Indian Law Firm Awards 2009

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In the wake of the global financial storm, which law firms have emerged as the nation’s best? India Business Law Journal turned to corporate clients around the world to find out. Vandana Chatlani reports

The year 2009 will be remembered as the time when the global economy ground to a halt. But despite the slowdown in deal-making, there was much to keep India-focused business and legal professionals busy. A new government was elected, partially reviving business sentiment. Satyam dropped a corporate bombshell, forcing governance issues firmly back onto the agenda. Clients continued to pressure their legal advisers over fees, and Indian lawyers who had raced abroad in search of meaty roles with international law firms came crawling home, just as the task of rebuilding corporate India had begun.

Slowly but surely things began to fall into place. Satyam was rescued by Tech Mahindra and the backlogged pipeline of deals began to flow again: Sterlite Industries closed a US$1.6 billion follow-on American depositary share (ADS) offering; Indian Energy’s placement on London’s AIM market added a spark to what was otherwise a lacklustre year; and Changi Airports International paid US$2 billion to acquire a 26% stake in Bengal Aerotropolis Projects.

Some law firms consolidated during the year: J Sagar Associates merged with M&C Partners in Bangalore and AZB & Partners merged with Anup S Shah Law Firm. A high-profile merger between Hemant Sahai Associates and Paras Kuhad & Asociates was dissolved a matter of weeks after its completion. Both firms now operate independently again.

There was also some fragmentation: FoxMandal Little, Dua Associates and Paras Kuhad & Associates all suffered breakaways at partner level, which led to the birth of SRGR Law Offices, Tatva Legal and Vidhii Partners respectively.

Many of India’s largest firms raced to establish a presence in the long-neglected south of the country, building teams in Chennai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Bangalore in direct competition with local specialist practices. Others looked further afield, forging international alliances such as the tie-up announced by ALMT Legal and Clyde & Co in June.

Awards methodology

In such transformational times, judging this year’s Indian Law Firm Awards was a difficult task. A detailed survey was sent to more than 500 India-focused corporate counsel and business leaders in India and around the world. Participants were invited to nominate three Indian law firms in each of 16 practice-area categories, as well as three firms in the category of best overall law firms. They were also requested to provide explanations and examples to back up their choices.

A similar survey was sent to partners at more than 200 Indian and international law firms. The Indian firms that took part in the survey were not permitted to nominate themselves.

Additional interviews were conducted with law firms and corporate counsel, in India and internationally. While reviewing the submissions, nominations and corporate feedback, India Business Law Journal’s editorial team considered both the objective survey data and the subjective comments and opinions of a large number of law firm clients. It also considered each firm’s recent deals, cases and professional achievements, as well as accomplishments related to practice development, such as office openings and prominent hires.

India’s largest and best-known general practice firms were among the top scorers in most of the awards categories. At the same time, a significant number of small and medium-sized law firms were repeatedly recommended by survey respondents. In order to recognize the hard-won pre-eminence of large general practice firms as well as the specialist work undertaken by many smaller ones, six winners of equal standing have been announced in each category. Additional awards have been given to the two best newcomers and to one law firm of the year.

A full list of the winners can be found on page 55.

Law firm of the year

India Business Law Journal’s top award of law firm of the year goes to Luthra & Luthra.

If 2009 was a period of recovery and regeneration, Luthra & Luthra was living a different year. The firm worked on the US$3.8 billion financing of the 4,000-megawatt Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project in Madhya Pradesh, which will be developed by Reliance Power. Partners Mohit Saraf, Sameen Vyas and Vijaya Rao reperesented the large syndicate of domestic and foreign lenders on the transaction. Other big-ticket deals for Luthra included the US$2.6 billion financing of the Dahej Ethylene Cracker Plant, a huge petrochemical complex in the Dahej Special Economic Zone, for which Luthra acted for the borrower, and the US$1.5 billion financing of the Mundra Thermal Power Project, for which partner Vijaya Rao represented the lenders, led by the State Bank of India. All three projects were winners of India Business Law Journal’s 2009 Deals of the Year awards (See IBLJ, December 2009/January 2010).

