Indian opportunity knocks

When I first thought of going to India corporate law was the last thing on my mind…

But after posing for photos with the Taj Mahal, a dose of Delhi Belly and some seriously spicy food, working with the country’s biggest and best in law completed the experience.

Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co – Amarchand for short – is India’s most successful law firm, employing over 470 lawyers across five offices. Whilst Western firms watch their step, it plans to double in size by 2017. Given that international firms are currently prevented from setting up by section 24 of the Indian Advocates Act, few competitors are capable of making a challenge.

Working there was a fantastic insight into India’s legal system and corporate culture. Located in Peninsula Corporate Park, the Amarchand office wouldn’t look out of place in Canary Wharf. It just looks like any other City corporate: a huge office with large glass windows, professional people in suits and ties and expensive watches and a coffee machine in the corner. Spend too long there, and you could be forgiven for forgetting you were in India. Until, that is, you go for a break on the balcony: a makeshift cover held up by bamboo keeps the rain off the smokers and provides a fitting reminder – this is still India.

Since my corporate law experience had been limited to City vacation schemes, perhaps I can be forgiven for expecting corporate cooking, networking and nibbles and a night or two at Mumbai’s answer to Mahiki. Not at Amarchand. If corporate largesse was part of the culture, I didn’t see it. The deal was clear: we were welcomed, treated well, paid a stipend of 500 rupees per day, and given free lunch and dinner (we all made use of dinner every day) but hard work was the quid pro quofor the hospitality. By contrast to some of my time in the City, it was refreshingly realistic. We were on the job, learning by doing, and no doubt getting a real experience of what it is like to work in corporate law the world over.

Although the presence of a white intern didn’t go unnoticed, I wasn’t singled out for attention. Compare this to visiting the Taj Mahal, where we lost count of requests to join family photos and I realised that Western faces weren’t uncommon at Amarchand. Walking round the floors (having forgotten where my supervisor sat) I saw a sprinkling of seconded lawyers from international firms, as well as a splendid office inhabited by chief operating officer Valerie Bowles, a business development manager hired from the UK. Amarchand, it seems, is doing very well for itself.

But what of it? Is India of any relevance to UK lawyers 2B? Let me assure you now: this is not a bad audition for the next gap yahvideo, nor is it one for the grandchildren. The Indian legal market has huge potential, and a potential that is likely to germinate in our generation. Currently, India only has one lawyer for every 1,000 citizens, compared to 1 per 500 in the UK and 1 per 260 in the US. The flow of capital in and out of India in years to come will create the biggest opportunity in the country’s history for ambitious law firms to better themselves.

For the magic circle, a bit of political and judicial wand waving needs to happen before the show can start. Section 24 of the Advocates Act 1961, which prevents the entry of foreign law firms, was recently confirmed by the Madras High Court in AK Balaji v The Government of India, Ashurst LLP, White & Case et al. Paragraph 63 of the judgment makes clear that foreign lawyers can “visit India for a temporary period on a fly in and fly out basis”. However, under a separate agreement, foreign lawyers cannot be debarred from conducting international commercial arbitration.

At present, these rules have led to confusion, and the emergence of grey areas. Ashurst, for example, had to close down its Delhi office in 2010, whereas Clifford Chance currently maintains an office of paralegals just outside of Delhi. Liberalisation would be an excellent way for the government to clarify the confusion.

But this is not a simple issue. Although the UK-India Joint Economic and Trade Committee (Jetco) has lobbied for liberalisation, the Lok Sabha (Indian lower house) clings to its protectionist policy, and powerful lobbyists such as the Bar Council of India help to maintain the status quo. In short, the question of if and when India will liberalise its legal market is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, international firms operate India desks from their London bases. This is a market that can only continue to grow. On the outbound front, Indian companies are buying up parts of the West (think Jaguar Land Rover and Corus). On the inbound front, the West continues to invest in India. Nabarro, for example, has a team of five partners and recently advised Indian biofuel producer Nandan Cleantec on its £16 million IPO on the AIM. Meanwhile, BP’s 7.2 billion dollar acquisition of a 30% stake in Reliance Industries was helped along by two of London’s finest – Allen & Overy and Linklaters.

Even our educational institutions have seen the potential and are seizing the initiative. This is unsurprising: India’s legal system was based on our own, and so it is only natural that they look to us for quality legal education. Both Northumbria and Leicester Universities provide degrees for students wishing to qualify in India, whilst Reading’s law school recently hosted a mooting competition via video link with the New Law College in Pune. Even my own alma mater, Oxford University, flew the dean of the law faculty out to give a lecture series at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

What is clear is that substantial opportunities exist for those looking to develop careers in the Indian legal market. Take Nusrat Hassan. He came to the UK to study at the College of Law on a Chevening Scholarship, and on his return to India subsequently set up DH Law Associates. It now has offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Goa and Patna. In the not so distant future, there may be no reason why ambitious UK law firms – and ambitious UK lawyers – cannot do the same.