Our survey of in-house counsel and business leaders reveals the most sought after lawyers in India. Katherine Abraham reports
In 2023, India’s legal landscape witnessed a notable acceleration. Given the government’s swift changes in the legal system, and the introduction of new laws, the need for dynamic lawyering is on the rise.
India’s top legal professionals adeptly navigated new business requirements and a plethora of regulatory changes. Lawyers were the backbone of influencing public discourse. The evolving nature of society and economic demands gave rise to novel legal provisions. While the key development – the introduction of foreign firms – is still in its nascent stages, there were robust remedies for many emerging issues.
As a prominent publication in the Indian legal sector, India Business Law Journal has the distinction of curating insights and recommendations from the civil, legal and business domains to assemble an A-List of India’s most exceptional legal minds.
Recognising the evolving nature of the legal profession, we acknowledge the best legal minds that exist, with an exclusive focus on industry pioneers. Additionally, we pause to credit our emerging leaders.
Leaders from diverse sectors have shared why they prefer collaborating with specific lawyers and what sets these legal professionals apart. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we have tried our best to acknowledge and appreciate as many as we can.
The crème-de-la crème of the legal industry is defined by versatility, legal prowess, investment in the industry’s interests, and inspiring mentees. Our legal icons are pioneers who epitomise all these values and ideals while adding that much-needed human touch.
With a new board role at the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, Cyril Shroff has added yet another feather to his cap. “Cyril is extremely cerebral and terrific in tricky situations,” says Bain Capital’s India chair, Amit Chandra. “He spends a disproportionate amount of time on developing the ecosystem.”
Roddy Martin, a partner and co-head of India practice at Herbert Smith Freehills in London, describes Shroff as “[changing] the Indian corporate legal profession and [creating] a legacy of legal talent that has trained and worked with him”.
Anand and Anand senior partner Safir Anand receives equal warmth for his long public service. “I have worked with Safir … and he has always provided reliable and cost-effective advice on trademark matters including clearance, registration and disputes,” says Gretchen Stroud, senior associate general counsel – intellectual property at Gilead Sciences in San Mateo city, US, who has worked with Safir Anand for 20 years.
Kenny Ren, legal manager of IP and risk assessment at Christian Louboutin in Paris, agrees. “Safir, hailed as a luminary in the realm of intellectual property within the fashion and luxury industry, is not only an expert but also a trusted partner to in-house legal counsel,” says Ren. “His exceptional insights and innovative approaches have not only garnered widespread recognition but have also earned him the unwavering trust and admiration of those he serves.”
Meanwhile, AZB & Partners’ co-founder and managing partner Ajay Bahl, based in New Delhi, is an international legal specialist with a human touch. “Ajay, despite his seniority, is always accessible,” says Bain Capital’s Chandra. “Importantly his advice is pragmatic and weaves in legal and commercial sense.”
That assessment is backed by Kevin Kileen, Amway’s vice president of global litigation and North America/India in Grand Rapids city, US. “Mr Bahl is a preeminent attorney, known to multinational clients around the world, yet he always makes us feel as if we are his only client,” he says. “His creativity, zeal for our interests and tireless work ethic have made him indispensable to our company. Whenever a nettlesome issue arises, we reflexively seek the counsel of Ajay Bahl and Vinati Kastia. We cannot conceive of entrusting our vital interests to any other team.”
In international legal expertise, sound knowledge and dedication, Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, senior partner at Khaitan & Co, is no stranger to consistency and delivery. “Rabindra stands out for his cross-border work, in particular with Germany,” says Sabine Pitroff, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs. “He has been very consistent in providing excellent service to our clients in India. He has exceptional knowledge of what clients’ needs are and has strong dedication to delivering the best service possible.”
Mohit Saraf, founder and managing partner of Saraf & Partners in New Delhi, is recognised for his contributions to corporate and commercial law practice. “I have been working with Mohit for over a decade on multiple transactions, including one just a week ago,” says Rajeev Mukundan, head of compliance and emerging markets at Viatris. “The level of diligence, insight and expertise that Mohit and his team bring to the table makes him a partner of choice for us. Having worked on transactions across multiple jurisdictions with global law firms and partners, I find Mohit and Saraf and Partners [are] second to none.”
