In this interview, Mr. Thomas talks about his experience in the profession over the years. He also talks extensively about his internship program carried on during this lockdown while also elaborating about the difficulties faced during lockdown due to online court procedures and how their firm overcame them as a team.
Devanshi Masand: What motivated you to choose Law as a career and continue being in the field?
Manav Gecil Thomas: In the beginning, I had an inclination of being a pilot. Thereafter, I got sceptical and thereafter a lot of other options that crossed my mind. My father was a lawyer, so I thought it would be easier for me to pursue law. After I joined law college, I realized that I really liked participating in moot court competitions and that is when I realized that I want to argue before the court of law thus choosing litigation. And thereafter, it has been really well. I joined my dad’s firm immediately after I finished college. The experience of arguing different cases before different courts is something which keeps me interested in this profession. On a day-to-day basis, I argue different cases having a different set of facts before different courts and that is what keeps me motivated. Though it started as a random choice, I feel it has converted into the best decision that I have ever made.
Devanshi Masand: In your opinion, is it beneficial for students to pursue LLM immediately after their graduation or after a few years of experience in the field?
Manav Gecil Thomas: If you are a student who is interested in litigation, there is no need per se to complete your LLM. But, however, if you are a student who is looking to join a corporate law firm or wanting to enter the judiciary or the teaching profession, it is always good to have a Masters degree to your credit.
In litigation, LLM is not going to help you in any unique manner because there is nothing it has to provide for in litigation. But when it comes to the teaching profession, it really becomes essential because at times there is a qualification requirement for teaching. When it comes to the judiciary, having completed LLM helps in a better understanding of laws in a theoretical manner. I would say that if you are looking to do an LLM before litigation or while preparing for the judiciary, it is better to do it immediately after college.
But if you intend to join a corporate law firm and you are intending to complete your masters in a very prestigious college either in India or abroad, then it is better to take a break after college, work in different law firms, get experience as an advocate/corporate lawyer and then pursue your interest by choosing the right law college. So that when you come back after your LLM looking for a job in a corporate law firm, the firms will look at you as a different candidate having a previous experience and a masters degree as well. Many law students generally go for their masters immediately after college and when they are hired by any corporate law firm, their pay packages are exactly similar to the students who just graduated. So, in my opinion, it is better to take a break after college if you want to join a corporate firm.
Devanshi Masand: You joined your father’s firm right after college as the name partner. How has your experience been in that position for you? What challenges did you face during this pandemic as the name partner of Thomas George and Associates and how did you overcome them?
Manav Gecil Thomas: Joining my dad’s office was completely frowned upon by other lawyers. It is usually believed that parents tend to be lenient and very caring towards their children while working with them. So, I was told by many advocates that this was going to be a bad experience and would hamper my growth. But I noticed a difference from what everyone told me.
My dad, my senior gave me the freedom to take up cases from day one itself. I enrolled on Thursday and he gave me the oldest file of the office which was listed for final hearing on Monday before the High Court and told me to argue the entire case. So, as a law student who just graduated, final hearing before the High Court is something you would never dream of and no lawyer would actually give such an opportunity to a newbie even if the newbie is his child.
In the beginning, he used to stand behind me or sit next to me and he used to pull my gown and help me out in case I miss something. He continues to do it now also sometimes. This freedom that he granted me of appearing before the court all by myself, I don’t think any advocate would have given me. The position of name partner does not represent anything in our firm as the other partner is none other than my father. But definitely, after I joined, I have helped the firm grow bigger. We have opened associate branches of the firm in different parts of the country- Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, etc. So, this is something that I take to my credit. I have also brought some changes in certain intraoffice issues like filing procedure and other administrative changes.
During the pandemic, the difficulties that we faced were immense because in the pre-covid period we used to be work continuously from 8.30 in the morning till 10.30 in the evening and with the imposition of lockdown, everything just came to a standstill. I realized soon enough that we need to make effective utilization of our time. Our office was being renovated, so since our carpenters were stuck here and couldn’t go home, we finished the renovation and we helped our migrant workers by giving them shelter as their rental accommodations did not let them back home.
