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india's emerging leaders 2019

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Insights on legal leadership in India


India’s future legal leaders show how lateral thinking and a willingness to take risks are changing its legal profession for the better.

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Foreword by Reena SenGupta

For nearly thirty years, I have worked closely with many law firm leaders all over the world and had the privilege of calling many of them friends. I have watched partners take on the role of managing partner with great enthusiasm only to be worn down five years later. In the mid-nineties, the biggest fee-earners would be promoted into the leadership position with little or no management experience. Towards the end of the nineties, as the major UK law firms internationalised, many managing partners began to take the concept of management more seriously.

Leadership in the legal profession has always been a complex topic. Academics such as Professor Laura Empson at Cass Business School in the UK have analysed what leadership means in professional service firms in many books on the topic. Professor Empson's latest, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas, shows how leadership in professional services firms is a very different discipline to that in corporations.  

The interesting point about law firms is that they are partnerships. Law firm leaders manage through influence rather than diktat. They must bring their partners along with them and work hard to get ‘buy-in’. It is no accident in the US that several law firm leaders are ex-politicians.

Clearly, to lead and manage a group of lawyers, healthy doses of charisma and gravitas are required. In the past, law firm leaders were usually the biggest rainmakers. They would have little or no formal training on leadership or management.

Legal leadership also differs by jurisdiction. For example, in the US, many global chairs keep their legal practices alive, whereas in the UK, they tend to devote themselves to their management roles. Asia is more similar to the US with the exception of Australia, whereas Europe has a mixture of approaches.

The other factor to make notions of leadership tricky in the profession is that lawyers’ roles are intrinsically supportive: they protect and advise their clients.

Professor Empson observes that “professionals are reluctant to characterise themselves as leaders.” This holds true for lawyers more than any other professional. Traditionally, they have not led the charge. The legal profession is one of the few that sees being second to market as a positive. Many law firms positively eschew being the first to try anything, as we see in our research for the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers programme.

However, notions of leadership in the legal sector are changing quite dramatically.

International law firms have extensive training programmes, designed to nurture leadership in their partners. Soft skills and self-care are emphasised. But, not all law firm partners are natural leaders. Nor will they learn leadership skills despite the growing sophistication of the training programmes. Some lawyers are, and prefer to remain, brilliant practitioners.

Nonetheless, the role of partner has become more intense: they must be superb black letter lawyers, tech-enabled strategic advisers, managers, business generators, team leaders and increasingly thought-leaders skilled at the art of predicting the future.

In this nuanced landscape of legal leadership, we were unsure of what to expect from our research into India’s emerging leaders.


Most people who know the Indian legal market well are acquainted with the charismatic founders of India’s top firms. They will also know that many firms are founder-dominated and family-run, where the equity is concentrated in the hands of a few. Partners’ roles in India have, therefore, not been comparable with more developed markets.

This has clearly changed.

Our long list of potential candidates ran to nearly 90 individuals. Whilst we selected 20 individuals to feature in this report, we could have easily included another 20. 

The selection criteria we used is worth taking a moment to consider. We blind reviewed all the applications, so we had no sight of their name or firm, and we scored each on the following criteria:

  • Vision for their practice, firm and profession

  • Breadth of interests/activities

  • Ability to show strategic thinking

  • Self-awareness

  • Communication skills

  • Strength of character

Their abilities as lawyers we considered to be table stakes.

Everyone had to show a track record of acting for important clients on significant matters, as being a successful lawyer is necessary to legitimise a future leader’s position in the eyes of their peers.

Most of the long listed emerging leaders (61%) equated leadership with nurturing and serving their teams. Several of them took a leaf out of Gandhi’s philosophy and are “being the change that they want to see”. The individuals in the shortlist were also notable in their passion for pastoral work: their teams’ welfare clearly comes first.

This suggests the ‘servant leadership’ model – first championed by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s – is being actively embraced by India’s emerging legal leaders. The idea of servant leadership differs from notions of traditional leadership. The first puts the needs of employees first, the second focuses on the organisation’s success. India’s emerging leaders’ tend to servant-leadership, which in terms of putting their people's well being first, puts them ahead of the rest of the global profession.

The final shortlist of 20 private practice leaders differs from the long-list in a few key areas: they were more likely to have taken a risk in their personal and professional lives; they were twice as likely to have had foreign experience; and they were more able to put their heads above the parapet and strategically think about the challenges facing their firms, their clients and the profession.

With individuals such as these, there is deep cause for optimism for the future of legal India.



Terminology: in the report, the ‘long list’ refers to all 90 applications we received for consideration. The shortlist refers to the list of 25 practitioners (20 in private practice and 5 from in-house) who were selected to feature in this report.

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