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The more I’ve become involved, the more India has embraced me – Chris Parsons, Chairman of Herbert Smith Freehills India Practice

The more I’ve become involved, the more India has embraced me – Chris Parsons, Chairman of Herbert Smith Freehills India Practice

Aditya AK

In this interview with Bar & Bench, Chris Parsons talks about doing business in India, his opinion on Indian law universities, the liberalisation of the Indian legal market and his plan to walk 30 marathons in 30 days to raise money for the Loomba Foundation.

At first glance, Chris Parsons more resembles a professional sportsman than a corporate lawyer. The man is as disarmingly polite as he is fit. As he leads the circuitous path to the outdoor lounge at the West End in Bangalore, he asks the questions. For a moment, he is the interviewer and I am the foreigner, and it’s easy to see that he truly feels at home.

He finds it difficult to describe the journey with Herbert Smith Freehills, and understandably so. How does one put 30 years into a couple of sentences?

“Clearly, the world has moved on considerably in these thirty years. The firm that I joined at the outset, Herbert Smith, was still a large firm then, but it very much had its beating heart in London, with a relatively modest international presence. Over the years, there has been a very considerable increase in its geographical footprint. We’ve moved from being a firm that does international work to a firm that is in every respect, a global organization.”

The beginnings of a long and fruitful Indian summer

“We started our India practice when Nimi Patel joined us way back in the early 90s. At that time, we were one of the few firms that was focusing on India in a serious way. There was an important focus on Indian clients, apart from looking at international clients investing in India. It started with a focus on Mergers & Acquisitions. Through Nimi, we acted for Tata when they bought Tetley Tea in around 2000. Then, things increased significantly through Tata Steel buying Corus and Tata Motors buying Jaguar Land Rover, both of which were landmark transactions. Corus is still the biggest outbound deal of all time.”

“India has only really been on the world stage from a corporate cross-border perspective since the Corus deal. We’ve been successful in building up the client base. In addition to Tata, we’ve been doing work for Bharti; we were fortunate to advise on the Bharti-Airtel acquisition of Zain Africa. In 2007/08, we acted for Essar when Vodafone bought the Hutch stake, which continues to be the biggest inward bound deal of all time. We looked after Godrej in Africa, we’re looking after Adani in Australia, who is developing a coal mine there.”

“In addition to doing M&A work, we’ve also done the related financing and standalone banking work mainly through Clive Barnard. We’ve also done dispute resolution, headed by Nick Peacock. We also look after international clients coming into India, while working with Indian law firms, because, of course, we don’t practice Indian law.”

It’s not always smooth sailing when it comes to cross-border transactions. When asked about the stumbling blocks generally faced, he says,

“Much of what we’ve dealt with has been cross-border going outside India. One of the challenges is funding and making sure the RBI guidelines are complied with. Going back a few years, one of the challenges for some Indian companies was the Competition Law aspect, because Competition Law was very new in India. Some of the information that was required by the US or the European authorities, in terms of market share and how the information is split by geography, by business, by turnover, etc. was not available because a lot of Indian companies didn’t collect information in that way. But now, the Indian business are very adept at approaching and executing cross-border transactions.”

Su casa, mi casa

“When I first got involved as the India practice Chairman around 10 years ago, liberalisation was something both international lawyers and Indian lawyers talked about. One of the things that I’ve learned is that you have to be patient. Liberalisation will occur at some point, in accordance with its own time-table. I don’t know whether it’ll happen during my career, we’ll have to wait and see. There have been no clear indications from the Modi government so far, on the contrary, there have been comments that the current state will continue.”

“I remind people that while we aren’t allowed to open an office here, we can fly in and out. We’ve been fortunate to have been allowed to grow a very strong India practice, working in conjunction with top Indian firms like Amarchand, JSA, AZB, Khaitan etc. We’ve been able to do all the work that we would have wanted to do, if we had an office here.”

We’re not really that different, you and I

“I think the only difference is that some of the international firms have been running the business of law for longer and therefore, they’ve developed practices and procedures that are different from the domestic law firms. You wouldn’t have to go back very far in the history of the UK law firms to find firms operating in a way very similar to how the Indian law firms are being run.”

“Another thing to note is that the firms that I mentioned are rapidly developing their approaches. The number of recruited non-lawyers to help with HR, accounting, business development etc. is increasing. My experience of Indian law firms is that they are mirroring some of the better practices of international firms, and frankly, there are a number of lessons that we can learn from them. For example, their wonderful skill of developing and keeping relations with clients at a very senior level, that’s something all law firms can benefit from.”

One noble profession contributes to another

Parsons has been affiliated with a number of national law schools in the recent past. As bright as the future for Indian law universities looks, the need to encourage people to get into academic research cannot be emphasized on enough.

“Having been a recruitment partner at Herbert Smith for six years, I have a good sense of the quality of lawyers coming out of the Indian law schools. The best people coming out of those institutions are every bit as good as those coming out from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale etc. This is reflected in the quality of lawyers at many of the Indian law firms.”

