March 22, 2023

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether the Bar Council of India’s decision to allow foreign law firms to practice in India is a good idea. We also look at the proposed opening of Odia University in Odisha, among other news.


BCI’s decision to allow foreign law firms: Is it a good idea?

The Indian economy has liberalised significantly since 1991. There’s also been much cultural and economic integration with the rest of the world. India has allowed foreign manufacturers, global conglomerates, and, more recently, universities to set up shop here. But the Indian legal sector stands as an oddity. It has remained one of the most regulated sectors in the country. 

The Bar Council of India (BCI) has now decided to allow foreign law firms and lawyers to practice in India. The move could be a significant shake-up for the Indian legal landscape. Some call it exciting, but others are sceptical and worried about how this will impact local firms and lawyers.


While foreign businesses have had remarkable success in India, law firms were prohibited until recently. In 2009, the Bombay High Court stated foreign law firms aren’t allowed to practice in India. They cited the 1961 Indian Advocates Act, which limits litigation and corporate advisory work to Indian citizens.

According to the Act, advocates enrolled with the BCI alone can practice law in India. The Bombay court interpreted Section 29 of the Act to mean lawmakers wanted to prohibit foreign lawyers and law firms from engaging in litigious and non-litigious matters. Foreign law firms who were interested in the Indian market felt the court didn’t take into account the needs of the industry.

There was one wrinkle, or even exception, to this. It was called the “fly-in fly-out” model. Foreign lawyers would often advise Indian clients on matters relating to foreign law while arriving in India on a tourist visa. Other issues were yet to be resolved. Several foreign legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies had offices in India. It was the Madras High Court’s turn to look into this.

Taking up a writ petition against foreign firms rendering legal services here, the court ruled partially in favour of the firms. It said there was no bar to the fly-in, fly-out practice. The court didn’t look into LPOs. The matter then went to the Supreme Court to seek further clarification on foreign law firms and lawyers practising in India.

The apex court ruled the fly-in, fly-out rule wasn’t an absolute right of foreign lawyers. They said only casual visits were allowed. The court didn’t say when these visits could be deemed regular. One of the concerns the court addressed was regulations governing the ethical conduct of legal practitioners, their work in India remaining unregulated. The question was, wouldn’t Indian parties be at risk of foreign professional impropriety? The court restricted their freedoms so that all lawyers practising in India became governed by uniform standards and ethics.

With much of this issue bouncing around in the courts over the years, the BCI recently issued rules and regulations for foreign lawyers and law firms to enter India. It includes registration, renewal, cancellation of registration and disciplinary action for misconduct. The BCI defines a foreign lawyer as a person, including a firm or company, that can practice law in a foreign country. An Indian lawyer is an advocate enrolled in any state bar council under the Advocate Act.

VIEW: It’s for the greater good

Those who support the BCI’s decision say it’s a win for the Indian legal sector. Cyril Shroff of Mumbai-based Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas said this would increase domestic competition. Will this mean consolidation in the industry? Shroff doesn’t think so. He expects more competition. For smaller law firms, this could mean exclusive partnerships with foreign firms.

With the entry of foreign firms, there could be some talent migration, but it won’t last. It will flow both ways, as Shroff put it. It’s a natural consequence of India being part of the globalised world. India is a signatory to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and is obliged to open the service sector to member nations. Legal services are included under GATS.

For MNCs operating in India, the BCI’s decision is good news. Foreign law firms used by MNCs usually have a global presence with knowledge of the company’s global operations. MNCs can rely on a single law firm without worrying about accountability in interpreting local law by another firm. For the in-house legal team, no more hassling with different lawyers, firms, and systems.

The decision will benefit Indian lawyers. They’ll now have access to a network of foreign law firms with opportunities to further their careers. India will now join countries like Singapore and the US to have foreign lawyers practice domestically. Bringing in international best practices will enhance the work, which is ultimately what they get paid the big bucks for.

COUNTERVIEW: What about the Indian legal fraternity?

Coming out strong against the decision, the All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice (AILAJ) said the BCI sacrificed the interests of the Indian legal system. They said the BCI traded it for the Free Trade Agreement with the UK, which considers the Indian legal sector. In its statement, the AILAJ said the BCI didn’t consult the body of advocates.

For some, the BCI’s priorities are misplaced. The AILAJ cited the worsening situation of junior, first-generation, and women advocates and the BCI’s non-response. Even though the rules restrict foreign firms and advocates from appearing before judicial fora, other practices like opening offices and partnering with foreign lawyers and law firms are allowed.

Another group against the BCI’s decision is the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF). They sent a notice citing deficiencies, irregularities, and vagueness in the BCI’s rules. Managing Partners of some Indian law firms were concerned. They feel the Indian legal sector needs reforms before they’re ready to compete with foreign counterparts. The promise of a level playing field might not come to fruition.

There’s enough scope for unfair play. When a lawyer registers to become a member of the state bar council, they need the support of a domestic lawyer. They must have at least ten years of experience working with an Indian lawyer. This isn’t stated for a foreign lawyer. The rules leave much worrying wriggle room for foreign lawyers and firms.

Reference Links:

  • Affiliations: Foreign Law Firms’ Path into India – NYLS Law Review
  • Why India’s ‘fly-in, fly-out’ judgment leaves much to be desired – Legal500
  • Setting up of Foreign Law Firms in India – Lexology
  • Here’s what a top lawyer thinks of entry of foreign law firms into India – Business Standard
  • Foreign law firms entering India is a booster shot for the legal sector’s growth momentum – Moneycontrol
  • BCI’s decision to allow foreign lawyers to practise in India: Contents, discontents, and comparison – The Leaflet
  • Entry of foreign law firms: Indian firms flag concerns on reciprocity, level-playing field; SILF to send representation to BCI – Bar and Bench

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) BCI’s decision to allow foreign law firms to practice in India is a good idea.

b) BCI’s decision to allow foreign law firms to practice in India is a bad idea.


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