Luthra & Luthra has also demonstrated its prowess in capital markets, winning key roles on Sterlite Industries’ US$1.6 billion ADS issue and Oil India’s US$580 million IPO. Other achievements include advising Sesa Goa on its acquisition of Dempo’s mining assets – the second-largest acquisition in the history of the country’s iron ore industry, and one that ended a long drought in large M&A deals; and representing Oman Investment Fund on its US$175 million investment in Quippo Telecom (QTIL) and Wireless TT Infrastructure (WTTIL), along with the acquisition of a strategic stake in WTTIL by QTIL.

Luthra & Luthra’s clients include the State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Axis Bank, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Life Insurance Corporation of India, Perot Systems, AT&T Communications, DLF, United Spirits, Moser Baer and Bharti Enterprises. “We chose Luthra for the quality of service, value addition and quick turnaround,” says Vijaya Sampath, group general counsel at Bharti, which consulted the firm on a cross-border acquisition. Sampath is particularly impressed with senior partner Mohit Saraf, who holds a solid reputation for advice on project finance, cross-border finance and structured finance deals. Sampath emphasizes Saraf’s “skills in negotiation and commercial sense”.

Vijaya Sampath Group General Counsel Bharti Enterprises

Luthra’s achievements off the field were equally impressive. The firm used the downturn as an opportunity to radically reshape itself. A lockstep partnership model was introduced, enabling salaried partners to take a share in the firm’s equity. It was also successful in attracting new talent, often from overseas. Ashwin Sapra joined the firm as a managing associate from an in-house position at a US pharmaceutical company; Piyush Mishra rejoined as a managing associate from Allen & Overy in London; Damini Bhalla was hired from Clifford Chance; and managing associate Manan Lahoty returned to India having gained experience at Shearman & Sterling.

Meanwhile, the firm’s senior partner, Vijay Sondhi, was elected to serve on Delhi Bar Council. He was the only representative of a law firm to win a seat.

In addition to being named Indian law firm of the year, Luthra & Luthra receives awards in the categories of banking and finance; competition and antitrust; construction and real estate; energy, projects and infrastructure; mergers and acquisitions; restructuring and refinancing; and best overall law firms.

Best overall law firms

Sweeping the board for the third year in a row, the venerable Amarchand Mangaldas wins more awards than any other firm. In addition to being ranked one of the best overall law firms, Amarchand wins awards for banking and finance; capital markets and corporate finance; competition and antitrust; corporate and commercial; dispute resolution; energy, projects and infrastructure; IT, media and telecommunications; mergers and acquisitions; restructuring and refinancing; securitization and structured finance; and venture capital and private equity.

The firm’s key achievements include advising on National Hydroelectric Power Corporation’s US$1.25 billion IPO, Tech Mahindra’s US$600 million acquisition of Satyam, Telenor’s US$1.2 billion acquisition of a majority stake in Unitech Wireless and the US$1 billion refinancing of Jaguar Land Rover, on which Amarchand represented the lenders.

With over 400 associates, 25 salaried partners and 17 equity partners, it is perhaps no surprise that Amarchand features so heavily on the winners’ tables. Yet as clients attest, it is not simply the firm’s size that lies behind its success. Managing partners Cyril and Shardul Shroff were widely praised by survey respondents, the former particularly for his infrastructure and finance expertise and the latter for his skills in handling complex cross-border mergers and acquisitions. Partner Pallavi Shroff is another force to be reckoned with, particularly in litigation, while fellow partner Satvik Varma is also highly recommended by the firm’s clients.

AR Chandrasekharan, executive director and company secretary at Ashok Leyland, describes his experience of working with Amarchand as “enriching”. Having worked with the firm for over a quarter of a century, he says that “[Amarchand Mangaldas possesses] expertise in all spheres”, and that its lawyers “are able to go beyond their scope and give their considered opinion”.

