India allows foreign law firms to set up offices, move seen as ‘game changer’

NEW DELHI (Reuters): India will allow foreign law firms to set up offices to offer corporate law and M&A services to clients and hire local lawyers to beef up operations, in a major move seen as reshaping the landscape of a sector long dominated by local firms.

The Bar Council of India in new rules issued on Wednesday said foreign lawyers and law firms can also advise on international arbitration cases on a reciprocal basis, meaning lawyers from those countries which allow similar opportunities to Indian lawyers can practice.

Foreign lawyers, however, will only be allowed to advise on foreign or international laws and not be permitted to appear before any Indian courts and tribunals.

They can practice “corporate work such as joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property matters … on (a) reciprocal basis” the rules stated.

“Opening up of law practice … would go a long way in helping legal profession/domain grow in India.”

The new rules allow foreign firms to hire Indian lawyers and also engage others for advice on local legal matters.

The entry of foreign law firms into India has been a contentious issue and the Bar Council for years opposed the move fearing the impact on local lawyers. India has hundreds of law firms both large and small, which advise domestic and global companies including Facebook and Google.

The new rules pave the way for global law firms such as Latham & Watkins, DLA Piper, and Baker McKenzie to set up offices in India.

In a statement, Baker McKenzie said India’s “landmark announcement” opens up possibilities that “are hugely exciting.”

However, Rohit Jain, Managing Partner at India’s Singhania & Co, said the rules won’t translate to overnight mushrooming of foreign firms as their entry will be subject to reciprocity clauses which will require assessment of how other nations treat Indian lawyers in their jurisdiction.

For years, the Indian legal system has only allowed foreign lawyers to operate on a fly-in and fly-out basis for advising clients.

“The change in the Bar Council Rules will be a game changer for Indian lawyers … competition will improve,” said Mohit Saraf, founder of Indian law firm Saraf and Partners.