Create a level-playing legal field

Written by C Jayanthi | Prachi Karnik Pradhan | Updated: Oct 15 2007, 05:27am hrs
The government is in favour of allowing foreign law firms and lawyers to open up offices in the country, although it has evoked mixed reactions amongst the legal fraternity. In terms of professional demand, there is a shortage of legal experts to the tune of 22%, according to a FICCI report. The law ministry is scheduled to meet representatives of domestic and foreign firms, end of October, during the fourth international tax conference organised by Assocham.

The legal community believes that allowing foreign law firms into the country would cut into their share of the Rs 600-crore industry. Although, most legal practitioners and academicians have opposed the move, as it poses a threat to the domestic legal industry, some have welcomed the move. Expressing his reservations on the government move, AS Chandioke, president, Delhi High Court Bar Association, says, The bar association has asked the government on several occasions to change the legal curriculum and suggested that a uniform legal course should be brought in the country. If we are to compete with foreign firms, we need a level-playing field. He points out, Abroad law is a business, not a profession and lawyers are allowed to have websites. Before you open up the legal profession, there is need to introduce advance-level legal courses in the country. We have enough talent in the country to beat anyone in the world. We just need safeguards and training. If their lawyers are allowed in, it may raise some jobs hopes, but on the whole it will lead to exploitation of our legal services.

It goes without saying that it is the big law firms that will face more competition, rather than ill-paid individual lawyers. Says Amir Singh Pasrich, managing partner, International Law Affiliates, For a leading proponent and beneficiary of changeit is argued that India should not stop foreign firms from advisory practice. The Bar is criticised for resisting change, opposing globalisation and having a bunch of noisy members who protest about something that most will neither be affected by, nor understand. But their fundamentals are not unsound. Even transactions depend on the legal system and ours is yet unready to cope with the onslaught of the global law firm, its practices and systems which will primarily leverage overseas business interests for their benefit.

The solution lies in gradually adapting foreign know-how and precedents with participation of recognised, competent and experienced Indian lawyers, he adds. It is, of course, not that easy for foreigners to open up law firms in India. Meanwhile, Santanu Mukherjee, an advocate specialising in IP and WTO laws does not think that foreign lawyers will be automatically allowed to appear in the court. Under the Advocates Act, one has to be qualified in Indian law to be a court counsel. Otherwise, the role of a lawyer will be limited to only an advisory role, said Mukherjee. So a foreign lawyer has to have an LLB degree before he or she can start appearing in the Indian courts. Also, it is not right to say that foreign firms are not in India. They are already here as with their Indian associates and partners.

On the other hand, the law schools and colleges in India welcome the entry of foreign legal firms as they feel that legal sector cannot be barred when India in opening up other sectors. In fact, law schools and colleges argue that the governments proposed move in this regard would boost competition in the legal sector. Dr A Jayagovind, vice-chancellor, National Law School of India University, Bangalore: As the bar council of India itself is opposing the move, I cannot commend on the impact of the entry of foreign legal firms on the profession here. On the education system, it would be a welcome development. Anything that improves competition would be a welcome development. In fact, thanks to National Law School, there has been some quality in the education here. With the entry of foreign firms, the quality would be enhanced further. In terms of employment, it would offer better opportunities. The direct impact would be on legal education and it would be good, while, Saradindu Biswas, an ex-vice-chairman of the Bar Council of India, feels that a large section of 14-lakh enrolled Indian lawyers will lose out in competition with foreign lawyers.

Be it in appearance, documentation or in-depth knowledge about law, the Indian lawyers suffer some serious shortcomings. Unless, we make our law-teaching institutions more responsive to todays needs it may not be possible to compete with foreign lawyers who want to come and open practice here, he says. According to the XI Plan target, restructuring and reorienting higher education system to impart competitive skills and capabilities of global standards is on the agenda. Foreign firms in India shall not really eat into the pool of available jobs. They would mainly recruit law school graduates and in the process provide an opportunity to them to gain a first-hand experience in cross-border and even domestic commercial transactions, that will be the mainstay of such firms, says Prof HD Pithawala, an eminent advocate, solicitor and professor at Government Law College (GLC), Mumbai.

The clients of foreign firms, mainly multinationals, would offer considerably higher pay package than those offered in India. There is no doubt that their entry would actually be beneficial to Indias growing legal market. Moreover, opening up of legal services would bring in foreign investment. Besides, opening up of this sector would throw open a gamut of opportunities for aspiring lawyers.

Says Mukherjee, The junior lawyers and interns who are meagerly paid or sometimes not paid at all will get a good deal once the foreign firms come in India, while, Saradindu Biswas, an ex-vice chairman of the Bar Council of India, feels that a large section of 14 lakh enrolled Indian lawyers need more professional grounding and knowledge to compete with foreign lawyers. Be it in appearance, documentation or in-depth knowledge about law, the Indian lawyers suffer some serious shortcomings. Unless we make our law teaching institutions more responsive to todays needs, it may not be possible to compete with foreign lawyers who want to come and open practice here, he adds. Professional services are one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy worldwide. Legal services are newcomers to the international trade. There is a feeling that before arriving at any decision, the government should ensure reciprocity before permitting foreign firms to practice law in India.

Dr Manoj Kumar Sinha, director, Indian Society of International Law and secretary, All India Law Teachers Congress, says, Allowing foreign private law firms in India will certainly help the lawyers get better job opportunities and break the monopoly of a handful private law firms working in India. It is equally important that the government must put enough safeguard to protect the interest of the Indian legal community.

If the entry of foreign law firms is inevitable, then equality of opportunity is necessary. Subhrajit Basu, a young lawyer at the Calcutta High Court believes that unless there is a level-playing field it would be difficult to compete with foreign lawyers. The level playing field can only be attained with more judicial reforms.

With inputs from Indranil Chakraborty and Reema Jose