Amid global economic chaos, 2008 saw some of the most memorable achievements by Indian lawyers in recent times. India Business Law Journal is proud to recognize and reward the country’s top law firms in 15 key practice areas. Vandana Chatlani reports

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 2008 witnessed some of the most challenging market conditions since India opened its doors to the outside world in 1991. Yet amid the chaos, the year also saw some of the most memorable corporate deals, law firm achievements and legal market developments of recent times.

Reliance Power broke records with its US$2.93 billion initial public offering; Trilegal announced a tie-up with magic circle firm Allen & Overy (to be followed this year by AZB & Partners’ tie-up with Clifford Chance); Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo pulled off the largest listed-company deal in India’s history with its acquisition of Ranbaxy; FoxMandal Little opened a London office and completed yet another law firm merger; Tata acquired British icons Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford; Marezban and Alka Bharucha, equity partners at Amarchand Mangaldas, departed with a team of associates to set up their own firm; the State Bank of India completed a US$4.1 billion equity rights issue; Khaitan & Co bucked international recruitment trends by poaching the partner in charge of the India group at London-based Ashurst; China and India raced to finalize their competition legislation; and the global markets received a severe lashing that left law firms with the enormous task of picking up the pieces.

In such extraordinary times, the task of judging India Business Law Journal’s Indian Law Firm Awards was far from straightforward. In reaching its final decisions, the editorial team used a combination of objective data and subjective analysis. A detailed questionnaire was sent to more than 500 India-focused corporate counsel and business leaders in India and around the world. A similar questionnaire was sent to partners at more than 200 Indian and international law firms. Respondents were invited to nominate three Indian law firms in each of 15 practice areas. They were also invited to nominate firms in the category of best overall law firms. Indian firms that participated in the questionnaire were not permitted to nominate themselves.

Rigorous methodology

The law firms that scored highly in the survey were subsequently invited to supply client references, all of whom (almost 200 in total) were contacted by India Business Law Journal’s editorial team. Additional interviews were conducted with law firms and corporate counsel, both in India and internationally. The feedback and opinions of all consulted was considered carefully, together with the survey results and each law firm’s recent deals, cases and other notable achievements.

Not surprisingly, India’s largest and best-known general practice firms were among the top scorers in most of the award categories. The achievements and capabilities of these firms cannot be ignored and all are to be congratulated on the glowing endorsements they received from the market.

At the same time, a significant number of small and medium-sized law firms were repeatedly recommended by our respondents, with many receiving scores comparable to those of the largest firms for their work in certain practice areas.

Faced with the dilemma of how to recognize both the hard-won pre-eminence of large general practice firms, and the exceptional work undertaken by many smaller firms, India Business Law Journal’s editorial team decided to announce six winners of equal standing in each category. An additional award of Law Firm of the Year has been given to a single firm.

The results reflect the extraordinary diversity of India’s legal market. Winners include firms with a history of more than 100 years as well as one that was established just 10 months ago. The winning firms range in size from less than 10 lawyers to more than 400.

A full list of the winners can be found on at the bottom.

Law Firm of the Year

India Business Law Journal’s top award of Law Firm of the Year goes to Khaitan & Co.

Khaitan & Co racked up a number of impressive achievements in 2008, not only in the legal arena, but also in terms of practice development. Highlights include teaming up with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom to represent NTT DoCoMo on its acquisition of a 26% stake in Tata Teleservices, advising on KSK Emerging India Energy Fund’s US$200 million AIM listing and acting for the lead managers on Bank of India’s US$340 million qualified institutional placement (Luthra & Luthra represented Bank of India on the deal). All three transactions were among India Business Law Journal’s 2008 Deals of the Year.

The firm also acted as Indian counsel to Nomura on its acquisition of the back office operations of Lehman Brothers, represented HDFC Bank on its US$607 million American depository share offering and advised the underwriters on Mundra Port’s IPO.

