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Bar & Bench spoke to Lalit Bhasin on his legal career, vision for his firm, entry of foreign law firms, SILF and lot more.
Bar & Bench: What prompted your decision to get into law?
Lalit Bhasin: This happened nearly fifty years ago and I am not sure I can exactly remember the reason. I started my career in the year 1962. I believe it had something to do with my genes. My father was a very eminent lawyer and a designated senior counsel. Even my grandfather was a lawyer. To me law was the obvious choice. I did my graduation from Hindu College and after completing my MA, I joined the law faculty. When I started my practice of law in Delhi, we didn’t have the concept of law firms, unlike in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
Bar & Bench: Tell us about your initial years of setting up Bhasin & Co.
Lalit Bhasin: It was a big struggle; right from 1962 until about 1967 because it was not easy to get clients. My first client was my postman. He had a legal problem and I advised him and got my first fee of Rs. 110. I got a good break when I became a legal advisor to the Oberoi Group of Hotels. I was able to establish very good working relationship with the then head of Oberoi family, Rai Bahadur M.S. Oberoi. I started helping them in formulating their appointment letters, labour policies and also handling their litigation. That was a big breakthrough for me and it helped me establish my law firm in 1970. My association with a big corporate group set the pace for my legal career. It gave me recognition in the corporate law world and also got me more clients. During my initial years in the profession, I sought guidance from my father as he was a pioneer in the field of labour and employment laws. But, I virtually started on my own in the practice of corporate law.
Bar & Bench: You have been an active member at the Bar and also of other national and international organisations. Talk us through this aspect of your career.
Lalit Bhasin: Apart from my law practice, the other driver of my professional life was to become a leader at the Bar. In 1973, I became the youngest Chairman of the Bar Council of Delhi. I was 33 years old at that time. Those were interesting times, as my tenure coincided with the emergency period. Many lawyers were put in jail and my job was to get them released. This initial experience helped me to take up other roles including treasurer of the Bar Association of India and the Honorary General Secretary of the Bar Association of India, which post I held for nearly 20 years.
On the international side, I became the Secretary General of the International Bar Association (IBA) exclusively in charge of the Asian Pacific region, and held that position for many years. I still continue to be the council member of the IBA.
I have helped in putting the Indian legal profession on the international map and that was because of the regional conferences that we organized in the 1980s. The turning point for the Indian legal profession came in 1997 when I chaired the IBA conference in New Delhi. In 1999, we established the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF). I think that was a pioneering step by some of the leading legal professionals in the country, including Rajiv Luthra, Jyoti Sagar, Rohit Kochhar, Diljeet Titus, Ravinath and Som Mandal. All of them felt the need to establish a platform for law firms and approached me to be the president of this society.
It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to have seen the evolution of SILF as a society recognized by the government, by various ministries who consult it for important issues and legislations like the companies bill and the competition law. SILF now have over 100 law firms as members. SILF has been given recognition by international associations like IBA, UIA and IPBA.
Bar & Bench: What is your vision for your own firm?
Lalit Bhasin: My firm is in a unique position – in the sense that we started essentially as a litigation law firm in the field of corporate law, and we have somehow retained that position because of my own personal involvement as a litigation lawyer. I still appear before the Supreme Court, High Court and tribunals such as TDSAT, the Competition Commission, Company Law Board and the National Consumer Commission. I am equally involved in transactional work at my firm. We have about 40 lawyers in Delhi office and about 15 lawyers in our Mumbai office. We have a very small establishment in Kolkata, where one lawyer looks after the work. In the next 10 years we hope to grow at a steady pace.
Bar & Bench: You are the President of SILF. What are your thoughts on the entry of foreign law firms in India?
Lalit Bhasin: This issue has been debated for so long and even very recently there was a delegation visiting India. Every month there is a delegation particularly from the UK with high profile representation, including, delegates from the Law Society of England, Ministry of Justice and the office of the Lord Mayor of London. They all come with this one-point agenda that the legal services in India should be opened. I always ask, why should we open? There has to be a good reason, some rationale – what is the rationale? Who needs the legal services industry to be opened up? Does the Indian business industry want it? Does the Indian legal profession want that? Do the young students who emerge out of the law schools want that? Does the Government of India or the governments of foreign countries want that or is it the foreign legal practitioners?
Under the aegis of CII when I was the Chairman of the National Committee on Law and Justice, we held a seminar where we invited top industry leaders, in-house lawyers, and others to find out who actually wants foreign lawyers to come and practice in India. One specific question was posed to them, “Do you need foreign lawyers here?” They said, “No, we are happy with the existing arrangements.” They rely upon our lawyers in India and in case they need some clarifications, assistance or guidance on foreign law, they would rather have us consult with our foreign counterparts. Foreign law firms should consult Indian law firms if they need advice on Indian law. There is no need for them to set up offices here in India. This arrangement has been going on for so many decades, and people haven’t felt that this is not working efficiently. Indian business houses also don’t want foreign law firms in India.
