A Chartered Accountant and Company Secretary, Sanjay is a first-generation entrepreneur with an experience of more than 25 years in the field of Project Financing, Loan Syndication, and Investments.
That Indians are argumentative does not require proof – as Amartya Sen wrote, our traditions go back to the times of the Rig Veda. That we love paperwork and bureaucracy is also unnecessary to state – especially when you see the rows and rows of typists, affidavit-makers, notaries, rubber-stamp makers and small-time lawyers touting their services for petty cases outside all our courts. That the two can be combined to meet the legal needs of the world – now that’s a billion-dollar story to be told.
Outsourcing was a buzzword in the late 90s and early 2000s as the global internet revolution was happening. Indeed, ‘Bangalored’ entered the English dictionary as firms from Europe and North America shifted IT services to the Deccan plateau, followed by several IT-enabled services like medical transcription, payroll management, legal documentation and account-keeping. By 2008, for example, 10 out of the top 30 UK-based legal firms had outsourced back-office work to India. Why?
Because the fundamentals are strong, even after COVID-19 shocks. Among Asian countries, India stands out visibly. Firstly, we have a democratic and constitutional political system ruled by law (mostly), based on the politico-legal framework of the English-speaking countries. Several Indian laws, and much of its constitutional law, indeed date from the British Raj, and are similar to the laws in the USA, Canada, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, Bangladesh, Kenya, New Zealand and of course, the United Kingdom. Second, It has a free judiciary (again, mostly free), with the same adversarial system (i.e. prosecution and defence battling it out between a ‘neutral’ judge) as the Anglophone nations. India also has a long-established and well-renowned corpus of jurisprudence, some of which, like the doctrine of the basic structure of the constitution, are internationally accepted.
Thirdly, with over 1,200 law schools (including 23 prestigious National Law Schools), India churns out between 60 to 70 thousand lawyers a year. While not all will become the next Ram Jethmalani or Nani Palkhivala to make either lots of money or set constitutional precedents, they are still well-educated to staff law firms as paralegals, case historians, solicitors, legal advisors and of course, law professors; and command much smaller salaries than their Western counterparts. Fourthly and finally, India has an evolved corporate climate with better standards of governance than much of its neighbourhood. Indian judges and lawyers are well-regarded in international arbitration tribunals. Honestly, only Singapore and Hong Kong could compete, but the latter is probably out of commission for a few decades, and the former is too small a talent pool.
With such resources, it is unimaginable that India would not be a legal powerhouse. A few hiccups, if sorted, can make growth in this sector unstoppable. Let me outline them herein.
- Improve English Education. Perhaps the number one reason why India became an outsourcing hub in the first place. But it needs a lot more strengthening. English needs to be considered a career-building language, not a culture threatening one. The state of AP has shown the way with its new policy requiring all schools and colleges to teach in the English medium, while retaining Telugu as a compulsory subject. It recognizes (as the first state to do so) the aspirations of Indians cutting across class, gender, religion and language.
- Improve Legal Education. It may sound cynical, but the main reason why even the thought of outsourcing to India arises is because our labour is both skilled and cheap. To paraphrase a certain inspector Singham, we do well because “humari zarooratein hain kum”. Indians have a cultural advantage in that they invest a lot more in education and comparably less in lifestyle – which naturally enables them to produce more lawyers. Reshaping the legal education system, to bring more focus on international law, laws of other countries and on arbitration will prepare our vakeels ready to practice in courts abroad too.
The spin-off of this is that it can also make us the law education hub of the world. With liberal visa policies for students (especially from Commonwealth countries, which have similar legal systems) and moderate fees compared to the West, this will be a good source of foreign exchange, and generate a lot of good karma.
- Improve Internet Connectivity. The second reason that beginning in the late 90s, India was the global preference. With 2G, 3G and then 4G, India’s internet penetration and speeds have climbed higher, till now over 800 million Indians are connected. If India is to speed up to 5G, it needs to invest in indigenous development of technology (given its justifiable suspicion of Chinese 5G), and start thinking of 6G and 7G.
Better connectivity will also enable build resilience against pandemic shocks and enable more work-from-home situations. It will also help Indian lawyers participate in arbitration and international law tribunals, as well as represent foreign clients in foreign courts without having to travel internationally.
- Let Foreign Lawyers Practise in India. Shocked? There will surely be howls of protest. But the logic of this is simple – any free trade deal in services that will allow our lawyers to take cases in other countries will require reciprocity. While there may be a trickle of lawyers from abroad appearing for the bade baap ke bigday betay (who can pay their fees), Indian lawyers with their high level of education and their comparably low fees can tap into a vast market abroad, whether in Africa, America or Australia, where people often go unrepresented because of high legal costs. That will truly help us be vishwa-vakeel, and bring in big remittances.
- Strengthen Contract Laws. Contracts in India are poorly governed, and if violated, the injured parties can barely exercise their contractual rights. Civil cases take forever. Genuinely strengthening contract law will not only improve investor confidence, but also strengthen the hands of Indian lawyers taking cases from abroad.
Companies are already investing in Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO), with the big three (TCS, Infosys and Wipro) already cornering a slice of the multi-billion dollar market. But several emerging fields, such as e-Arbitration, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Translation and Interpretation also promise big money, and where Indian techies’ experience and expertise will come in handy, alongside services like website building, search engine optimisation, digital marketing and social media, where India’s outsourcing strengths are well known.
Ultimately, the best openings for India to crack (and dominate) this market will be a free and fearless judiciary with transparent proceedings, rule of law that privileges no one, and contracts that can be enforced. With that, I rest my case.