Daniel Sharma, Partner at DLA Piper

In recent years two international business developments have been well-documented: rising foreign investment in India; and the increasing prominence of Indian business abroad. As both trends are likely to continue, what are the implications for business advisors such as lawyers?

Brussels Legal spoke with Daniel Sharma, a German-qualified Indo-European lawyer. Mr. Sharma joined Beiten Burkhardt's Brussels office a few years ago to help develop the firm's EU-India practice. He was then partner with Heuking Kühn Lüer Wojtek and based in Brussels and Frankfurt.  Today, he is partner in the Litigation and Arbitration team in the Brussels and Frankfurt offices at DLA Piper.  We started by discussing Mr. Sharma's move to Beiten Burkhardt and then asked about his insights into this particular type of practice development.

BL: What is your professional background?

DS: I am a German-qualified lawyer. I studied law in Germany and the UK, completing my postgraduate studies in international competition law and a PhD in European law. I have also trained as a mediator.

I undertook my referendariat with Bruckhaus in Germany and from 2001 until I worked for Clifford Chance in the firm's Frankfurt and Brussels offices. I then switched to Beiten Burkhardt, practising in its Brussels office.

BL: Why did you move to Beiten Burkhardt?

DS: One of the main reasons I moved to Beiten Burkhardt's Brussels office was that, while I had the opportunity to identify and develop ideas for new products as a senior associate at Clifford Chance, it was difficult to obtain the responsibility for their implementation.

I have always been interested in the entrepreneurial part of the legal profession. So I was very interested when Beiten Burkhardt offered me the opportunity to join its expanding Brussels office to work in the areas of EU competition and corporate law as well as international dispute resolution and - most importantly - to actively participate in the development of an India team.

Beiten Burkhardt is a large, independent law firm with a number of international offices.From its origins in Germany the firm has since spread into a number of other jurisdictions. It has always been very active in relation to the emerging markets. For instance, the firm has three offices in China, and was among the first international firms with a strong presence in Eastern Europe. The firm's interest in India is therefore a logical consequence of its overall business strategy.

The firm operates without the restrictions of excessive administration and in light of the potential opportunities I decided to move on.

BL: And over the course of the past year how has the India practice developed so far? What has the work involved?

DS: I have the role of the firm's India Coordinator and so work with other team members for Indian clients who are investing in Europe, as well as for European and US clients investing in India. Of course, as the India-related business has grown I have found myself practising less EU competition work.

The most important tool for developing relationships with potential Indian clients is creating credibility. They want to be sure about the skills of any potential legal advisor before retaining a law firm. Likewise, we have had to show our European clients that we are well aware of the local Indian conditions for investments.

I spend a substantial amount of time in India together with other team members in order to gain market intelligence and meet key personnel of large enterprises. Making contacts in India is very different from the kind of networking to which clients are used in Europe. It is important to find and identify the best fora and contacts for your client's needs. How to do that is certainly a learning process, which we are constantly undergoing and which has lead to the experience we can now enjoy.

The work has also involved attending and speaking at conferences, as well as publishing books and articles on the European-Indian business and legal relationships.

BL: Has your background helped in the development of the India practice?

DS: Most of the Indian work we do relates to corporate and commercial law and, as a logical consequence of the increase in India's international business activities, cross-border dispute settlement is becoming an increasingly important feature. These are all areas I have been active in since the start of my career and have been able to build upon now.

While clients appreciate this professional experience, they also value cultural awareness. With my father being Indian and my mother German, my Indo-European family background is very helpful in that respect. Various cultural issues can play a major role in all types of cross-border activity with India. To give you some examples, the way of negotiating agreements may be very different between European and Indian companies. While the Indian partners often do not understand the 'time pressure' exerted by the European partners, Europeans frequently believe that they are 'losing time' in such negotiations. Likewise, the management cultures are rather different, which becomes particularly important in joint ventures between European and Indian companies.

My background also helps to deal with other non-legal requirements. For instance, there are booming industries, such as the automotive, real estate, consumer goods or telecoms sectors, which, apart from the different legal frameworks for foreign direct investments, all have their particular features one has to take into account. This relates especially to the political environment, which must be understood for any successful investment. Obviously, infrastructure, airline industry or defence projects, all of which will become interesting areas for foreign investors in the future, are particularly complicated. In view of these issues, it is essential that we manage the different expectations from the very beginning in order to ensure a successful outcome to any transaction.

I have also taken the opportunity to study important parts of Indian commercial law, mainly in relation to joint ventures, M&A, intellectual property and project finance. Clients appreciate my civil law background and my legal studies in the UK as I am able to explain the differences between their home jurisdictions and Indian law. As far as I can see there are only a few European lawyers with this experience and theoretical background. So I feel that our practice has a competitive advantage here.

BL: Are there other aspects of the India practice that you find attractive?

DS: Yes, more generally I especially like the opportunity to contribute to the development of Indo-European relations. For instance, I am actively participating in the Europe India Chamber of Commerce as the Co-Head of the Legal and Corporate Committee. I also do other pro bono work as the Vice-President of the Indo-German Lawyers Association.

These important projects allow their members to build networks and enhance the mutual understanding of European and Indian businesses and the respective legal communities.

BL: In your opinion how big are the opportunities for foreign law firms and lawyers in India?

DS: There are huge opportunities for international business and legal advisors. These relate to both outbound and inbound business. European and US companies have been active in India for quite a while, and their regular counsel continue to accompany them in their India ventures.

For the time being, however, the very strict and protective Indian professional rules do not allow foreign lawyers to advise on Indian law. For this reason we always cooperate with leading Indian partner law firms when it comes to advising on Indian law.

I am confident that some of these restrictions will soon be lifted. And we also know that legal services are part of the current negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement between the EU and India.

In addition to advising non-Indian clients investing in India, we increasingly act on behalf of Indian clients outside India: India has a population of more than a billion, and while there is still terrible poverty in the country, the number of internationally active Indian companies continues to increase. These companies have understood that they require qualified legal advice for their ventures abroad.

BL: How have you found working the other way - with Indian clients seeking advice about doing business in Europe?

DS: Generally I would say that Indian clients are as demanding as any other internationally active clients. One difference is perhaps that they are more open than others to making creative or even unorthodox decisions. This makes advising them even more challenging and interesting. In fact, dealing with those challenges is one of the main reasons why I enjoy developing our India practice.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.