India Watch: the forbidden land of ‘approximately’ 1.2 million lawyers

By far the personal question that I get asked the most by lawyers in India and abroad is: “Why India?” You might want to ask A&O, CC, Links or Freshfields or the rest of the pack the same question.

But since first blog posts traditionally commence with an introduction of the blogger, I will answer that question and while doing so I will also introduce the Indian lawyer, who will be the protagonist in most future posts I expect.

Two-and-a-half years ago after several years in the magic circle and at The Lawyer I moved to Mumbai.

Infamously India is one of the world’s few remaining jurisdictions where international corporate lawyers dream of practising though they’re not allowed to.

Perhaps because of this forbidden-fruit aspect the UK legal market was buzzing about India in a big way back then: “They’ll let us open offices there in two years”, new best friends were made, more Indian firms were pushing into London and partner poachings created international “distrust”.

And as the world’s economy threatened to head into a post-Lehman stone age India’s growth rates continued apparently unperturbed, so heading out here to start the first news-driven legal industry trade mag seemed like a great idea. So far, it’s been great fun!

Now, please allow me to introduce India and all its lawyers.

The chorus

India has “approximately” 1.2 million enrolled lawyers. On top of that “approximately” 400,000 to 500,000 Indians are studying the law with “approximately” 60,000 to 70,000 of those graduating to join the legal profession every year.

So says the Bar Council of India (BCI) but you’re forgiven for wondering whether the three-time use of “approximately” on its website suggests that India’s legal regulator does not really know exactly how many lawyers it is supposed to be regulating. And to be fair it’s a near-impossible task; some say that many lawyers hold practising certificates just for kicks, to find a fellow lawyer spouse, or so that they can dodge traffic fines/bribes when stopped by cops.

Nevertheless, even if only ballpark, the number of lawyers is growing roughly twice as quickly as India’s population, which suggests that India will soon become the world’s largest home of lawyers, eclipsing even the US where 1,201,968 lawyers plied their profession in 2010, according to the American Bar Association.

Exciting, right? Well yes, sort of. The legal process outsourcing (LPO) outfits love it (yes, those same LPOs that are said to be taking away all those jobs from young US and UK lawyers).

The international law firms too say they love it (great “talent pools”/recruitment grounds, established common-law system, and feeling less alone when over on a visit).

And Indian lawyers love it too – in terms of sheer numbers as well as clout, they’re pretty big in India (seemingly every other big politician is a lawyer of some sort).

But at the same time this huge population of lawyers is one of the reasons why India has one of the slowest justice systems in the world: 4.24 million cases are pending in India’s court, of which more than 50,000 are before India’s Supreme Court. More on that can of worms in a future post.

It is also a reason why reform of any kind in the legal sector is terribly difficult to achieve: the 1961 Advocates Act that governs lawyers has been nearly untouched and regulation has barely been updated since then, although a few years ago lawyers were unofficially given the go-ahead to have very basic websites.

A side-effect is that foreign legal diplomats lobbying for legal market liberalisation have been banging their heads against walls in frustration for years now and may very well continue doing so.

Cream of crop

By contrast the number of corporate lawyers in India is tiny – so tiny in fact that the average Indian has never heard of such a thing as a corporate lawyer who works in a shiny office earning a big salary, rather than touting around outside of court in a black gown.

Rough estimates from market observers or back-of-envelope calculations would suggest that there are between 5,000 to 10,000 such transactional, corporate or in-house lawyers in India, and that is a very charitable guess.

There are five large national law firms of more than around 200 lawyers. Then, very roughly, there are around 30 to 50 mid-size law firms with more than 20 lawyers. Plus potentially hundreds of uncharted smaller sole proprietorships or self-styled law firms in the large cities or scattered around India’s second cities, although no one has a very good idea about those.

Oh, and every week there is at least one new start-up law firm, which is fun. Most often these are made up of associates or partners from a bunch of big firms who want to make it big or are tired of being treated as too small in their old firms. Or some just feel like having an adventure.

It’s a wrap

To exhume the old cliché, India is a land of contradictions. I hope to delve into some of the more interesting ones in future posts and try to give a no-nonsense on-the-ground perspective.

But for now, I would really, really love to hear your feedback, particularly on what you would like to read about in this space in future. Please find me at http://www.LegallyIndia.com or contact me here or send me a Tweet @legallyindia

Next post (most probably, barring unforeseen topics popping up): How India’s average lawyer gets by on only $1.4m

Kian Ganz is the publishing editor of www.LegallyIndia.com