The firm’s client list includes Mahindra & Mahindra, Gokaldas Exports, Hutchison Telecommunications, DQ Entertainment, Phillips Carbon Black and Zensar Technologies.

Khaitan & Co hit the headlines in September, when it poached two senior lawyers from UK-based Ashurst. Murali Neelakantan was a partner at Ashurst and head of the firm’s India practice. Kalpana Unadkat was a senior associate. Both lawyers moved from London to take up partnership positions in Khaitan & Co’s Mumbai office.

The move, which bucks the trend of Indian lawyers leaving the country to pursue opportunities overseas, is a rare example of a domestic firm poaching a high profile partner from a leading international one. Neelakantan said it was Khaitan’s ambition for growth that lured him away from Ashurst. “The culture of [Khaitan & Co], the quality of its people and clients and the excellent work that seems to fill the firm … make it an exciting platform,” he told India Business Law Journal.

In addition to Law Firm of the Year, Khaitan & Co wins awards in the categories of capital markets and corporate finance; mergers and acquisitions; taxation; corporate and commercial; and best overall law firms.

India’s ‘magic circle’

Appearing on the winners’ lists in a staggering 12 categories, Amarchand Mangaldas maintains its pre-eminence as one of the country’s top all-round performers. Its recent highlights include advising Reliance Power on its US$2.93 billion IPO, the largest in Indian history, and representing the lenders on the US$4.3 billion Mundra power project.

Amarchand also worked on a high profile structured finance transaction for DLF group, an equity deal for ICICI Bank and a financing deal for Bhatinda Refinery.

In 2008, the firm suffered the loss of equity partners Marezban and Alka Bharucha, who left to set up their own practice, but Amarchand rebounded quickly with the appointment of 10 new partners.

Just one point behind Amarchand in the awards tally is AZB & Partners. AZB’s recent achievements include advising Tata Teleservices on its sale of a stake to NTT DoCoMo and advising Bharti Airtel on a US$250 million private equity investment in its communications tower subsidiary by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

AZB’s managing partner, Zia Mody, commands great respect in the legal profession. “One person I always love to have on the other side of me is Zia,” says a partner at another reputed Indian firm. “She’s honest and works with integrity and understanding. Normally in three hours we’re done with negotiations for a billion-dollar deal.”

In spite of the global financial troubles, AZB appears to be in expansion mode: during the last six months it has inducted five new partners. It also hit the headlines by announcing a tie-up with UK-based Clifford Chance, a move it hopes will strengthen its position in anticipation of the liberalization of India’s legal market.

Another firm that has tied the knot with an international player is Trilegal, which last year announced a non-exclusive alliance with Allen & Overy. The alliance focuses on cooperation in client referrals, training and marketing, as well as the sharing of know-how, processes and management systems. A relatively young firm, Trilegal has built an enviable reputation based on the youth and energy of its partners, an international outlook, progressive management style and high quality services.

The firm suffered a setback in October, when three of its 10 partners, Abhishek Saxena, Saket Shukla and Sawant Singh, broke away to establish Phoenix Legal. But despite the loss, Trilegal performed consistently well in India Business Law Journal’s awards, earning praise across a wide range of practice areas and winning awards in five categories, including best overall law firms.

The venerable powerhouses of J Sagar Associates and Luthra & Luthra also feature heavily on the awards tables this year. Both appear on the list of best overall law firms.

Serving as counsel to Tata Power on the colossal US$4.3 billion Mundra project, J Sagar Associates is a force to be reckoned with in the energy, projects and infrastructure sector. It also wins awards in seven other categories, including banking and finance; capital markets and corporate finance; and securitization and structured finance.

Luthra & Luthra earns top spots for its work in energy, projects and infrastructure and mergers and acquisitions. Despite advising Bank of India on its award-winning US$340 million qualified institutional placement, it narrowly missed an award for capital markets. It was one of the closest runners-up in this category.

Next year, all eyes will be on Luthra’s performance in intellectual property following its appointment of leading IP and media specialist Ameet Datta, who joined the firm with a team of three associates from IP boutique Anand and Anand.

