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Khaitan & Co senior partner Murali Neelakantan joins Cipla as global GC

Neelakantan: Going GC
Neelakantan: Going GC

Khaitan & Co Mumbai partner Murali Neelakantan has joined Indian pharmaceutical giant Cipla as its global general counsel (GC).

Neelakantan told Legally India that he had started on 1 October and is heading up a legal team of around 20 lawyers globally.

“The role is what I make of it,” he said. “[Cipla] haven’t had a global general counsel before so thankfully I’m not replacing anyone. There is already a chief legal officer and there are legal teams in Europe, the US and Africa.”

Neelakantan added that Cipla has had a very good company secretary for the last 20 years. “They've had a very strong compliance team. It is part of the Sensex and much-watched company, [but there have] never been any reported violations from a compliance standpoint. Touch wood… all that continues.”

The NLSIU Bangalore graduate began his career at Nishith Desai Associates in 1996, moving to London 1999 to join Simmons & Simmons. In 2005 he joined Arnold & Porter as a partner and joined Ashurst in 2007 as the head of its India practice.

He returned to India in 2008 to join Khaitan as a partner.

Neelakantan said that he joined Cipla in order to get more involved in business and strategic aspects, as well as to translate legal issues to the board of directors. “If I wanted to be a lawyer doing the legal stuff, I wouldn't have left Khaitan.”

However, he said that going in-house as a partner was an unusual move in India. “In this country this transition hasn't happened - law firm partners at senior levels going in-house. Generally clients don't see value in it or don't see senior counsel as a valuable leadership resource. In the West many GCs are on the board of companies - that hasn’t happened in India. And therefore a senior partner in a law firm would never consider going in house.”

Cipla was one of Khaitan’s clients, explained the new GC, but the company has also used other law firms and would continue to do so. “[There’s] absolutely no reason not to work with other law firms. I’m not here to change any of that. It's a well-established process. [Cipla has] relationships [with several firms] and that should continue.”

The “vast majority” of the global legal team of around 20 had between eight and 12 years of post-qualification experience, noted Neelakantan, who were “very clued into the business”. Most of the sector-specific expertise at the pharma company was therefore handled in-house, he said, but more generic work, such as M&A, employment or tax advice, might be referred to external firms.

“The big firms don't have pharma regulatory expertise. If you ask the big firms, can you do pharma regulatory, they’ll struggle. I've seen what it is to be in the pharma sector [at Arnold Porter in London and the US] and that’s the level you expect but that you don't have in India frankly.”

After the first 100 days in the job and taking on board everyone’s input, Cipla’s legal function might be reorganised slightly, said Neelakantan, in order to integrate the global GC role more tightly into the work flow. He currently reports directly to the board while the chief legal officer, Abhayan Jawaharlal, would report to him and manage the in-house legal team.

“We wish him well with his future endeavours,” commented Khaitan partner Rabindra Jhunjhunwala via email on Saturday.

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