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BCI makes History: Your checklist of 4 to prepare for foreign law practice entry into India

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“No commercial competition or procurement”, the Bar Council of India (BCI) forewarns, as it begins lettering its historic notification solemnising the marriage of the Indian and global legal sector.

BCI notification 1260 of 2023, on 13 March, allowed foreign lawyers to do non-litigous law practice in India. The lawyers have to be registered with the BCI; have to be from a country with reciprocity to Indian lawyers in this regard; and can only advise on the laws of their country of primary qualification.

So transaction work, business set up and day to day corporate and commercial legal advice, regulatory and compliance advice (as long as it doesn’t involve appearing before an Indian authority entitled to take evidence on oath), tax advice, drafting and documentation, data protection and IPR, and arbitration are all now open to foreign lawyers.

But litigation, representation before Indian judicial and quasi judicial authorities, conveyancing of property and title investigation are not open.

Wedding solemnisation values chanted or not, the notification is out there now. No point staying in denial about the “commercial competition” that is flying in and not flying out now, and is about to shake things up in a healthy manner.

That said, the Indian market is still largely cost conscious. I’d be surprised if this global entry caused any immediate meaningful disruption for the lower mid sector and the early stage sector of law firms in India.

In the battle lines for a while are perhaps only a few. These are firms vying for the business of global private equity funds, multinational private sector banks and large multinational companies. These clients value time and process efficiency even before costs.

In direct conversations in the last few months, I’ve heard the partners of large private equity funds comment something to the likes of: “We are looking for options because the timelines at some of the large firms are really high these days. And to take a couple of months on these things is not okay. We have already taken our commercial decision and the process that law firms have to take is to make it happen. That’s where we see some of the younger firms winning.”

This is the space which will be immediately affected by tech and capital fueled global law firms. Intensifying competition through consistent upsells in service delivery through AI-enabled process efficiency, a heavy armoury of fee earners on the back of fat paycheques and network agility through mature business development systems – that’s what the fiercest law practice players in India should watch out for. The fiercest players are also the ones preped to take advantage first in the collaborations and tie-ups space.

As for the rest of the market, the time is ripe to groom for the inevitability that will come for their share of the pie 5 years from now. Here are four areas to start polishing now:

  1. Brand storytelling

    Pick up the website, profiles, YouTube or LinkedIn pages of US, UK, Australia, Germany based law firms. Most of the firms in these jurisdictions, that are working with the ideal client profiles of similar Indian firms, have

    -engaging, market-first content written in simple legalese-free sentences

    -Interactive video presentations, storyboards and eye-catching carousel posts without timeline breaks

    – A knack for targeting hyper niche audience with micro-nurturing angles

    To compete with these in the future, it is no longer an option to say that BCI doesn’t allow making law firm websites, or to have a website there with illegible font and bad UI/UX design, or to have a good website with a dated insights section. It is no longer acceptable to put up intermittent, hard to read, text heavy primer PDFs in the name of LinkedIn presence. And to be ready for this ‘game changer’ move, one needs to change the game on cookie cutter profiles.

  2. Networking and alliances

    Many India law practices now actively start conversations with the non-legal market. They persistently build relationships and eventually showcase their work.

    But several others are taking refuge in this: “Hey, solicitation of work is not allowed under the BCI rules”.

    Foreign lawyers started some decades ago on systems to grow their business relationships. They reconginsed early, the power they derive through relationships other than only referrals. Many international firms now have matured machines to generate and nurture leads. So if Indian firms will not move first, their offshore counterparts will glide in to that spot.

    Indian law firms have soil homogeneity and home-base solidarity advantage. It can be embarrassing to lose out on relationships, despite that, for the lack of proactivity.

  3. Service delivery innovation

    Boutique firms are not differentiating themselves on transaction structure complexity, very often. They are more often differentiating themselves, on price points and timelines. Another siginificant differentiator is the style of delivery. This impacts the emotional experience that clients have.

    Process efficiency improvements will drive conversations forward between firms and their target audience.

    Foreign law firms are winning awards for tech-enabled process upsells. They have a spread of sensitive information portals, litigation-success predictor, among others. This is will give the Indian boutique law firm sector tough competition.

  4. Work cultures

    An incentive that beats fat paycheques:  The feeling of a community.  Community comes from a common mission and purpose, to which co-workers are drawn in through emapthy and relatability. This is an impact factor, per studies as well as the experience of local versus city law firms in the international market.

    Law practice workplaces in India will have to undergo a makeover. A homeground that understands and supports its contributors better, keeps them from migrating.

    Firms here have the unique advantage of understanding better. They have first hand experience of cultural and ecosystem limitations, as well as gender-based hurdles, local to India. This can be a significant connector in the long run, over and above the dollars.

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