As Ashurst’s time in Delhi comes to a close, the firm’s India group head Richard Gubbins remains optimistic about the future for foreign lawyers in the country
”As far as Ashurst is concerned, I’m very happy with where we are today,” says the firm’s India group head Richard Gubbins. For a lawyer who has just shut down an office he has helped build and defend for 15 years, he does not sound upset at all. Is he just putting a brave face on things, or is Ashurst secretly glad to be rid of what had turned into an expensive millstone?
In India, as the only major foreign firm that had a physical footprint in the country, Ashurst has been a unique animal for a while now. Last month that footprint became history when the firm shut down its Delhi liaison office.
In fairness, the office was never really allowed to do much. The practice of law was out due to Indian Bar Council restrictions, while Ashurst lawyers in India on billing business were strictly forbidden to set foot in the firm’s own premises.
Instead, the office had a different function. Born in 1994 in the days when foreign firms barely knew Delhi from Bombay, as it then was, Ashurst’s local country manager and former India Administrative Service (IAS) man Ashok Mubayi helped the firm and its clients understand things better.
After all, then (as well as now, but to a lesser degree) getting things done in India was as much about understanding the arcane Indian bureaucracy – who you know and who you could get to know – rather than just about the black letter law.
And in 1994 legal advisers who would go out of their way to do this for foreign clients were hard to find and definitely not listed in any Yellow Pages or accessible via Google.
Speaking to Gubbins about work in India, two things stand out. One is that the word ’relationships’ crops up often. The other is that he is an eternal optimist with a good sense of humour. The two are bound to serve him well.
Gubbins took up the position of leading Ashurst’s India business group 18 months ago. It was a new role in the firm, with a job spec to unify and market the firm’s India business across its other practice areas and geographies.
“I have partners reporting to me in each of the four main ’platforms’ of our business, which are corporate, infrastructure, energy and banking and finance,” he explains. “I’ve been on visits with my partners responsible for those areas in the past 18 months. They are fully aware of their responsibilities and what they have to do in getting close to the top Indian law firms and developing relationships with those law firms in their respective practice areas.
“That has really been developed outside of the confines of the liaison office. Yes, our liaison office has been there and has facilitated the organisation of those visits,” he concedes, “but that’s all it’s done for me in the past 18 months.”
What India could do to benefit him, Ashurst and its clients now would be to allow the firm to open a real, fee-earning office in the country, he says. Then he muses: “Knowing India as I do – and Ashurst has got to know India very well over the years – you’re not going to achieve utopia overnight.”
Gubbins claims that the Lawyers Collective judgment, which reiterated that foreign lawyers are not allowed to practise any sort of law, including transactional law, in India, was not a setback, however.
“I would say the judgment is positive in that it is up to the government to determine what will happen with the policy going forward,” he notes, adding that he thinks the government will resolve the matter. “They’re aiming to build a consensus among the stakeholders and I think that [law minister] Dr Moily is taking it in the right direction, and to seek that consensus.”
However, he admits that Moily’s plan to bring excellence to the legal profession as a whole might take precedence over the relatively minor political issue of foreign law firms.
“How long is it going to take?” he asks, then laughs. “Maybe long after I retire.
“I think to be totally realistic and practical, we are where we are and the system isn’t going to change for a while,” he continues. “I think what that means is that we just carry on doing what we’re doing, and really getting very close and strengthening our relationships with top legal practitioners in India.
“We spent the past 16 years doing that. That’s not to say that we’re going to spend the next 16 years doing the same,” he jokes, “but if that’s what it takes, that’s what we have to do.” n
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on www.legallyindia.com