New Partners in India: Making a Legal Killing?

With India’s biggest law firms announcing the latest round of partnership promotions, we compare making partner in the East with getting the nod in the West.


In the film Donnie Brasco, Al Pacino’s aging mobster ‘Lefty Two Guns’ takes an undercover FBI officer under his wing and gives him some advice about making it to the top of one of the five families in the New York mafia. Lefty tells the character played by Johnny Depp to “keep your nose clean, follow the rules, be a good earner, and maybe one day when they open the books, you will become a wise guy.”


The film contains a few striking parallels to the difficulties of navigating a course to making partner at a City law firm. That is not to say that partnership in one of the UK’s magic circle is anything like the business of the five families from New York, but a young associate could do a lot worse than to follow the advice of an aging mobster. 


So, how does the partnership track in India compare to a UK law firm and/or the New York mob? Three of the top law firms in India, Amarchand & Mangaldas, Khaitan & Co and Luthra & Luthra, recently made up three lawyers a piece, quite a hectic partnership round by traditional Indian law standards (where a few senior partners jealously guard the equity pot). We rang up these new partners to talk about what it meant to achieve their lifetime goals.


The boring answer is that new Indian partners share similar experiences to their colonial cousins in the UK. Eight years of hard graft followed by more hard graft, only with a new partnership office and a parking space. And like the UK, the Indian partnership track is more of an unmapped trek through a heavily wooded forest than a well-lit highway sign-posted at every turn. 


From six years’ PQE onwards, senior associates on the partnership track must work like a pack of dogs, running deals, bringing in work and finding at least one mentor in the existing partnership who will speak up for them when the rest of the partnership convenes to discuss promotions.  Then if everything goes to plan, new partners can look forward to managing even bigger workloads to the ones they handled as eager senior associates.  Grasad Prasad, a new M&A partner at Amarchand in Mumbai, said “nothing much” had changed between being senior associate and a partner. 


On the surface, the obvious difference between new UK and Indian partners is the equity entitlement.  Most new partners at leading City firms can expect to dance the ‘lockstep’ straight away, but a two-tier partnership is the norm for equivalent firms in India, a fact reflected in the recently published RSG India Report 2010.  Prasad, a non-equity partner, said it will take another 3-4 years to make full partnership, though he said nothing is certain, adding “not being made one is sometimes indicative of a stronger message”. The ‘strong message’ might sound awfully familiar to some UK lawyers...


The title of ‘Of Counsel’, increasingly loved by UK and US law partnerships, has not yet made it to India in name, though it might already be there in the guise of the salaried partner.  For some UK senior associates, of counsel is viewed as a two-year holding pattern utilised by a top heavy partnership waiting for some old mares and geldings to retire or die; for other associates it is the kiss of death that means the partnership is beyond reach (though the horse’s head in the bed is made more amenable by an extra 50K a year). 


In a similar way, making partner at an Indian law firm is no guarantee of equity entitlement, and like being made ‘of counsel’ in the UK or the US, new partners in India essentially do the same thing for a bit more money and a new title.   It remains one of the stumbling blocks to growth of the Indian legal profession that equity is concentrated in the hands of so few. Commenting on how he felt about making partner, an acknowledgement long thought of as having “arrived”, Ganesh Prasad said that “there is a long way to go”.