Aman Abbas is Co-Founder & CEO, Commwiser, a Delhi-based consultancy focused on public relations and law firm marketing.  His two decades of experience in public relations and communications in professional services includes work with Amarchand Mangaldas, India’s largest Law firm and Big4 acccounting firm KPMG, as the Head of Corporate Communications.

In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Abbas analyzes the current state of the business of law in India, including legal marketing and business development, the regulatory regime governing legal marketing, strategies for promoting brands utilizing public relations, the impact the country’s economic growth is having on law firms, the state of legal innovation, and his advice for law students considering future career options.

You’ve lead marketing communications initiatives for both Big4 accounting firms and elite law firms in India, and now head up your own communications consultancy focused on both corporate and professional services communications.  Based on your experience, what is the state of legal marketing and business development in India, and where do you see it progressing in the future?   

The modern Indian law firms as we see it came into existence with the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s. There was the need for professional services to ensure both compliance and competitiveness to survive the globalising which had replaced the “Licence Raj” and also due to the global shocks felt during the Asian financial crisis and the Dotcom bubble bringing the law firms into the limelight.

With the Harshad Mehta securities fraud, the sub-prime crisis of the West, the Satyam fraud, the Indian corporate were not unfamiliar with regulatory risk, however, these firms were slowly opening up to the possibilities of demonstrating thought leadership among the right audiences. Learning of these turbulent times was that Counsel was not immune to the reputation hazards of working in an evolving regime where the regulators themselves were grasping the complexities of connected businesses. By advising their clients effectively in such complex scenarios, Indian law firms acquired an unparalleled aptitude for managing risk and ensuring organisational robustness. Key to this strategic approach was law firm branding.

In the last decade, Indian law firms have built capabilities for strategic planning and communications. They have adopted technology for greater agility at scale. However, we must remember that in India, the legal profession is still a traditional one, regulated by the Advocates Act and bound by the code of conduct. Lawyers in India still, and will continue to rely on a reputation for winning new business and retaining old clients. This is where thought leadership is essential for any competitive law firm and involves a sustained investment to yield returns.

What are some of the unique local regulatory issues law firms in India face related to promoting their firms via marketing and business development? 

In India, law firms are regulated by the Advocates Act and are obligated to abide by the Code of Conduct. The key away from this is that lawyers are prohibited from soliciting work. While most law firms have websites and listing in directories, selling legal services in India is still prohibited.

Recent Supreme Court judgments had continued to insulate the legal services sector by prohibiting foreign law firms to practice in India and barring big 4 audit firms from offering legal services. So how does a law firm showcase its work and win new business? That’s where specialised agencies like Commwiser come into the picture!

How do you help your clients promote their brand, generate interest and ultimately secure new client engagements? 

In India, reputation wins business for law firms. What an external agency can do, depending on the scope of the mandate, is to help the firm build its presence through business and social media and get visibility from key stakeholders. The law firm brand can be built in two ways, (a) reinforcing existing strengths and (b) building newer capabilities.

Each approach has to be tailored to the persona of the brand so that each firm can be uniquely positioned. Once the reputation pillars have been identified, the whole organisational mindset needs to be aligned with the core values of the firm. For some firms, the vision of the name partners may determine the mindset, for others, growth or competitiveness may be imperative.

For any strategy to work, information is key. Which is also a big role of any agency, and this is something which presents a barrier to law firms’ in-house departments, is in terms of the intelligence it can provide.

India’s economy is growing rapidly and is now among the world’s largest economies.  What impact has this rapid economic growth have on India’s law firms?

Inflows into India’s startup ecosystem have democratised the legal space giving startup law firms the opportunity to grow by leaps and bounds. It has also created the need for foreign desks and multi-jurisdictional cross-border expertise even among the smaller firms.

South Asia as a whole has been sustained with rapid growth. However domestically, the legal sector’s growth, at least in the last 2 years, has come in a large part from bad debt leading to bank defaults and insolvent companies. The rush to acquire defunct assets at supposedly throwaway prices has resulted in bidding wars among some of the largest Indian corporate houses. India’s corporate law has evolved significantly in these years, and corporate law firms have seen their fortunes vary by a degree proportional to their ability to navigate these complex changes.

The subject of the liberalization of India’s legal market to permit foreign firms to practice there is an often-discussed topic.  What is the current state of Indian legal market liberalization? 

Last year, India’s Supreme Court passed an order amending an earlier fly in, fly-out policy. While the policy itself was problematic, in that it arguably violated the Advocates Act which mandates only advocates on the rolls of state bar councils to practice law in India, the Madras HC had ruled that services such as secretarial support, transcription services, proofreading services, did not amount to legal practice, and could, therefore, be carried out by foreign firms.

The top court ruling, which came at the instance of the Bar Council, which had challenged the fly-in, fly-out ruling, further narrowed down the definition of legal practice, yet the Supreme Court held the view that casual work by foreign lawyers would not be in violation of the principle.

More recently, the Bar Council of Delhi issued a show cause notice to the big 4 accounting firms asking them to provide information on any lawyers they have engaged and refrain from offering legal services. The action was based on a complaint made by an association of Indian law firms.

While there still exist relationships among foreign and Indian law firms, there has been a line drawn in the sand as far as liberalising the legal sector in India is concerned.

We’ve seen significant activity by legal startups in India, and some traditional firms in India adopt technology to help service client needs more effectively.  What is the current state of legal innovation in India?  And do you believe there is a market for NewLaw services in India, the likes of which are currently already provided in the Asia-Pacific region by firms like Axiom, Korum, Cognatio, LOD – Lawyers on Demand, Eversheds Sutherland and Pinsent Masons Vario?

Legal innovation has responded to a prescient need for improved client servicing as a competitive advantage. The scope has been manifold – customer relations management, knowledge management, aggregating and indexing public information, instructional design for learning and development, management information systems, and so on.

Artificial intelligence is the next big thing for legal services. While the adoption has not been widespread, most law firms understand the possibilities that are offered by emerging technologies like litigation analytics platforms. In house implementation of ERPs also can boost the profitability of which integration of legacy systems with CRM technologies can offer a competitive edge to law firms in terms of client servicing.

Another trend that is slowly emerging among big firms in the creation of incubators for legal innovation, which has the potential to put these firms at the forefront of legal tech by creating mentorship opportunities and driving tech solutions from a seed stage. Crowdsourcing ideas have the power to radically transform knowledge creation, and this is something which firms have realised.

The overreaching theme of the 4th industrial revolution is such that automation of repetitive tasks has become a business necessity. Exposure to foreign law firms who are using the latest technology will ensure that domestic firms have the competitive need to implement such processes at scale.

What is your advice for law students or aspiring legal services sector workers about a possible career in legal marketing and business development in India and internationally? 

The legal industry is growing compared to other sectors and newer opportunities are being created for legal talent. Increased competition and need to market and differentiate the law firm brand has widened the scope for Business Development and marketing professionals to play a strategic role in the growth of the firm. For law graduates who understand the subject matter, the need to develop marketing skills is imperative. Aspiring lawyers will have a good potential to build careers in strategic support functions, which are increasingly playing a pivotal role in driving the top line of law firms.

Posted by John Grimley

John Grimley edits and publishes Asia Law Portal. An independent writer & editor, he's the author of: A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia-Pacific Legal Markets (Ark Group 2014).

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