I also started a virtual internship program during the said period as I knew all colleges were shut and no firms were providing internships, so I thought of this internship program in order to help the students learn something during this lockdown. There have been a hundred students who interned with us since then and almost all of them have been really happy with the experience. We also conducted a Virtual National Moot Court Competition with all our interns as the participants in the month of May 2020. We had virtual memo rounds and the virtual moot court wherein we also awarded the winners. Though the awards were not highly-priced, I think the experience is something that the students and I cherish and took back home. We also had numerous filings and drafts on which the students work. So, I will say we definitely effectively utilised our time during this lockdown.
Devanshi Masand: How has the opening of new offices of your firm in different locations affected your firm? How do you maintain administrative control over them?
Manav Gecil Thomas: These firms that I opened in different places were in association with already existing advocates in those places. These are not branch offices where I have employed my staff. I had routed all our matters in these places to our associate advocates in these places. So, the point of contact remains me. When people have to talk to different people that’s where the confusion arises. So, what we do is, for every city I have a point of contact and I talk to him directly about all the cases and we help them in drafting and other matters. If the parties require us to argue the case, then we personally appear in those cities and present the case before the court ourselves.
Devanshi Masand: You are involved in a diverse area of practice- litigation and non-litigation. Which of them do you find the most appealing and why?
Manav Gecil Thomas: Among litigation and non-litigation, I would definitely find litigation more appealing because in litigation matters you alone draft the case and you get the opportunity to argue the matter before a court of law which is challenging as well as interesting at the same time. That is something which I have found interesting from day one. As a firm, we have to take up both litigation and non-litigation. But personally, my interest will always lie in interpreting the law, applying it to the facts, using a bundle of case laws and putting forth my argument. I have had a lot of people coming around asking me about my specialization.
My answer to such questions is litigation. The reason being, as a litigating lawyer, whatever field you specialize in, the basic rules of an injunction suit or the civil procedure code or criminal procedure only will apply. I do not want to specialize in any field of law. I would like to deal with different cases where different kinds of laws are applicable. In the short span of my career, we have had diverse civil cases which include family matters, land matters, injunction suits, consumer matters, corporate matters (NCLT), bank matters (DRT) where I have appeared before a number of courts and we have also dealt with criminal matters which include Anticipatory Bails, Bails, Negotiable Instrument Act cases and so on. When you take up such diverse cases and you appear before different courts you will come to know how different courts in different cities function. This way I get a lot to learn and I will not be dried up with knowledge in just one subject. Each law is definitely vast but you will have a broader horizon and a broader scope of interpretation when you take up such different kinds of cases. You will be surprised at the intersectionality between these fields. We have applied criminal case laws and principles as precedents while arguing civil cases.
Devanshi Masand: Students these days often have trouble these days deciding their field of speciality. Do you have some advice which can help them find their calling?
Manav Gecil Thomas: For those lawyers who would like to have an area of specialization, I would say when you enter the profession do not have your specialization on day one. You should take up different kinds of matters and then choose your specialization. So that you have tasted all the items in a buffet before settling on a biryani. You should explore everything and then finalize on one thing.
Devanshi Masand: Recently there has been a debate on whether the legal profession is a business or a service. What are your views on the issue?
Manav Gecil Thomas: Neither. It is a profession. If you think it is a business then the way you look at it is extremely different where you will just see whether you are going to get profits or not from a client. You are going to look at your clients only through a monetary perspective which is really bad for the client. You cannot have that in law. At the same time, law cannot be compared to the service industry.
