India boasts a rich and diverse legal market, but only a handful of its largest law firms are visible to international clients. Following an in-depth investigation, India Business Law Journal reveals some of the hidden treasures of the country’s legal profession

There are a million lawyers in India and 80,000 new ones join the profession every year. For every famous practitioner there are thousands that never hit the headlines.

For each Luthra & Luthra, AZB or Amarchand Mangaldas there are dozens of smaller, less well-known firms that are doing respectable – sometimes remarkable – work for domestic and international clients. The nature of these firms is as varied as their specializations. The tasks with which they are entrusted include managing large mandates and pioneering new areas of law.

Many of these high-quality, yet lesser-known firms do not limit themselves to the major business centres of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Some operate in highly specialized niches, while others offer a comprehensive range of legal services. A few are new or run by young energetic lawyers; others have garnered extensive experience and boast stables of Fortune 500 clients.

It would be impossible to mention every such law firm in these pages. However, a survey of many of them reveals the rich tapestry of India’s legal market and highlights the depth and diversity of high-quality services that are available to domestic and international clients.

Small yet powerful

Small firms are not always inexperienced or lacking in resources; many boast considerable expertise in specific fields of law.

One example is Kris & Kolloth, a Bangalore-based firm with particular expertise in IP, media and entertainment, and corporate and commercial law. Equity partners Binu Radhakrishnan and Anil Kolloth lead a team of four associates and three counsels. The firm has an associate office in Delhi and operates across south India for a group of mostly international clients.

“We stand focused; niche and detailed in our specialized services,” says Radhakrishnan, who believes these qualities make the firm stand out in a “world of generic, generalist and full-service law firms”.

Binu Radhakrishnan Partner Kris & Kolloth

He is not alone in this conviction. Several areas of corporate law, including private equity; mergers and acquisitions; banking and finance; and capital markets have been targeted by lawyers who have established specialist firms.

ARA Law was set up in 1996 in Mumbai as a boutique firm specializing in these fields as well as real estate and infrastructure. The firm works with banks and financial institutions, Fortune 500 companies, private equity and venture capital funds and several government and regulatory agencies.

ARA has three partners and 18 associates. “We believe a firm’s strength is not in the number of people it has but in the strength and quality of its members,” says managing partner and founder Rajesh Begur. ARA has worked on deals such as the sale of a telecom tower business by a private equity firm to an American company, an Indian joint venture by Société Générale and the establishment of an Indian presence for one of the largest commodities broking companies in the world.

Rajesh Begur Managing Partner ARA Law

Another noteworthy firm is Sand Hill Counsel, which was set up by a group of lawyers with expertise in the busy space of technology-related private equity and venture capital. With offices in Mumbai and Silicon Valley the firm aims to link India with America’s hi-tech hub. Managing attorney Shantanu Surpure describes it as “a boutique high-quality firm whose core focus is in helping build the ‘Sand Hill East’ ecosystem by working with leading venture capital and private equity funds and start-up emerging companies on Indian and cross-border legal matters”. Sand Hill has two partners and five associates, including lawyers with expertise in multiple jurisdictions.

Gandhi & Associates focuses on capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, cross-border transactions, venture capital and private equity, and intellectual property. The firm is led by Vishal Gandhi and recently moved to larger offices in Mumbai’s prestigious Bandra Kurla Complex.

Also active in the private equity and M&A fields is MD&T Partners, which was established in 2005 by Mahesh Devaiah and PM Thimmaiah in Bangalore. The firm also specializes in real estate and provides general corporate advice and routine legal services with a team of two equity partners and eight associates.

“In a recession year, the firm has grown from seven to 10 members with the hire of three new associates,” says Thimmaiah, adding that MD&T Partners offers “end-to-end partner level support on all major transactions”.

PM Thimmaiah Partner MD&T Partners

Defying classification

The small firm of Rajkishore Associates, led by partners Rajkishore Bhagwatsaran and N Ramiah, is dedicated almost exclusively to international clients. “We are strong in joint ventures of legal entities in India … and foreign exchange laws, though our practice covers many other areas such as property, shipping, trademarks and arbitration,” says Bhagwatsaran, “but we prefer not to be stereotyped.”

