Corporate law firms and their clientele

In a profession where there is a very clear-cut distinction between a law firm and an in-house law department. In a field where “independence” is important, corporate law firms usually take great care not be linked to a single client. Large corporates, for their part, prefer to distribute their work among several law firms, rather than be dependent on one, however good it may be.
Still, every lawyer has a favorite client, and it’s usually the one he has handled the most challenging cases for and grown with.

Entering the office at Mulla & Mulla & Craigie Blunt & Caroe, it’s hard to miss who their favorite client is. Occupying pride of place on the shelf facing his desk are two faded pictures of the lawyer with GD Birla and with Aditya Birla. Over time, the Birla group has come to distribute it’s legal work among many law firms, but still, in the minds of the old timers, the association is still very clear – when you think of the 115 year old firm of Mulla & Mulla, you think of the Birlas.

Through the 60s and 70s, most of the legal battles fought by the Birla group were against the government and Desai played a major role in all of them. For example, when Kiser Aluminium wanted to sell its 26% shareholding in Hindalco, the government insisted that the shares should go to the state-owned financial institutions.
GD was totally opposed to this and fought the case in the Kolkata high court and won. The shares went to the public.
A short distance down the road, in the offices of the equally old firm of Crawford Bayley & Co, veteran lawyer RA Shah has an office bereft of client portraits. Rather than business houses, Shah’s clients are best classified by industry. All the major FMCG companies — Hindustan Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, Nestle, Britannia are his clients. So are the pharma majors, from Pfizer, Abbott and Roche to Nicholas Piramal and Wockhardt.

Before the new regulations restricting the number of directorships an individual could hold came into being, Shah held the record for the maximum Board memberships (over 50). He is a strategic lawyer and clients come to him for advice when they have big issues. For routine problems, they go to others.

Today, new law firms are working hard to build the kind of relationships that firms like Crawford Bayley and Mulla & Mulla have. It’s not easy, but one young firm that has managed a breakthrough is AZB Partners and its big ticket client is no less than the House of Tatas. Some lawyers credit AZB’s success with the Tata group to the personal friendship the firm’s senior partners have with the directors of Tata Sons. It is not because of the friendships that the work has come our way. It is the other way round. They were preferred by Tatas because of the work they have done for them.

With corporates distributing different types of work among law firms, the highest firm in the pecking order is the one that gets the M&A deals. Khaitan & Co, with its main offices in Kolkata, has always been particularly close to the RPG group but Mumbai based managing partner Haigreve Khaitan presents Anil Agarwal’s acquisition of Sesa Goa as an example of the interesting work the firm is doing. Vedanta beat LM Mittal and the AV Birla Group on this acquisition because Khaitan & Co. were able to negotiate terms that went beyond the price per share. The transaction terms were very innovative and their expertise in tax laws helped.

Some firms whose logo is accompanied by a prominent band saying ‘international lawyers’ are now targeting the new MNCs. When Microsoft set up operations in the country eight years ago, one of such law firms has handled land acquisition deal in Hyderabad, followed by a series of intellectual property (IP) contracts with vendors and employees. These types of contracts were new to India when the law firm created them. They had to negotiate with the lawyers at Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Satyam to ensure that Microsoft owned the rights to everything they developed for it. They even had to review the contract they had with their own employees.
For new firms, IP has been often served as an entry point to large corporates. The seven year old ALMT Legal, for example, does IP work for engineering giant Larsen & Toubro. They got a team of engineers who work with L&T’s engineers to evaluate what is patentable. L&T has filed for 100 patents in the last two years, up from just 20 patents in the previous 15 years.