The Struggles of a Young Independent Counsel in Delhi During the Time of COVID-19

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What Would Harvey Do?

The Suits life came to a halt and biggies like Spector are the only ones cashing in. COVID- 19 has halted the careers of many Mike Ross’s, who were quarantined in their houses long before they became advocates on the way to drug deals. In a not so #Netflix scenario, I too was a passionate law student and perhaps an even determined counsel before my career was brought to an untimely halt due to this Pandemic. In the fictional Tv show referred to above, Mr. Spector starts as a counsel in the office of the prosecutor (read litigating lawyer) but strangely enough, the batch of 2020 would see a very different side of the courts and young counsels like me shall remain the only bearing witnesses of an era which is now begone. So let me ask myself in a situation such, what would Harvey do? 

During my law school years, I had difficulty confining to those closed walls called classrooms. You would have generally found me in the library, sitting cross-legged in the far end, researching for a moot court competition or at our beloved gate, exchanging legal wits with passersby. I was not what you would call a conventional student but then again, the law was never a conventional field. My father has a humble law practice and my brother followed in his footsteps, I was the accidental advocate of our family; Royal Blood (as some of first-generation lawyer friends jokingly remarked), taking up a job in any XYZ law firm was beneath me.

My father ensured that I had the best possible mentors for my grooming as an advocate. Each Semester I would pick up a moot court competition and the subject of the moot would be my bread and butter for the subsequent months. My first Moot Court Competition was B. Krishna National Moot Court Competition on IPR Law and I had the privilege of being mentored by Advocate Vijay Pal Dalmia (Partner at Vaish Associates, Delhi). Being a comic book nerd and a movie fanatic, the field of IPR has always been of wide fascination to me and Dalmia Sir may not remember now but working under him at Vaish Associates made me proficient in the field of IPR in my very first year of law school. There was no going back after tasting blood. I went on and participated in 8 National/International Moot Court Competitions and I have been blessed to be groomed by the best advocates in the State of Delhi.

During my final year of law school, I was caught up in the same dilemma as any other law student, do I aim for my own practice or do I aim for a partner in XYZ law firm? Well, it is my romanticism urging me to state it this way, but three wise men guided my journey in this profession. My first encounter was with Sr. Adv. Sudhir Nanderjog. Sir was my father’s senior in law school and he had invited us over to his residence on my father’s request. There he was, kinglike and he had my admiration within an attosecond (actual unit of time). I was not a naïve law student, rather I was an eager final year law student with a nonchalant but it was the day I realized that being humble is the first step towards becoming a great advocate. Sir interacted with me patiently and shared instances from his life, not very different from my own. When a great man discloses his familiarity with you, you are m6+inclined to aspire to be great like him.

I still remember our journey back from his place, my cheeks were flushed with blood and I had adrenaline being pumped in my blood. You may find it hilarious but I was so pumped that I was ready to be going through briefs that very minute, however, remember: Law Students are difficult to be around. It was still a Catch-22 situation, #Law Firms aren’t that bad too right? (Especially it’s a popular route). So I decided that I would rather make an informed decision and do my research further before taking my first steps.

The Second Act comprises of my interaction with perhaps one of the coolest advocates you would ever come across, Adv. Vijay Sondhi, Partner at Luthra & Luthra Law offices. Mr. Sondhi agreed to spare his valuable time at my father’s request and I was asked to see him at the Luthra & Luthra Law Delhi Office ( Fun Fact: it is located at one of the top ten most expensive office places in the world, according to an article published in 2017). This day turned up to be upsetting in a lot of ways, firstly because I realized that I can never be as cool as an Advocate as Mr. Sondhi. I was greeted by a very pretty receptionist who escorted me directly to Mr. Sondhi’s Office. On my way to his office, I saw a glimpse of the law firm life, and honestly, I couldn’t tell anyone apart. Mr. Sondhi greeted me with warmth and it took me a minute to get my focus on him. His office was covered in memorabilia and represented a man who has seen the world and done it all. We spoke over two cups of black coffee and shared our interest in fitness. He told me about his passion for biking and how he started as a young counsel. The key giveaway of the interaction which lasted for almost an hour and a half was that the lawyer breed is one which is best, not domesticated, a thing that law firms do to you. You get so used to hearing the ring master’s instructions that you lose your voice and thoughts. You become slaves to the corporate machinery and the chances are slim that you will make your way to the top gear. He strongly advised me to work under a litigating lawyer for at least 5 years before coming to any conclusion as to my prospects in the profession.   I walked out with pride from that office, certain with my decision and a never-ending fan following for Mr. Sondhi. (I can imagine him on a yacht on his way to his private island during this pandemic).

