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Amarchand's love affair with UK talent - to be continued?

Amarchand Mangaldas has been increasingly turning to the UK and Ireland for talent making three innovative hires in recent weeks alone. So what is the Shroffs' game plan? Is Amarchand spreading its wings to turn into a global law firm?

The firm recruited non-Indian qualified Irish competition lawyer Paku Khan (9 November), found itself chief operating officer (COO) Valerie Bowles from the UK (23 November) and has engaged former Linklaters' India head and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton partner Nikhil Mehta on a retainer to do regular non-Indian law tax work.

The sudden influx of Western talent into Amarchand is pathbreaking, but also somewhat ironic given that the firm is widely perceived as being strongly opposed to foreign lawyers entering India.

Mumbai managing partner Cyril Shroff (pictured left) claims that the firm has been misunderstood on its liberalisation stance for a long time.

"We're not opponents of liberalisation," he said. "We're for it to be done sensibly and in a fair manner, on a comprehensive review of the entire legal sector."

As all observers know, this same review has been ongoing for years and is unlikely to conclude any time soon ­ five to 10 years is as good a guess as two years at this stage.

Clearly the strategy at Amarchand and other Indian firms has been to buy time, enabling them to grow and modernise so that when foreign firms do enter they will have a much tougher fight on their hands.

Cyril Shroff confirmed that the changes taking place at Amarchand are aimed at making the firm more competitive and his brother, and Delhi managing partner Shardul Shroff (pictured right), agreed.

"Some of the issues which are now visible have been ongoing for over a year in the processes we've put in place in terms of professionalisation both in Delhi and Mumbai," explained Shardul Shroff.

Although Amarchand Delhi's long-standing COO resigned in July, the office does have non-lawyer managers dealing with finance, human resources, communications, IT and other practice support functions.

Amarchand Mumbai's hire of the former COO of several UK regional firms is then another piece in the puzzle the Shroffs see as vital for the continued growth of the firm.

Enticing competition lawyer Khan from Ireland's A&L Goodbody to Delhi and entering into a retainer agreement with Mehta are two other pieces.

"I think we're continuously looking at exploring areas where there's domestic expertise," said Shardul Shroff, "but where there's not or where we want to cut down the time space in doing that activity, we'll look at experts who can step in from abroad."

He added that Khan's hire is an experience sharing acquisition rather than a practice acquisition, as under the legal restrictions Khan will not be permitted to practice Indian law when moving to Delhi.

Cyril Shroff also hinted that hiring UK-qualified lawyers may continue, even if they do not have Indian legal qualifications.

In the finance space, particularly in advanced financing and structured finance techniques, he explained, there is no expertise in the Indian market and talent may well have to come from abroad.

Amarchand's retainer with Mehta has a slightly different dimension and is hoped to enable the firm to easily incorporate international tax advice into in- and out-bound transactions. Mehta will be expected to spend around 30 to 40 per cent of his time on Amarchand-related advice.

But Cyril Shroff said that the firm will not be competing with UK firms as it does not refer a huge amount of tax work out and most of that work is handled by the Big Four accountants anyway.

He also insisted that calling Amarchand an international law firm is probably an overstatement. "If it means setting up an office outside of India, we're not thinking along those lines," he said.

And seeing as Amarchand has no single best friend but likes many in the UK and US, staying out of London is an obvious choice for the firm.

A version of this article was first published in The Lawyer magazine in the UK today.

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