Several senior foreign lawyers with India expertise have joined new law firms of late. Vandana Chatlani explores what is prompting them to move

In the past 12 months, several foreign lawyers with prominent India-related experience have jumped ship. While recruitment drives within the legal community are not uncommon, most of the lawyers we spoke with had been with their firms for a decade or longer. So, why move now?

It appears the covid pandemic created the perfect storm; a time for reflection and re-evaluation amid a landscape of flourishing deals.

“Despite the pandemic, deal activity has gone through the roof in the past 12 to 18 months,” says Sidharth Bhasin, a former partner at Shearman & Sterling who joined Latham & Watkins in September. Bhasin reports a record year for M&A deals in Asia in 2020, and says the level of activity in the first half of 2021 was even higher than the previous year.

“Most of the top firms are having record years, which seems counterintuitive in the midst of a global pandemic, but that may be a reason why people have been looking at hiring more and growing their team sizes,” says Bhasin.

Babita Ambekar, who left DWF and joined CMS in January as a partner and head of the India practice in the Asia-Pacific, was surprised with the extent of opportunistic outbound M&A from India.

“India has had its challenges with covid, but at the moment it’s buzzing,” she says. “Companies are looking at either outbound acquisitive activity, joint ventures or collaborations. Some companies are thinking of restructuring to move their base outside of India. It’s a really interesting time.”

Andrew Edge, a former partner at Stephenson Harwood who moved to Taylor Wessing in April, says the European markets have been equally busy. “The legal market is absolutely booming,” he says. “None of us have ever seen anything like it. There has been no let up since last autumn.”

Edge believes new recruitment opportunities have emerged as a result of increased work, and that this, combined with a self-contemplative period during covid, has led to “more fluidity in the market than there would otherwise be”.

A compelling offer

Bhasin says his own departure was a “very left-field decision”, as he had no plans to leave his former firm where he spent 13 years. “Frankly, I wasn’t looking to move – it was completely out of the blue,” he says.

Bhasin joined as a partner in the M&A and private equity practice along with James Clayton Payne. “Latham offered a compelling proposition in terms of the firm’s key focus areas, growth strategy and business mix, coupled with a global footprint and exceptionally strong brand,” says Bhasin. He is also enthusiastic about working alongside capital markets partner Rajiv Gupta on India-related deals.

“From an India angle, it’s a no-brainer with Rajiv,” says Bhasin. “Some of our relationships overlap, but we have many that are separate. We should be able to do much more together than we were doing individually.”

For Edge, who has worked at two firms – Ashurst and Stephenson Harwood – over 29 years, the appeal of moving lay in the desire for change.

Andrew-Edge-Taylor-Wessing

“The pandemic gave me time to think about things,” says Edge. “I decided that I wanted a fresh challenge. That’s not to say I was demotivated at Stephenson Harwood. But if you’ve only had two jobs in 29 years, you think maybe it’s time to try something new. Stephenson Harwood is a great firm and I really enjoyed my time there. I have wonderful friends there and it’s been a great platform for me. I only have good things to say. But a fantastic opportunity at Taylor Wessing came at the right time.”

Edge, who has advised Piramal for more than 15 years, will work to enhance Taylor Wessing’s life sciences offering on the corporate side, including in India. He is excited about the potential partnerships in the field of life sciences involving Indian parties.

“Although Indian companies have been keen to get on the originator side, many have realised the strengths they can have from non-innovative products as well,” says Edge, pointing to the glowing publicity that Indian pharmaceutical companies have received in relation to covid vaccines. “It doesn’t need to be novel treatments,” he says. “They’ve got great strengths in manufacturing and contract outsourcing, and there are broad opportunities. They’re at a different stage of development to companies such as GSK and others … they’re so active, which is why they need substantial legal advice.”

Time for a change?

Nicholas Peacock moved to Bird & Bird as head of international arbitration after 24 years at Herbert Smith Freehills. “It was an exciting opportunity and a good time for a change,” says Peacock, who was drawn to the firm’s geographical footprint. “The firm has an extensive international network in all the right places that they need to be, from an arbitration perspective. The sectors in which they are particularly strong, such as technology, communications and energy, are the ones where I’ve been doing a lot of work.”

Peacock expects to see the continuing growth of arbitration as a means of resolving disputes, both onshore in India and offshore at centres such as the SIAC, LCIA and ICC. While India-related arbitration traffic is still heavily directed towards Singapore, Peacock says London has reaffirmed its position as a hub for Indian disputes.

“London has always been an important centre for Indian disputes and there continues to be a strong connection between the business and legal communities in India and the UK,” he says. “But over the years, because Singapore has become so relevant to India, there was a question mark about whether that would have an impact on London.

“In recent years London has maintained its relevance, and in some ways developed a bit more gravity. You see that in particular by the number of India-qualified senior advocates who have set up practices in London and affiliated themselves with London chambers.”

There may also be heightened interest in arbitration on account of lessons learned from high-profile investment treaty cases, most notably the tax disputes involving Vodafone, Cairn India and Vedanta.

“Those three cases were quite significant and spelled the end of a long chapter in terms of retrospective tax,” says Peacock.

There are fewer active cases involving the Indian government and investment treaties compared to five years ago. However, this is not a sign that such cases will disappear entirely. Indian clients are increasingly aware of the protection that these treaties could afford them in other jurisdictions, explains Peacock.

