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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are of the fictional Indian lawyer in London, Nandii Reywal.  The author has no political or other agenda and may or may not agree with Nandii.

Disclaimer 2: Let me make it clear at the outset that I think Indian lawyers (like me) are absolutely top-class and Indian law firms are doing a fantastic job. These are simply ramblings of an idle mind.

Been a while since my last post.

I met up with a friend from law school yesterday. He made salaried partner at one of big law firms in India a few years ago. We gossiped like old ladies about old classmates (looks like divorces are the flavor of the day at our age), complained about our bosses (even partners have big bosses) and generally exchanged notes on life in Mumbai and London.

As nostalgia and drink began to set in, I asked about chances of the Indian legal market being liberalised to let foreign firms in. No way in hell, he said. Got me thinking. Having never worked in an Indian law firm, the more I thought about it the more confused I got.

Naturally there are valid concerns of reciprocity and how liberalisation will be implemented (if at all) but to my mind, the debate has significant knock–on effects on two categories of people - young Indian lawyers starting their careers and clients in India.

For now, this post only explores whether there is any possible benefit liberalisation could bring these two groups.

Specialisation: I was recruited by Colby, Hewitt and Richards and trained for two years across four departments before choosing to qualify into the corporate department of the firm to become an M&A lawyer.  Most of my peers in India were randomly distributed across departments depending on a whim – some left in six months, some enjoyed it so much that they remain chained to their desks to this day. Would liberalisation allow young lawyers more flexibility to become the kind of lawyers they want to be or would the international firms see them as highly replaceable billing machines from day 1? Would Indian clients accept the higher level of specialisation that the international law firms offer or do they prefer their lawyers to be generalists with one person advising on everything from real estate to tax to competition law?

Cross-border work: Working across borders can be rewarding by way of experiencing different jurisdictions and working practices. While the scale of the deals in India is often similar to the deals abroad, is young talent at Indian firms getting the opportunity to stretch itself beyond Indian boundaries and take the lead on international deals? I don’t know. For those who do wish to work internationally, the only route seems to be through a foreign LLM. Except for the lucky few that can bag a job, this can be a costly job-hunting exercise often leading to disappointment as the job market is tight and there are immigration issues. Would liberalisation be a more cost-effective way of providing our young talent with the international experience? Might it even prevent the drain of some of India’s legal brains?

Training : It isn’t easy to keep pace with the latest legal developments when you’re working all the hours god made. Luckily, the firms I’ve worked at have placed quite a high premium on legal training programmes.  So every few days everyone from partner to lowly trainee is shunted into a classroom and made to listen tothe latest legal upates. Some of it even finds its way into our heads. Would liberalisation bring in a culture of formalized ongoing training or would this be seen in India as time spent not working? Do Indian lawyers already spend a lot of time keeping themselves current with law (researching for client memos doesn't count!) ? If the answer is no, do Indian clients require that their lawyers have at least a vague idea of the latest legal happenings or are they simply happy to pay for advice?

Accountability: Firms have reputations which they spend a lot of time (and money) protecting. I don’t know if a firm in India has ever being sued for negligence/ malpractice by a client but negligence claims against law firms are common in other jurisdictions (and one of the reasons why lawyers stress so much about the quality of their work). Similarly, I don’t know if a firm in India has ever been sued by one of its employees/consultants. Policies on harassment/promotion/equality/diversity which actually work for the employees and promote meaningful dialogue when issues arise are a must for every organisation. Would liberalisation help hold law firms accountable to their clients/employees or is this something that isn’t seen as an issue in the Indian market?

War for talent: Crucially, would liberalisation worry Indian law firms enough to make them do more to retain their top talent? Given that India produces several thousand lawyers every year, would it create more jobs for Indian students if local staffing is made a pre-condition to the entry of international firms? Would it mean better salaries?

Liberalisation is certainly not the panacea for all ills and this post doesn’t offer any answers – just more questions.

Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section. Keep it nice.

Until next time,

Nandii Reywal

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