India: An Emerging Economic Powerhouse and the Need for In-House Counsel

With sustained economic growth above 7 percent and an exploding start-up culture, the Indian economy is booming. And thanks to the ongoing economic liberalization brought about by the Modi government, it’s never been more accessible for foreign companies. But challenges remain for international corporations looking to establish or expand their presence on the subcontinent. Hiring the proper in-house counsel can be the difference between steering through the complexities of the Indian legal landscape and getting caught up in them.

The Necessary Legal Leadership

In some more traditional business contexts, in-house lawyers play a support role, often isolated from other departments. In Indian companies today, the general counsel is a central part of the leadership, often touching every area of a business. For many multinational corporations (MNCs) operating in India, the general counsel is their first legal hire. GCs often take on a wide range of responsibilities, including business contract management, litigation, board advising, crisis management, ethics and compliance.

The range of growth industries in India attracting lawyers and MNCs continues to widen. The country is becoming a hub of research and development, increasing the need for lawyers specializing in intellectual property rights. The health care, pharmaceuticals, and life sciences industries in particular are seeking more and more legal talent.

India’s complex laws and regulations can be sources of both frustration and opportunity for every sector and in every area of a business. Beyond just knowledge, skilled GCs are especially important for MNCs entering or expanding in India; they can be the difference between a reactive company culture and a proactive one.

Hiring the Right Candidates

Keeping this cultural role in mind is an essential part of hiring successful candidates for both general counsel and in-house legal staff at lower levels. Understandably, many MNCs look to hire Indian attorneys, given that successfully navigating the Indian legal landscape requires significant experience in India. Foreign-qualified candidates are not as sought-after, though lawyers with experience working in a foreign company or studying or working abroad are highly valued.

However, MNCs are often unaware of the training and experience differences in the development of Indian lawyers. While Indian lawyers often have excellent work experience, they are trained with a focus on gaining technical and operational skills rather than developing soft skills more often found in U.S. attorneys. This means that MNCs entering India often have to redefine the connection between experience level and salary. For example, companies recruiting for a position in the United States or Europe might require a lawyer with five years’ experience, but the mix of soft and hard skills they assume comes with that level of experience doesn’t exist in the same way in India. Companies hiring for the same position in India would have to look at more senior candidates, leading to higher salary costs.

MNCs in India also commonly seek lawyers who have experience working in a matrix organizational structure, and place a particular focus on female lawyers across all industries to boost in-house diversity.

Retaining Talent

For Indian companies, keeping talented corporate counsel from looking elsewhere means incentives such as bonuses and benefits as well as providing clear career development paths. MNCs can leverage their global reach to attract top Indian legal talent. Candidates in India appreciate the significance of the Indian market, but often wish to broaden their experience, especially in roles with exposure to Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern markets. As a result, positions with the option for internal temporary transfers to jurisdictions outside India are highly desired.

Companies in India have come to recognize the significance of the in-house counsel role and the value it adds to their operations. As the economy continues to evolve, the demand for more highly qualified legal talent will increase and multinational corporations will need to go the extra mile to retain talent.

Making It in India

There is tremendous opportunity for corporations eyeing India as a next move. But the cultural, economic, and legal differences between India and many Western countries necessitate serious consideration of how businesses must adapt to make it work. Hiring the right in-house counsel to navigate the new territory is essential, and MNCs must take that responsibility seriously in order to prosper.

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Pooja MahbubaniPooja Mahbubani is a Consultant in our Hong Kong office, where she executes mid-level to general counsel retained search assignments for a diverse client base throughout the India and South Asia.

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