Many other small and medium-sized firms also defy easy classification.

Kachwaha & Partners has three equity partners in Delhi and one in Mumbai, who between them lead a team of 12 associates. Although a general practice firm, it has developed a particularly strong reputation for dispute resolution, winning an award in this category in India Business Law Journal’s 2008 Indian Law Firm Awards. Partner Sumeet Kachwaha was invited to join the Advisory Council of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution, while fellow partner Dharmendra Rautray was nominated to the core committee of Delhi High Court Arbitration Centre.

“Almost the entire work of the firm is cross-border in nature. Over 95% of our work is with foreign clients. We do not target foreign clients but historically have been involved with foreign clients and continue to service them,” says Kachwaha.

Another interesting firm is Bangalore-based Universal Legal, which has a presence in five Indian cities and more than 30 lawyers. In addition to regular practice areas, the firm focuses on often-ignored and fast-emerging fields such as climate change, affordable housing, medical law and microfinance, a sector in which it worked on almost half the deals in India last year, says partner Aarthi Sivanandh.

Fellow Bangalore firm AKS Law Associates, meanwhile, is creating a name for itself in the real estate and civil law sectors.

It wouldn’t be fair to call one-year-old Atman Law Partners a niche firm, as it offers services in a wide range of fields including technology, media, real estate and government liaison work. “For a firm of our size and age, we are able to assist clients in a surprisingly diverse set of industries including banking and finance, infrastructure, technology, telecom and real estate and we continue to enter new practice areas,” says founding partner Vivek Durai. He and fellow partner Chinmay Mirji merged their practices to create the firm.

Vivek Durai Partner Atman Law Partners

“Atman” is a Sanskrit word meaning “divine essence”, says Durai. He says the word “reflects our desire to be centred and to retain the best features of Indian tradition and culture in our practice of law”.

A number of firms are doing groundbreaking work in areas that require deep specialization. In Noida, across the Yamuna River from New Delhi, Dhall Law Chambers offers a boutique service specializing in competition law. The firm enjoys an affiliation with Linklaters and is led by Vinod Dhall, a lawyer and long-term civil servant who was the acting chairman of the Competition Commission of India until 2008.

Specialization of a different kind can be found in Karnika Seth, who recently published a book on cyberlaws. Her firm, Seth Associates, specializes in diverse fields including employment, cyberlaws, IP and international trade. It has 10 lawyers in its two offices, located in Noida and New Delhi, and recently established a Cyberlaw Consulting Centre.

IP: the domain of the boutique

While many niche practices focus on banking and capital markets, they cannot compete in number with the plethora of specialist intellectual property firms. India’s rich history in this field of law is reflected in its abundance of dedicated law firms and IP consultancies.

When pharmaceutical major Novartis faced pre-grant opposition from domestic generics maker Cipla to the patenting of its drug Tasigna, IP specialist RK Dewan & Co won a successful ruling for the international company after filing its analysis of each novel aspect of the product. The case is just one highlight in the 68-year history of the Mumbai-based firm. It is led by Mohan Dewan, MR Nair and Niti Dewan and has a headcount of more than 80 lawyers, associates, patent agents and support staff.

RK Dewan & Co represents some 3,000 clients around the world, a quarter of which are international. “The firm is in the process of acquiring and establishing an IP management system to streamline data management and give online access to the client to view their portfolio,” says Niti Dewan.

Niti Dewan Partner RK Dewan & Co

Fellow IP specialist Meta Yage IP Strategy Consulting is headquartered in Bangalore and has a second office in Coimbatore. The firm’s name is rooted in Roman times, when landlords and farmers used the “metayage” system to share the products of land.

In addition to legal services, Meta Yage offers strategic consulting on IP protection and patent process outsourcing. It represents clients from India, Denmark, Germany and Norway, and has fostered reciprocal relationships with several foreign firms. The firm has two equity partners, three salaried partners and six associates.

The nature of intellectual property work means that many firms in the field become embroiled in controversial issues. Delhi-based SKS Law Associates, for example, is deeply involved in the contentious field of genetically engineered (GE) food. The firm has worked pro bono to prepare a draft law for the regulation and consumer safety monitoring of GE products in India.

