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Breaking up, moving on / Issue 81

From today Indian law firms will have to get used to AZB being officially single again, Legally India can reveal.

Clifford Chance and AZB broke off their best friendship late last night, which means that global CC rivals will again be more comfortable approaching AZB with referrals.

“I don’t think there is any single international firm out there which has the ability to sustain any firm like ours [in terms of referrals],” one AZB lawyer summed up eloquently last week.

There is no doubt that many of the global law majors, partially excluding the ones with their own local tie-ups, will again flock to what was once one of their favourite Indian firms before it went effectively monogamous in January 2009.

But much has happened in those two years. Although AZB is still a market leader in areas such as M&A and is growing at a healthy rate, the firm’s bottom line has undoubtedly been hit by the decrease in global referrals. Meanwhile AZB’s rivals have not stood still and many have benefited from improved visibility and ties with foreign independents.

Not to say there have been no benefits. AZB did take advantage of CC training and knowledge management infrastructure. And strong across-the-board ties with partners one of the world’s top banking firms will not hurt when the global finance markets do recover although in recent times it would have been of more limited use.

Clifford Chance arguably emerges even stronger out of the tie-up. Apart from the individual relationships built - which could yet result in an eventual AZB-CC merger if the market does liberalise, however unlikely the prospect presently is – CC does now have the foot in the door of many of India’s top corporates, which should help it catch up with a few other foreign firms that have so far been ahead in some legs of the India-race.

To assume that this break-up will sound a knell for the other Indian best friendships is premature – the AZB/CC relationship was always atypical because of the size of the parties. But it is safe to say that in the last two years the appetite for any further experiments and novel tie-ups has decreased markedly.

Another strong rumour this week proved less solid. Newspapers and media went into a tizzy on Tuesday that law minister Veerappa Moily could be shunted out of the law ministry to another cabinet post. It was not to be. And a good thing too, although Moily was partly to blame for the AZB/CC break-up, having come into power with the ink still drying on the AZB/CC friendship agreement. If previous law minister HR Bhardwaj had stayed in power, AZB and/or Clifford Chance might by now have been known as Clifford Mody & Partners LLP. Perhaps.

Bygones notwithstanding, Moily’s reform plans are ambitious and necessary, if at the moment still mostly theoretical. A change at the top of the law ministry now would do nothing but hamper legal reform.

While the AZB/CC-related rumour mill was in overdrive over the past two weeks, other significant events transpired too.

Young but dynamic start-up RDA Legal has renamed itself to PXV, launched a Mumbai office and hired three laterals into its lockstep. Plus, it held what could very well have been the first documented democratic managing partner election in Indian law firm history.

And Luthra & Luthra celebrates two victories. The firm finally secured new office space in Mumbai, making it the most recent in a long line to flee South Mumbai to Parel and giving it the much-needed ability to expand in the financial hub.

Luthra & Luthra also played to its traditional strength in project finance, topping the 2010 project finance league tables by a country mile.

All things considered, however, perhaps the biggest winners this week were Titus & Co, who lifted the Turf-SILF T20 Cricket Cup for Law Firms after a gruelling competition that began last year.

At the bar and bench

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