CC makes rivals green with Indian tie-up

CC makes rivals green with Indian tie-upClifford Chance has ­followed the lead of fellow magic circle firms Allen & Overy (A&O) and Linklaters by forming a best friends relationship with an Indian firm.

As reported on The, the firm has formed a close referral relationship with AZB & Partners with the aim of cooperating more closely ;once ;Indian ­regulations allow (14 January).

While ;A&O ;and ­Linklaters have respective relationships with Trilegal and Talwar Thakore & Associates, Clifford Chance’s union with AZB has the potential to become the most formidable union in the market, according to RSG Consulting managing director Reena SenGupta.

“I think it’s an amazing coup for Clifford Chance because AZB is rapidly becoming the best firm in the country,” said SenGupta. “They’ve managed to pick up the quality practice in India.”

Alongside Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co, AZB was ­identified as the top Indian law firm in RSG’s India Report 2008. AZB completed even more deals than Amarchand or any other rivals over the past three years, said SenGupta.

Amarchand recently celebrated its 90th birthday; AZB was only founded in 2004, but its meteoric rise would be unimaginable in any other jurisdiction.
While ;A&O ;and ­Linklaters will have reasons to be jealous, A&O’s ally ­Trilegal was only founded in 2000 and it too is rapidly moving up the ranks.

Linklaters’ ally Talwar was founded in 2007 and ­comprises several strong Indian corporate and capital market partners.

“You could set up a firm now and in five years’ time you can be Linklaters,” said SenGupta. “It’s like the Wild West – there’s no bar to what you can achieve as an Indian lawyer right now.”

Like many businesses in India, AZB’s success is largely attributable to its three founding partners, the A, Z, and B of the name: Ajay Bahl, Zia Mody and Bahram Vakil. As well as being a lawyer, Bahl is an Indian chartered accountant, while Mody previously worked for Baker & McKenzie in New York ;and ;Vakil ;for Debevoise & Plimpton and McCutcheon Doyle Brown & Enersen in New York and San Francisco respectively.

The firm is also significant because, having been founded by a trio of friends, it symbolises a shift away from the purely family-run law firm model typically seen in India.

The RSG report paints a dynamic picture of the Indian legal market, especially in its ranking of top 30 firms by quality, reputation and capability.

Its analysis of the market is the result of 10 months of research and interviews with Indian legal professionals and market insiders throughout 2008.

The report has identified a five-strong magic circle made up of Amarchand, AZB, J Sagar Associates, Luthra & Luthra and ­Khaitan & Co, with several other contenders snapping at their heels (see table).

A lot of the mobility in the market can be explained by the often stale attitudes of the profession. RSG’s survey of India’s top 30 firms reveals that only 40 per cent had ­formal strategies in place and that few had thought about where they wanted to be in five years’ time.

Even more alien to UK lawyers will be that less than half of India’s top 30 firms had websites in July 2008. The blame for this can ­partly be laid at the door of the protectionist Bar ­Council of India, which only formally permitted and individually ;approved ­Indian firms to have ­websites from July 2008.

The other part of the blame lies with the legal industry itself, with few firms willing to rock the boat. Of the top 30 firms, 57 per cent professed to obey strictly the tight marketing restrictions laid down by the Bar Council, which could include a ban on any type of advertising and which can be construed very widely.

However, there are signs that firms are waking up to the fact that to survive means to change: the 43 per cent that take a ‘moderately liberal’ or ‘liberal’ view of those restrictions is a significant increase on very recent times. In 2006, noted SenGupta, the proportions observing the rules would have been as high as 90 per cent.

But the threat to the ­traditional Indian firms is not just going to come from liberalisation and international firms with physical presences on the ground: Indian law has become lucrative work outside India. Deals analysis shows foreign firms carving out an 80 per cent share of all India-­related work.

“Some clients said they’ve seen magic circle notepaper with Indian law advice,” commented SenGupta. “Others said they’re on the ground to all intents and purposes.”

This is reflected in clients’ views, with 86 per cent in favour of liberalisation, even though the charge-out rates of foreign partners can be up to twice those of top Indian corporate partners, who charged $400-$600 per hour (around £200-£400 at last year’s exchange rates).

The opportunities for ­foreign law firms to capture India remain ever-present. But the rapidly growing cast of modernising Indian ­players also present the locals with a viable strategy to avoid the fate of jurisdictions such as Germany, which has long been steamrollered by the Anglo-Saxon legal machine.

The who’s who of indian firms

Indian magic circle
• Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co
• AZB & Partners
• J Sagar Associates
• Luthra & Luthra
• Khaitan & Co

Second tier
• Desai & Diwanji
• Dua & Associates
• Wadia Ghandy & Co

National firm
• FoxMandal Little

Top niche practices
• Nishith Desai Associates
• LSV Legal
• S&R Associates
• Anand and Anand

Source: RSG Consulting

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