Exclusive: International firm Ashurst has entered into a best friend relationship with India Law Partners (ILP), the four-month old DSK Legal breakaway set up by Gopika Pant and Piyoosh Gupta.
The firms would give preference in referring work to each other as “best friends” but would remain non-exclusive in line with Indian restrictions, Pant and Ashurst India head Richard Gubbins told Legally India.
Pant said: “We are a boutique firm but we want to provide more effective services for our clients and provide a global reach. We have known Ashurst for 11 years and the clients they have referred are still there with us.”
While having worked with many international law firms in their careers, said Pant, she and Gupta had partnered with 12 Ashurst offices on cross-border transactions and she viewed Ashurst as being “long term players” in India.
Lawyers Collective ‘helpful’
“The Lawyers Collective action was very helpful in that it enabled us to really focus what our strategy was going to be going forwards,” explained Gubbins about the London-headquartered firm having to close its Delhi liaison office after losing the 2009 Bombay High Court case against it and two other firms.
But even before then, said Gubbins, he had been looking to enter into a best friend relationship with an Indian law firm. “Gopika and Piyoosh were at the top of that list, although other names were considered,” said Gubbins. “But as hard as we thought about it we kept coming back to [them] because we really trusted them in terms of looking after our clients and giving quality legal advice in the Indian environment.”
Having such long-term relationships with Indian lawyers would help in institutionalising client relationships, he said. “They share a vision with us, they want to operate in the global arena.”
Negotiations between Ashurst and ILP had been ongoing since before ILP went independent from DSK in March but the best friendship has only now been fully agreed upon.
New-old boutique and relationships
India Law Partners founder partners Pant and Gupta, who had first started up a firm under the same name in 1999 when they left Amarchand Mangaldas until they merged into DSK in 2004, said that the firm now consisted of 10 other lawyers based in Delhi.
Pant, who is dual qualified in New York and India, said that their boutique was focused in a few practice areas such as corporate, M&A, corporate commercial, and a little bit of equity capital markets work. Clients included Serco, BUPA, Essar, New Silk Route, Egon Zendar and Xchanging Group, she said.
Both Gubbins and Pant admitted that there could be a loss of referrals from other international or Indian firms respectively. Gubbins added that while Ashurst had been referring work to India consistently there was not a “huge amount back” from Indian firms and many clients ultimately made their own choice of the international firms they preferred to work with, independently of domestic lawyers’ suggestions.
Both also noted that there was no written agreement or contract between the firms documenting the best friendship. “It’s a relationship that has been built and all depends on largely on trust and it will only work going forward if we’re successful,” Gubbins noted. “It has to be a win-win for us and for them.”
No winds of change
No plans had yet been made to merge if the Indian markets ever allowed foreign firms to set up offices in the country, they added.
“I get more and more pessimistic by the day about the markets liberalising - I think it’s a long way off,” speculated Gubbins. “And when markets do liberalise I certainly envisage it will be a stepped change. We, Ashurst may be able to set up an office in India, which is step one. That wouldn’t sort of change the relationship [with India Law Partners]. Step Two, maybe another three or four years later, we can enter into a JV or alliance with another Indian law firm. At that stage we ask our selves the question: Should we form an alliance with ILP?”
“And step three, [a full merger],” he mused, “will probably be long after I’ve retired from Ashurst.”
As first reported by Legally India this year, AZB & Partners and Clifford Chance ended their tie-up in January while in April the Clyde & Co and ALMT Legal arrangement ended, with Clydes continuing a best friendship with the ALMT breakaway Clasis Law.