Name: Sapna Dutta

Organisation: Reckitt

Role: Senior Vice President & General Counsel, Reckitt Health and Global Litigation & Investigations

Trained at: Davis Polk

Year qualified: 2006

Read her Hot 100 profile

What’s your most vivid memory from being a trainee?

Looking back, I have immensely positive memories of my early years as a lawyer – perhaps unusually so!  I am dual qualified in New York and England and was lucky enough to spend the first several years of my legal career at Davis Polk in both places.  In my first years there, I spent time in Mumbai, Delhi, Copenhagen, New York and London on a range of complex client assignments.

It was filled with opportunities to learn what the role of a lawyer really involves, and I loved being in a truly international environment with the diversity of people, cultures and styles.  Certainly those early years can (and did!) have their stressful moments, but they are also a fantastic training ground and platform to learn.

What is the thing in your professional career that has terrified you or taken you out of your comfort zone the most?

Probably when I was a radio presenter! It was, in a sense, my first (little) career before going to law school and was such a great way to develop my communication skills and confidence. And I was young enough not to bother too much about being terrified.

I think in the legal space, lawyers tend to be fairly good at being outside of our comfort zone – so much of the job involves navigating through sensitive or complicated issues that discomfort is a bit of a professional necessity.  What can often be more challenging is that as you become more senior in-house, the role evolves into a much broader one of enterprise leadership – playing a role in everything from commercial strategy to people and line management.

When I first moved from private practice to an in-house role, those additional aspects were newer to me and it takes time to learn how to do them really well.  Now I find it one of the most fun and rewarding parts of my job, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t an overnight transition and there are always new things to learn.

What is the wisest thing anyone ever said to you (and who said it)?

To work hard, stay focused on what matters and try not to be distracted by worrying over the outcome. As with much of the good advice I’ve had over the years, it comes from my dad. Like many South Asians who came to the UK in the 60s and 70s, my parents left India with only their education (they are both scientists by discipline), an exceptional work ethic and the determination to build stable, secure lives and become value-adding members of their community here. They worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot to give us the opportunities they didn’t have, and I never once heard them complain.

They wanted us to have the curiosity to really seize hold of every opportunity without being afraid; to help us understand that success shouldn’t be an expectation but something that comes with hard work, good decisions and, usually, a dose of luck; and to encourage the resilience to get up and try again when it doesn’t.  Of course that isn’t always easy to do but, as advice goes, it has served me well.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to where you are/do the job you do?

One thing that I’ve found particularly helpful in recent years is to really spend time understanding what drives and motivates you. Understanding honestly what you enjoy both within and outside your work can become a differentiator in itself and helps you to look differently at your own developmental and career choices.  In my case, among other things, it has led me to take on some non-executive roles in addition to my day job, most recently joining the board of Crisis, a national charity here in the UK who provide vital support to those experiencing homelessness alongside working to bring an end to homelessness for good. Development comes in lots of different forms and combining new challenges with your own personal motivators can add quite a powerful new dimension.

On a related point, it’s also worth investing the time to build a broad external network both within and outside your industry.  This has a number of benefits, from opening up access to advice to potential new opportunities, but most importantly can also be richly rewarding and good fun in itself.  Thanks in large part to the generosity of others with their time, it has helped me to feel that I’m part of wider legal and enterprise communities beyond a single organisation.  And I’m always happy to do the same for others.

What’s your best friend from law school doing now?

Having both started our careers in corporate law, she stayed with it and is now a successful corporate partner in a US law firm.  I suppose we can be a fairly self-selecting bunch at heart!