Hot on the heels of Amarchand is arch-rival AZB & Partners. AZB wins 11 awards in the following categories: Best overall law firms; banking and finance; capital markets and corporate finance; competition and antitrust; construction and real estate; corporate and commercial; IT, media and telecommunications; mergers and acquisitions; restructuring and refinancing; securitization and structured finance; and venture capital and private equity.

Clients and fellow legal practitioners alike sing the praises of the firm’s managing partner, Zia Mody, who is acknowledged for her integrity and professional acumen.

AZB clocked up a number of significant achievements in 2009. It acted for United Arab Emirates Telecom giant Etisalat on its US$900 million purchase of a 45% stake in Swan Telecom, advised Tata Teleservices in relation to NTT DoCoMo’s acquisition of a 26% stake in the company for US$2.7 billion and represented Tata Motors on the refinancing of its Jaguar Land Rover division.

While in 2008 AZB focused on expanding its international reach through its tie-up with Clifford Chance, 2009 was a year of domestic growth for the firm. In July, it acquired Anup S Shah Law Firm, which has offices in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. Name partner Shah is a real estate specialist with 28 years’ experience at the bar. He brings with him two partners and roughly 15 associates. The merger has greatly enhanced AZB’s offering in the south of the country.

Another leading firm that has spread its wings in the south is J Sagar Associates (JSA). JSA acquired Bangalore-based M&C Partners in June, creating the largest law practice in south India. It has also launched a tax practice under the leadership of Ashok Dhingra, who joined the firm from Khaitan & Co.

JSA flexed its project finance muscle in 2009 as activity in the country’s infrastructure sector resumed. It advised Petronet LNG on a multibillion-dollar sales and purchase agreement with ExxonMobil for the supply of liquefied natural gas to Petronet’s terminal in Kochi. In addition, JSA was counsel to Macquarie Group on the establishment of a US$2 billion infrastructure-oriented private equity fund structured as a joint venture between Macquarie, the State Bank of India and International Finance Corporation.

“JSA is considered to be one of the most competent firms,” says Bipeen Valame, CFO of Praj Industries. “There is a great deal of comfort with their team and the team is fully engaged when they interact with us,” he adds. “They also provide a lot of advice which acts as a precursor and hence the value of their involvement is very high.”

JSA wins 10 awards, including those of best overall law firms and energy, projects and infrastructure.

Khaitan & Co, which was named law firm of the year in India Business Law Journal’s 2008 awards, continues to perform well. Its healthy repertoire of deals included fund formation, capital markets and a spate of exciting acquisitions. The firm advised NTT DoCoMo on its acquisition of a 26% stake in Tata Teleservices, represented Bahrain Telecommunications in relation to its purchase of a 49% stake in S Tel and acted for Krishnapatnam Port Company on the establishment and operation of a port at Krishnapatnam.

Deepak Asher, the director and group head of corporate finance at Gujarat Fluorochemicals highlights Khaitan & Co’s versatility in advising on a wide range of matters. “We use their services in almost all our group companies, for almost all types of transactions and legal advice,” he says. “[Khaitan & Co provides] outstanding legal and practical advice, demonstrates dedication to client’s goal, and is fully available based on client’s requirements.”

Deepak Asher Director & Group Head of Corporate Finance Gujarat Fluorochemicals

Another happy customer is Kushagra Bajaj, the joint managing director of Bajaj Hindustan. “We had a very pleasant experience of working with Khaitan & Co on all matters,” he says. Bajaj has particular praise for the firm’s managing partner, Haigreve Khaitan, whom he commends for his “business acumen and the deep insight with which he approaches the subject matter”.

Khaitan & Co wins awards in five categories, including best overall law firms; capital markets and corporate finance; and restructuring and refinancing.

The final winner in the category of best overall law firms is Trilegal. When looking at its impressive deal list and prominence on headline-making transactions, it is hard to believe that this dynamic, energetic firm is only 10 years old.

Trilegal’s portfolio speaks volumes about its capabilities. In 2009, it advised Heineken on its acquisition of two subsidiaries of Asia Pacific Breweries (JSA represented Asia Pacific Breweries on the deal) and represented Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and their respective subsidiaries on Indian regulatory issues arising as a result of the global merger of the two groups. Trilegal was also involved in Telenor’s acquisition of a majority stake in Unitech and acted for CLP Power on the establishment of a 1,320-megawatt thermal power project in Haryana.

Raju Shete, a director at Radhakrishna Hospitality Services who has engaged Trilegal for a number of divestures and acquisitions, is particularly impressed with partner Sridhar Gorthi, describing him as “calm, composed and astute”. More importantly, says Shete, Gorthi possesses “a sense of fairplay and integrity”. Shete also has praise for other lawyers at the firm, noting that “all the junior lawyers who were on the transaction were pleasant, knowledgeable and responsive.”

Trilegal has continued to expand its service lines through the appointment of specialist lawyers. Most significantly it hired capital markets specialist Srinivas Parthasarathy from its international partner firm Allen & Overy. “Trilegal has definitely been bolstered by Partha joining them from Allen & Overy,” says Daniel Oh, the executive director of fixed income at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.

Awards highlights

Oh is equally enthusiastic about Bharucha & Partners, which receives awards in the categories of dispute resolution and restructuring and refinancing. “My favourite firms are Trilegal and Bharucha & Partners,” he says. “The main work over the year has been finance related. Both [firms] are solid and I have a lot of faith in their partners and the associates who cover my files.”

The challenges presented by the economic downturn meant that finance-related work, particularly restructuring and refinancing, was prominent in 2009. Lawyers were anxiously consulted to negotiate with banks, help client companies take advantage of lower equity prices to buy back their shares, extend payment periods or grapple with distressed asset and debt portfolios.

Bharucha & Partners, for example, assisted Suzlon Energy in refinancing its Rs110 billion (US$2.3 billion) debt. It also worked on a landmark restructuring of Aditya Birla Group’s telecom operations. According to Oh at Morgan Stanley, one of the hallmarks of Bharucha & Partners’ growing success is the high level of partner attention it provides. “Although I recognize the general excellence of larger firms … I rarely feel that I get top notch service from their partners and star associates unless it involves a high-profile transaction,” he says. “I love the fact that I can always get [partner] Justin Bharucha on the mobile if I have a query … I also like Bharucha & Partners’ lower partner-to-associate ratio.”

Financial acumen

Mumbai-based Juris Corp was involved in restructuring a US$400 million real estate deal undertaken by a global investment bank. It employed a synthetic equity structure to fund the acquisition, expansion and development of various properties. One of the firm’s clients from a leading investment bank said he had no hesitation in selecting Juris Corp for advice on structured lending and structured products, simply because it has developed a solid reputation as “the leading derivatives firm”.

“The lawyers are very diligent and provide a high level of service,” says the client, who wished to remain anonymous. “Jayesh [the founder partner] is very knowledgeable and a pleasure to work with.”

Juris Corp wins an award for securitization and structured finance. It also performed well in several other fields, narrowly missing an award for its banking & finance work.

Amarchand, AZB and Trilegal join Juris Corp on the winners’ table for securitization and structured finance, as do Wadia Ghandy & Co and highly rated finance boutique Dave & Girish & Co.

“Wadia Ghandy has been incredibly good for us,” says one client from a private equity firm.

Another firm that enjoys widespread praise is S&R Associates, which wins an award for capital markets and corporate finance. “I interviewed Sandip Bhagat and his partners and was extremely impressed by them,” says the Asia general counsel of a large multinational fund manager. “We have been using them for a couple of years and have found them to be extremely professional. It’s a pleasure to deal with lawyers who understand international standards and best practices and provide service at the highest possible level.”

“The experience and temperament that Rajat Sethi, one of the founding partners, brought to each negotiation made sure we got a good outcome,” says another client. In addition to Sethi, clients recommend Tanya Aggarwal and Uday Walia for private equity work and Sandip Bhagat for corporate finance.