“It’s still early days in the development of the law schools in India. Part of the challenge is seeking to ensure that the best people, or at least some of them, want to become faculty. It is important for them to find ways to attract people to become faculty. There are a number ways to do that – one is to increase the levels of remuneration. The law schools must also seek to become centres of excellence in research. That’s why places like Oxford and Cambridge thrive so much. They are places where extremely clever academics want to go and develop themselves and be at the forefront of learning, teaching and developing new areas, and that’s what India needs to try and replicate.”

“A University like NLU Delhi, even though it’s so young, has been successful in encouraging its faculty to undertake research projects, which makes it exciting for the faculty. So it’s not just about money; faculty at Oxford and Cambridge earn considerably less than people working at international law firms. But, they want to do it because they’re wonderful places to develop themselves, their careers and the teaching and learning of law.”

With all the law-talk out of the way, we finally get to the main reason we’re sitting across each other.

Expeditions for a cause: A brief history

“We’re fortunate to get sabbaticals at Herbert Smith Freehills, after completing ten years as a Partner. On my first sabbatical in 2006, I did a long cycling trip from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, which are the two extreme points in the UK, and I did that for an international children’s charity. Wind forward a few years to 2011, I wanted to mark my 50th birthday by doing a long cycle again. So, I decided to cycle with a friend from London to Gibraltar.”

A chance meeting

“I ended up at a lunch somewhere in March 2011, and completely by chance, I ended up sitting next to Raj Loomba, now Lord Loomba. I knew that I wanted to cycle for charity, but hadn’t decided on which charity. So, Raj’s ears pricked up this, and he told me that his mother had become a widow at a relatively early age. He told me his story and how fortunate he’d been that his mother had been left with quite a lot of money, with which she was able to educate him and his siblings. But, he recognized that there were many widows in India who were not so fortunate. On the death of their husbands, not only did they suffer the enormous sadness of coping with the death, but they were also sometimes blamed for the death. So, Raj was determined to help widows, and consequently their children. I was struck by the cause and at the end of the lunch, I told Raj that I was interested in helping out with his cause.”

30:30 vision

“I wanted to support an Indian charity, and that was easy because I’d been involved with the Indian practice for some time. So that’s how I came to cycle from London to Gibraltar and I managed to raise about 200,000 US dollars. To celebrate my nearing 30 years with the firm and 10 years with the Indian practice, I wanted to do something else for the Loomba foundation.”

“I decided that it wasn’t easy to do long cycles in India. If my bike breaks, the parts would be hard to come by, so I thought that I rely on legs more. So the charity was clear, it was clear that it was going to be Indian and it was clear that it was going to be a walk. I decided to sort of round things up – 30 years, maybe I’ll try to walk 30 marathons in 30 days.”

Walk before you run

“I hope I haven’t set myself too big a challenge (laughs). I am nervous about it, very nervous in fact. Frankly, the more training I do, the more I realise (gulp) it’s a long way! I walked 42 kilometres a couple of weeks ago in Mumbai and I was hot and tired, and my feet and legs hurt, and I thought – I’ve really set myself a mountain! But I plan to give it my best shot.”

“I’ve been training for almost two years for this. To begin with, I did a lot of running, but I realised that I would not be able to run 30 marathons in 30 days; in fact I probably wouldn’t be able to run 2 marathons in 2 days. But I thought that with the right training, I might be able to walk. Since then, I’ve been walking much more.”

“I was on holiday in Cyprus last October and every day I walked for 3 plus hours. Thankfully, I have a very supportive wife, although she did say to me about a week ago when I got home, “Please, Chris. Don’t do another challenge for a few years after this one.” More than the event, it’s about all the training that comes before.”

Hail the Highway King

“I have naively thought for a long time that down along the coast was going to be flat, and it would only be hilly if I went across the Western Ghats. But, to my shock, I learnt that the coastal part is very hilly. I have this wonderful man, H V Kumar helping me. He’s known as the ‘Highway King’. He and a number of colleagues run this blog that seeks to help out other road users, I think he’s got around 15000 members. So if you find yourself in Kashmir and your oil pipe is gone, you can get someone to help you, free of charge, and pretty quickly. When I last had my planning meeting with him, I found that he’s driven the whole route for me, to make sure that he knew everything about the route. He was able to tell me where the ferries, chai stops, dhaba stops, ATMs, petrol stations, hotels, restaurants all are. He’s marked them all on a map and made a daily plan. It’s literally where I’m going, from and to, with everything in between.”

Confessions of an Indophile

“What do I love about India? It’s a question I reflect on lots of times. There are loads of things I love about India, but probably, if I was asked to just pick one, it would be the people. My experience has been that the more I find myself becoming committed to working in India, and I’m not just talking about interacting with clients. I’m talking about the law schools, the mooting competitions that we run, the negotiation competitions that we run, the social causes like the Loomba foundation. The more I’ve become involved, the more India has embraced me through its people. I have lots and lots of good friends here and I find Indians to be incredibly hospitable. So, it’s not long before a formal relationship becomes a friendly relationship. I’ve said it many times, but it’s true – India has become my second home, and I look forward to each of my trips.”

You can contribute to Chris Parsons’ cause by accessing his fundraising page.