SKS focuses on litigation, licence drafting, vetting and providing strategy advice to optimize IP portfolios. Advocate and patent agent Sunita Sreedharan, who leads the firm’s five associates, says that the firm works with small, medium-sized and large clients and makes “all possible efforts to ensure that their intellectual assets and intellectual property are secure and optimally used”.

Boutique IP firm Aditya & Associates is based in Mumbai and has offices in Pune, Chennai and Indore. Its three partners and seven associates provide the full range of IP-related services, with a particular focus on engineering, mechanical, electrical and electronics patents. The firm is also strong in trademarks and copyrights.

“Successful prosecution for over 10 patents in one year has proved our competencies and capabilities”, says partner Vipul Bhuta, who notes that the firm can handle IP work in any industry. Just over half the firm’s clients are international.

Chadha & Chadha operates in many of the country’s most important IP centres, having offices in Delhi, Gurgaon, Cochin, Pune and Kolkata. Managing partner Chetan Chadha and founder SC Chadha lead a team of 23 attorneys and patent agents and 19 other staff. The firm’s trademark department recently represented Ruptech Educational India against a group that was using its Scottish High trademark without permission. In the case, certain issues of nominative fair use were contested in India for the first time.

Another specialist firm is Altacit Global, which has four partners and 24 associates spread across offices in Chennai, Bangalore and Coimbatore. The firm has worked with Tata companies, the Rane Group and NPS Technology among others. It is ISO-9001 certified.

The strong and growing demand for IP-related services has prompted the establishment of some service providers that go way beyond the confines of traditional law firms. An example is Bangalore-based Brain League IP Services, which aims to provide “end to end services in various countries … with a blend of technology, management and law”.

Comprehensive and competent

While there has been a rise in the number of specialist practices in India in recent years, full-service law firms still dominate the country’s legal market. India’s largest full-service firms have become well known brands among corporate counsel around the world. Yet flying beneath the radar of many international clients are a large number of lesser-known firms that are equally capable of bringing high-profile deals to fruition – often with the advantage of lower fees and greater levels of partner attention.

One example was the acquisition of DBS Chola Mutual Fund by L&T Finance. The deal was handled by Krishnamurthy & Co (known as K Law), an 11-year-old full-service firm with strengths in corporate and commercial law, intellectual property, real estate, litigation and compliance. With four partners and 45 associates, K Law has developed specializations in IT, entertainment and media; oil and gas; power; telecommunications; banking and insurance; life sciences; and biotechnology.

“Our service philosophy is to ensure that clients receive clear, concise and practical advice,” says the firm’s operations manager, Misha Gill.

The well-established firm of Associated Law Advisers has been in business since 1993 and includes a number of lawyers with dual qualifications, says senior partner Lira Goswami. Other key practitioners include OP Bhardwaj, a former member of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, and Punit Tyagi, an experienced litigator. The firm’s clients include household names like Boeing, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, GE, HBO and a range of marquee banks and insurance companies.

Lira Goswami Senior Partner Associates Law Advisers

Goswami says: “Associated Law Advisers is refreshingly different from a traditional law firm. Its attractiveness lies in its unique combination of prompt quality advice combined with its legal and tax advice and value-added guidance to companies intending to do business in India.” She notes that the firm has led the charge for change in the country’s food laws, opening up the market in a move that led to the first government approval of a 100% foreign-owned seed company. Associated Law Advisers also worked to obtain approvals for the first 100% foreign-owned risk management company, mortgage guarantee company and navigation systems and digital mapping company.

Thiru & Thiru is a general practice firm with five equity partners, four salaried partners and 38 associates spread across offices in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. The firm, which is particularly strong in M&A, banking and litigation, is led by partners BC Thiruvengadam (who specializes in minority shareholding disputes), R Krishanmoorthy (M&A and finance) and Revathi T (IP). The firm has worked for Infosys, Lisa Apparels, United Spirits and a wide range of other high-profile clients.

“Our turnaround time is extremely rapid and above all we offer value addition through our consulting company,” says Thiruvengadam.