In 2009, S&R acted as special counsel to Fortis Healthcare on its Rs10 billion rights issue, advised Sesa Goa on a US$500 million foreign currency convertible bond issue and represented Sterlite Industries on its US$1.6 billion ADS issue.

Another winner in the capital markets category is Mumbai stalwart Crawford Bayley & Co. This 180-year-old firm continues to win over clients with its expertise in corporate and financial law. Capital markets partner Sanjay Asher is praised by clients for his commercial acumen. The firm also wins an award for its labour and employment work.

Labour and employment

Mumbai-based Majmudar & Co narrowly missed an award in the finance-related categories, but joins Crawford Bayley on the winners’ table for labour and employment. The firm is representing Wockhardt, a leading Indian pharmaceuticals company, on Indian law matters pertaining to a derivatives imbroglio with various banks. “I have known Majmudar & Co for the last 17 years … they have been very responsive and effective in granting desirable reliefs,” says Debolina Partap, legal counsel at Wockhardt. “Besides being professional, [they are] very human.” Partap identifies Amarchand Mangaldas and Crawford Bayley & Co as other leading firms, but is quick to point that this recommendation does not extend to “the human aspect” of their work. “That,” says Partap, “is Majmudar’s USP [unique selling proposition]”.

Perran Jervis, a partner at UK law firm TLT Solicitors, who approached Majmudar & Co for advice on an international franchise arrangement, says: “They were very commercial and understood our requirements … Majmudar & Co worked with us to ensure completion took place within very tight deadlines … [Partner] Neerav Merchant was very responsive”.

Perran Jervis Partner TLT Solicitors

Other winners in the labour & employment category include ALMT Legal and Chitale & Chitale Partners.

ALMT regularly advises domestic and international clients on a wide range of labour law issues, including those relating to women in the workplace, trade unions, stock options and termination proceedings. The firm has handled the employment issues relating to the establishment of large-scale call centres in India and has also advised clients on the formulation of human resources policies.

Delhi-based Chitale & Chitale Partners, meanwhile, is known for its strengths in dispute resolution, corporate work and infrastructure. It narrowly misses out on awards in these categories, but is recognized for its excellence in labour and employment, particularly employment litigation. Earlier this year, the firm’s managing partner, Atul Chitale, was appointed as a senior advocate in the Supreme Court.

Commercial success

The winning firms in the category of corporate and commercial work are Amarchand Mangaldas; AZB & Partners; Dua Associates; FoxMandal Little; J Sagar Associates; and Khaitan & Co. Delhi-based Dua Associates also scored well in several other awards categories, but narrowly missed the winners’ tables. The firm boasts a diverse client base and more than 200 lawyers. It recently opened an office in Singapore.

Amarchand Mangaldas; AZB & Partners; Desai & Diwanji; J Sagar Associates; Luthra & Luthra; and Trilegal share the prize for M&A work. In the closely related category of competition and antitrust, the winners are Amarchand Mangaldas; AZB & Partners; Dhall Law Chambers; Economic Laws Practice; Khaitan & Co and Luthra & Luthra.

Dhall Law Chambers was established in September 2008 by Vinod Dhall, the former acting chairman of the Competition Commission of India. His firm specializes in competition law and has a “best friends” relationship with Linklaters.

Dispute resolution

While some lawyers grappled with complex corporate and financial issues, others sought to resolve protracted legal disputes. Darius Kakalia, a highly respected partner at Mulla & Mulla & Craigie Blunt & Caroe, is representing Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources in a US$11 billion gas-price dispute with Reliance Industries. Reliance Industries is owned by Anil’s estranged brother Mukesh. The dispute was one of the most high-profile court cases of 2009.

In a different case, Advani & Co represented Hindustan Petroleum and its subsidiary Prize Petroleum in a complex arbitration with Malaysian floating production and storage company M3nergy. Karanjawala & Co, meanwhile, helped the Delhi and Kolkata partnerships of PricewaterhouseCoopers gain relief from show-cause notices that had been issued against them by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India in connection with the Satyam scandal.

Sunil Gadhia, a London-based partner at Stephenson Harwood, comments that Karanjawala has “an outstanding dispute resolution capability”.

All three firms along with Bharucha & Partners, Amarchand Mangaldas and Federal & Rashmikant are the recipients of this year’s award for excellence in dispute resolution.

Aviation and shipping

In addition to its award for dispute resolution, Mulla & Mulla is recognized for its considerable expertise in shipping and logistics, picking up an award in the category of aviation, shipping and maritime. Under the guidance of well-respected partner Shardul Thacker, the firm advised Italy’s Coeclerici Logistics on its purchase of a stake in Great Eastern Shipping Company.

Shipping specialists S Venkateshwaran, Bhatt & Saldanha and Brus Chambers also win awards in this category. They are joined on the winners’ list by Bhasin & Co and Gagrats, both of which are recognized for their excellence in aviation-related work.

Bhasin & Co’s clients include Thai Airways and several other domestic and international carriers. The firm provides contractual and dispute resolution advice relating to ground handling services, aircraft lease agreements and maintenance, repair and overhaul issues. Gagrats also represents international and domestic carriers and has acted for the International Air Transport Association. Last year, the firm represented longstanding client Jet Airways on the sub-leasing of Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 aircraft to Turkish Airlines, Gulf Air, Oman Air and Royal Brunei Airlines.

Real estate

Despite difficult market conditions, Kanga & Co, one of the country’s oldest and most respected mid-sized firms, has demonstrated that India’s hospitality sector is far from stagnant. Partners ML Bhakta and Ashish Bhakta advised Delhi-based ELEL Hotels and Investments on the sale of 85% of its shares to Indian Hotels Company.

Kanga & Co received critical acclaim from many survey respondents. It picks up awards for construction and real estate, and labour and employment. Partner Preeti Mehta was singled out for particular praise: “The good part about Preeti is that she won’t take a hard stand which is not good for a deal beyond a point,” says one client from an outsourced software product development company. “She’ll think from both perspectives, even though she’s acting for one side. Her whole objective is to see how a transaction can be completed and closed. That’s what we like about working with her.”

Joining Kanga and four other firms in the construction and real estate category is Hariani & Co, which has built an enviable reputation for its real estate work. The firm’s clients include Oberoi Constructions, Dewan Housing Finance Corporation and Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services.

Infrastructure

India’s infrastructure sector, which suffered from a fall in investment during the financial crisis, was given a much-needed boost following the country’s general election. The government renewed its commitment to improving the country’s roads, ports, railways and airports, and through a financial stimulus package, it brought many dormant infrastructure projects back to life.

Despite losing four partners, including infrastructure specialist Ravi Bishnoi, FoxMandal Little was widely praised for its infrastructure work and receives an award in the category of energy, projects and infrastructure. The firm is also recognized for its excellence in corporate and commercial work.

FoxMandal’s infrastructure team advises clients on various projects relating to roads, bridges, airports, rail and ports and has also worked on water resource contracts and telecommunications and satellite transactions. On these and other projects, the firm has represented the government, international and domestic sponsors, lenders, investors and contractors.

Desai & Diwanji, another recipient of India Business Law Journal’s award for energy, projects and infrastructure, is strongly recommended for its project finance acumen. Some of its recent highlights include advising General Electric in the first privately owned railway infrastructure financing in India and representing the Asian Development Bank in the financing of the West Yeti Power Project in Nepal.

IT, media and telecommunications

New Delhi firm Seth Dua & Associates, which has represented telecom clients such as Orange France Telecom, receives an award in the category of IT, media and telecommunications. “They were prompt in answering the queries, respected timelines in drafting the documents, rigorously pointed out compliance issues and their resolutions, and consistently maintained objectivity and independence” says Alok Gupta, the managing director and CEO of Axis Private Equity. “As several parties were involved in the transactions, many a times there was no consensus on important issues,” Gupta continues. “On such occasions, Seth Dua & Associates proactively provided suggestions to bring all the parties to a common viewpoint.”