“Having seen how foreign companies have taken the Indian government to court, Indian companies have realised that perhaps their investments in other parts of the world, which are being impacted by government action, might be similarly covered by investment treaty protection. These cases have raised the profile of this route to remedy.”

Hungry for more

Rahul Guptan spent 13 years at Clifford Chance before joining White & Case in May. For Guptan, the chance to advise on US listings, along with White & Case’s “push into India plan”, held huge appeal. A month after Guptan’s hire, the firm appointed Sayak Maity from AZB & Partners in Mumbai as a private equity and corporate M&A partner.

“I chose White & Case as it was the one that had a cohesive India strategy,” says Guptan. “It wasn’t an opportunistic hire because capital markets was busy and they needed someone to ride the wave. It was very well thought out. That was the big draw for me.”

Guptan was driven to explore new opportunities for deals involving special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) and overseas listings. “Indian entrepreneurs are increasingly looking to set up SPACs and then proceed to find assets in India,” says Guptan. “When those mandates began to emerge, clients would often prefer to work with US law firms.”

Sitting on the other side of the table now, Guptan believes the preference for US firms is based on numbers and familiarity. “The bankers running these deals from New York see White & Case, Cravath Swaine & Moore, Latham & Watkins and other US firms on hundreds of these deals all the time, and they’re just comfortable going to those lawyers,” he says. “It’s a tough nut to crack for non-US firms with New York offices. I guess over time it will change.”

Guptan says clients are engaging more legal advice on transactions than they had done in the past. Indian capital markets deals were notorious for having only one international counsel and two domestic counsel on every deal, he explains. Increasingly, he is seeing two sets of international counsel and two sets of Indian counsel on large unicorn deals.

“That trend is about six months old and hopefully here to stay,” he says. “A lot of these companies are large and sophisticated, and have quality private equity investors backing them who are used to doing SEC-registered deals that have two sets of counsel. They find it strange that the companies aren’t represented.

“There is so much activity that if you just have a sole counsel on a deal, they can’t cope with everything that needs to be done, particularly when there are multiple deals. When you split up the work, you divide and conquer. It’s a positive change from a risk perspective. You’re not taking sole liability on a complicated US law point where you should be getting a consensus view.”

Revenue and opportunity

Although the appointments covered in this piece may not have been orchestrated specifically to boost the India practices at various firms, such expertise is still considered valuable because of India’s attractiveness as a market. However, the realities of meeting law firm revenue targets means foreign firms must think carefully about recruitment plans.

“I don’t think the India market is that lucrative yet,” says Sam Kenworthy, a director and head of private practice at recruitment firm Hughes Castell in Hong Kong. “It’s a difficult market. There is tremendous activity and there are plenty of deals, but clients are demanding and fees are very low. When you look at an international firm that is used to billing what it does, it’s hard to make the India work profitable.”

Over the years, some international firms invested heavily in India expertise by hiring India-qualified lawyers, establishing tie-ups with Indian law firms and making frequent trips to India to build relationships. As promises of legal market liberalisation faded, firms began to take a step back, channelling their investments elsewhere.

“It goes up and down,” says Kenworthy. “At one point, the Magic Circle and other firms needed an inroad into the Indian market and someone to champion that. But if things aren’t profitable, they won’t keep throwing money at it, and [will] wait for the tide to turn.”

In this scenario, lawyers with robust practices outside India, but who also happen to have India-related experience, hold great appeal. “These lawyers can be a cultural touchpoint, and dip in and out of India work as and when necessary,” says Kenworthy. “To really have an impact in India, you have to be in the Asian market. Unless you have your feet on the ground, it’s difficult to do that.”

Kenworthy says firms often follow one another once they get a sense of a new market. “For example, when [South] Korea opened up, everyone piled in. Now firms are pulling out and asking themselves why they went in the first place, and what proposition it offers. If you’ve already got key people in your firm who can provide that expertise, then that’s great. But if you’re going in because everyone else is, it can come unstuck pretty quickly.”

Despite the challenges, many firms are keeping an eye on India and holding on to expertise to keep their teams robust.

“International firms acknowledge the importance of India as a market and recognise that it is busy now, and has the potential to be even busier with each passing year,” says Peacock. “Many Indian companies are big players. Outbound Indian investment is a significant practice anywhere in the world and cannot be ignored.”

Ambekar, whose move to CMS was compelled by the closure of DWF’s Singapore branch, believes law firms and senior lawyers have used the past 18 months to take stock and reflect on their position in the market.

“Some firms have worked out India is the next big thing and they want to expand their team to drive that India strategy,” she says. “I think that has prompted some people who were very well settled and happy where they were to consider a move because the working environment has changed.”

Many law firms have done well to adapt and adjust to the realities of the pandemic. Others are still making assessments and rethinking strategies. This evolving landscape could lead to more people moves across the board.

“Law firm trajectories are very different,” says Ambekar. “Law firms themselves have been through a lot of change, even though that may not be transparent externally. Some have worked out which practices to prioritise and lawyers have reconsidered which firms will be their future.

“From a personal perspective, people are looking at where they want to be in terms of practice focus, culture and trajectory, and I think that is prompting lawyers to take up new opportunities.”