CrestLaw Partners was established in Bangalore in 2006 and has four equity partners, one salaried partner and 10 associates. A second office is planned for Hyderabad to extend its practice, which is particularly strong in corporate and commercial services, litigation, arbitration and real estate. In recent months the firm has also won clients in the aviation sector.

A strong selling point is that CrestLaw provides a single platform for all corporate documentation and litigation, which promotes continuity and quick turnaround. Partner M Dhyan Chinnappa says the firm’s practice of involving a litigator in all negotiations is fundamental to this achievement.

At about the same size – with three equity partners and 12 associates – PRA Law is another full-service firm based in New Delhi. Led by partners Premnath Rai, P Srinvasan and R Jawahar Lal, the firm is particularly strong in M&A, joint ventures, private equity investments and dispute resolution.

Fellow Delhi-based firm India Juris worked on the acquisition of social networking website by Viadeo. It also advised the UK’s Sindicatum Carbon Capital Group on the acquisition of four companies in India.

With two offices in New Delhi and one each in Mumbai, Chennai and New York, India Juris offers a range of corporate law services to international clients in countries as diverse as the US, the UK, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, Australia and the Philippines. The firm has five partners and 21 associates.

In Chennai, meanwhile, 40-year-old R&P Partners continues to work with some of the country’s largest real estate developers. The firm has appeared before numerous arbitration tribunals and has also undertaken significant venture capital deals. More than two-thirds of its clients are domestic. R&P Partners has a significant presence in the south of India, explains partner Vijay Anand, with seven equity partners and more than 70 associates spread across seven offices.

In 2002 Manoj Singh established Singh & Associates, a full-service firm that is particularly strong in dispute resolution, corporate law and pharmaceuticals. It has grown to include four partners, three principal associates, one senior associate and 30 associates. It also employs accountants, engineers and other professionals, explains advocate Daizy Chawla. A member of the Alliance of Business Lawyers, Singh & Associates has relationships with several international law firms and consultants. While the firm’s main office is in New Delhi, it has associate offices located across the country and plans to establish its own offices in several more cities.

New and rebranded

The largest offices of Indus Law are in Bangalore and New Delhi, but it also has a presence in Bhubhaneshwar and Hyderabad. According to partner Srinivas Katta, the firm has seven equity partners and 34 associates. Indus Law is best-known for its real estate expertise and has worked on many large deals in this sector. It has also taken legal action against copyright infringement and dealt with supply disputes between multinational companies.

The firm was founded in 2007 as Indus G&D Law, through the merger of Indus Law and G&D Law Chambers. Last month it rebranded itself as Indus Law (see News, page 10) in one of a series of internal reforms that included hiring a professional management company and establishing a structure to provide associates with a path to partnership.

The new firm of Vidhii Partners has offices in Mumbai and Bangalore. Partner Manish Desai says the firm, which has four partners, includes “young dynamic proactive lawyers” with experience in almost every Indian forum, ranging from metropolitan magistrates’ courts to the Supreme Court and including various regulatory boards and commissions.

Started in October 2009 by a team that branched out from pan-India firm Paras Kuhad & Associates, Vidhii Partners is “known for its expertise in the area of banking with a special focus on NPA [non-performing asset] recovery, legal audits, due diligence of NPAs and documentation relating to financing,” says Desai.

Fellow newcomer SRGR Law Offices opened its doors just four months ago. Despite its youth, the firm has an aggressive roadmap for expansion. Partner Ravi Bishnoi explains that SRGR intends to move into bigger offices and more than double its number of associates over the next few months; currently there are eight, led by four partners in New Delhi. The firm also has offices in Lucknow and Allahabad.

Bishnoi’s optimism appears far from misplaced. With the Indian economy rebounding strongly from the global downturn, the future looks bright for the country’s legal profession. More law firms can be expected to open their doors in the coming months, some of which will be established by highly experienced lawyers who previously held senior positions with top-tier firms. At the same time, many other firms that are well established, but perhaps not well-known outside the country, will continue to impress with their specialist knowledge, high levels of partner attention and competitive billing rates.

With such depth and diversity on offer, discerning clients would be well-advised not to confine their searches for the best legal services to the country’s best-known law firms.