Bar & Bench caught up with Prakash Mehta and Robert Nelson, Partners at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP to talk about the firm’s India practice.
Bar & Bench caught up with Prakash Mehta (pictured left) and Robert Nelson (pictured right), Partners at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP to talk about the firm’s India practice.
Prakash Mehta has over 17 years of experience representing a broad range of investment management clients, with a particular emphasis representing private equity and hedge fund sponsors; investment banks; and institutional investors working in the Asian markets, particularly India. Prakash is also the co-leader of the firm’s investment funds and private equity practices, a member of the firmwide management committee and has been recognized by The National Law Journal as one of the 50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America.
Nelson has over 31 years of experience representing clients in the Asian markets, particularly India and China, in a variety of areas, including domestic and international energy and infrastructure project development, finance and workouts, as well as cross-border transactions. Robert is also an appointed member of the Council on Foreign Relations serves on the Board of Directors of the US-India Business Council and is a member of the joint U.S.-Indian taskforce on trade and investment matters.
Talk us through your experience in assisting Indian companies in cross border transactions?
Our India group has been practicing in the India-U.S. corridor for almost two decades. We have represented clients in cross-border M&A, joint ventures, capital markets transactions, international trade matters, intellectual property issues, and infrastructure projects.
How big is the India legal team and do you plan to increase hiring?
We have a cross-disciplinary India practice because we want our clients to have the benefit of the best talent across various legal disciplines combined with broad experience and expertise on the India-related aspects of such disciplines. We now have about 20 attorneys with significant India-related experience and have expanded quite a bit over the past year or so. Over the last several years, we have added a number of partners with significant India experience including Robert Nelson (Energy and Global Transactions) in San Francisco/Abu Dhabi, Justin Williams (Litigation) and Gregory Hammond (International Corporate Transactions) in London, and Charles Adams (Litigation) and Jonathan Ivinson (Tax) in Geneva. We have also brought on Christhy Vidal (Investment Funds) as senior counsel in Washington, D.C. and associates Shubi Arora (Energy and Global Transactions) in Houston and Asma Chandani and Kapil Pandit (Investment Funds) in New York. We continue to speak with lateral candidates and groups on a case-by-case basis.
How has your experience been working alongside Indian law firms?
We maintain close relationships with most of the Indian law firms, including AZB & Partners, Amarchand Mangaldas, Khaitan & Co., Luthra & Luthra, Nishith Desai Associates, and J. Sagar & Associates. As one would expect, as the Indian market has opened up, Indian law firms too have become increasingly sophisticated. Although technology has made working with people in India virtually seamless, we find that strong relationships are still key. It is important that our clients be able to tap into the best people with relevant expertise at the firm or firms in question. Only when you have a strong working relationship, and a strong mutual understanding as to how best to serve Indian and international clients in the cross-border context, can this be accomplished.
What is your take on the Legal Process Outsourcing sector in India, with regard to outsourcing services from the US to India?
Most of the work we do at Akin Gump is not conducive to outsourcing so we have not had much personal experience in this space. That being said, outsourcing could make sense for law firms in certain situations to cut costs without compromising quality or efficiency. There are probably more opportunities at present on the litigation front, though one could imagine that other areas, such as Blue Sky, might be conductive to outsourcing.
With the boom in the infrastructure sector in India, do you see more multinational companies investing in India?
Yes. India has underinvested in its infrastructure since independence and, although inflows fell in 2010, over the long term multinationals see opportunity. Recent initiatives by the Indian government to liberalize its FDI policy to attract investment in the infrastructure sector are positive and have also spurred interest in the area. Investment in the infrastructure supply chain is also expected to be a very promising area.
What concerns do your clients express about India? And in your experience how do you mitigate these risks?
In general our clients have the same concerns about India as they do about other international markets – among other things, taxation and government approvals are often topics of discussion. However, these concerns are accentuated in India by the relatively high-profile issues with respect to imposition of tax on foreign transactions, as with the Vodafone case, and the publicity accompanying the question of transparency and government permits/approvals, such as in the telecoms license matter and the Commonwealth Games (and indeed in certain sectors, such as real estate, more generally). We have to look at each situation and mitigate risks on a case-by-case basis but the common denominator is having access to people, both in-house at Akin Gump and at our contacts in India, who have in-depth knowledge of the market and relevant actors in the public and private sectors.
With your vast experience, where do you see India in 2011 - 12?
People remain confident that there will be a high volume of cross-border activity, both inbound and outbound. We have already seen increased activity in all sectors, and, on the outbound front, as India seeks to secure oil and gas and other natural resources abroad, the focus on energy has been particularly interesting.
Foreign law firms in India? This has been a topic of hot debate and extensive litigation? Your thoughts.
India is becoming more and more integrated into the international deal market. On the one hand, it seems counterintuitive to see such globalization while at the same time foreign law firms are not permitted into the market. On the other hand, even the large Indian firms are not necessarily deep in quality to the same degree that international firms are, so that it would not necessarily be a good thing for the Indian legal market if foreign firms were given carte blanche to open their own offices in India, where the first impulse of many of the foreign firms would be to poach Indian talent. There could be an overall dispersal of the talent pool in a way that would not necessarily be helpful. In general, the large English firms seem to be more interested in moving en masse into the Indian market than the large U.S.-based firms seem to be. We are very pleased with the strong relationships that we have with several Indian firms and would like those relationships to be able to continue to grow and flourish. In any event, it will be interesting to see how things develop over time.
Indian legal market - How do you feel that the Bar Council should equip to maintain the quality?
There has obviously been a lot of discussion on the All India Bar Exam (AIBE). Although the Council needs to fine-tune the process, this is a reform in the right direction. As India continues to grow and gains prominence on the international stage, having a capable body of legal professionals becomes more and more critical.
Law School education - Your thoughts on new law schools emerging in India and alumni now being hired and represented globally.
The emergence of new law schools is a positive development but India has to walk the fine line between ensuring that those who want to practice law have the opportunity to do so and making sure that the expansion is not so rapid that it compromises quality or leads to a glut of lawyers in the market. With so much cross-border activity it is important that alumni be hired and represented globally. Even at Akin Gump we have about ten attorneys of Indian origin at the partner, counsel and associate levels and their knowledge and language skills have been critical to our India work.