I had this very bitter experience with some clients a while ago. We had given them legal advice for a query and then when we asked them to pay the fees, they said that, if you are providing a service you should have provided us with a rate card as is done in hotels and you should have told us about the charges prior to giving us the advice. That is when I realized that this profession is not a service. I cannot have a placard saying that this much amount will be charged for the first consultation. For instance, in case of a family matter, I cannot tell the client who is in an emotional turmoil to pay the fees before I even listen to him/her. Different lawyers, judges, and all our seniors always tell us that law is a noble profession. Nobody ever tells us that law is a noble service or a noble business. We are here to bring justice not only to the rich but also to the poor. Even if you see Senior Advocates lawyers like Ram Jethmalani who himself has said that only 10-15% of his clients are rich who pay him in lakhs or crores but the remaining % of clients are middle-class clients or poor clients who would not pay any fees at all. You cannot categorize this profession strictly as business or service. It is safer to say that it is a noble profession.
Devanshi Masand: You recently conducted a very extensive internship program and have undertaken hundreds of interns under your wing. How was your experience? Would you like to give some advice to law students who wish to intern with you or any other similar firm in the near future?
Manav Gecil Thomas: This is a very interesting question as to what are the prerequisites to join my firm as an intern. I would say none. You are not supposed to have any qualifications as an intern. The only thing I want my interns to have is the interest of learning, dedication, hard work, diligence and perseverance. Students who wish to intern to just get a certificate should not join my firm. There is also no requirement for you being a student from a national law school or a reputed law school or from my alma matter.
I have had interns from colleges like BMS Law College, Bangalore; ILS Law College, Pune; Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad; Jindal Law School, Sonipat; Amity University, etc. I had no expectations from my interns. I just want them to listen to what I say and come back with their opinions. I would correct them if they are wrong.
There were a number of times when students would come apologizing that they were really unhappy that they disappointed me to which I state that there is no need to apologize since you are students and still learning. All the interns that I have taken under my wing until today have been very efficient and have worked to their fullest capacity. If you speak to any of them today, they will tell you that this experience was something unique. Even if this was a virtual internship, they learnt something every day.
I have received such feedback from the students themselves which is what keeps me motivated to continue with this program. The internship program is still going on and I have my slots filled till February 2021.
Devanshi Masand: Students from different colleges have interned with you. Do you think the quality of a college has any effect on the efficiency of a student?
Manav Gecil Thomas: Quality wise college plays a role to some extent. But efficiency wise, if a student is interested, then, such external factors do not hamper their growth. Studying at a good college does make a difference. It helps you understand and interpret law properly before you apply it. But if you are hard-working and have an interest in learning you will become an exceptional lawyer irrespective of your college. We had interns who worked on a draft till 4.00 in the morning. It is that hard work and dedication which will take them forward in the years to come. If you have qualities like these, you do not need the brand name of a good college behind you to achieve success.
Devanshi Masand: You consistently press on the need for lawyers to be creative. But does it always work? Can you elaborate on that and maybe also offer some advice as to how young aspiring lawyers can make their way into the field implementing this principle?
Manav Gecil Thomas: Creativity is what differentiates you from others. While Mr. Harish Salve is arguing, it is his interpretation of law that makes his argument unique from the rest. You need to have that sense of creativity while understanding and preparing for a case. One important thing that we should keep in mind is that we should not bother about the results. It is not our duty to provide a 100% guarantee to the client that we will win the case. It is against our ethics to guarantee a win to your client. There are instances where your unique arguments are successful but the case is awarded in the favour of the other party. It should not disappoint you. Those arguments are the reason that you will be recognized in the courts of law. For instance, during the hearing of a case, the other side cited a case decided by the then AP High Court which was an unreported judgment. I presented an argument that non-reported judgments of the High Court will not be binding on the lower courts. This is something very different and people might even find this argument ridiculous. The judge himself found this very ridiculous and he said, are you serious that you are arguing on this? I said yes, I have case laws from the Bombay High Court and other High Courts to believe that this contention is correct. The judge agreed that this is something really unique and he shifted his focus from the facts of the case to this contention. It was because of this argument that the judge recognizes me even till today. Thereafter, whenever I entered his court, he used to call me near his bench and greet me. One unique argument helped me gain the respect of a judge at such a young age. In fact, even recently when I went to the court, he saw me from his car and called and greeted me and was asking me about my practice. There was a similar instance that happened in the High Court. In a case, interim attachment of pensionary benefits was made by the Trial Court by an interlocutory order. The suit was finally decreed in our favour and an appeal was filed challenging the suit and along with it, the Interlocutory Order attaching the pensionary benefits was challenged. I raised an argument that you should have challenged the Interlocutory Order within the limitation period. I had a lot of judgments only on the technical aspect of challenging an Interlocutory Order. This matter went before a number of benches of the Hon’ble High Court, because of the change in rosters. The other attorney had an experience of 8-9 years standing and she did not budge from her point. The judges said that the young man has a point madam, you need to reconsider your thought. All the judges remember me till date. So, creativity and uniqueness in your style of argument will always be beneficial to you and your client. To become creative, you need to comprehensively read and research about the case. You should always think about your cases no matter what you are doing. Ideas come to you if you are thinking about it.
