With its rich legal heritage and eclectic mix of sole practitioners, young partnerships and regional outposts of adventurous national firms, Chennai is regaining lost ground as a legal hub for southern India

In 2006 the World Bank opened one of its largest offices outside Washington in the southern Indian city of Chennai (formerly called Madras). The 120,000 square foot facility, which was built on land leased from the Tamil Nadu government, houses many of the bank’s support services. Three years later, signalling its confidence in the city, the World Bank moved to buy the 3.5 acre plot on which its office stands.

Wooing a prestigious multilateral institution like the World Bank is never easy. But coups such as this have become almost routine in Tamil Nadu. In recent years the state has succeeded in reeling in a string of prominent investors, including Hyundai, Renault and Nokia.

As a result, long-term observers such as A Balasubramanian, a senior director of project finance at Infrastructure Development Finance Company in Chennai, predict that the city and the state are “poised for a quantum leap”.

Where are the lawyers?

But rapid economic growth must be underpinned by a solid foundation of professional service providers. And as far as legal expertise is concerned, some observers are worried that the city is falling short. Balasubramanian, for example, points out that much of the legal work relating to projects undertaken in Tamil Nadu is currently handled in Mumbai. “Where are the lawyers in Chennai who can serve the needs of this booming state?” he asks.

A Balasubramanian Senior Director, Project Finance Infrastructure Development Finance Company

For even though Chennai boasts a large number of competent legal professionals, national law firms, which are perceived as being the providers of the most sophisticated legal advice, are struggling to gain a foothold in the city. Most have either very modest representation or no presence at all.

Typical of this is AZB & Partners, one of India’s largest and most prestigious law firms. AZB acquired a Chennai office in September 2009 as a result of its merger with Anup S Shah Law Firm, which had three offices in the south of the country. However, the firms de-merged in January this year, leaving AZB with little more than some office space and a few juniors in the city.

Abhijit Joshi, a Mumbai-based partner at AZB, says that the firm will independently rebuild its capabilities in Chennai. In order to do so, he says, “we ideally need to find a local heavyweight”. As for the firm’s existing clients in the city, Joshi says: “We never had too many clients serviced out of Chennai … the Chennai clients serviced out of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore continue.”

Abhijit Joshi Partner AZB & Partners

A national law firm with a larger presence in Chennai is Dua Associates. It has 15 lawyers and three partners in the city and has had an office there since 2001. Dua’s clients in Chennai include Ford, Indian Oil Corporation and Gammon.

Senthil Ramamoorthy, a partner at the firm, is optimistic about its prospects. “Chennai is poised for more and more growth,” he says.

Of course, such growth will not go unnoticed by Dua’s competitors, and Ramamoorthy is resigned to the fact that other non-local law firms will inevitably muscle in. “It is a huge disadvantage to not have an office here,” he says. “In a country as diverse as India you need multiple offices”.

Senthil Ramamoorthy Partner Dua Associates

New arrivals

Some firms from other parts of the country are already on their way.

A recent addition to Chennai’s legal landscape is Delhi-based PSA Legal, which opened an office in the city on 5 January. The firm previously serviced its Chennai-related clients from Delhi.

“We believe in this market and the local industry,” says Neeraj Dubey, a senior associate who has been assisting the firm’s proprietor, Priti Suri, with the establishment of the new office. Dubey, who is based in Delhi, observes that as Chennai “remains a conservative market” clients there “believe in traditional methods of working” and prefer physical meetings rather than emails. This also means that clients based in the city look for a “lasting professional relationship with proficient advisers”.

Neeraj Dubey Senior Associate PSA Legal

The firm is “resisting the temptation” of hiring from other cities and is instead in search of “strong local lawyers”. So far it has hired one lawyer for its Chennai office and is in “advanced discussions” with several others. PSA intends to create a full-service capability in the city.

Mumbai-based Wadia Ghandy & Co also has Chennai firmly within its sights. It opened an office there in 2009 to complement its existing offices in Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Bangalore. The firm now has four lawyers in Chennai, headed by partner Shona Malvi, who moved there from Mumbai.

In Mumbai, Malvi handled corporate and real estate work. “Now I do everything,” she explains. “I do a bit of litigation and continue with my corporate and real estate work … I do a wider range of work”.

According to Malvi, legal work in Chennai has unique characteristics. “Property transactions are completely different,” she says, with very many people involved in the same title. In addition, Chennai lawyers fight their own battles in court, unlike Mumbaikars, who engage external counsel for litigations. “Here you have advocates who argue their own matters in court,” she says.

Some of Malvi’s clients are those that she previously advised from Mumbai. She considers a local presence to be beneficial, arguing that it’s easier “when you are able to meet your lawyer face-to-face”.

This sentiment is echoed by Kavitha Vijay, a partner in the Chennai office of Universal Legal. Vijay uses her presence in the city as a key selling point and believes it is increasingly working to her advantage. “Companies are willing to consider moving to law firms with Chennai offices as opposed to having to go to Mumbai”.

