Photo: Mint (Mint)
Photo: Mint
(Mint)

Law firms find loopholes to promote their services

Since they can’t solicit business in India, and hence can’t advertise their services, lawyers in the country are getting creative

New Delhi: Lawyers can’t solicit business in India, directly or indirectly, which means they can’t advertise their services. That hasn’t stopped Indian law firms from finding ways of creating a brand and gaining the attention of prospective clients.

The firms are expanding into new territories to gain visibility by taking on pro bono work, holding conferences and lectures, and engaging in partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups, apart from using public relations (PR) companies to make sure that the message reaches the right people about their role in share sales, acquisitions and so on.

Lalit Bhasin, president of the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF), said such activity doesn’t conform with the Rule 36 of the Bar Council of India (BCI), which prohibits activities amounting to advertising and soliciting business.

He said that instances mentioned in Rule 36 aren’t exhaustive but indicative. Any kind of promotion is a violation of the rule, according to him.

BCI is the regulatory and representative body of the India bar.

Bhasin said there should either be strict implementation of the rule or a complete change in the norms.

BCI did allow lawyers limited visibility in 2008, when it allowed them to set up websites carrying minimal information, in the wake of a Supreme Court order. Bhasin feels this doesn’t address the issue.

“The order ensures bare minimum, especially when there is globalization of legal services," he said.

Other lawyers chafe at the restrictions, which don’t even allow them to circulate brochures at international conferences.

“BCI is still in the stone age and continues to think of law as a ‘noble profession’," which is the moral reasoning behind the prohibition, said V. Lakshmi Kumaran, managing partner, Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan (L&S).

However, given that medicine and law were once on the same footing as “noble professions" and that the corporatization of the first has been permitted, the restrictions on lawyers are unjustified, according to Hemant Batra, executive managing partner, Kaden Boriss.

Batra pointed out that Indian law firms are opening offices overseas and providing comprehensive information online about themselves—including their partners and areas of expertise—on the websites of their foreign offshoots.

Experts pointed out that some of the avenues that are being used by lawyers to build up their profile can be seen as essential services to society and the legal profession, such as providing free legal aid or holding moot court competitions.

Given the nature of such activities, it’s hard to say that firms are undertaking them purely for the publicity, said Vijay Bhatt, associate managing trustee, BCI Trust, which works towards maintaining professional standards in the legal profession and effecting improvements in legal education. He said it’s hard to draw the line and that it’s up to the law firms to comply with BCI rules.

On the other hand, allowing lawyers to solicit business can result in the extreme forms of ambulance chasing seen in the US, besides the television and other advertising catering to the less savoury end of the legal universe.

Back home, Indian firms are setting up wings to handle subsidiary activities such as training workshops, conferences, lectures and legal aid camps. Enviro Legal Defence Firm has set up the Enviro Law and Development Foundation for improving the quality of research on environmental issues, policy level advocacy and training lawyers on litigation in the specialization.

The ban on advertising is a big impediment for firms like Enviro Legal Defence Firm, said Sanjay Upadhyay, honorary managing trustee of the foundation. With most clients based in rural areas, getting their attention is difficult, he said.

As part of his pro bono work, Upadhyay frequently lectures, trains and writes on environmental issues, which gives him visibility. Further, the regulations restricting advertising aren’t applicable to the other initiatives undertaken by lawyers, which, as in Upadhyay’s case, helps them build a reputation.

Moot court competitions, which are organized by firms such as Surana and Surana, Kaden Borris and L&S, are another avenue that affords publicity.

However, Kumaran of L&S sees this as “the duty of lawyers to repay the community and student community, in particular".

Batra, whose firm also sponsors moot courts, said it’s part of the firm’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) endeavours.

Leading law firm Fox Mandal has a CSR section on its website that lists free legal aid. A constitutional duty of the state and a moral responsibility of lawyers, free legal aid is undertaken regularly by law firms now as pro bono work.

A new trend is the advent of organizations that facilitate such work by firms and lawyers. For instance, i-Probono connects NGOs and organizations in need of legal assistance with law firms that provide pro bono services.

Some of India’s biggest firms, apart from independent lawyers and law students, have been volunteering their services, said Priyanka Dahiya, programme officer, i-Probono.

While the impulse behind such initiatives is philanthropic in nature and born of a sense of responsibility, they also get publicity. Some of the biggest law firms including Amarchand and Mangaldas and Suresh A Shroff and Co., Khaitan and Luthra and Luthra, are part of the i-Probono roster.

While some law firms have hired PR companies to build their brands, more specialized companies have evolved to handle their specific needs.

One such outfit, Legal League Consulting, helps firms in their management and to enhance growth, said Bithika Anand, founder and CEO.

“Law firms in India particularly rely on dissemination of their legal acumen to enhance their visibility in the market," said Anand. The “visibility" comes through a range of activities covered under “branding and practice development", a service provided by the company, she said.

This includes “brand identity development" and “media placements". Visibility is created and maintained through knowledge sharing, besides academic contributions focused on recent statutes, particular sectors, analyses of government policy and participation in domestic and global events.

Legal aid camps, and working with the social sector and NGOs is also on offer. As for media placement—being quoted on legal issues, and featuring on the news and legal shows—Anand said, “We can’t create media opportunities but can only manage them when they arise."

A proliferation of legal and law-based magazines also allows firms to disseminate legal knowledge and expertise. Regular contributions by law firm partners and associates, discussing contemporary or complex issues, allows the firms to “endorse their expertise and intellectual depth", said Batra.

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