Western firms already vying for India’s riches

The liberalisation of the Indian legal market may still be years away, but the UK market for India-related deals is already hotting up.

Last week, Lawrence Graham closed the $25m (£13.4m) acquisition by NIIT Technologies of Room Solutions, a UK-based supplier of IT solutions to the insurance market.

Lawrence Graham also featured on one of the highest-profile recent Indian deals, advising nominated adviser Arden Partners on Great Eastern Energy’s £105m AIM flotation. Olswang, another of the emerging Indian specialists, advised Great Eastern.

As the world’s second-fastest-growing economy, India has recently begun to attract a growing list of mid-market UK firms. Mishcon de Reya has been leveraging off its immigration and private client practices to sell Indian work into its corporate group. Bird & Bird, Field Fisher Waterhouse and US firm Arnold & Porter also feature in the group, as do much smaller firms such as Middleton Potts.

However, the boom in India-related instructions has already led to allegations that firms are buying market share with deeply discounted rates. “Bird & Bird’s been charging out partners at £275 per hour for Indian work,” said one UK-based partner familiar with the Indian market. “Our senior associate rates are £295 per hour, which makes it almost impossible to compete.”

Bird & Bird chief executive David Kerr denied that there was any policy of aggressively discounting Indian work, but said it was a feature of his firm’s international reach that it facilitated global fee deals for clients. “Flexibility on fees to recognise a client’s global spend is absolutely a requirement,” said Kerr.

Rows over pricing aside, what is certain is that the acceleration in this second wave of Indian work (the first came in the early to mid-1990s and primarily featured major infrastructure projects) is attracting the attention of a wide range of firms, which will all be aware of the need for flexibility on fees.

White & Case is one of the firms traditionally associated with India, having had a representative office in Mumbai since 1994. The firm maintains close referral links with some of India’s leading firms, including Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB & Partners, Crawford Bayley & Co and Luthra & Luthra, and remains best known for big-ticket finance and infrastructure deals. However, it too is targeting the emerging market in Indian AIM deals.

White & Case partner Doug Peel, a project finance specialist, said it was his firm’s strategy to represent the “present and future elite” of the corporates with which the firm operates. He said that the firm was “actively profiling” the Indian companies it believed would be in that group in the future and was already looking at a number of potential AIM deals.

“We’ll be flexible on pricing when we need to be with our Indian clients,” said Peel. “But our strategy means we’ll only be looking to act for the top end of Indian businesses. It’s also a key part of our strategy that we remain profitable.”

The closer economic relationship between India and the UK will be marked at an India-UK summit later this month. Organised by the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) and the Indian and UK governments, the summit’s principal sponsor is White & Case.

The liberalisation of the Indian legal market is on the agenda for the second day of the summit, when Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath will address the delegates. White & Case will also be hosting a seminar at its offices on India-related AIM listings, securitisations and project finance during the three-day event.