Essar Energy general counsel Sheena Singla has her work cut out building the company’s London in-house capability from the ground up, says Caroline Butcher
Five months into her first in-house role Sheena Singla is relishing the challenge of building an in-house legal team from scratch in the rapidly changing energy sector.
Singla trained at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and progressed to senior associate level at the magic circle firm before being headhunted by one of her clients, Essar Energy, late last year.
The London-based energy chapter of multinational conglomerate Essar Global was listed on the FTSE100 in June last year. It has charged Singla with setting up Essar Energy’s new legal team, working closely with the global parent company’s head-quarters and established in-house legal capability in Mumbai.
“At Freshfields I was lead associate for the IPO work for Essar, and then they approached me,” Singla relates.
“It seemed like such a good opportunity to take on a senior role in a FTSE100 company and build and shape the legal team.
“As a senior associate at Freshfields I had responsibility to manage more junior members of the team and was involved in some recruitment, but I’ve not had to hire people directly before. But I’m not fazed by it – it’s an exciting prospect.”
Parent company Essar Global, founded by brothers Shashi and Ravi Ruia, also operates in the steel, communications, construction and shipping ports and logistics sectors. But Singla admits that it is the energy operation that particularly piqued her interest.
“Energy’s always an exciting sector to be in and globally it will always be important,” she explains. “There’s a huge need for power at the moment, especially in India. It’s one of the biggest emerging markets.”
Singla admits that her first few months as general counsel for Essar have been a big cultural shift compared with her previous work in private practice.
“It’s different,” she confirms. “I’ve gone from being in a client-focused role to being much more closely involved in the business as a whole and understanding both the financial and operational sides.
“I continue to be busy on the M&A and capital side of the business, but there’s a whole other level of work and responsibility on top of that. Advising the board is one of the things I find particularly interesting, and I also advise on structuring.”
In contrast to the 20-strong legal department at Essar Global’s Mumbai office, the fledgling London energy team consists of just Singla and two secondees. While the new general counsel is optimistic that her team will grow steadily, she will not be pinned down on any ideal headcount or timeframe for expansion.
“I want the London legal team to be a number of people so we have an in-house capability, but we’ll continue to need external counsel as well,”she adds.
On the subject of external advisers, Singla is still working alongside her old employer Freshfields as well as Herbert Smith, and she is hopeful Essar will appoint a formal panel of external firms in the next few months.
“We’ll be looking at a wide range of law firms and the panel will service the London legal team for London-based work as well as some international deals and projects,” she says.
Essar maintains a heavy focus on the Indian energy market but also operates worldwide, with $8bn (£4.9bn) of assets across the power, oil and gas industries.
Since arriving at the company Singla’s top projects have included advising on the issue of $550m of convertible bonds and the acquisition of Indian refinery Navabharat Power.
“We’re also looking at an agreement to acquire a refinery in the UK at Stanlow and hope to close that in the second half of this year.”
Despite energy appearing to be one of the few sectors with more or less guaranteed growth in the current turbulent market, Singla admits to keeping a cautious eye on the unrest in Libya and the rest of the Middle East.
“Recent events in the Middle East can have an impact on the energy industry and we rely on certain countries,” she says. “It’s highly regulated globally as well as nationally, and our work involves a lot of developing and emerging countries, including those in Africa plus, of course, India.”
Name: Sheena Singla
Organisation: Essar Energy
Industry: Oil and gas (exploration and production, refining and marketing)
Position: General counsel
Reporting to: CEO Naresh Nayyar
Turnover: $10bn (£6.12bn)
Legal capability (London): One, plus two secondees
Main law firms: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith