Pro Bono and Corporate Legal Sector in India

57 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2013

Date Written: December 11, 2012


By undertaking a qualitative empirical research on the pro bono practices of the top tier corporate law firms in India, this paper seeks to fill up an important informational vacuum about pro bono culture among the elite law firms of India. The primary issues that this research inquires into are: the kind of pro bono work undertaken by law firms in India; their understanding of the term pro bono; interaction of indigenous elements with global trends with respect to the understanding and practice of pro bono; factors influencing, whether positively or negatively, pro bono culture among Indian corporate law firms; and briefly, linkage between the notions of pro bono, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and public interest.

The corporate legal sector in India is growing at a spectacular pace in terms of size, reach, areas of expertise and the revenue generated. Within the last couple of decades, it has emerged as one of the most important constituents of legal profession in India and is also increasingly making its presence felt globally. Due to the recent origins of this development and the paucity of studies relating to it, there is a great deal of curiosity about the functioning of various aspects of corporate legal sector in India. One of such important aspects is the extent and kind of engagement of Indian law firms with pro bono activities. Owing to a wide range of rationales, pro bono work, especially in the U.S. and U.K. has become an important part of the overall corporate law firm culture. It has become, in Scott Cummings’ terms, "institutionalized." The top tier corporate law firms in India, which now share business spheres with a number of international law firms, collaborating or competing with them over business opportunities and human resources, couldn’t be expected to remain immune to the practices and ideologies predominant among their foreign counterparts. Since the institutionalization of pro bono practice is most visible among the law firms in the U.S., this paper makes frequent references to the trends and practices adopted by American law firms.

This paper recognizes the importance of the forces of globalization on the culture of the corporate sector generally and on the pro bono practices of the corporate law firms in India particularly. With respect to the latter phenomenon, the effect of globalization of knowledge and practices is particularly manifest in a gradual move towards institutionalization of pro bono as observed among most of the top tier law firms in India, as well as in the recent emergence of matchmaking organizations (both domestic as well as foreign) that seek to connect the legal practitioners with those in need of legal advice, such as social entrepreneurs, public interest non-profit organizations etc. The paper puts forth that the external notion of formal pro bono is not received in vacuum among the law firms of India. Owing to the contextual specificity of Indian public interest law and litigation, predominantly transaction-based nature of work of most top tier law firms in the country, and traditionally embedded beliefs, practices, and cultural values relating to the notion of "doing good," the currently evolving understanding and practice of pro bono is acquiring a distinctive shape in the country.

It needs to be clarified in the beginning itself that the use of the term "pro bono" is a fairly recent development in India. The current use and understanding of the term is considerably amorphous and overlaps with other socially driven initiatives like CSR. Beliefs such as "giving back" and "doing good" emerge as the common elements that fundamentally underlie these concepts and impart very broad definitional parameters to them. Unlike the case of the U.S. or the E.U., initiatives like pro bono and CSR are not understood as having clearly distinct meanings and spheres of operation in India.

The chapter is divided as follows: Section 2 describes the research methodology used for this study. Section 3 maps out different elements constituting public interest law (PIL) in India, factors influencing its development, and the relationship between pro bono and PIL in the country. Section 4 reports the results of a qualitative study conducted on the engagement of Indian law firms with pro bono activities, primarily falling under the following three broad categories: litigation based, transaction based and non-transaction based. Legal advice on transactional matters is seen to be the most predominant form of pro bono undertaken by Indian law firms, and thus is dealt with in detail. This section also identifies various factors encouraging/discouraging Indian firms from undertaking pro bono work. Section 5 concludes the paper.

Suggested Citation

Gupta, Arpita, Pro Bono and Corporate Legal Sector in India (December 11, 2012). HLS Program on the Legal Profession Research Paper No. 2013-4. Available at SSRN: or

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