The World

March 24, 2010 6:55 PM

Indian Lawyers Group Seeks to Prohibit Activities of Foreign Law Firms

Posted by Anthony Lin

A group of lawyers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is seeking government action against 31 foreign law firms and a legal process outsourcing (LPO) company for illegally practicing law "out of five-star hotels and business centers."

According to Indian legal blog Bar and Bench, a petition for a writ compelling the government to act against foreign lawyers was filed in the Madras High Court by lawyer A. K. Balaji on behalf of a group called the Association of Indian Lawyers. Although international law firms are already barred from having offices in India--a restriction strengthened by a Bombay High Court decision in December--a member of the group behind the writ told Bar and Bench that other means by which foreign firms operate in India should also be targeted.

The association member, Karthikeyan, told the blog, "the issue is no longer about the entry of foreign law firms, it is also about the manner in which these foreign law firms continue to do business in India despite a ban on them. These firms have already entered India indirectly and are operating out of five-star hotels and business centers."

According to a copy of the writ posted on Bar and Bench, the association is largely targeting corporate practice, which is less clearly proscribed than litigation. Though foreign firms focus mainly on cross-border transactions, the group seems to take the position that any work by foreign firms physically taking place in India should be prohibited. The writ also takes aim at foreign lawyers taking part in conferences and seminars in India.

"Moreover, the advocates from various foreign law firms are often visiting India and conducting seminars in various parts of our country," the writ alleges. "They are entering in to India through visitors' visas but the actual intention of their visit is to indirectly market and earn money out of clients from India by way of seminars."

The writ also criticizes how some firms have opened offices in "neighboring countries." The reference is likely to Singapore, which has become the preferred base for India practices of global law firms.

Foreign lawyers should only be allowed to work in India, the writ argues, if there is strict reciprocity for Indian lawyers to practice in the U.S. or U.K.

Among the 30 firms named in the writ are leading global firms like Shearman & Sterling, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, and White & Case. But the list is far from exhaustive and many major international firms with active India practices were not included.

Edward Bradley, a Singapore-based partner in the India practice of Clifford Chance, says he expects the firms named in the action to meet and consider the matter in the coming weeks. He is confident, all were complying with Indian law.

"My impression is it doesn't reflect on what it is international lawyers do,” said Bradley of the writ, though he cautioned that he had yet to study its allegations closely. He noted there is some support in Indian legal circles for blanket restrictions on visiting foreign lawyers. Such views, if more widely adopted, would likely hurt India by driving away foreign investment, he said.

Perhaps the most surprising inclusion in the writ was Integreon, a leading LPO company. Such companies hire Indian lawyers to provide support on overseas legal matters, most commonly document review for U.S. litigations. Integreon has also been a leader in providing outsourced back-office services like word-processing to law firms and has in the past signed contracts to perform such work for Clifford Chance, DLA Piper, and others.

The writ accuses LPOs of basically being illegal foreign law offices. In a statement, Integreon said the accusations were without merit.

"It is unfortunate that our size and clear leadership position in the LPO market has made us the LPO target for the petitioner," said Liam Brown, CEO of Integreon, in the statement. "We were surprised to hear that our range of LPO services, such as document review, e-discovery, contract management, and other legal support services could be confused with the practice of law."

It is unclear how much foreign firms or LPOs need to worry about the case, as the wheels of Indian justice turn extremely slowly. December's Bombay High Court decision, which ruled that three foreign firms' Indian "liaison" offices were barred along with other foreign law offices, came 14 years after initial filings.

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