Awards highlights

Mumbai-based Nishith Desai Associates scores well across a range of practice areas, winning awards in the categories of IT, media and telecommunications; taxation; and venture capital and private equity. It narrowly missed a place on the list of best overall law firms. In one of its recent highlights, the firm advised Providence Equity Partners on a US$640 million investment in Aditya Birla Telecom.

Other all-round performers include Delhi-based Dua Associates, which takes home awards in the categories of competition and antitrust and corporate and commercial, and Mumbai’s DSK Legal, which is recognized for its excellence in construction and real estate and IT, media and telecommunications. DSK’s 2008 highlights include advising Dunearn Investments Mauritius, part of Temasek Holdings, and NSR-PE Mauritius, part of New Silk Route, on investments into INX Media, a television broadcasting company promoted by Indrani Mukherjea.

Sharing top spots with DSK in the construction and real estate category are ALMT Legal, Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB & Partners, Kanga & Co and Parimal K Shroff & Co. ALMT Legal has acted as counsel to Sequoia Capital Partners on its investments in SKS Microfinance, Digital Signage Networks, Guruji.com and Printo Document Services. The firm also represented CBRE, Knight Frank and Colliers on several large property acquisition transactions.

Kanga & Co, in addition to its work in the real estate sector, has been busy representing clients in the buying and selling of strategic assets. The firm advised Navis Capital Partners on the sale of its majority stake in Mars Restaurants and Sky Gourmet to India Hospitality Corp for US$110 million. It also worked on the sale of Securities Trading Corporation’s 49% stake in UTI Securities to Standard Chartered Bank.

Mumbai-based Desai & Diwanji joins Amarchand Mangaldas, Hemant Sahai Associates, J Sagar Associates, Luthra & Luthra and Trilegal on the winners list for energy, projects and infrastructure work.

The firm advised the Asian Development Bank on the financing of the first cross-border power project to supply power to India. It also represented General Electric in financing the first privately developed railway infrastructure company.

Shining legacy

One of India’s oldest firms, the reputation of Mulla & Mulla & Craigie Blunt & Caroe continues to shine. Its key deals last year include representing Air India on its US$8 billion acquisition of 68 Boeing aircraft and advising Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation in relation to the finance and construction of the US$178 million liquified natural gas tanker SS Aseem. The firm’s achievements are recognized with awards in the categories of dispute resolution and shipping, maritime and aviation. Partners DM Popat and Shardul Thacker are singled out for particular praise.

Thacker has advised lenders on more than 20 ship finance transactions over the last year. One of the most significant involved a rupee and US dollar facility from Axis Bank India (US$70 million) and Netixis Singapore (US$50 million) that was used by Great Offshore to finance the acquisition of a jackup rig.

Diane Pyke, director of risk management at Florens Container Services, recommends Thacker and commends the firm for getting the best results for its clients. “We looked to Mulla & Mulla for guidance as to how best to approach our problem. They were very skilful and aggressive in using the system to get the best advantage for their clients.”

Johan Ryrberg, executive vice-president and CFO of Camfil Farr Group, is equally enthusiastic: “We found Mulla & Mulla to be very knowledgeable, thorough and loyal,” he says. “Their work capacity was impressive and they had high work ethics.”

Johan Ryrberg, Executive VP & CFO, Camfil Farr Group

Fellow Mumbai firm Crawford Bayley & Co received widespread recognition in India Business Law Journal’s survey. The firm, which is particularly respected for its finance-related work, picks up awards in the categories of capital markets and corporate finance, and venture capital and private equity.

Financial acumen

Also scoring well in the finance-related categories are specialist firms Juris Corp and Dave & Girish & Co.

Under the leadership of partners Girish Dave and Mona Bhide, finance boutique Dave & Girish & Co receives an award for its banking and finance work.

Juris Corp has crafted a unique niche, offering the full spectrum of legal services to banking and financial-sector clients including Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and HSBC. “Juris Corp is often brought on board for transactions involving derivatives, structured finance, capital markets, cross-border lending and equity-backed loans,” says Chris Flosi, regional general counsel at Barclays Capital.

Chris Flosi, Regional General Counsel, Barclays Capital

The firm’s founding partner, H Jayesh, is praised by one client for his “derivatives and capital markets expertise, his integrity, and his commitment to his clients”.

Leading Mumbai firm Wadia Ghandy & Co also scores highly in the finance categories, winning awards for banking and finance and securitization and structured finance.

Delhi-based S&R Associates, meanwhile, is recognized for its first-rate capital markets work. The firm is among those to pick up an endorsement from Vodafone in-house counsel Helen Lamprell: “We have been impressed by Rahul Matthan at Trilegal, Ajay Bahl, Anil Kasturi and Gautum Saha at AZB & Partners, and the S&R team,” she says.

FoxMandal Little, one of India’s oldest and largest firms, scored consistently well in the survey. It narrowly missed the winners’ lists in several categories, but picks up an award for its corporate and commercial work. The firm’s recent highlights include the opening of its London office and advising US-based Vornardo Realty Trust on its US$500 million joint venture with Reliance Industries.

Managing partner Som Mandal has become as well-known for his prowess in brokering law firm mergers as he is for crafting corporate ones. Late last year, his firm acquired Delhi-based Bhatia & Co. The move followed the 2006 merger between Fox Mandal and Mumbai powerhouse Little & Co to form FoxMandal Little.

Thakker & Thakker, meanwhile, continues to make an impact with its “high quality and extensive skills”. The firm, which counts Cognizant, Samsonite, Virgin Mobile and Axiom Telecom among its clients, wins an award for its work in IT, media and telecommunications, and was a runner-up in several other categories, including corporate and commercial. As Greg Tanner, senior vice-president of strategic development at DHL International, comments: “In the last year, Thakker & Thakker has worked for us on corporate shareholding restructuring issues, tax, litigation and other day to day business issues … They are very flexible and focused on helping foreign investors in India work through the ‘red tape Raj’.”

Intellectual property specialists

The venerable Anand and Anand retains its pre-eminence for intellectual property work. It dominated the voting in the IP category, receiving warm praise from law firms and corporate counsel alike. The firm acts for high-profile clients such as Sholay Media and Entertainment, Koninklijke Philips Electronics, Kabushiki Kaisha Toshiba, Hindustan Lever and Hilton International.

Managing partner Pravin Anand is widely respected by clients around the world for transactional and advisory intellectual property work. He is also an internationally renowned litigator in IP disputes.

Sharing the top spot with Anand and Anand are K&S Partners, Krishna & Saurastri, Lall Lahiri & Salhotra, Lex Orbis and Remfry & Sagar.

Lex Orbis’ accomplishments last year include spearheading an anti-counterfeiting campaign for Casio Computers.

Gurgaon-based Lall Lahiri & Salhotra, meanwhile, is representing Heinz India in a case against GlaxoSmithkline. Both companies have accused the other of disparaging advertising in the fiercely competitive market for health drinks.

Corporate deal makers

In the M&A arena, the star of the show in 2008 was Delhi-based P&A Law Offices, which together with international firm Jones Day, advised Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo on its acquisition of Indian pharmaceuticals giant Ranbaxy.

Led by Anand Pathak, who is described by clients as “extremely committed”, “customer-focused” and “deeply knowledgeable”, the P&A team succeeded in overcoming complex domestic and international regulatory hurdles to bring the transaction to fruition. It was the largest listed-company deal in India’s history.

Mitsutaka Okano of the corporate strategy department at Daiichi Sankyo says: “I am very satisfied with the services and experiences of P&A. Anand Pathak and Nitin Wadhwa possess deep knowledge in the field of cross-border M&A and Indian company and security regulations.”

Another of the firm’s clients, Guillaume Bouthillier, director of structured finance for the Americas and Asia at Bombardier Transportation, is particularly pleased with the firm’s commercial acumen: “P&A took a business-orientated approach and provided practical views on issues. They brought valuable inputs to commercial solutions,” he says.

Delhi-based Vaish Associates represented Ranbaxy on the Daiichi Sankyo deal. The firm picks up an award in the taxation category, alongside AZB & Partners, Economic Laws Practice, Khaitan & Co, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan and Nishith Desai Associates.

Originally known for its expertise in indirect taxation, Economic Laws Practice has built a flourishing practice in all areas of corporate law. The firm’s clients include Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, Larsen & Toubro, Whirlpool India, Colgate Palmolive, Aditya Birla, Yash Raj Films and Otis Elevators. It recently acted as counsel to Idea Cellular on the US$21 billion demerger and reverse merger of its tower infrastructure with that of Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Essar to form the largest tower company in the world. The firm, which has developed a close relationship with Baker & McKenzie, is also representing India’s largest film production house to create the world’s first Bollywood theme park. The project is valued at US$1 billion.

New talent

Ten-month-old Bharucha & Partners is the youngest law firm to win an award this year. It shares the M&A prize with Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB & Partners, Khaitan & Co, Luthra & Luthra and P&A Law Offices.

Distinguished husband-and-wife team Alka and Marezban Bharucha walked away from equity partnerships at Amarchand Mangaldas to establish the firm. With them came nine associates from Amarchand, including their son Justin.

The Bharuchas represented Idea Cellular on its acquisition of a stake in Spice Communications. Despite its short history, the firm picks up glowing recommendations from clients: “Having worked with several other law firms, we feel that Alka and Justin Bharucha are peerless,” says Soon Hee Koh, legal counsel at chemicals company Yara. “We get the sense that the firm will work to give us what we want, within the timelines we want, even if it means the lawyers have to forego sleep.”

Soon Hee Koh, Legal Counsel, Yara

Rainer Boehm, a lawyer at German IP firm Eisenführ Speiser & Partner who consulted Bharucha & Partners on corporate and litigation matters, remarks: “I was fortunate to instruct India’s best firm, probably. Both MP Bharucha and Vivek Vashi are outstanding.”

Fair competition

An integral aspect of any M&A deal is compliance with national – and sometimes international – competition legislation. Seemingly innocuous mergers can trigger notification requirements in multiple jurisdictions, and the regulatory environment is set to become even more complex with the introduction of India’s new competition act.

Delhi-based Chitale & Chitale Partners scores highly for its competition and antitrust work, sharing the top prize with Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan, Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB & Partners, Dua Associates, and P&A Law Offices. The latter four firms benefit from having representatives on the Competition Commission of India’s advisory committee, which is drafting the implementing regulations for the new act.

The problem solvers

While corporate work may be the flavour of the moment for up-and-coming Indian lawyers, litigation and other methods of dispute resolution still account for the lion’s share of the country’s legal workload.

Amarchand partner Pallavi Shroff receives particular praise for her work in this area, as do Lalit Bhasin of Bhasin & Co, Sumeet Kachwaha of Kachwaha & Partners and Raian Karanjawala of Karanjawala & Co. They share the top table with the disputes teams at Federal & Rashmikant and Mulla & Mulla.

“I rate Bhasin & Co very, very highly as a litigation firm,” says Anand Pathak of P&A Law Offices. “He’s one of the very best. He has integrity, honesty and commitment to the law. He’s a damn bloody good litigator!”

Bhasin & Co serves clients such as Air India, Indian Airlines and the ITDC hotels group, as well as several leading hotels including the Oberoi and the Taj.

Kachwaha & Partners also wins critical acclaim for its dispute resolution work. “[We used Kachwaha for] a litigation in the Bombay courts involving an Indian company, as well as for Indian law input for concurrent proceedings in the Singapore courts,” says Paul Sandosham, a partner at Singaporean law firm WongPartnership. “We had a very good working experience and we were very satisfied. Sumeet Kachwaha provided us with very good input on Indian laws as well as overall strategy.”

