Clifford Chance senior partner Stuart Popham wisely avoids the running joke that the Indian legal market will liberalise in two years.
“I’m confident it will happen,” Popham says. “I’m just not sure what the catalyst is; but I’ll keep knocking on the door and seeking to persuade people. But it requires Indian lawyers to want it.”
Popham concedes that the Indian lawyers who will take the most convincing are the ones with influence. Many are not there yet, but in Popham’s opinion there is nothing for Indian lawyers to fear from liberalisation and everything to be gained.
Barriers to entry
“Clifford Chance has always followed or gone hand-in-hand with clients in markets where there’s a need, as perceived by clients, for legal services,” notes Popham. “How we go about delivering those legal services obviously depends on local regulation.”
India is now, of course, one of the last remaining major obstacles. Other markets, such as Singapore and Japan, and even the EU as recently as 1992, had legal professions that were heavily restricted to outsiders. Most have now come around. In India, though, the fear among local lawyers is that deregulation will lead to job losses.
“We’ve opened markets or been the first into markets in a number of different countries, and I can say to you, never once has that resulted in the loss of a single job or job opportunity in a country that’s been liberalised,” stresses Popham. “It’s quite the reverse. More jobs have been created in the legal community and supporting the legal community – never less.”
Popham argues that, from a client standpoint, there is only a benefit to liberalisation and no downside.
“For a lot of citizens of a country where the legal system liberalises, they see little or no impact at all, they’re unaffected,” he argues. “But to those who are affected, it’s positive.”
Albeit honestly held, those arguments are at least partly self-serving. Arguably India and its legal market could survive very well without international firms. But the way Popham sees it, India – with its developed legal system – has the opportunity to be at the centre of a geographic region that is rapidly developing economically and which needs legal advice.
“It makes every sense for Indian firms to internationalise to be able to offer those services,” he adds, “rather than clients in surrounding and outlying countries to be looking to New York or London.”
Looking at it from the other perspective, it is not always easy to justify India to partnerships when it is not possible to operate an actual office in the jurisdiction.
“It’s practising with one arm behind our back, it’s not a comparable exercise in a way,” admits Popham, who then segues smoothly into a discussion of the recent magic trick Clifford Chance managed to pull off in India.
“We’re very pleased with our client relationships in India and very, very pleased with our relationship with AZB [& Partners],” he enthuses. “And that, under the current regulatory regime, is a more effective way of providing work and Indian advice to our clients and actually of marketing the firm through AZB outside India.”
By befriending the second-largest firm in the market early this year, Clifford Chance pulled off something of an coup. For Clifford Chance the appeal is clear.
“The benefit is undoubtedly the ability to offer Indian legal advice to our clients directly by introducing them to AZB and people we know and have worked with,” says Popham. “We can see the quality and standard of the work and it’s much more efficient.”
Popham adds that the arrangement can decrease lawyer travel and wasted time by the firm cooperating more closely on Indian and international pitches and work.
“It changes the economics, it cuts costs,” he insists. “And just to keep the record absolutely clear, there is absolutely no financial movement, incentive, sharing, whatever you want to call it, between AZB and ourselves. We’re as conscious as they are of the regulatory position, which incidentally is where it was in the UK up until about 1983. The ability to share between non-UK and UK lawyers was limited.”
Presumably Clifford Chance would ultimately aim higher than a best friends deal? Popham says that right now building the relationship between the firms is key “so that when – well, if – regulations permit, it permits us to do something more”.
He insists that Clifford Chance and AZB have not had any discussions on hypothetical merger scenarios or the integration of the hugely different equity structures – all would depend on the shape that the regulations ultimately take.
“You can spend an awful lot of time looking into the future,” he says, “and it will be longer than I want it to be.”
The next steps are further joint activities for the firms, ranging from business development to knowledge management and training. The latter will see its formal debut this month, with Clifford Chance opening the doors of its training centre to AZB associates.
Clifford Chance may not be the biggest law firm in the world anymore and the Indian road is very likely still long. But the firm has managed to capture the attention of the Indian market, which is no mean feat.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Legallyindia.com