In Conversation with Linklaters India Practice Head, Narayan Iyer

Narayan Iyer
Narayan Iyer

Last year Narayan Iyer was appointed as the head of Linklater’s India Practice. Iyer succeeded Sandeep Katwala, who founded the firm’s India practice about 10 years ago. 

Iyer is based in London and focuses on acquisition and structured financings and Indian inbound and outbound transactions.

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Pallavi Saluja, Iyer talks about the plans for the firm’s India practice, liberalization of legal market, the Indian legal market and much more.

Bar & Bench: Sandeep Katwala was around for a long time – how has the transition been? Any big picture change in vision/approach? 

Narayan Iyer: Sandeep was the driving force behind forming and growing what has consistently been recognised as the leading India practice of any international law firm. In Sandeep’s retirement we lost one of the leading international practitioners for the India market but he has left behind an extraordinary platform.

My key objective has been to build on that platform by continuing to grow our relationships with key India-facing and India-based clients. We are fortunate to be doing that from our current position and we do not need a big picture change in vision or approach.

Bar & Bench: What is the current structure and strength of the Linklaters India practice?

Narayan Iyer:  The firm has been active in the Indian market for over 25 years. During that time we have developed relationships with corporates and financial institutions for transactions both in and out of India. We have dedicated India specialists in a number of our offices and our team is able to bring their business and cultural experiences to bear when assisting international companies in navigating India.

Another one of our strengths is that we draw upon lawyers from offices across the Linklaters network within a variety of practices. So if we have an Indian corporate that is looking to make an acquisition in the oil and gas sector in Africa, we have the right lawyers for that deal. At the moment, we have an incredibly strong corporate, banking and capital markets offering that ranks as the highest amongst our peers.

Bar & Bench: Can you share with us growth plans for the Linklaters India practice? 

Narayan Iyer: Essentially we want to continue being the leading international law firm for India work, both into and out of India. Part of our growth strategy is to continue servicing our existing clients to the highest standards. I don’t think we need to make any drastic changes but it’s more about looking at the tweaks we could make to better service our clients.

Bar & Bench: How has the India practice dealt with senior Capital Market lawyer exits in Singapore? 

Narayan Iyer: There is some movement to be expected across different markets. Law firms such as ours are equipped to deal with these moves. With every departure comes an opportunity for younger talent to progress and for senior practitioners to realign their priorities. The Singapore and Hong Kong officers operate as an integrated practice and continue as the key hubs from which we service Indian capital market deals. I remain excited by the team’s ideas and the types of mandates we continue to win.

Bar & Bench: The never ending saga of legal practice by foreign lawyers in India has seen some movement recently; Arun Jaitley has expressed his support towards allowing foreign lawyers to practice non-Indian law. 

Narayan Iyer: There has certainly been more talk about the liberalisation of India’s legal market of late, though as you know this has been going on for almost 20 years now. So whilst the developments all sound fairly positive, I think we still need to wait and see how things will play out in practice. It looks like there is commitment from the Indian government to proceed and it looks like there is support from Indian lawyers as well, so perhaps it is just a question of timing.

Bar & Bench: What will be Linklaters strategy, if and when the Indian legal market opens? Does Talwar Thakore & Associates become Linklaters India office?

Narayan Iyer: It is tough to predict what the Indian market will look like when it in fact opens up as it really depends on the detail of the proposals. The expectation of course is that once the market has been liberalised, Indian clients should find it easier to access the skills international firms bring.

Bar & Bench: Does that mean that we see a rush of firms entering the country?

Narayan Iyer: There are mixed views about this – those who want to act for clients on Indian cross-border matters already have relationships in place but being physically on the ground will have significant incremental value for others.

It will be a question that each individual firm will have to carefully assess and make a decision based on their own growth strategy and business priorities. We continue to work very closely with TTA of course and I am pleased to say our relationship remains stronger than ever. What TTA lacks in size is more than offset by the consistent quality of the firm’s offering and the passion and ambition of the individual lawyers.

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on state of Indian corporate law firm market; its evolution, strengths, development areas?

Narayan Iyer: The market is in a phase of development not seen before in India. Lawyers now have opportunities that did not exist as recently as a couple of years ago. If you look at the recent domestic rankings, the market does not seem to be dominated by any one firm, there are a number of firms contending for top positions in their areas of expertise. I have met some incredibly smart and talented lawyers over my years in practice. As that talent keeps coming through the Indian legal market will not only be a force to reckon with but an incredibly competitive space.

Bar & Bench: At a personal level, you have worked in Asia (Singapore / Mumbai) and London. Any differences you have observed? 

Narayan Iyer: Though working in different offices brings its own unique experiences and challenges, one common theme remains in practicing law anywhere – that of focusing on your clients’ needs. And clichéd as it sounds, the world is shrinking as global opportunities are available to far more people today than ever before.

That is equally if not more true for our clients – their personal and professional expectations do not differ whether they are based in Dubai, Shanghai or Mumbai. The cultural differences in working in different places has remained part of the attraction for me. And moving around has meant that I have always been challenged at various stages of my career. It is also quite nice to feel at home in different cities.

Bar & Bench: What do you think are the skills required to be a good cross-border M&A / Finance lawyer?

Narayan Iyer: Aside from strong technical skills, successful lawyers need to be creative thinkers, be passionate about delivering high quality work and have a global outlook. And above all they have to work well in teams – both internally and externally. These are the sorts of skills that our clients demand from us.

It won’t surprise you to know however that a one size fits all approach does not work. We need teams that are made up of diverse ranges of people from different backgrounds – each individual then brings their own skill to the table and that’s how you succeed together.

Bar & Bench: The global economy feels a bit nervy right now? If the sentiment continues for sometime, what challenges will this pose to law firms and the legal market?

Narayan Iyer: Law firms need to remain adept at reacting to market movements – we’ve just come through a financial crisis and are about to face a huge question about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The uncertainty our clients are facing in turn leads to further openings for them. I agree that the general state of nervousness means decisions to do things take longer but it is not like our clients are choosing to do nothing.

The other big challenge for law firms is attracting and retaining top talent. With a myriad of opportunities available to young and ambitious members of the workforce, a legal career needs to remain interesting and relevant for them to want to be part of it.