Paper on “Peel-Off” Law Firms in India

Professor Jayanth Krishnan
at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law has posted a paper titled Peel-Off
Lawyers: Legal Professionals in India’s Corporate Law Firm Sector
, which
studies the phenomenon of lawyers leaving big law firms to set up their own
practices. The paper is available on SSRN.
The abstract of the paper is as
This study is about hierarchy
within the legal profession – how it presents itself, how it is retained, and
how it is combated. The socio-legal literature on this subject is rich, with
many roots tracing back to Professor Marc Galanter’s famous early 1970s article
on the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots.’ Galanter’s piece and the work of those
influenced by him rightly suggest that resources – institutional, financial,
and demographic – contribute to whether lawyers are, and remain as, part of the
‘Haves.’ Yet, while resources of course greatly matter, as this study will
argue other forces are significant as well. One set, in particular, relates to
what the social-psychology literature has termed mobbing – a phenomenon that
contributes to the reinforcing of hierarchy through certain aggressive and
passive tactics that those with power use to consolidate their reigns and
hinder the upward mobility of the employees beneath them. In a legal
professions setting, the result can be an environment where ‘Have-Not’ lawyers
within an office are commonly left to feel insecure, powerless, and stuck in
the legal employment positions in which they find themselves.

To evaluate how resources and mobbing interact, this study returns to the place
from where Galanter’s original inspiration for the ‘Haves’ article came: India.
The results of a multi-year ethnography are presented on the Indian corporate
bar. Since India liberalized its economy in 1991, numerous Indian corporate law
firms have thrived, even post-2008. But often steep professional pyramids exist
within these firms – perpetuated by those with power exerting a combination of
resource-advantages and mobbing-techniques – that can leave lower-level lawyers
feeling excluded from this success. To combat this hierarchical status quo,
unhappy lawyers are increasingly peeling-off to start their own new law firm
enterprises. Peel-off lawyers are thus seeking to become the new ‘Haves.’
However, the goal for peel-off lawyers is not solely to earn higher incomes but
also to create environments that are more democratic, transparent, and humane.
As this study argues, such opportunities are now possible because of a more
liberal, globalized economy, and given the commitment to greater egalitarian
norms, this development is indeed welcome, especially as the next generation of
corporate lawyers emerges within India.

About the author

Umakanth Varottil

Umakanth Varottil is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He specializes in corporate law and governance, mergers and acquisitions and cross-border investments. Prior to his foray into academia, Umakanth was a partner at a pre-eminent law firm in India.

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