Ashurst hires pair of senior Indian lawyers as international firms ramp up interest in India market

Anglo-Australian firm identifies India as a ‘key strategic focus’ as it recruits former partners from Khaitan & Co to grow global practice

Shishir Mehta (l) and Kalpana Unadkat Images courtesy of Ashurst

Ashurst has hired two senior Indian lawyers to bolster its India practice as international law firms continue to position themselves for the eagerly anticipated opening up of the Indian legal market.

Corporate partner Kalpana Unadkat has been recruited from leading Indian firm Khaitan & Co to co-chair the Anglo-Australian firm’s India practice with banking and finance partner Shishir Mehta, who was a former colleague of Unadkat at Khaitan.

The new roles represent a significant ramping up of Ashurst’s core India practice, which includes 10 partners and senior lawyers. Unadkat and Mehta are expected to grow the practice globally and will be based in London, having previously worked out of Khaitan’s Mumbai office. 

In tandem with the appointments, London-based Geoffrey Picton-Turbervill has assumed the role of chair of Ashurst’s India practice. Previously a partner at the firm, he is currently a senior consultant and specialises in work in the international energy and natural resources sector.

Ashurst’s move comes against the background of surging economic growth in India and the landmark decision by the Bar Council of India (BCI) in March 2023 to open up the country’s legal market to allow foreign law firms to set up permanent offices in the country for the first time, though foreign lawyers would still be barred from advising on local law or appearing in India courts. 

That decision was followed by the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Law Society of England and Wales and the Bar Council of England and Wales in June last year in which the BCI committed to implementing the new rules. Although registration fees have been published, it remains unclear when the first foreign law firms will be officially registered.

GLP understands, however, that a number of large international firms have engaged consultancies and headhunters in India to help them snag the right local talent and navigate the market with a view to setting up shop there. 

An Ashurst spokesperson said the firm does not currently have any plans to open an office in India, noting it was able to service clients through its relationships with local firms, including its non-exclusive “best friend” referral arrangement with Indian Law Partners that has been in place since 2011. 

“These relationships allow us to offer integrated international India law advice, and provide seamless service to clients both inside and outside India,” they said, adding that Ashurst would continue to work with Indian Law Partners going forward. 

Unadkat worked at Ashurst between 1998 and 2008 and has rejoined directly from Khaitan. She focuses on cross border joint ventures and M&A, commercial contracts and corporate governance laws. She has worked with international clients including Expedia, Rockwell Automation and Nippon Steel on their India-related deals and operations alongside Indian businesses like Nichepharm Lifesciences. 

Meantime Mehta had stints as an associate at Slaughter and May in London and White & Case in New York before joining Khaitan as a partner in 2010, where he helped to build the firm’s banking practice in India. His core practice includes advising on credit facilities, security creation, ECBs, ODIs, NCDs, private credit and structured finance solutions and he also advises on restructuring and insolvency matters. He has worked with clients including Barclays Bank, Softbank Group and Abu Dhabi Commerical Bank. He left Khaitan in 2022, after which he practised law independently. 

“We are delighted Shishir and Kalpana are joining to lead our India practice,” said London-based Matthew Wood, Ashurst’s lead India practice partner. “India is a key strategic focus for us, and we are committed to further investing in the region. Kalpana and Shishir bring with them an impressive track record and experience advising both Indian and international clients, making them a great fit to steer our India practice forward.”

Picton-Turbervill added: “We have a long history in relation to India, notably being one of the first firms to respond to the country’s liberalisation and opening to foreign investment in the mid-1990s. These appointments signal the latest step in advancing our India offering. With their combined experience and knowledge of the Indian market, Kalpana and Shishir bring deeper bonds to our clients and enable us to further expand our capabilities.”

At a time when operating in the China legal market is becoming increasingly problematic for international firms, India’s GDP growth of 8.4% in the third quarter of fiscal year 2024 – the highest rate among the G20 – and forecasts that it is set to overtake Japan and Germany to become the world’s third largest economy by 2027 make it an attractive proposition for international law firms.

A number of international firms including Baker McKenzie and Herbert Smith Freehills have built up strong India practices serving Indian clients and international clients operating in India from bases in London and Singapore. In late 2022 Dentons, which has a structure that allows it to enter new jurisdictions by combining with local firms and its various arms to operate as mainly separate legal entities under a shared banner, also announced it had combined with Indian firm Link Legal. The Big Law player said the combination made it “a first-mover in a market that matters to our clients”.

Paul Jenkins, global CEO at Ashurst, commented: “India is an increasing source of outbound investment across the globe, while also remaining an attractive destination for foreign investment, tech and infrastructure being notable examples. Kalpana and Shishir’s appointments come at an exciting time. Both complement our existing team and are well-equipped to lead our India practice, and I am confident they will play a key role as we continue to build out our offering.”

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