Devanshi Masand: Having judged a number of competitions for various institutions recently, how would you say your experience has been? How would you compare it to the time when you were a law student?
Manav Gecil Thomas: I would have definitely preferred the competitions to be non-virtual. A lot of times students do not have their internet working and then they get really nervous. In these competitions, the participants are already nervous and if the internet connection is lost for a while, the judge does not understand what the participant is saying and they ask him/her to repeat. While re-answering, they lose their flow of thought. Suppose I had a good line for the first time, I might not have it again. Such glitches might give the participant stress and tension and affect his/her performance. Though these competitions have been amazing and have been conducted with a level of professionality, I would prefer physical competitions. It is easier to look through your papers than to scroll up the screen and check scanned documents. It is easier to give your documents to the bench and make sure they have the document that you are referring to. When you are sitting and making your submissions it really doesn’t give you the feel of competition. In physical competitions, other than client counselling, students are given a podium where they stand and make our submission. It helps maintain the decorum of the competition.
Devanshi Masand: With the global pandemic everything has gone online. How has your experience been with online court hearings, virtual conferences, competitions, etc? Do you think this is a peek into the future of the Indian Judiciary?
Manav Gecil Thomas: The courts can have better platforms. There are some courts having very good platforms. For instance, AP High Court is using the BlueJeans app whereas another NCLT, Hyderabad uses the Microsoft Teams app. These apps are really efficient and I think when they put in more money in building the infrastructure it will definitely help us to address the issues with ease and convenience. The experience overall has been great. At one point in time, I can sit at one place and argue 10 different cases in different courts at the same time. I do not need to travel anywhere which saves so much time.
I don’t think the virtual hearing will be an option after physical proceedings resume. Not everyone has access to technology. A lot of advocates and judges have difficulties in handling technology. For example, if you are a senior not familiar with the technology as the tech generation, there will be a lot of trouble connecting. We cannot have a system which will bring so many difficulties and inequalities among the large masses of the country. I don’t think the idea is practically possible. The court may consider the option only if both the parties are absolutely convenient with the format. Justice is for all.
Devanshi Masand: What way forward do you see for the Indian Legal field in the next 20 years with the intersectionality between Law and AI?
Manav Gecil Thomas: I believe AI will prove to be dangerous for a corporate lawyer. Corporate due diligence, work of LPO’s can be performed by AI. Litigating lawyers, however, will not be affected as much when compared to corporate lawyers I feel. The reason being the human brain cannot ever be substituted. As of date, I have a dictation software which is almost 95% efficient. But only what I dictate finally goes in the draft. The software does not listen to facts of the case and draft the case on its own. Even if there is such software in the future which will be able to do that there can be points in the facts which can be fatal to the case. Only a human being can decide on what facts to be retained and what to be omitted. Life definitely becomes simpler with search engines like SCC or Manupatra. Lawyers do not need to read all books to find a case. But advocates have to find and interpret the judgment. The search engine will show you the case but it will not tell you how to apply it in your case. Human supervision will always be necessary for AI. There a lot of movies where there is a clash between AI and humans. The only reason they clash is lack of supervision. You cannot have a world where there is no supervision of technology. AI can work as a tool or as an assistant to a lawyer. At the end of the day, AI will remain a tool in my hand and not me becoming a tool in its hand.
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