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It was all smiles at Admiralty House last week, where the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) and the Law Society were playing host to the All India Bar Association (AIBA) and a crowd of the legal great and good from the UK. Perhaps there was a tad too many meat-based canapes for the numerous vegetarian guests of honour, but the overall mood was buoyant.
After years of quiet pressure and nine months of concentrated diplomacy, India is on the verge of opening up to foreign lawyers. But is this yet another false dawn? Not according to sources close to the lobbying process. As we report today, there has been an astonishing sea change among senior Indian opinion-formers. It was a diplomatic masterstroke by the Law Society to invite a 20-strong delegation from the AIBA and show them that UK lawyers aren't a bunch of monstrous economic imperialists.
It paid off: the AIBA has declared that it is supporting the proposals to liberalise entry into the market. By the way, the AIBA is not the governing body of the profession, but it is nevertheless hugely powerful. Crucially, it is chaired by Adish Aggarwala, who up until now has been vociferous in his opposition to foreign law firms. His change of heart has been vital to the breakthrough.
This development has led sources at the DCA to predict a partial opening of the Indian legal services market in around a year or so. Ashurst, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Olswang and a host of other City firms will be delighted. But before they all start booking their flights to Bangalore, Indian domestic regulations will have to change. At the moment Indian firms are prohibited from advertising or from having more than 20 partners. And the 1961 Advocates Act, which forbids foreigners from practising in India, will have to be amended.
So what triggered the U-turn? It was the AIBA's acceptance that UK firms are not interested in local advocacy (the lifeblood of many Indian firms), which constitutes around 90 per cent of the market. Indeed, you can hardly see David Childs or Tony Angel scheming to compete with local firms for court work.
There may be a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of senior Indian lawyers. We are certain to see the emergence of a legal supergroup of firms, such as Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB & Partners, Luthra & Luthra, Fox Mandal Little and Trilegal. And as we report today, Fox Mandal is poised to open in London. The opportunities are everywhere.