The very purpose behind setting up the National Law Universities was to improve the standard of the Bar. The Bar is not what you might think it is – though lawyers are known to be loyal patrons – it is the collective body of lawyers, especially litigating lawyers. It is a sad fact, that not everyone considers the bar to be their first choice but for those who do, they are endowed with the best gift of the profession- the power to wear a robe, a clear-cut indication you are a learned doctor of law.
What does a Litigating Lawyer Do?
Originally in England, the concept of the legal profession was divided into two parts. When a case would arise, the drafting of the documents and basic legal advice would be given by a Solicitor. When the case had to go to trial, the solicitor would brief a barrister, who would argue the case before the court. The Indian legal system does not strictly adhere to this dichotomy but rather bases itself more on the Scottish concept of an advocate, who does both drafting as well as arguing. As a litigating lawyer, you hear out the case, draft it for the client and you fight the case in a tribunal or court by yourself or while you are assisted by a team.
In addition you may be required to do a gamut of ancillary legal work as well, that includes giving legal advice on matters which come up periodically, advising the client in both business and family requirements, preparing legal proforma required by him in various departments of the government, advising your client in taxation matters and having to be the 3 am call for times when he/she has run into a wrangle.
What are the kinds of litigating lawyers and whether these lawyers end up specializing in certain areas?
The next-door lawyer is called a General Practitioner. He is similar to an M.B.B.S doctor who takes care of your general health. In the case of the General Practitioner, he/she will deal with a wide variety of legal problems, as and when they arise. They handle most of your legal cases from all subject areas.
Law is a very fast field and there are various branches of law. However, there is a clear-cut division between Civil law and Criminal law. Lawyers mostly identify themselves as practicing one of these. A Civil lawyer looks after your corporate, commercial and day-to-day matters, whereas a Criminal lawyer tries to ensure to the best of his/her abilities that you do not end up in jail for a crime that you might not have intentionally committed.
Of late, there is an increased move towards specialization with the advent of novel areas of law. Therefore, there is a breed of lawyers dealing with matters related to tax, intellectual property, arbitration and constitutional law. Specialization can also be specific to a forum or a level. For example, X is a lawyer who only appears before the Supreme Court or Y only appears before the Central Administrative Tribunal or Z only handles original suits or A specializes in filing Writ Petitions before the High Court.
What is my workplace going to be like?
Workplaces in litigation are usually three-fold. First, territorially wherein a certain X only appears before the Courts in West Bengal. Barring the Supreme Court and the Delhi and Bombay High Court, most Bars usually draw their members from their states and local areas. Clientele is a function of a strong network and starting out a practice from a place you belong to, gives you a fair amount of advantage.
Secondly, forum wise. At this stage it would be pertinent to understand the court structure in the country. Most of the litigation in India starts with small local courts. These courts/forums are called “original” courts or forums. In these local courts, the atmosphere is not the most professional one that you shall come across, but it is always advisable to begin your practice here, as it goes a long way in honing and shaping your basics. Mastery in these courts has rich dividend payouts throughout the journey of your professional career. Next come the appellate courts. These are usually senior courts, having wide territory under their jurisdiction. For example, the High Courts and the Supreme Court (or Apex Court, as it is sometimes called). The atmosphere here is far more professional and there is a better sense of delivery and arguments in these courts.
It may also happen that you may become a practicing lawyer, even without having appeared before any courts but before certain departments. For example, if you are an IT lawyer, you will be appearing before the IT Cell. If you are a Tax lawyer, you shall be frequently appearing before the Income Tax Tribunal. The newer tribunals usually tend to have better infrastructure and a far more specialized outlook.
This is your workplace in the morning. In the evening, you shall be meeting clients and preparing cases. This office is called a Chamber. Most lawyers start by joining an established chamber and over time, leave the chamber to establish their own. Chambers offer a wide variety and would depend on a wide variety of factors.
What is the level of Compensation one can expect?
The cardinal rule of litigating your way is by believing that in the beginning, there will be truckloads of work and barely any money. Midway through this journey, there will be lots of money, accompanied with significant amount of work. And towards the last leg, there will be hardly any work but insane amount of money. Although this maxim may be judiciously debated (no pun intended), it is commonplace to find that more experienced lawyers tend to earn better than the ones who have just started shop. Your compensation is divided on a variety of factors – your experience, court craft (the ability to handle a difficult court) your knowledge of the law, actual and perceived competence and most importantly, luck. The start for litigators seems far more modest than their law firm peers but there is no limit to what they might earn in the future. Some of them are the highest tax payers in the country, giving equal competition to industry captains and Bollywood lasses.
