What will happen to India’s iconic law firms when the time comes for their well-known promoter partners to bow out? Vandana Chatlani reports

India’s corporate law firms have invested much time and money on practice development, technology, branding, office premises, talent acquisition and training in an attempt to build institutions that are greater than the sum of their parts. While such forward thinking has brought about transformations on several fronts, some key areas have been slow to change.

One of these areas is the tendency for managing partners or promoter families to enjoy disproportionately high prominence when compared to that of their law firms as a whole. Iconic names such as Anand and Anand, AZB & Partners, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, J Sagar Associates, Khaitan & Co, L&L Partners, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co and more, which bring together the talents of hundreds of highly sought-after lawyers, remain stubbornly associated with one key individual or family in the minds of many clients. Ask a client or foreign lawyer to name their preferred Indian law firm and answers such as “the Shroffs”, “Pravin Anand” and “Zia” are given as often as the actual names of any law firms.

Having a celebrity managing partner may well be an advantage for wooing clients and wielding influence, but it also poses a formidable challenge when it comes to succession planning. With many of the current generation of promoter managing partners now in their 60s or older, what will happen to their law firms when the time comes for them to bow out?

“We have to recognize that Indian law firms, unlike their Western counterparts, do not have decades of experience with succession planning,” says Mukesh Butani, the founder of BMR Legal. “Of course, India has Anglo-origin firms, primarily in Mumbai and Kolkata, like Crawford Bayley & Co and Mulla & Mulla, and Indian firms such as Khaitan & Co, or maybe the combined Amarchand, which have experienced several generations of leadership. However they are probably exceptions.”

Of course, not all firms shy away from grooming the next rung of leaders. “Newer firms make succession a non-issue,” says Amitabh Lal Das, director and head of legal, compliance and regulatory at Max Life Insurance. “They may not talk about it directly, but they do other things to reassure clients that there will be no disruption.”

One leader renowned for stepping aside at the age of 65 was Jyoti Sagar, the founder of J Sagar Associates (JSA). In a legal market where lawyers work well into their 70s and even 80s, Sagar’s decision was unconventional and somewhat shocking to his peers and clients.

“Jyoti Sagar’s plan of retirement was unheard of,” says Chetan Chopra, a former JSA lawyer and current head of legal at United Breweries.

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