Peter Rosell, legal counsel for Topsoe in Denmark, agrees: “In view of his and his office’s experience and high standing in India and in London we chose to engage him [Kachwaha] to assist us in a matter for the MRTP Commission in New Delhi.

“Their analytical ability and knowledge of the specifics of the relevant law and reference cases was impressive.”

Peter Rosell, Legal Counsel, Topsoe

Close runners-up

India’s legal market is highly fragmented, with a large number of credible and well-respected law firms. Narrowing each category down to just six winners was therefore an extremely difficult process. In several cases the results were close and there are many leading law firms that scored well in the survey but failed to make the top six in any category.

Delhi-based KR Chawla & Co, for example, along with ARA Law, Gandhi & Associates and Talwar Thakore & Associates, all of Mumbai, narrowly missed the top table for capital markets.

Insurance specialist Tuli & Co also received many endorsements, but in the absence of a dedicated category for insurance law, failed to make a place on any of the winners’ lists. “Why can’t I have Tuli & Co in the rest of the world?” asked Jochi Jimenez, general counsel for HCC Global Financial Products.

IP boutiques Aditya & Associates, Amarjit & Associates, Lall & Sethi, and INTTL Advocare all received praise in the fiercely fought intellectual property category, but missed out on places in the top six. “INTTL Advocare has always been very high on integrity in all its dealings and extremely courteous on all occasions, which has been a big plus point,” says Venita Gabriel, regional intellectual property adviser to Nestlé India. “We get all our IP work in India done through INTTL Advocare.”

Akash Chittranshi & Associates, whose founding partner Akash Chittranshi sadly died in October, also scored highly for its intellectual property work, as did Chennai-based Altacit Global. The 20-lawyer firm is described by R Narayanan of Sterna Security as “involved and committed … one of the best and won’t be matched in a long while.”

In the category of IT, media and telecommunications, notable runners up included Bajpai & Co, Seth Associates and Seth Dua & Associates. Seth Dua & Associates’ focus on client satisfaction was evident from the outstanding references it received: “We like their pragmatic approach to law in the current business environment,” explains Rakshit Jain, senior general manager of Emaar MGF. “Their proactive and ‘will find a way to do it’ attitude is what gives us the most comfort when dealing with them.

“We find Sunil Seth extremely competent and responsive to our critical needs,” adds Jain. “He is always available and has a quick turnaround even in the short time that we sometimes burden him with.”

For corporate and commercial work, OP Khaitan & Co, Udwadia & Udeshi, DH Law offices, Singh & Associates and others received glowing references from clients, while Hariani & Co, KR Chawla & Co and Solomon & Co all scored well for construction and real estate.

New Delhi Law Offices, better known as NDLO, and Udwadia & Udeshi narrowly missed the winners’ table for mergers and acquisitions. Peter Doerr, general counsel at Holcim, says he was “very satisfied” with NDLO and describes the firm as “very responsive and business-minded”, singling out the high quality solutions provided by Prija Shankar Dasgupta.

Udwadia & Udeshi, meanwhile, receives praise for its “efficient and courteous services”. “Their long association with our company has been most beneficial to us,” says RC Daga, the company secretary at ITD Cementation. “We would recommend the founding partners, Darius Udwadia and Dilip Udeshi for their vast and eclectic experience on a variety of legal issues gained over several decades … We have found their advice most reliable and dependable.”

In dispute resolution, prominent runners-up included Advani & Co, Khaitan & Partners (not to be confused with Khaitan & Co or OP Khaitan & Co), PH Parekh & Co and Titus & Co, while for labour and employment, Malvi Ranchoddas & Co, Nathani & Associates and Trustman & Co were highly commended. Singhania & Partners and Titus & Co narrowly missed the top list for their work in energy, projects and infrastructure.

Winners at a glance

India Business Law Journal would like to thank all the corporate executives, in-house counsel and private practitioners who generously participated in the research for the Indian Law Firm Awards.