Initially, the Government of India was opposed, however now with pressures mounting from the WTO and the UK government, and with frequent visits by high dignitary, I think the Indian government is succumbing to these pressures and has taken a stand that they would liberalize the procedure to open Indian legal market for foreign law firms. From this, it is clear that the Government of India and British law firms want the Indian legal market to open. As UK is facing negative growth, law firms in the UK believe India and China are new markets which they can exploit to generate profits, and therefore, this push.
We are not averse to having mutually acceptable relationships with foreign law firms or foreign law organizations. In 2007, we signed a protocol with the Law Society of England and Wales. We also signed a protocol of mutual association, collaboration and exchange of delegation.
My approach is what was upheld by the Bombay High Court in the Lawyers Collective case, where the court clearly held that only Indian citizens can practice law in India. And practice of law does not mean only litigation, it includes all transactional corporate law; and then practice of law does not mean practice of only Indian law; practice of any type of law on the Indian soil is restricted to Indian citizens, and that judgment has attained finality. No one, not even the three aggrieved foreign law firms have challenged that judgment in the Supreme Court of India.
The Government of India is aware of the difficulty in making changes to the Advocates Act, and is trying to introduce a bill where the definition of legal professional will be expanded to include customs agents, sales tax practitioners, chartered accountants, etc. The Government has also posted the legal practitioners’ bill on its website. This is an indirect means to appease the international pressure points.
In summary, the entire legal profession in India is completely opposed to the entry of foreign law firms.
Bar & Bench: You were awarded the Plaque of Honour by the Prime Minister in 2002 for outstanding contribution to the Rule of Law. In 2007, the President of India presented the National Law Day Award to you for “Outstanding Contribution to the Development of the Legal Profession in India and for engagement in the maintenance of the highest standards at the Bar”. Your thoughts on winning these prestigious awards.
Lalit Bhasin: I think this is very generous of those who have presented these awards to me. I take it as a recognition for the Indian legal profession. There was a time when law was considered as a last resort. But over a period of time, it has attained the respect. Today, there are approximately fifteen lawyers who are in the Indian cabinet – lawyers of eminence like Kapil Sibal, Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee and Anand Sharma. Even our President is also a lawyer. I feel that my efforts have been recognized and it does give a sense of satisfaction.
Bar & Bench: You hold eminent positions with organizations such as Services Export Promotion Council, Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, Bar Association of India, Indian Society for Afro Asian Studies, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, FICCI Arbitration & Conciliation Tribunal, SILF. How do you manage all these roles so efficiently?
Lalit Bhasin: One has to find time when one takes responsibility. I think I have been able to do my professional work and these extra-curricular activities with a sense of commitment. If you have undertaken a responsibility, one must discharge it faithfully with all sincerity. I am able to do that as I have good team and support from them.
Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on the present system of legal education in India.
Lalit Bhasin: The state of legal education system is very bad. That is where some drastic steps are required to uplift the standard of legal education in India. I am not talking about the National Law Schools – they are doing a good job. However, there are only ten or twelve National Law Schools in the country. Also, there are good private institutions like Amity and Symbiosis, but again they are very few. There are approximately 30,000 other law schools which are without proper infrastructure and faculty. I think the Bar Council of India has not taken this issue seriously. Under the Advocates Act, this is the responsibility of the Bar Council. Some steps have to be taken without any delay to improve the standards. Hence, we need to collaborate with foreign law schools, as law schools are where the learning process starts. We have great respect for the law schools of England and the US, because legal education there is taken very seriously and students there do learn a lot.
We also need to have trained faculty. Law colleges are unable to get good teachers -which is a major defect in the system. We also need to focus on syllabi and find ways to improve them. I visit one law school almost every month in different parts of India and I request my SILF members who are experts in different fields to support legal education on a regular basis.
Bar & Bench: How do you unwind?
Lalit Bhasin: I unwind by meeting my family. I have four daughters and one son. I have seven grand-children. So, I unwind by spending time with my entire family. Also, I am a lover of fine music. So, that is another way I unwind. I also like spending time with my old friends.
Bar & Bench: Your Mentor
Lalit Bhasin: My mentor was my father. He was a very hard working man. I used to see him writing his briefs until midnight. So, I learnt a lot about hard work in a lawyer’s life and also the fact that sometimes you don’t have any personal life. Your first commitment is to your client, to the court and to the profession. Even family comes second. Besides my father, my other mentors in a way have been Mr. Oberoi and other seniors like Fali S. Nariman, Nani Palkhivala, M.C. Setalwad and C. K. Daphtary. I learnt a lot during my early years by being associated with such legends.