The continuing discussion on long-overdue reforms in the legal services industry is breaking the lethargy around the negotiations between India and the UK on a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA). The legal community in the UK, especially institutional law firms, is urging India to liberalise the legal profession by lifting prohibitions on international attorneys practising there.
It would normally have required merely another legislative exercise of Parliament given how frequently the nation’s legislative agenda is updated, but it is easier said than done. This is due to two major objections raised by India’s legal community. Secondly, given the two-way character of an FTA—allowing Indian attorneys to practise in the UK and vice versa—the reciprocity principle is unlikely to endure. The second is more difficult and is based on the fear that legal reforms could stifle the chances available to Indian lawyers by opening the door to more established, financially stable, and established foreign law firms. In contrast, the key question is whether India can overcome its nationalism about its legal profession 75 years after Independence and open it up to international competition.
The conventional view is that a sizable portion of Indian lawyers, particularly those who practise in non-metro subordinate courts, work in appalling conditions with little to no opportunity for financial gain. It is claimed that exposing them to competition from abroad is fatal.
On the other hand, it is said that lawyers who work in institutional law companies will lose their best employees to international legal firms that provide better employment and financial prospects. The canvass is essentially filled with paranoias that point to injustices, disparities, and insensitivity to the plight of the Indian fraternity. The truth is that a lot of millennials decide to pursue law as a profession.
The recent Pankaj Kumar decision by the Delhi High Court, which lamented the unfortunate financial stress experienced by younger lawyers, serves as a prime example of the need to reflect on the changing economic landscape. In it, the Delhi High Court urged senior (lawyers) in the profession to “be more mindful of the financial background of their juniors and employ a more empathetic approach” when paying stipends.
The FTA negotiations are not a source of worry but rather a time for reflection. A very small percentage of recent graduates in law choose to enrol with the Bar Council. Open borders enable migration in pursuit of international possibilities. Even better, foreign businesses travel to India to hire Indian university graduates.
The best brains are forced to seek jobs in prestigious legal firms, in-house counsel roles, etc. Even among lawyers who pursue domestic professions due to cross-border experience, the capacity to use hard-learned skills, etc. As a result, the quality of the bar is automatically compromised at the entry-level.
It suggests that the availability of judicial talent from the bar suffers as a result of meritocracy (combined with insufficient lateral entrance chances). Consequently, senior judges’ repeated appeals to graduates to enlist in the bar at convocations at law schools have had little success.
The legal profession is not exempt from free-market economics and the advantages of competition. To address the pervasive economic disparity among legal professionals, there is no justification for denying the mobility of talent and greater prospects, which are otherwise only open to a select few.
The scope of reforms after the 1991 agenda and the 1995 WTO-driven reforms, etc., is the most frequent query posed to the legal profession. Notwithstanding Indian lawyers’ success globally as academicians and professionals, the objections do not give the originality and skills of Indian legal experts the proper weight. Why deprive smart, entrepreneur-minded lawyers the chance to establish themselves under the auspices of a foreign legal firm? In fact, the advantages of cross-mobility (between foreign-owned and Indian-owned enterprises) are stagnating as a result of the artificial restrictions on the fronts of work and collaboration.
However, the Union Law Ministry said in an official statement that the representatives of the two nations “appreciated the potential benefits of opening up the legal services sector to the respective economies, and agreed in principle to work together to find common ground for benefit of all stakeholders.”
The JCC’s third in-person meeting took place on August 18 in New Delhi. The JCC meeting was followed the next day by the LSC meeting.
A broad consensus was reached at the JCC meeting to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and best practises in the areas of how commercial courts operate, alternative dispute resolution processes like arbitration and mediation, use of technology in case management, the administration of justice, the enforcement of contracts, and simple legislative drafting.