Clifford Chance and India’s AZB ditch ‘best friends’ tie-up

Clifford Chance has broken off its ’best friends’ relationship with India’s AZB & Partners after both firms saw fewer referrals than expected and Indian liberalisation failed to materialise.

AZB Mumbai-based co-founding partner Bahram Vakil and two Clifford Chance sources confirmed that both firms would now continue as “good friends” instead of best friends.

One AZB partner commented: “In real terms it would mean greater freedom to work with other firms while remaining secure about our good friendship.”

One Clifford Chance partner said that one of the triggers for the break-up was that when the firms entered into their tie-up legal market liberalisation was expected to happen in the near future. Now momentum had been lost, said the partner, although Clifford Chance was still keen to open an on-the-ground office in India whenever regulations permitted.

It is understood that another reason was the relative scarcity of joint mandates on larger deals, with it often being hard to convince Indian clients to instruct firms other than their previously established overseas legal advisers.

In addition, the slump in the global economy and in banking – one of Clifford Chance’s core practice areas – has meant that inbound referrals into India from the magic circle firm were fewer than expected.

“I don’t think there is any single [international] firm out there which has the ability to sustain any firm like ours [in terms of referrals],” commented one AZB lawyer

AZB co-founding partners Ajay Bahl, Zia Mody and Bahram Vakil visited the London office of Clifford Chance last Tuesday (11 January) for a scheduled and regular six-monthly relationship evaluation meeting, two years after the firms first announced their best friendship in January 2009 (14 January 2009).

The visit was accompanied by heavy speculation in the Mumbai legal market that the firms would break off their relationship. Sources close to AZB confirmed last week that the relationship was discussed at the meeting but nothing had been pre-decided, although the status of the relationship had been under continual discussions before then too.

At the meeting both firms agreed to wind down the official relationship by the end of February 2011 but plans were accelerated this week as market rumours and speculation continued to mount, with both firms having terminated all their previous contractual ‘best friend’ arrangements by last night.

An internal announcement was sent to Clifford Chance partners earlier today.

Last November Clifford Chance Singapore managing partner Geraint Hughes succeeded India head Chris Wyman, who retiredfrom the firm after spending 16 months on secondment to AZB (25 November 2010).

This story first appeared on LegallyIndia.com.