Are we there yet?

There’s an old cliché routinely advanced by history undergraduates that the middle class is rising, whatever the century. It’s easy to find the legal market equivalent: whatever the political circumstances, the Indian market is about to open up.

But let’s be realistic. Despite the optimism of the Law Society and many UK lawyers, Indian ­liberalisation looks no closer than it did five years ago. Take the Satyam judgment last year, where the Indian Supreme Court gave itself the power to set aside any awards made in foreign ­arbitrations if they were “in conflict with the public policy of India”.

This was, to say the least, unhelpful. And it was particularly unhelpful to the growing number of arbitration specialists targeting the jurisdiction
– not that it stopped the London Court of International Arbitration opening in Delhi last month. But with former Minister of Law Hansraj Bhardwaj being dropped from the new cabinet last month, the liberalisation campaign looks like it has lost one of its best-placed political advocates. (You can read more in our India Special Report, here and here.)

This isn’t stopping UK firms circling. As we revealed on TheLawyer.com last week (4 June), Clyde & Co has followed Clifford Chance and AZB to become the latest to sign up an Indian best friend, ALMT Legal. All these steps are at best preparatory.

Best friend relationships are notoriously fragile, so we won’t assume longevity here – although the news that Clifford Chance banking partner Chris Wyman is being seconded to AZB shows how ­seriously magic circle firms are taking things, even at the risk of being cast as supplicants.

UK firms are used to biding their time when they have to establish a beachhead in foreign territory, but often the most carefully crafted plans go awry. It happened in the great German landgrab of 2000 and 2001, when certain Anglo-Saxon managing partners who could barely order Kaffee or Kuchen ended up better off than many who had patiently developed relationships over years. You can spend years nurturing ties, but it only takes one person from a rival firm with a bit of charisma and a convincing narrative to leap in and charm your favoured target into alliance. Clifford Chance and Clydes have still got a lot of work to do.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com