Chee Ling Leung, deputy general counsel at Genting Energy, speaks of her comfort at working with senior partner Sunil Seth. “We have known Sunil for many years, since our first transaction in India,” she says. “We have a good working relationship with them and I have been and continue to be satisfied with their advice.”

Carl Emil Svedin, legal counsel at Saab in Sweden, sought advice from Seth Dua & Associates on the setup of joint ventures with Indian companies. “I’m more than pleased with Seth Dua,” he enthuses. “It is one of the most service-minded firms I have ever have worked with – and trust me when I am saying that I have worked with many different law firms all around the world.”

Carl Emil Svedin Legal Counsel Saab

Another winner in this category is Mumbai-based DSK Legal. The firm attracts clients looking for guidance on film financing, the import of foreign films into India, broadcasting rights and brand management. On the IT side, it offers specialist advice on the legal issues relating to email and internet risk management, data and systems security, data mining and data protection, digital signatures and cyber-crimes.

Delhi-based Kochhar & Co also receives an award for its IT, media and telecommunications work. Singapore-based senior associate Jayne Kuriakose has appeared for clients at the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal and consumer forums at the district and state level. The firm also boasts a leading technology practice where partners such as Suhas Srinivasiah represent some of the largest hardware and software companies in the world with regard to their operations in India.

Intellectual property

Inextricably linked to the IT sector is the issue of brand protection and enforcement. Most of India’s largest law firms have their own intellectual property teams, but clients, it seems, prefer to turn to specialists when it comes to safeguarding their intellectual assets. As a result, all of this year’s winners in the intellectual property category are IP boutiques.

Delhi-based stalwart Anand and Anand is joined on the winners’ table by DP Ahuja & Co; K&S Partners; Krishna Saurastri & Associates (formerly known as Krishna & Saurastri); Lall Lahiri & Salhotra; and Remfry & Sagar.

Pulin Kumar, head of legal at Samsung India Electronics, cites both Anand and Anand and K&S Partners as the leading players for IP work.

Anand and Anand is heavily involved in IP litigation and represents clients on cases involving trade secrecy, pharmaceutical patents, trademark protection and much more. Its high-profile client list includes F Hoffman-La Roche, Yahoo!, Louis Vuitton, Toshiba, Samsung and Microsoft. The firm is also involved in drafting a new piece of legislation, the New Delhi Commonwealth Games Act, which will be introduced in parliament shortly.

“We believe Anand and Anand provides superior IP services with a business-oriented approach,” says Jonathan Matkowsky, legal director of global brand protection at Yahoo!. Having dealt with the firm for issues relating to trademark enforcement, Matkowsky says that Anand and Anand “helped protect and create value”.

Remfry & Sagar, meanwhile, has been making its mark in patent litigation, a field presently in its nascent stage in India. The firm handles a number of important litigations for clients such as Novartis, Bayer and Eli Lilly. It also conducted a successful search and seizure operation to retrieve counterfeit 3M swine flu masks that were being sold in Pune.

Eloise Maki, assistant chief intellectual property counsel at 3M Innovative Properties, says “so far we have been very pleased with the work of the firms representing us in India [Remfry & Sagar and De Penning & De Penning]”.

Up-and-coming IP firm Lall Lahiri & Salhotra continued to strengthen its client base during 2009, handling portfolios for Estée Lauder, Coca-Cola, Reed Elsevier and Metlife. It has also expanded its capabilities with the recruitment of a number of associates from firms such as Amarchand Mangaldas and FoxMandal Little, as well as legal outsourcing provider Lexadigm.

Tanya Fickenscher, head of trademarks at Bristol-Myers Squibb, says she used Lall Lahiri & Salhotra after the firm was suggested to her by another US lawyer. “I met with partner Anu Salhotra and was impressed with her intelligence and dedication to her clients,” says Fickenscher.

The firm handled a trademark prosecution for Bristol-Myers Squibb in India and is now also undertaking trademark litigation and investigations into third parties on the company’s behalf. “They are very responsive and provide excellent work product,” adds Fickenscher.

