and conferences through ICCA to address issues related to in-house counsel. “The business environment is more complex now,” he explains. “So organizations have a greater need for in-house counsels as compared to earlier times. There are not many organizations catering to the demands of in-house counsel,” he further explains, “hence the need to get like-minded people to express their views on a common platform, which ICCA offers.”
Elucidating more on the role of in-house counsel, he says that an in-house counsel is the interface between internal business and external counsel. He acts as a conduit and gets information from internal teams to brief the external counsel, ensures that legal expenses are kept in check. His work does not centre around going to courts but is more on arbitration both as a counsel and as a commercial arbitrator and doing project financing for corporate, advising on structuring and transactions, and participating in activities of organizations such as ICC India and ECADR as a member of their councils.
A man of many interests, his keen reading and learning habits continue till date. “Being the only child, books have been my best friend since childhood. And the habit continues. I like thrillers from the authors Lee Child and David Baldacci.”
“Books improve our visualisation too as he has always emphasized,” adds his daughter Garima.
His day usually begins with a walk and Garima has also taken to accompanying him sometime. During his tenure in MMTC, he attended the Art of Living programme propagated by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. From then, his daily dose of meditation started. The Sudarshan Kriya has since become a discipline just like his prayers to Ma Bhagwati. Garima likes to meditate too. The religious aspect was taught to him by his mother, Chandra Kala Sharma who was a religious and simple lady. “To keep going through long days and stressful work environment, this is a boon,” he says.
We acknowledge “100 Legal Luminaries of India” by Lalit Bhasin (Lexis). The multicolour coffee table book printed on art paper in Hardbound is priced at ` 5995/- and is available at Universal Book Traders, C-27, Connaught Place, New Delhi – 110001. firstname.lastname@example.org