'Huge opportunities' - the legal profession reacts to long-awaited liberalisation of India's legal market

Ben Rigby gauges the response of Indian and UK lawyers to new rules allowing international firms to open Indian offices

Law Society president Lubna Shuja Image courtesy of the Law Society

The landmark decision by the Bar Council of India (BCI) to allow the establishment of foreign lawyers and law firms in India has been met with a chorus of approval from the UK's business law community and their professional bodies, and a cautious welcome from Indian business lawyers.

Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said the decision to allow international law firms to open offices in India followed recent meetings with the BCI and the Law Secretary of India. She called it "a significant step forward in this long-standing issue that will create huge opportunities for solicitors and Indian advocates in both countries".

With negotiations lasting more than a decade, Shuja thanked the BCI and the Indian government for "constructive and productive discussions, including during our visit to Delhi last week".

“We look forward to engaging further on implementing the regulations, based on reciprocity of access, and on further initiatives to foster collaboration, cooperation and joint practice between Indian advocates and solicitors. England and Wales are open to practice by Indian lawyers and law firms, both for temporary practice and permanent establishment, and we are committed to ensuring it remains open."  

Akil Hirani, managing partner of Majmudar & Partners, called it "a step in the right direction", adding that foreign investors would derive comfort from having established advisers on the ground.

"It will also open up the market for senior, dual-qualified Indian lawyers, who will be able to come back to India and lead practice initiatives for their foreign law firms," he said. He predicted a limited impact on Indian law firms, given that international rivals would use the local legal market for Indian law transactions, opinions and litigation matters.

Bithika Anand, the CEO of Legal League Consulting in India, said that previous liberalisation efforts had significantly boosted economic growth and generated employment. Any changes to India's legal market could, she said on LinkedIn, have a similar effect by opening up Indian law firms to global best practices, enabling them to deliver superior legal services.

However, she noted, “a majority of law firms and lawyers in India, especially those in rural and interior parts of the country, may continue to operate more traditionally and conservatively”.

Aman Abbas, the founder of Commwiser, an Indian legal PR consultancy, noted reciprocity might prompt challenges for Indian lawyers, who are not allowed to advertise or promote their practices. "It is yet to be seen what kind of tools lawyers would be allowed to leverage to compete well in the market. However, enough opportunities are available to showcase thought leadership and engage with clients," he said. 

Mythily Katsaris, India desk lead at London firm Fladgate, noted, however, the new rules did not address exclusive tie-ups between London law firms and Indian firms, which she said the BCI should clarify.

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The Bar Council

Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, said: "We warmly welcome this significant opening of the Indian legal market to legal professionals in the UK. The Bar Council has been working on this issue for decades, and the announcement is a significant step forward."

He added: “It seems that barristers will now have short-term rights to provide advisory services and to act as advocates in arbitration representation in international arbitrations, similar to the rights our Indian colleagues have had in the UK for many years.”

Bankim Thanki KC, head of London commercial set Fountain Court Chambers, said his set had developed its profile in India for several years. Noting that it had recruited three prominent and distinguished Indian Senior Advocates as door tenants, he welcomed the news that foreign lawyers could practise in India under certain conditions. 

“Provided the registration of foreign lawyers and firms is managed effectively, which seems to be a clear intention, we see this as a positive development — particularly when it comes to arbitration and advisory work.”

Thanki agreed with Hirani, saying the move was not a threat to the domestic Indian legal market. Instead, he said, it would "thrive in response to the dynamic injection of new participants, just as London and Singapore's legal markets had grown through broadening participation".

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