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How can foreign law firms build an India practice?

We observe the fortunes of international law firms in India like bird watchers. Nimble ones easily win new business and leap on emerging practice areas. Some build work on sustained investment in local relationships. Others see their profiles rise and fall with the departure of a well-known India group head.

What are the best ways to build a legal practice in one of the most important economies in the world?

Here are five of our conclusions from the latest RSG India Report:

  1. Move from personal to institutional relationships... Foreign law firm success in India is usually led by a charismatic, committed individual. But a more sustainable strategy is to spread the practice and grow a few India-expert lawyers. Clients in India are increasingly interested in a multi-specialist rather than a generalist offering. The trick is to have several India-enthusiasts on the team from different practice areas with different relationship sets who also have expertise in other jurisdictions - particularly in emerging markets with which India wants to trade.

  2. ...but remember that personal attitudes still count. When Indian clients were asked why they had chosen their most recent foreign law firm to instruct, they said practice area, subject matter or transactional expertise. However, almost as important as expertise were lawyers who were hungry, flexible and pragmatic.

  3. Talk about value instead of fees Indian clients are cost-conscious, acutely so, but it’s not all about the fee rate. They are becoming more sophisticated so while some were critical of foreign law firms’ approach to pricing and budgeting, more were interested in how their work is resourced. They want to see better use of lower cost locations and more efficient staffing, and they have an increasingly nuanced appreciation of what value means.

  4. Look for untapped opportunities Indian general counsel need to develop themselves and their teams. International law firms sit on a wealth of market and industry intelligence, but few share it well with their Indian clients. The one area in which most clients would like their foreign law firms to improve is in how they share legal, business, market, industry and operational knowledge. The firm that does this well has a chance to break into the market from a standing start or deepen an existing presence.

  5. Bring your best tech Indian clients are digitally transforming. They expect better technology from their foreign law firms. Although lawyers in large international law firms can access the latest technology, they do not appear to be leveraging this advantage and take an old-school approach to delivering legal services. Clients scored this indicator the lowest out of 15 against which they assessed their foreign law firms (see chart below).

For the latest RSG India Report, RSG asked clients to score foreign law firms on 15 performance indicators which cover aspects of service delivery, expertise, commerciality, modernisation and training. The market averages below show the aggregate scores for each indicator.

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