Wotton: InvolvedWotton: InvolvedExclusive interview: Following a high-powered UK delegation’s meeting with the Indian law minister and the Bar Council of India (BCI), ex-Allen & Overy (A&O) partner and current Law Society of England & Wales president John Wotton says he is optimistic about the progress of Indian legal market liberalisation.

He is not the first foreign lawyer to have felt that way.

Compared to UK Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, who went on record before this week’s India trip to say he would be making the case for liberalisation “forcefully” and that Indian businesses risked missing out on growth because of “restricted domestic legal provision”, Wotton is highly diplomatic and seems cautious in his choice of words when speaking to Legally India this morning by phone from Delhi.

“I would say that all the discussions in which I’ve had the privilege to participate have been extremely productive and forward looking and I look forward to opportunities to have further and deeper dialogue with the Bar Council under the chairmanship of the Ashok Parija,” says Wotton who still practises as an anti-trust consultant for A&O. “I hope that dialogue will lead to a deeper understanding and deeper recognition of the opportunities for personal, professional and business development and what a more international legal market can bring.”

But to most intents and purposes, despite several papers’ enthusiastic headlines (“UK, India agree on law firms”, according to the Hindustan Times sub-editors, or the Wall Street Journal’s optimistic “India Considers Opening Its Doors to U.K. Law Firms”), it appears that not much was actually agreed at the meeting except agreeing to continue holding discussions.

Parija told Legally India yesterday that nothing had been signed, although both regulators would look to exchange law students and law school faculty over the next six months, and perhaps even lawyers.

Wotton does not contradict this and concedes that no “firm plans” were currently on the table and no date is fixed although he would initiate the next rounds of talks “quite soon”. “We will have a series of dialogues over the coming months [and] we expect to have a number of exchanges over the coming months. I think there’ll be many streams of discussions – you quote matters concerning law students, colleges and lawyers and I’m sure all of those will be included in our discussions.”

Part of Wotton’s enthusiasm appears to derive from the noises made by law minister Salman Khursheed who promised publicly “to put your issues on the fast track” and perhaps more in private although Wotton would not be drawn on the point. But so far Khursheed’s support seems to translate to little more than a governmental hands-off approach.

“I have the sense that like Mr Clarke, Mr Khursheed would welcome rapid development of closer cooperation in this area,” notes Wotton and adds that Khursheed also made it clear that it would be the BCI and Law Society – and not the governments – that would have to sit down and hammer things out. “I think the matter is very much at this stage for the professional bodies to take forward in dialogue.”

The new machine

Perhaps the recent lack of English regulatory push could be attributed to the fact that the Law Society’s India lobbying apparatus looked temporarily mothballed. Alison Hook, the long-serving head of international at the legal regulator who was a well-known face in India as part of a team that came close to a liberalisation deal during HR Bhardwaj’s stint as law minister, left the Law Society to become an independent consultant in December 2010.

The Law Society’s Brussels head Julia Bateman was immediately appointed as interim head of the international department and was confirmed as a permanent replacement in July of this year who will also oversee the India initiatives and discussions. But Wotton, who too took up his job as president in July 2011 and who was accompanied on this India trip by Bateman’s international section colleague Anne Wittman, assures that he would continue taking a “close personal interest in the matter”.

“I think for any profession with as long a tradition of independence as the law, it takes quite some time for a profession to acknowledge and adapt itself to change and the Indian legal profession is one of great distinction and wonderful tradition that we to a large extent share. And our approach to the role of a lawyer and professional ethics in India and England are very similar,” says Wotton when asked to explain the traditional lack of progress in the debate.

And he claims that he is not discouraged by the fact that Australia has had an actual written memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the BCI for joint ventures in the academic field since 2010, without much progress for Australian firms since then, or by discussions on this topic having been ongoing in one shape or another for so long.

Wotton says that now is a different time.

A new day

“There is a recognition widely held that the world is changing and particularly the business world is changing and that the globalisation of businesses requires very joined up international advice,” he notes. “And the tremendous international success of Indian businesses – growing Indian businesses – which are becoming global enterprises means there are enormous opportunities for the Indian legal sector to develop.”

A Ministry of Justice press release sent out on Monday estimated the size of India’s legal market at $4bn with it set to grow to $6.5bn by 2016 and – so claims the press release – “its value to India” would grow to $12.3bn if the market was “fully liberalised”.

Wotton adds that Clarke said in his speech that the UK’s legal sector relative to its gross domestic product (GDP) was more than three times as large as the Indian legal sector relative to its own GDP.