Mr. Sondhi is also the driving force behind the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF) and during our interaction, he estimated a 7 year time period for the law firm culture to enter into India. Think about law firms as a brand like 24/7 and Individual practicing advocates as your local janta ration stores. This thought kept lingering in my head but the third act which will be discussed in the subsequent paragraphs made all the difference.

The Third Act starts with me driving to Shahjahan Road, Delhi to the Office of the Additional Solicitor General of India, Sr. Adv. Sanjay Jain. It was a day before my final year internship started under him and I was asked to drop a CV at the office. For those of you who are unaware, Shahajahan Road is a very affluent locality in Delhi and the houses there are given only to top-ranking officers of the State. I was greeted by properly trained office staff and I was led on to a small but organized office space adjacent to the main housing complex. In the next few months, I worked under Sir and his extraordinary pupils. Mr. Jain had a grasp on the functioning of the State, and it is only after opinions from his office, various state policies were framed. It is somewhere between the immaculate filing system and his oratory skills, I fell in love with law. More determined than ever, it is in July that year I got enrolled at the bar, and on that very day, I had made my first appearance as an Advocate before the Hon’ble National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. My dilemma was put to rest, seven years (adhering to Mr. Sondhi’s Estimation in 2017) was a decent period to establish an Independent practice and compete with the so-called Branded law firms but who had calculated a pandemic in the equation?

I planned out a career map and wanted to dedicate my initial years under the tutelage of someone who himself started from the very bottom and reached the peaks of the profession. Words fail me, as I am always at their loss when I have to speak about My Guru, My Mentor Sr. Adv. Rakesh Tiku Sir. He has been the guiding pillar on which my legal career has its foundation and a part of him is always with me each time I have argued before the Hon’ble Courts. From day one, Sir gave me the position as an Advocate in his office, unlike the otherwise sad scenario which exists in the legal fraternity. He always preached hard work and gave it importance over any other gimmick which lawyers use in the courts. I have seen him relentlessly prepare for arguments and he is a hard taskmaster when it comes to research and proper preparation. In a fond memory that I have from his office, Sir had an urgent matter the next day and we were asked to come to the office on a non-working day. After a heavy lunch (which is an office perk at Sir’s office), Sir sat down with us and took time to explain the legal proposition involved in the case and went back to Law 101 and made us revise the basics we confidently neglected during law school. Sir has mentored hundreds of young advocates like me and all of them are celebrated in the profession (most now hold judicial positions). The other end of my mentorship came from Adv. Aruna Tiku Ma’am. She was the topper of the judicial examination of her batch and has served in a judicial position in the initial years of her career. She is actively involved in the Delhi High Court Bar Association and is the driving force behind the proper functioning of the Bar and the Bench. Her briefs demanded perfection and her command over the law was admirable. My mentors gave me space in their office and provided me a window in the profession. After two years of working under Sir and Ma’am, I started my independent practice with their blessings.

I would also take this moment to state that a lot of my peers were majorly underpaid as advocates by their seniors, a practice which was deeply discouraged by sir. I was handsomely paid as a junior and if you are an advocate with juniors working under you, I would request you not to degrade lawyers to the point that they lose faith in the profession.

