The silence is deafening: India’s Awakening

We are surprised not to have seen more of the news arising from India recently in our legal press. Although this lack of interest may be understandable, due to the number of ‘false dawns’ of the liberalisation of the Indian legal market, if news from India is to be believed (and our sources on the ground believe it is) the dawn of Indian legal market liberalisation is just about to break.

In July, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad called for the liberalisation of the legal market in India, specifically opening the market to international law firms. Whilst our contacts in Mumbai feel that there is more to these recent developments than there ever have been in previous liberalisation discussions, some from outside India still greet this news with a hint of sceptisim given that this is not the first time the matter has been raised.

Nevertheless, with executive committee member of the Indian National Bar Association Salman Waris telling the India Business Law Journal this week that the government are looking at a timeline of three to four months to liberalise the sector, there seems to be a growing consensus view within India, if not outside it, that this change is coming and it is coming soon.

India awakening

Those we have spoken with on the ground in India have made it clear that for Prime Minister Modi, the liberalisation of the legal sector is a key step on his path to a more open and liberal country, and an ‘easy win’ compared to other sectors.

The first phase of the liberalisation programme is likely to be allowing international firms to set up offices in Special Economic Zones ‘where their lawyers could advise domestic and foreign clients on non-Indian laws’. If this does take place, it is highly likely that we will see a significant change in the approach and strategy of international law firms to the world’s 7th largest economy and what is a potentially powerful legal market.

An example of the activity that could follow in India is seen in the expansion of the South Korean legal market, which since liberalising in 2011/12 has had 28 foreign law firms open up offices there. With many firms already working with clients in India, wanting to invest in the region more or having India desks in different countries, it is highly likely that there will be a surge of international firms hungry to get their feet on the ground in Mumbai or wherever they are permitted.

With many international firms looking for their version of global domination, a new and enticing market such as India offers further opportunity to offer clients the desired geographical coverage and crudely adds another pin in their global map. For the Indian market however there is more at stake, with the move being welcomed by local firms and lawyers as progress within the market, offering the potential to open up the Indian economy further to international investors.

There will likely be failures by some overzealous international firms wanting to ‘land grab’, and it is expected that those who take a more considered and strategic approach to the market will fare better.

For the time being, whilst these events unfold, we will have to keep a close eye on the developments coming from the legal ministry in India, and how international firms greet this news. As part of our continued interest in these developments, we will be writing a more in depth piece on the Indian legal market including the outlook from clients and those on the ground to keep our readers up to date with what could be an exciting event later this year.

Tom Spence is a Director at Fides Search. If you have any questions or would like to discuss the issue further, please contact him at [email protected]