As the focus shifts to our A-List stars, we look at their legal expertise and professionalism, the deals they achieved, and their approach to clients.
Foradian Technologies’ CEO Neelakantha Karinje, based in Bengaluru, is all praise for Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co partner, Divi Dutta. “Her outstanding professionalism, attention to detail and commitment to justice have been nothing short of remarkable,” he says. “She has given us back our confidence and hope during a difficult time.”
Dutta also attracts praise from Indimati R D, senior adviser at RASP and Associates. “Divi Dutta’s experience is simply superb,” she says. “Her approachability, laser-sharp analysis and grasp of the issues are unmatched in our experience. Her ability to think outside the box, coupled with [the firm’s] dynamic entrepreneurial spirit and professional performance, makes them a really formidable part of any team.”
Dedication and commitment define Kochhar & Co senior partner Savitha Kesav Jagadeesan, based in Chennai, who has left a longstanding impression on US-based Karthikaa Baskar, founder and CEO of non-profit nevereveralone. Baskar says Jagadeesan is about making a positive impact over financial gains. “Her commitment to our cause has been invaluable in navigating complex legal aspects, ensuring smooth compliance,” she says. “Beyond legal counsel, Savitha seamlessly integrated into our team, offering strategic insights. Her dedication to supporting domestic violence survivors has been inspiring.” Jagadeesan was also instrumental in defining nevereveralone’s app structure.
Jagadeesan is at the forefront of women’s empowerment, according to Kirupa Yogeshwari H, senior manager HR and business partner at Nidec. “Savitha stands out as one of the finest legal advisers, igniting a profound interest in women’s empowerment and addressing grievances and issues pertaining to POSH [prevention of sexual harassment law].”
An enthusiastic participant of Jagadeesan’s POSH training programmes, and crediting her mentorship for these programmes with startups and high-tech companies in e-commerce, Yogeshwari says Jagadeesan’s “dedication to meticulous attention to detail and pursuit of perfection is truly commendable in all her endeavours. She is not only my top choice for matters related to IP and POSH, but also an exceptionally humble and soft-spoken individual.”
Being a legal counsel is not only about securing deals but, doing so with a professional attitude and zero ego.
Rajiv Raghunandan, managing partner at Arali Ventures, says Aparna Ravi, a partner at Samvad Partners, is an exemplary source of support. “Samvad Partners became our legal counsel from about midway in the first fund. Aparna has been our lead partner for all our engagements. We trust her implicitly, not just on the domain but also in terms of her ability to understand our culture, our positions, etc. Most importantly, having worked with multiple law firms, she has an ability to keep ego aside and just get the job done without fuss and too much ado.”
Gaurav Kute, managing partner at PRP Professional Edge Associates, says Abir Lal Dey, a partner at Saraf and Partners in Mumbai, specialises in getting things perfectly right. “Abir consistently provides end-to-end solutions, ensuring that we never encounter a situation where something is deemed outside the scope of work.”
Comfort and commitment seem at the top of the list of qualities that a legal counsel should possess, according to several submissions.
Recommending Amit Aggarwal, a senior partner at SNG Partners, UNITY Shared Services CEO Sushen Jhingan identifies his “never compromising” attitude. “He may be dealing with several transactions in the course of his day-to-day dealings, yet the level of commitment he depicts in giving each transaction its highest priority is praiseworthy,” says Jhingan. “[What] differentiates Amit from other lawyers is the comfort of working closely with both our commercial and legal teams. Thus, where most … lawyers limit their role to opinions and advice, Amit has spent time with our teams to help them understand how best to implement the solutions.”
An ability to deal with complexities is why Azim Premji Trust director Ravi Vadapally in Bengaluru has nominated Marylou Bilawala, a partner at Wadia Ghandy & Co. “We engage [her] on matters of succession involving complex structures which require deep understanding across different domains encompassing personal law, succession act, trust law, partnership act [and] companies act, apart from taxation principles,” he says. “Her advice not only factors the legal considerations but also the potential issues that would come in implementing the identified strategy on account of deep practising experience.”
Archana Balasubramanian, a partner at Agama Law, creates a safety net for her clients, according to her nominator. “I have been interacting professionally with Archana since April 2015, when our company was being merged into another larger entity,” says Anish Pharma director Sudhir Sarnobat in Nasik, India. “With Archana on our side, we could make the deal happen without agreeing on any uncomfortable legal provisions. Archana’s legal expertise, clubbed with her understanding of company law and capital market rules and regulations, makes her a formidable ally on your side when you are dealing with larger entities in deal-making.”