During my quick stint before this pandemic, I partnered with an all service law firm by the name Jural Solutions Advocates & Solicitors which has been functioning since 2011. I became retainer counsel for various automobile retailers including Hyundai, Renault, and Ford (As this is an informative article, the way to bag retainership is to approach the clients directly or through links and work out an agreement for undertaking their litigation on retainer. I would leave this as a topic for another article). I undertook civil and criminal recovery matters, matrimonial disputes, consumer matters, and matters pertaining to writ jurisdiction. Notably, I was featured in the News and Legal platforms like Bar and Bench for filing a PIL for transgender rights under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in the light of the Supreme Court Judgement of the NALSA Case, Writ Petition challenging the illegal posting of Public Prosecutors in the Police Academy and Writ Petition challenging the lack of a mechanism for regulating Phat-Phat Sewa and Maxi Cab operators in Delhi. I had also bagged an acceptance from Trinity, UCD, Durham, Edinburgh, and Queens, London; I was eagerly looking forward to my master’s degree in the fall of 2020. Also, I had almost started making even with my handsome salary when in March 2020, we were forced into a Nationwide #Lockdown.

Current Scenario for a Young Independent Counsel

  1.  The courts are on a break for more than two months now and the chances of normalization look slim in the very future.
  2.  The clients have grown comfortable avoiding litigation and Legal expenses are the last thing anyone wants to shed off.
  3. The new batches would now be more inclined towards the law firm culture because they would have no court experience for the foreseeable future (or rather they would be advised against it)
  4.  This would accelerate the law firm culture and start killing independent practice.
  5.  The Advocates who have been practicing for 10-15 years will start structuring their offices into brands and eventually merge with other law offices to compete.
  6.  The savings will eventually cash out for young counsels and eventually be forced to join corporate machinery.
  7.  Those already engaged in law firms and corporate firms will have an edge which will make the profession a rat race.
  8.  And why aren’t we talking about the daily wager lawyers, the challan court usuals? Unfit in both worlds? How long do you think their savings would last?    

Suggestions/ Conclusion/ What Would Harvey Do?

It is a fantasy to believe that courts will return to normal functioning. The Districts courts in Delhi lack the infrastructure to accommodate a pandemic friendly complex. If normalcy isn’t attained in the foreseeable future, wouldn’t urgency arise in every matter? The virtual court system is flawed, and it can only serve well as a temporary solution. The stipend being provided by the bar counsel is only for needy lawyers and privileged lawyers like us are not entitled to any relief from our bar counsel or the associations. The Corona Pandemic cannot be eradicated until there is a cure, a vaccine can only help flatten the curve, but the virus would still exist. Each appearance can turn out to be lethal for us advocates regardless of the precautions we take.

The art of advocacy requires presence at all places at all times, is the state equipped to handle free movement as it was before pandemic? The least the state can do is provide sanitized meeting space for clients for young counsels like us where the advocate and client can meet without any fear of the virus. After which the advocate can safely proceed to the courts and represent the client in the courtrooms, the judges be directed to pass detailed orders of the proceedings for the client’s satisfaction/ transparency (entry of client not to be allowed in the courtroom). It is also suggested that the post of advocates be increased in State Panels and PSU’s with upper age limit fixed. This would ensure that young capable advocates have a sustainable monthly income in the initial years of their practice. It is also a long-standing recommendation that litigation experience be counted separately and the bar license is renewed periodically based on actual appearances. Lastly, the present times require amendment in the Advocates Act, so that young counsels who aspire to start their independent practice be allowed to advertise in order to ensure that this noble profession is not monopolized during this pandemic. 

So you ask me what would Harvey do in a situation like this? Harvey Spector was a corporate sell who left his career in prosecution to join a law firm. Don’t be like Harvey. This is real life. I would give you the same advice my mentor gave me if you are serious about litigation and being an advocate: open up a bare act and study. I mean webinars and all are great but sheer hard work is irreplaceable and as to the pandemic, I strongly urge the Bar Council of India to take in my recommendations and bring in reforms for young litigating lawyers.

 STAY HOME, STAY SAFE


This Article is written by: Mr. Gaurav Kohli, Partner, Jural Solutions Advocates & Solicitors.


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