Taxation

With a new direct tax code scheduled to take effect on 1 April 2011, and a goods and services tax on the drawing board, India’s leading tax specialists certainly have their work cut out. The winning firms in the taxation category are DM Harish & Co, Economic Laws Practice, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan, Nishith Desai Associates, Thakker & Thakker and Vaish Associates.

During 2009, all of these firms were engaged in a range of complex tax-related issues. Economic Laws Practice, for example, successfully defended Enron Oil and Gas India in a Supreme Court appeal filed by the Income Tax Department. The precedent-setting case concerned the treatment of losses that resulted from foreign exchange fluctuations. The well-respected firm, which has grown to a size of 60 lawyers since its establishment in 2001, also wins an award for its competition and antitrust work.

Vaish Associates’ has also represented clients on issues pertaining to taxpayer liability following foreign exchange fluctuations. Its clients include Hero Honda and Maruti Suzuki.

Nishith Desai Associates’ (NDA) is another firm that consistently excels in tax-related fields. It is currently involved in a significant case relating to Vodafone’s tax liabilities. The US$2 billion litigation concerns the applicability of withholding tax provisions with respect to the transfer of shares of a non-resident company with an underlying Indian interest, to another non-resident entity.

In addition to taxation, NDA receives an award for its venture capital & private equity work.

Steve Kim, a director at real estate management company Forum Partners Asia, engaged NDA for a pre-IPO fully convertible debentures and equity financing matter. “They were a pleasure to work with,” he enthuses. “They were responsive, and provided clear and concise explanations. They understand the law in India and are able to quickly understand issues and apply their legal knowledge to the issue and provide clear and concise explanations.”

Thakker & Thakker’s tax practice is closely integrated with its M&A advisory services. In 2009, the firm won roles on a number of big-ticket transactions, including Telenor’s acquisition of a stake in Unitech Wireless, where the firm represented Telenor. Thakker & Thakker also advised United Biscuits on its India entry strategy, which included structuring, negotiating and finalizing the acquisition of a factory in India.

Winners at a glance

Best newcomers

Phoenix Legal and Platinum Partners share this year’s award for best newcomers. The category applies to firms that were established within the last 18 months.

Established in late 2008 by former partners of Trilegal and Kochhar & Co, Phoenix Legal wasted no time in establishing itself as a serious player. The firm has already doubled its headcount, moved into a larger office in Mumbai and won impressive mandates in areas such as banking and finance, infrastructure, mining, oil and gas, M&A, foreign investment and private equity.

Led by partners Abhishek Sinha, Sawant Singh, Saket Shukla and Manjula Chawla, Phoenix advised Petronet LNG on a US$1.8 billion financing. The project involved the creation of common security, cash flow and inter-creditor arrangements involving a large syndicate of domestic lenders, including the State Bank of India, Canara Bank, ICICI Bank and IDFC, as well as international lenders, including IFC, ADB and Proparco.

Phoneix also advised Sembawang Shipyard, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sembcorp Marine, on its joint venture with Kakinada Seaports to establish and operate a one-stop integrated marine and offshore facility on the east coast of India to cater to offshore vessels and merchant ships. The project is valued at roughly US$375 million.

Rising just a few months earlier than Phoenix was Platinum Partners, a nine-member firm founded by Nihar Mody and Karam Daulet-Singh. Well respected for its projects, energy and infrastructure expertise, as well as its corporate work, the firm has acted for international developers and received assignments in the oil and gas, power and transport sectors.

Platinum’s repertoire of clients includes Deutsche Telecom and South African telecoms giant MTN. Last year the firm advised the UK’s Pearson Group on its US$17.5 million joint venture with Delhi-based education company Educomp Solutions. Platinum Partners recently expanded its practice by recruiting Gautam Bhat from Thakker & Thakker. Bhat joined the firm in December as a partner.

India Business Law Journal would like to thank all of the corporate counsel and private practitioners who participated in the research for the awards.