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Today’s mega meet: PM dead serious about foreign firms in GIFT & India • BCI to lift advertising ban • 2-4 weeks for stakeholder comments

Could Indian legal market liberalisation actually be happening? For the first time, the government puts its full weight behind matters...
Government very keen on green light for foreign law firms to increase competition
Government very keen on green light for foreign law firms to increase competition

The law and commerce ministries, including law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, met with a number of stakeholders of the Indian legal profession today, paving the way for the first stage of allowing foreign law firms to set up shop in India.

At the meeting, the government told the Bar Council of India (BCI) to prepare draft amendments within four weeks to allow lawyers to advertise and market themselves, in order to allay concerns of some promoters domestic law firms that they would be unable to compete with foreign firms.

According to several people present at the meeting, the commerce ministry secretary told the assembled lawyers in a meeting lasting several hours that prime minister Narendra Modi wanted foreign law firms to enter India as a top priority and that Indian lawyers were competent enough and ready to face the competition, which would considerably grow the legal services sector.

The first stage would be allowing foreign law firms to set up shop in special economic zones (SEZs) such as the Gujarat Financial Tech City (GIFT), where they could advise domestic and foreign clients on non-Indian laws as well as represent clients in arbitrations.

Furthermore, the ministry told the BCI to prepare draft amendments to the Advocates Act and BCI Rules within four weeks, with an eye on a so-called leveling of the playing field of Indian law firms vis-a-vis foreign ones.

The BCI’s proposed amendments should allow Indian law firms to advertise and market their services, including the setting up of proper websites.

After allowing foreign firms into SEZs, the government would consider the second phase and what exact shape that should take.

Stakeholders

The Society of Indian Law Firms (Silf) lobby group was represented by Lalit Bhasin and lawyers from several member firms, such as Cyril and Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB & Partners, Luthra & Luthra, J Sagar Associates (JSA) and others.

The Indian National Bar Association (INBA) was headed by secretary Kaviraj Singh.

After the commerce ministry made its pitch for around 20 minutes, Bhasin made arguments again for an entry of foreign law firms in stages, and that the government should neither allow foreign law firms to practice Indian law nor hire Indian lawyers.

Other members of the Silf delegations, such as Luthra & Luthra senior partner Mohit Saraf, mostly concurred with Bhasin's point.

However, TechLegis founding partner Salman Waris appearing as part of the INBA delegation, said that foreign firms in any case already employed Indian lawyers, working in places such as New York or Singapore and that such restriction from employing Indian lawyers for when they set up within India would be arbitrary.

Kaviraj Singh also emphasised that foreign law firms should be allowed to hire Indian lawyers if setting up in India.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad added that some regulation of Indian and foreign law firms was required, however. The currently most popular idea in previous discussions was that the BCI should regulate both. Currently, the BCI only regulates individual advocates but not law firms.

The ministries gave lawyers two weeks to submit their comments and suggestions for the proposed way forward.

The last to speak at the meeting was BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra, who said that the BCI had already made submissions to the ministry and would recommend further steps, though he claimed his hands were also somewhat tied by the demands of local bar associations and state bar councils.

We have reached out to Bhasin for comment.

The BCI was represented by BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra.

The Bar Association of India was represented by president-elect Prashant Kumar, who told Bar & Bench today: “We want to have a phased liberalisation of profession like the approach adopted in Singapore. Foreign lawyers should be only allowed to advise on their own laws and there should also be restriction on employing Indian lawyers on them. In the second phase by the time Indian legal profession has the benefit of change in regulations here, the other steps in terms of allowing foreign law firms to employ Indian lawyers can be allowed.”

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