What are the non-monetary benefits in the Profession?
For all the critical hate received for being pan-chewing oafs, vampires with poor fashion taste whose only office essentials are a black umbrella and a trunk labelled “advocate”, this profession is highly rewarding, in terms of respect and recognition. For a layman not from the profession, the poster boys of the legal profession are litigating lawyers like Palkhiwala, Nariman, Salve, Dorabjee and Jethmalani. Courts are a difficult but compulsory experience for all people and you as the key in your circle begin to enjoy much respect for them. Lawyers are defenders of rights and fight prolonged battles for clients with religious zeal. It is for this reason that this profession, besides medicine, is so respected. And a litigating lawyer alone gets the advantage of being called a Vakil Sahib.
What are the milestones in this profession?
Fresh off the boat from law school, you usually tend to join the chamber an established lawyer. The lawyer under whom you work with is called your senior and you are his/her junior. The selection of a senior must be a very intelligent and diligent process. Your pedigree and learning of basics is largely dependent on which chamber you select because it is here where you shall learn the ropes of the trade. Over time your fledging practice becomes flourishing and you open your chamber, gratefully leaving your senior’s chamber. This is a great moment in your life and in the profession, this is called becoming independent. Over time, your chamber grows and to manage your affairs, you hire juniors, secretaries, court clerks and support staff.
After at least a decade into the profession, when and if you are perceived to be an established and learned figure at the court, especially the High or the Supreme Court, the Court may designate you as a Senior Advocate. Senior Advocates enjoy eminence in the State, if not the national level and your name is usually considered by all clients in the allocation of important cases in the court /tribunal you frequent. This is the tipping point of your career and it is not unusual to see tax returns of seniors stepping into crores. You gain prestige in court and you are considered to have arrived in the profession.
There are two important career decisions a lawyer makes irrespective of becoming a senior or not. The first is whether they want to migrate or extend their practice to the Supreme Court at Delhi. This is a difficult, expensive and arduous decision but if it works and you hit it off, you become a national figure. Even if you do not get national eminence, your bank manager treats you no short of a seven star celebrity for the eight figure deposits in your bank accounts.
The second decision that you have got to make is that if you wish to give up arguing and instead listen to arguments by becoming a judge and deliberating on matters that come before you. An established lawyer is considered by the Court for the position of becoming a judge and he/she is elevated from the Bar to the Bench. Direct elevations happen to the High Court and Supreme Court at an average of twenty year’s practice. Most judges debut at the High Court and the journey can culminate into becoming the Chief Justice of India. You are appointed directly by the President of India and enjoy eminence and respect every day as much or more than even a IAS officer.
The Judiciary is the custodian of public trust in the country and for all its shortcomings, the Higher Indian Judiciary is recognized to be one of the most powerful, activist and respected in the world. Alternatively, if you do not wish to surrender the gift of your baritone and are slightly politically savvy, you can be considered for the posts of Attorney and Solicitor General of India, their Assistant and Additional variants and at the level of the State the Advocate General.
Always remember: if you are looking to become the Chief Justice of India or the country’s next Attorney General, you can only do it through the route of a litigating lawyer.
Are Courts a safe place for women?
Yes. Usually, the High Courts and the Supreme Court have a better work environment, which does not mean that women do not practice in Civil and lower courts. It is true that the profession was long dominated by men but gender equality has made significant steps. Personages like Indu Malhotra, Gyan Sudha Mishra , Nalini Chidambaram and Indira Jaisingh have become global figures.
Do I have it in me to become a litigator?
You must have often imagined a lawyer arguing and good oratory and communications skills are extremely important. But the most important skill for a practicing lawyer is listening. You should always have the gifts of listening to your client, appreciating your adversaries’ argument, in order to better counter it, and grasp the essence of the judge’s question. Reading happens in tones and if you have an eye for the details, presence of mind, ability to think on your feet and the gift of the pen as much as the gab, welcome, the courts await your arrival!