Kavitha Vijay Partner Universal Legal

Universal Legal, which Vijay describes as “a small firm that is in its growth phase,” also has offices in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Chandigarh. It opened its Chennai office in 2006 and maintains a staff of up to ten lawyers there. Vijay, who is the only partner in the office, focuses on transactional and advisory work on private equity investments and M&A deals. Many of her clients are from the IT, media and entertainment and micro-finance sectors.

Other full-service firms to have ventured south to Chennai include FoxMandal Little, India Juris, King Stubb & Kasiva, Kochhar & Co, KR Chawla & Co and Lakshmi Kumaran & Sridharan.

IP firms lead the race

Chennai holds particular allure for IP boutiques. Anand and Anand, one of India’s largest intellectual property firms, put up its flagpole in the city in 2003. With five lawyers and one patent engineer, the office is headed by a partner, MS Bharath.

Out-of-town arrivalsA key motivation for Anand’s Chennai venture was the city’s transformation into a major IP hub. Pravin Anand, the firm’s managing partner, says an office in Chennai became necessary for his practice after the country’s Intellectual Property Appellate Board was set up there under the Trademarks Act, 1999, which came into force in September 2003. Chennai also houses the trademark registry for the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

For these reasons, several other IP firms from elsewhere in the country – including Remfry & Sagar, Aditya & Associates and RK Dewan & Co – have also set up shop in Chennai. They compete with a number of home-grown intellectual property boutiques such as Altacit Global, Kurian and Kurian, Path and Partners, Puthran & Associates, Selvam & Selvam and notably, DePenning & DePenning, which is one of the country’s oldest IP firms.

Illustrious heritage

Significantly, most of the Chennai offices of non-local law firms are headed by local lawyers. MS Bharath, for example, is from Chennai, as are all three of Dua Associates’ partners in the city.

While Mumbai and Delhi have long been magnets for legal talent from across the country, Chennai’s legal establishment has remained by and large closed to outsiders. As a result, most law firms seeking to open an office in the city recruit local partners to front their operations.

The reasons for this are largely historical. Unlike many of India’s newer legal hubs, such as Bangalore and even Delhi, Chennai has a rich legal heritage that is steeped in tradition. Madras High Court was established during the reign of Queen Victoria and was one of the first three high courts in India. Similarly, Madras Law College (now known as Dr Ambedkar Government Law College) is one of India’s oldest law schools. It was established in 1891 and counts the country’s home minister, P Chidambaram, among its many distinguished alumni. By contrast, the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, which is currently regarded as one of India’s leading centres of legal education, was established only in 1987.

This illustrious heritage has left Chennai with a large and talented pool of home-grown lawyers who continue to make their mark on the legal landscape. In 2005, for example, Madras High Court became the first court in the country to set up its own mediation centre. Tamil Nadu is also the only state in India to have mediation centres at the district court level.

Unique culture

Another legacy of Chennai’s rich juridical tradition is a culture of legal practice that differs markedly from that in other Indian cities. Sole practitioners still dominate the city’s legal market and clients appear to value the deep local knowledge and cultural sensitivities that they possess. Specialization among lawyers – with the notable exception of intellectual property lawyers – is relatively uncommon.

Home-grown talentTypical of Chennai’s sole practitioners is VP Raman, a third-generation lawyer who set up his own practice after just three years in the profession. Raman argues that the prevailing legal culture in the city reflects India’s broader north-south divide. It’s also a “less expensive market,” he adds, “as we don’t charge as much as the guys in Delhi and Mumbai”.

Raman believes there is “greater entrepreneurial instinct among the lawyers from the north … and they can market themselves better”. Those from the south, meanwhile, produce “more content with less said” in the petitions and statements they draft. He suggests that this difference in “verbosity” could mean that a five-page petition that he prepares might well become a 20-page document in the hands of a Mumbai- or Delhi-based lawyer.

Chennai lawyers are “litigators at heart who have one leg in litigation and the other in general practice” says Raman. He believes that with the local economy booming, the future is bright for lawyers like him.

A more experienced local practitioner is Satish Parasaran. Describing himself as a “good generalist” he says that his father, K Parasaran, a former attorney general of India who began his career in Chennai, advised him not to specialize.

But Parasaran, who squeezed in a few minutes to speak to India Business Law Journal before attending to a waiting room full of clients, thinks people like him are operating “in a twilight zone”. While at present he has a steady stream of clients, most of whom have “blind faith” in his abilities – which he admits can be “really scary” – it is only a matter of time before the more professionally organized law firms take the lead.

The onset of change

And that may happen sooner than Parasaran realizes. The growing complexity of disputes and transactions is forcing some of the generalist lawyers of Chennai to specialize. As a result, partnerships between entrepreneurial lawyers from within the ranks of the city’s legal fraternity are being formed. These are eating into territory long held by the city’s powerful independent practitioners.

