Law firms’ India strategies prove manifold

As 2006 turned into 2007, the assault by UK firms on the Indian market continued unabated as pressure for the deregulation of the legal industry grows. Pundits have been kept guessing as to when exactly this deregulation will take place, but with yet another taskforce on the plane seemingly every other week, the signs are that the day of reckoning is approaching with increasing pace.

The delay has not stopped UK law firms from making the most of what is available to them, with Clifford Chance making its first formal move into the country to recruit. The firm offered a dozen or more Indian law school candidates jobs pending their admission to the Indian bar. Under local laws, once admitted they will then be eligible to sit the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test in the UK.

Clifford Chance’s move to recruit on the ground directly into the firm is at odds with the move taken by magic circle rival Linklaters, which has entered into a referral arrangement with Thawar Thakore & Associates, which launched this month.

The move has upset more than a couple of India’s protectionist lawyers, who see the exclusive referral agreement as a way of flouting the Indian bar rules prohibiting foreign entry into the market.

The moves by Clifford Chance and Linklaters have left Allen & Overy (A&O), Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and a number of other top UK firms caught off-guard. Every firm under the sun with hopes of international work is keeping a close eye on developments in the Indian market, and the approaches are as varied as the firms.

From the US side, LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae sent a taskforce to India last week to meet clients and contacts in local law firms. Its move follows a similar expedition by White & Case, and many more are expected to follow suit.

India is a market that has caused plenty of head-scratching for partners tasked with devising their firms’ international strategies. Take Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), for example, which has taken the Slaughter and May international best friends strategy, and depending who you talk to has either taken it to a whole new level or completely misinterpreted it, with more than 100 firms signed up to its programme.

It may have 100 ‘best’ friends around the globe, but it has yet to formalise any relationship in India. BLP is now understood to be looking for a firm in each of the regional centres, but competition is fierce.

Herbert Smith, for one, has copied Clifford Chance’s approach and will be heading to India in March to recruit directly out of Bangalore law schools, with up to 10 vacancies for newly qualified solicitors on its books.

Herbert Smith’s chair of the India group Chris Parsons told The Lawyer that the firm is also looking at “Indian lawyers from a number of leading Indian law firms”. The firm already has ties with Indian firms Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co, AZB & Partners and India’s largest law firm Fox Mandal Little.

The approach will get the firms Indian-educated lawyers with the associated language and cultural qualities, but they will train and qualify as UK lawyers. Strategically, the language and culture are what is of value to an international firm.

Jetco returns from India clutching MoU on liberalisation
As The Lawyer went to press, the UK’s Joint Economic and Trade Committee’s (Jetco) legal committee was returning from India after a week of meetings to try to advance the liberalisation of the Indian legal services market.

The trip has resulted in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Law Society of England and Wales and its local counterparts, the Society of Indian Law Firms and the Bar Association of India. This is the first such agreement between the two countries and is a key step on the road to opening up the Indian market.

Apart from the Law Society, the Jetco legal committee consists of A&O, Ashurst, Clifford Chance and Pinsent Masons. Other firms keen to get a piece of the action and that were also out in India were CMS Cameron McKenna, Eversheds, Herbert Smith and US firm White & Case.

DLA Piper snares Vinson energy lawyer for Tokyo
Moving away from India into Oriental Asia, DLA Piper has joined the growing number of firms looking to bulk up in Japan.

The firm last week moved to bolster its foreign bengoshi offering in Tokyo, with the hire of an oil and gas-focused energy lawyer from US energy specialist Vinson & Elkins. Paul Frederick was counsel with Vinson and joins DLA Piper with the same title. He has previously served as general counsel for Itochu Oil Exploration in Tokyo. As part of DLA Piper’s Asian energy and infrastructure team, Frederick will focus on international energy M&A, finance and project development.

DLA Piper Asia managing partner Nick Seddon said: “International markets for energy are becoming increasingly complex. This evolving environment means major oil and gas companies need a trusted legal as well as business adviser.”

The firm’s Tokyo managing partner Lance Miller added: “[Frederick’s] appointment is part of our long-term strategy to continue expanding our global energy practice in line with client demand, building Tokyo as another major centre for operations.”

Ashurst signs up Milbank oil and gas expert for Singapore
Ashurst is also ramping up its Asia presence and has hired energy-focused lawyer Ashley Wright for its Singapore office.

Wright, who was formerly at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, will focus on oil and gas sector M&A and project finance.

As revealed by The Lawyer (11 December 2006), Ashurst senior partner Geoffrey Green was targeting oil and gas lawyers to grow the Singapore office as a first step in the firm’s revamped Asia strategy.

Ashurst, which has Asian offices in Tokyo and Singapore, is also expected to launch in either Hong Kong or mainland China.

US firms pile into Asia
US firms have been active in the Asian market over the past month or so, with a number of new openings and some key deals.

Texas-based energy giant Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld opened in Beijing following a two-year strategic review, which found that the firm should focus more on its core practice areas. The Beijing office opens with three partners and will focus on corporate work in the energy sector. The firm already has strong relationships with the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation.

Duane Morris launched in Singapore last week and at the same time signalled its intention to open two offices in Vietnam by March. The Philadelphia-headquartered firm launched in Singapore with a series of lateral hires from Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper, Jones Day, Shearman & Sterling and White & Case. The firm’s moves in the region are down to corporate partner Eduardo Ramos-Gomez, the former Mexican ambassador to Singapore, Brunei and Myanmar.

Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson made a second raid on Simmons & Simmons for a further three partners last December following its five-partner raid in September for its Hong Kong launch, while Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis finally received the regulatory approval to open with UK-qualified private equity partner David Eich.