The sentiment is echoed by the CFO of Chemie-Tech DMCC, Hrishikesh Chauhan. “I had the opportunity to work with Agama Law, headed by Archana Balasubramanian, when their services were engaged for an international transaction by Chemie-Tech DMCC UAE,” he says. “The professionalism, attention to detail and responsiveness in being available any time … was commendable. We always had the comfort of being in safe hands thanks to her proactive and co-operative approach in supporting us through her deft handling of negotiations, leading to a speedy resolution of intricate legal as well as commercial issues.”
While a lot of qualities contribute towards the ideal of a perfect legal counsel, almost nothing beats the dynamism and depth of a longstanding well-earned experience.
JSA partner Madhurima Mukherjee is popular for her expertise in capital markets. “Madhurima is an old-time senior partner with a particular focus on Indian capital markets,” says JM Financial managing director, Arjun Mehra. “Her extensive experience and legal acumen allows her to quickly grasp serious situations and find viable solutions for the most rigorous clients.”
To determine India’s most-recommended lawyers, India Business Law Journal turned to thousands of in-house counsel in India and around the world – as well as India-focused partners at international law firms – and asked them to tell us which lawyers should make the cut.
Respondents were invited to nominate lawyers to appear on the A-List, and provide a justification as to why each one should be included. They were also invited to nominate lawyers to be recognised as India’s Legal Icons.
A-List Lawyers were defined on the nomination form as “Lawyers who are currently the star performers of India’s legal profession; the lawyers who are personally undertaking the country’s top legal work, crafting the most cutting-edge legal solutions to complex problems, and setting the highest standards in terms of quality, innovation and the ability to handle complex matters”.
Legal Icons were defined as “Lawyers who are the luminaries of India’s legal profession; the titans who command the respect of clients and juniors alike; the mentors who lead India’s most admired law firms and/or legal teams, and the country’s most prolific rainmakers”.
Almost 6,000 nominations and testimonials were received from professionals at a wide range of Indian and international companies, international law firms and other organisations, including: 3M, Aamby Valley, AB Volvo, Abbott Laboratories, Accenture, Adani Group, Aditya Birla Finance, Adobe, Afcons Group, Air Canada, Air India Express, Airport Economic Regulatory Authority, Airtel, Allen & Gledhill, Allen & Overy, Allianz Capital Partners, Amazon, ArcelorMittal, Nippon Steel, Axis Bank, Bain Capital, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, Bajaj Auto, Baker McKenzie, Baker Tilly, Balaji Telefilms, Bharti Airtel, BlackRock, Brookfield Advisors, Capgemini, Caterpillar, Citibank, Delhivery, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, FlightSafety International, Flipkart, Godrej & Boyce, Godrej Agrovet, Hindustan Unilever, ICICI Bank, ICICI Lombard General Insurance, Indiabulls Housing Finance, JNU, Johnson & Johnson, Kotak Mahindra Bank, L&T Finance, Levis Strauss, Magna, Mahindra & Mahindra, Mercedes Benz, Mondelez International, Moody’s, Nestle, Ola Electric, PayPal, Paytm, PayU, Reliance Industries, Sahara, State Bank of India, Sembcorp, Stephenson Harwood, Union Bank of India, United Airlines, United Breweries, Visa, Walt Disney Company, Wipro, Zomato, ZTE Telecom, and thousands more Indian and international companies and international law firms.
Lawyers working at Indian law firms were not permitted to make nominations.
The final list reflects the nominations and testimonials received, combined with thorough background research by India Business Law Journal’s editorial team.
The list only includes lawyers who are currently working at Indian law firms. It does not include independent advocates or senior counsel. All Indian private practice lawyers who are currently associated with Indian law firms were automatically eligible for inclusion in the nominations process and, as always, there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.
It is important to emphasise that the A-List is merely indicative of the nominations and testimonials received by India Business Law Journal, and the background research of our editorial team. Many outstanding lawyers do not appear on this year’s A-List, which should not be viewed as a comprehensive list of the leading lawyers in the country.