“That tells you something about the opportunities in the legal sector,” he notes, which could achieve a transformation in India just as has happened in London or New York that have become international legal centres. The largest firms in London nowadays were still those that were most prominent in the 1960s when liberalisation there started with the abolition of the 20 partner limit for English law firms, says Wotton, while many European countries that opened up still had strong independent firms.

Staunch anti-liberalisation opponents would argue that Wotton is talking a different ball game here: the UK and US firms have already internationalised while Indian law firms have just started and may never manage to compete fully in the global market place, particularly if the domestic markets were opened soon. Would successful Indian proprietors of law firms not feel that they would be missing a trick?

“If Indian firms were to take that view,” answers Wotton, “it is to wholly underestimate the opportunity that is available to them… You only have to look at the quality of people in the leading Indian firms and you can see the opportunities globally.”

Asked on how he and the Law Society would try to sell this concept to the traditional Indian law firm owners, sole proprietors or other opponents to their plans, Wotton does not give a clear response but only says, diplomatically: “I think you can take it for granted we will speak to everyone we think has something to contribute to the debate.”

Of course, by today this debate is something that many Indian negotiators will be extremely experienced at.

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Like +1 No like -0 circle of life 2011-09-28 12:46
This cycle will continue forever. There'll be some talking, some promises, some more talking, a new government, a new law society, a new BCI, some more talking, new promises, and so on...
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Like +6 No like -0 the truth 2011-09-29 01:57  interesting
The fact is that shitty lawyers from previous generations, who are currently running the show, are super scared. Quite rightly so, might I add. Their incompetence is no justification for closing the market. Useless lawyer is useless.

BCI = "We protect the crap we created"
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Like +3 No like -0 xxx 2011-09-29 07:19
stop dreaming people. FDI in retail has still not happened despite so much lobbying, Kaushika Basu's report saying it will curb food inflation, Montek's strong support, etc.

If FDI in retail can take this long, how do you expect foreign law firms to come in? They do not even have 1/1000th the lobbing power of Walmart. Besides, Kishore Biyani and many bigwigs have supported FDI in retail but all the family law firms here are opposing it.

And elections are due in 2012 (UP) and 2014. Do you expect Sonia to take such a step now?
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Like +1 No like -0 A 2011-09-29 10:36
Although I acknowledge your perspective, but I think your comparison is just like comparing apple and orange. If foreign auditing firms are operating in India for so many years now, then why can't foreign law firms ?
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Like +1 No like -0 lady gaga 2011-09-29 11:30
Well said #2 ! I hope the associates at you-know-where print the comment and keep it on their boss's desk.
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Like +0 No like -0 Mao 2011-10-02 06:39
Kian I have one big criticism of your coverage of this very important issue. You have completely ignored the political angle which I am sure you will agree will eventually decide the issue. You have not interviewed lawyers in the BJP , e.g. arun jaitley, mahesh jethmalani, ravi shankar prasad. I am sure they are the ones planning the BJP's stand on the issue. Similarly you can interview people who will tell you whether there is a split in the Congress regarding this.
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Like +0 No like -0 kianganz 2011-10-02 22:08
Thanks Mao. Partly it's about access - we have not been very close to the Delhi politics scene but we can try getting a bit closer.

Also, I somehow doubt that the BJP would make an electoral issue out of liberalising the legal market or make any pre-election pledges to that effect - would it win them any votes if they did or would other parties not be able to exploit it?

Would be interested in your views.

Best regards
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Like +0 No like -0 Mao 2011-10-04 10:54
Quoting kianganz:
Thanks Mao. Partly it's about access - we have not been very close to the Delhi politics scene but we can try getting a bit closer.

Also, I somehow doubt that the BJP would make an electoral issue out of liberalising the legal market or make any pre-election pledges to that effect - would it win them any votes if they did or would other parties not be able to exploit it?

Would be interested in your views.

Best regards

Don't just think in terms of votes. All it takes is a few third class lawyers/fixers to do a tamasha and shut down the court and the news media will give coverage. The BJP will surely oppose retail FDI as they rely on bania caste votes. They may strike a deal with lawyers groups and oppose FDI in legal services along with it. My guess is that nothing will happen before 2014 elections. It is also well-known that an influential family law firm is lobbying with senior congress ministers. The point is there is a lot of important stuff going on behind the scenes that we are not told by the media. We hear such gossip in the Supreme Court corridors.
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