The name most often mentioned in this context is HSB Partners, which was founded in 2005 by K Harishankar, Srinath Sridevan and TK Bhaskar. Sridevan, a sixth-generation lawyer, specializes in banking, real estate and infrastructure. He describes Chennai law firms as “reticent” and conservative, and says his firm, which is still “experimenting with many things” has so far made no effort to market its services.

As such, like most firms in Chennai, HSB Partners draws clients only by word of mouth. However, Sridevan admits that this “may not sustain five to 10 years into the future”.

A full-service firm that does everything except “heavy duty criminal work”, HSB Partners has 28 associates. It recently moved into larger premises to facilitate further growth.

Another recent addition to the ranks of the home-grown Chennai firms is Vichar Partners. Established in September 2010 by Vinod Kumar, Chitra Narayan and Aarthi Sivanandh – three former Chennai-based partners of Mumbai and Delhi headquartered firms – the trio came together after seeing many clients venturing outside Chennai for legal advice. We realized that “there is work we can do and services we can provide for local clients,” Narayan tells India Business Law Journal.

She points out that in most law firms in Chennai, the same person does both the dispute resolution and transactional work. However, as “the needs, the deadlines and commitments of both are very different”, Vichar Partners aims to segregate the two in order to achieve a “clearer division of labour within the firm.

“We think clients are better served if there is a separation,” says Narayan, who currently undertakes both corporate transactional work and litigation relating to shareholder disputes. She admits she is the only person at the firm who is yet to achieve this separation. The other two partners have managed to do so and specialize in dispute resolution and transactional work respectively.

Vichar Partners has six lawyers, including its three partners, and is in the process of hiring two more. Narayan describes the work done by the firm as “corporate commercial and some amount of intellectual property … both dispute resolution and transaction advisory work”.

Other firms are springing up in Chennai as a result of regional amalgamations in the south of the country. Atman Law Partners, for example, was founded in 2009 when Chinmay Mirji and Vivek Durai merged their practices, which were based in Bangalore and Chennai respectively.

The firm takes its place on the small but growing list of home-grown Chennai law firms that includes King & Partridge, R&P Partners, Ramalingam & Associates, Surana & Surana and VS Rajan Associates.

Engineering success

Another such firm, Altacit Global, has its roots in intellectual property, but has since expanded into other areas. It was founded in 2003 by Sudhir Ravindran, an engineer turned lawyer, who made the switch after developing an interest in technology transfer and intellectual property while studying the use of polymers in light weight vehicles.

Ravindran’s engineering background is reflected in his passion to perfect the “unique workflow” system to promote efficiency in a law firm without putting “systems above people”. He feels this is an area that few law firms get right.

He points out that “in litigation, clients expect continuity of people,” but as attracting and retaining talent is a challenge, it is important “to ensure that the effect of attrition is minimized”. So, Altacit Global embarked on an exercise of process mapping and re-engineering that Ravindran says has contributed greatly to its success.

It now has 20 lawyers and provides the full range of IP-related services as well as undertaking some corporate work. It made the shift away from being exclusively an IP boutique not by design, but in response to client demand. “Just like you go to the same doctor for all your needs, clients like to go to the same lawyer … we found we could add value by addressing the client’s complete needs,” says Ravindran, who also runs Escrow Tech, the only software and technology escrow provider in the country.

Sudhir Ravindran CEO Altacit Global

Global ambitions

Surana & Surana, by contrast, has been a one-stop-shop for its clients for a long time. Founded in 1971 as a family firm, it currently employs 55 people. While most are lawyers, over the last 10 years the firm has also taken on company secretaries and chartered accountants.

One of Surana & Surana’s first international clients was Hyundai, which it advised on real estate and other needs. “Our firm is very much involved in the auto industry,” says Vinod Surana, a partner and CEO of the firm, who is the son of the founder.

Vinod Surana Partner & CEO Surana & Surana

Surana & Surana has also taken an active role in promoting Indian industry on the international stage. “I had the opportunity of leading three trade delegations to South America,” says Surana, adding that it is very rare for a lawyer to lead a trade delegation.

The firm has links with universities in Argentina and Uruguay and with the law firms of Ferrere Abogados in Montevideo, Teixeira Martins Advogados in São Paulo and Vítolo Abogados in Buenos Aires. It also “organizes, administers, sponsors and hosts 14 moot court competitions across India”.

Surana & Surana occupies its own purpose-built five-storey building on one of Chennai’s most prominent streets.

A different world

Just down the road from Surana & Surana, in a world far removed from it, is the office-cum-residence of Vedantham Srinivisan. A respected senior member of the city’s legal community who began working in 1953, his experience covers “every aspect of business law”.

Like most lawyers of his time, Srinivasan, who is over 80 years old and semi-retired, is a litigator who doubles as a legal adviser, arbitrator, teacher and anything else he is called upon to do. And by all accounts, he flourishes in these multiple roles.

Srinivasan began his practice at a time when it was possible for a lawyer to be “become adept in every minute aspect of business life and activity”.

Today, however, as Kavitha Vijay at Universal Legal observes, Chennai lawyers are discovering that their clients are better served if they can “draw a line between litigation and corporate work”.