India business leaders and top lawyers back legal market liberalisation

An overwhelming majority of India’s top legal professionals and business leaders have come out in support of the liberalisation of the country’s legal market, according to new research.

A recent survey run by YouGov and Allen & Overy (A&O) – which polled more than 300 senior Indian business figures, including 100 top executives and 100 GCs from the country’s largest companies – showed 96% of respondents believe the Indian legal market should be liberalised.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents said that foreign law firms should be able to merge with Indian firms and form partnerships with Indian lawyers, with 63% of the belief that this should happen within two years.

A&O’s India group chairman Jonathan Brayne commented: “The possibly surprising outcome of this research is the large level of agreement among the major stakeholders in the liberalisation debate in India. They believe liberalisation should happen, that it will have a positive impact and that it should happen sooner rather than later.”

Among those questioned were 101 partners and associates from India’s top 50 law firms. The survey also showed that 90% of respondents believe liberalisation will lead to easier access to international legal expertise, as well as more career opportunities for Indian lawyers.

The liberalisation of the Indian legal market has been long anticipated by UK and international law firms keen to move into the fast-emerging economy, and the Bar Council of India last October agreed to set out a timeline to open up the market, with India law and justice minister Salman Khurshid vowing to fast-track the process.

However, there is still a degree of scepticism regarding the likelihood of progress. Sameer Tapia, a founding partner of Indian law firm ALMT Legal, commented: “Sadly, it still doesn’t look optimistic. Law firms were trying to collaborate to work towards a progressive market position a few years ago, but the way things have panned out, it seems like some firms are happy to stay on their own. Until the government give a definite proposal, things won’t change.

“It’s sad because foreign firms should be able to come in. If there was more exposure to the western market, the whole concept of a firm would improve in India.”

The news comes after a Madras high court this Febraury ruled that international firms should not be prevented from visiting India to advise domestic clients on foreign law. The ruling came in response to a petition questioning the legality of ‘fly-in, fly-out’ legal practices by foreign law firms, as well as legal process outsourcing operations based on the ground in India.

Click here for the full results of the survey.