B&M plans Indian office despite limit on licences

Baker & McKenzie is in talks with an Indian law firm to link up with an office in the subcontinent, as other firms battle to stay there.

The global firm is also scouring firms in London in a bid to recruit Indian-qualified lawyers.

The ambitious move comes as Ashurst Morris Crisp and White & Case, the only international law firms with an Indian liaison office, continue their fight against the Bombay bar over restrictions which prohibit foreign firms from opening offices.

Chadbourne & Parke, which was also involved in the action, gave up the battle and surrendered its licence earlier this year.

Ian Scott, Ashursts' resident partner in Delhi, says: “As a result of the litigation the Reserve Bank of India [responsible for granting licenses] felt it would be inappropriate to give further licences pending litigation.”

But there are signs that the market will soon open up. Scott says India has signed to the World Trade Organisation and is therefore required to liberalise its service market, which includes legal services, by 2003.

Baker & McKenzie's Graeme Johnston, a partner in the Singapore-based Indian group, says: “[The litigation] has resulted in everybody else holding off and approaching the establishment of an office in India with caution.

“Other firms have offices staffed by a few ex-pats, but what we are planning is essentially an Indian firm, staffed by Indian qualified lawyers.”

William Abraham, who joined as a partner from Dewey Ballantine (The Lawyer 4 October), says: “We are hoping to establish a relationship with an Indian law firm with a view to having a formal presence there in the short term within the bar rules.”

Abraham says the move is client-driven. He says the group will focus on project and related finance work and is also hoping for telecoms, water and transport infrastructure projects.

Shalini Agrawal, a lawyer in London with Indian firm Singhani & Co, says: “The Indian market is very volatile at the moment.

“The insurance market is on the verge of opening up and other sectors are also in the pipeline. It's a market that can't be ignored.”

Baker & McKenzie hopes to clinch a contract with a major Indian corporate, believed to be worth more than £6bn, this week.