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Talking shop: England’s Law Soc pres John Wotton on liberalisation & new BCI dialogues

Wotton: Involved
Wotton: Involved
Exclusive 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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