India: Beyond legal process outsourcing

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The symmetry was remarkable. Magic Circle icon Clifford Chance caused major waves in the mainstream legal media this week by announcing plans to cut up to 80 lawyers from its flagship London office, about 10% of the legal professionals there. The move, following layoff notices issued to 20 litigation associates in CC’s New York office in October, was generally taken as further evidence of the deepening recession and perhaps of Clifford Chance’s particular vulnerability thereto. So was its subsequent decision to ask its partners to contribute an average of £150,000 each to the firm’s partnership funds, similar to a move made by rival Eversheds late last year.

But Clifford Chance was also making smaller headlines a long way from both London and New York. From New Delhi came word that the firm was in talks with Indian law firm AZB & Partners about an alliance that would involve client referrals, joint training, consultation and joint marketing. Since foreign law firms are prohibited from practising law in India (more on that shortly), these firms instead have been forming strategic partnerships with Indian firms that could, were the legislative environment to change, rapidly segue into full-bore mergers. Other Magic Circle operations and some US firms have made similar  advances, but Clifford Chance is also the only firm to set up its own wholly-owned back-office and document management company in India.

Clifford Chance also cropped up in the news in late December when the Mumbai High Court ruled in its favour in a taxation dispute, reducing by more than $2 million the amount it owes to the Commissioner of Income Tax on fees earned on four energy infrastructure projects undertaken in India in the late 1990s.  Add to that CC’s controversial September hire of a top capital markets partner away from a leading Indian firm to its Singapore office, and its near-miss merger with Australian giant Malleson Stephen Jacques late last year, and this is a firm that’s making some serious investments in the southeast corner of the world map.

And rightly so. According to the Times, there were nearly 600 cross-border mergers and acquisitions in 2007 that involved an Indian element; on top of that, India’s government has launched an infrastructure program that reportedly will require $500 billion in foreign investment. The word “salivating” appears frequently  in media reports to describe global law firms’ anticipation of entering India and claiming a piece of what most people agree — recession or no recession — is an economic powder keg. But legislation prevents foreign law firms from operating in India and caps the number of equity partners in an Indian law firm at 20.

For the moment, anyway. Last month also brought word that the Limited Liability Partnership Act 2008 has now passed both houses of the Indian Parliament, such that the first Indian LLPs could be set up as early as April 1. The introduction of LLPs to India had causes and will have effects far beyond the legal profession, of course; but one of the expected results of the new LLP law is to constitute the first irrevocable steps towards the entry of foreign law firms and the general liberalization of the Indian legal marketplace. Add to that the anticipated resolution of a long-running court challenge to India’s legal marketplace laws by foreign firms White & Case and Chadbourne Parke, and you can understand why firms like Clifford Chance, despite financial challenges to their Atlantic operations, are intensely focused on India.

Now, this will still take time: very little happens overnight in India, and powerful political interests in Indian law firms oppose change. On top of that, a general election will be held this spring, and frankly, the Indian government has a lot more important and serious things on its mind to deal with these days. But this flurry of activity does illustrate why legal process outsourcing, the subject most often associated with India’s legal profession, is not the long-term future there.

Don’t get me wrong: LPO is still going strong and likely will accelerate, given mounting cost pressures on in-house departments in the US and UK. This month’s edition of Corporate Counsel magazine explores the Indian LPO market in depth, with this telling quote from Microsoft’s worldwide IP operations chief about patent outsourcing to Indian lawyers: “We went there to save money,” he acknowledges. “We stayed and expanded because we liked the quality of the work.” It wasn’t just okay, it was better. And India’s legal community continues to ramp up LPO capacity. The latest evidence is a post-graduate diploma in legal process outsourcing now being offered by the the Indira Gandhi National Open University — the world’s largest university, by the way — and leading Indian legal talent management house Rainmaker T&R. Indian LPO isn’t going away anytime soon.

But LPO is the starting point for India’s legal community, not its final destination. Indian lawyers give nothing away to their western counterparts on acumen, and they seem to be considerably ahead of them on efficiency and work ethic. When clients keep looking at the hourly rates charged by most Indian lawyers — between $20 and $40, according to the Corporate Counsel article — eventually, they stop asking, “Why are they so cheap?” And they start asking, “Why are our western lawyers so expensive?” That paradigmatic perspective shift is coming faster than many law firms think.

It would be unwise to suppose that Indian lawyers will forever be content to take on low-level legal work from western clients. I suspect that India’s lawyers regard a lot of current LPO work as useful training exercises to learn about western legal work habits, preferences and processes — stepping stones on the way to bigger and better things. I’m not about to bet against them, and events of the past several weeks indicate that even in the teeth of a recession, some pretty smart global law firms feel the same way.

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