Signage is seen outside of the law firm Dentons in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Dentons on Monday said it is launching a combination with Indian law firm Link Legal, giving the global law firm a domestic foothold in India's large but historically isolated legal market.

The combination will add 130 lawyers in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad to Dentons' vast legal franchise, while allowing Link Legal to tap into Dentons' platform of more than 20,000 professionals in 80-plus countries.

Link Legal's clients include leading airline Air India, UK engineering group Doncasters and Singapore-based textile manufacturer Indorama Corp, according to its leaders. The firm also advises private equity groups and Indian start-ups.

Dentons said the deal marks the first time an international law firm has combined with a law firm in India. Link Legal will change its name to Dentons Link Legal. Dentons global chair Joe Andrew said the combination will launch "within the next couple of months."

A 1961 law prohibits non-Indian law firms from practicing in the country. But the firms said Dentons Link Legal will still be operated by Indian lawyers, who will maintain local control over billing rates and recruitment.

The combination is structured so that Link Legal "continues to be owned by the same people," its co-managing partner Nusrat Hassan said.

"We don’t see any regulatory hurdles," Hassan said.

To clients, Dentons appears as "one firm, but from a regulatory perspective, we’re always very separate," Andrew said.

In the 1990s, the Reserve Bank of India, the country's central bank, allowed three international firms -- White & Case, Ashurst and Chadbourne & Parke -- to open and operate what they called "liaison offices" to advise clients on transactional matters without representing them in courts.

But those offices were closed in 2009 by the Bombay High Court, which ruled that the 1961 law applied to both litigation and transactional matters.

In 2018, India's Supreme Court upheld that ruling with a caveat that foreign lawyers can practice in India on a "fly-in fly-out basis," allowing them to advise clients on international legal issues and on matters involving the laws of other countries.

"Dentons can do the international work, we can do the domestic work," said Atul Sharma, Link Legal's managing partner.

India is poised to surpass China as the world's most populous country next year, according to a United Nations report released in July. Economists at Morgan Stanley in August said India could emerge as Asia's strongest economy in 2022-2023 thanks to economic policy reforms, a young workforce and business investments.

Dentons has long employed a Swiss verein business structure, allowing its international branches to operate under a shared banner as largely separate legal entities. Profit sharing is limited but so is tax exposure across international jurisdictions.

U.S. courts have not always been receptive to Dentons' insistence that its different branches are separate. The U.S. International Trade Commission and Ohio's state courts have both ruled that Dentons improperly ignored client conflicts between its U.S. and Canadian branches in a patent case, leading to a $32 million legal malpractice verdict that the firm is still contesting.

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