Interview with Aman Saxena, Advocate, Chhattisgarh High Court

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Mr. Aman Saxena is a law graduate from National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He has recently started working as a lawyer. He is an Advocate practicing before the Chhattisgarh High Court. He has previously worked as a Legal Associate at Luthra & Luthra in their insolvency team, Delhi, and as an Executive Assistant to former Member of Parliament and Union Minister Mr. Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Here are the excerpts from the conversation we had with Mr. Aman.

Akanksha: In the past law was considered a secondary career option. But now, times have changed and more and more students voluntarily opt for the law as a career. What motivated you to choose law as your career? Please share your experience.

Aman: My decision to choose law was made in bits and pieces over the years that I was growing up. I was unbearably argumentative as a kid. Unlike kids my age, I was relentless about my point of view. It irritated my friends and parents alike. I lament that there are no two sides to this story. It was mentioned jocularly that Aman, you should be a lawyer. Over time, to my parent’s chagrin, I took the suggestion very seriously.

I was a bright kid in school in the traditional sense of the word as I topped my class throughout. Naturally, I was betrothed to the idea to crack JEE and make my parents proud. Although, when I was about 15, I expressed my desire to my parents to pursue law instead and it didn’t bode well. There was an impasse and a three-day hunger strike satyagraha which would have made even Gandhiji proud. My father ultimately caved in and took me to meet Mr. Viveka Tankha, one of the foremost senior advocates from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh region, who was also ASG at the Supreme Court at the time. Mr. Tankha had a chat with me and assured me of my choice to pursue law.

Interestingly, I met Mr. Tankha again in Bhopal after 8 years. It was in a completely different setting. I was assistant to Mr. Jyotiraditya Scindia and it was the counting day for the legislative assembly and we were all together in Mr. Kamal Nath’s office at AICC. I was certain he wouldn’t recognize me. But after the end of a roller coaster of a day, I went up to him and introduced myself as the confused boy who’d met him years ago to seek clarity on pursuing law. He asked me, “So Aman, tell me did you end up doing law or not?”. I informed him that yes I did and took his advice very seriously, prepped hard, and went to NLS. He was very happy to hear that. In a room full of chaos, he drew everyone’s attention, held my hand, and said “I had asked this boy to do law 8 years ago and I can’t believe here he is today amongst us as a fine lawyer.” At that moment, I felt as if my life had completed one full circle. That, at that point in time, I ought to have been at that very place doing that very thing.

Akanksha: After you graduated from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore; you pursued your studies at the University of Bern, Switzerland. You have had an experience of both Indian and foreign education. What, in your opinion, does the Indian legal education system lacks or has excelled in, in comparison to foreign education and what changes you might want to see in the Indian legal education?

Aman: I was at the University of Bern on my exchange semester on a scholarship grant. I don’t think my experience at Bern academically was better than NLS, that I am certain about. But the exchange is more about meeting a diverse set of people, imbibing the new atmosphere, thriving in a new set of experiences, and exploring various cultures through your travels. I think education in foreign lands does serve that purpose and gives you a good perspective on life. While at Bern, I could also take courses at the World Trade Institute and it was great to be taught by formal directors of WTO and chief of the dispute settlement appellate body.

But to answer your question of how can Indian legal education be better, the response is systemic. I think the Government has to start funding the law schools better. They cannot be self-funded, as it would pass on the entire burden of costs on students.  NLUs now are the institutes that students prefer because these are public institutions. Public institutions in other fields, be it IIT, IIM, AIIMS for engineering, management or medicine respectively receive thousands of crores of funding every year, and these are governed centrally.  Law as a domain is neglected as it is relegated to whims of state governments who fund as they please. NLS, for example, which is the best law school in our country now only receives 50 lakhs as an annual grant. I think it’s a travesty that students have to shell out about 3 lakhs a year to study law at public institutions. It acts as a huge barrier for those not so fortunate to consider law as a profession and it’s not as if later the profession makes it easier for first-generation lawyers, which can have a combined adverse effect. This is where we start, the rest of the things like attracting talent into academia can be solved by appointing competent individuals as Vice-Chancellors as against based on mutual back-scratching prevalent in academia. With sufficient funding, they can in turn create a great ecosystem for legal education.

Akanksha: Currently, you are an advocate in the High Court of Chhattisgarh. How has the Coronavirus outbreak affected the functioning of courts in Chhattisgarh? What are the long term changes that you forecast taking place to accommodate the effects of this pandemic?

Aman: Well, the biggest change has been that the courts have physically functioned for only 10 days since mid-march. The hearings have shifted online. After scrambling initially, there’s now a proper process in place. But that’s only for High Courts; the lower courts have online hearings only on paper. Most of them are mostly shut with only remand and bail applications being heard on some days. It has caused misery to those lawyers who are reliant on regular functioning to meet their house expenses and I hope they stand strong, as we get through this pandemic.

In the long term, unlike everyone who’s been talking about the digital age of e-courts in webinars, honestly, I don’t see it happening. Firstly, because the law is highly centralized in Delhi right from the Supreme Court to NCLAT, NGT, NCRC, and many other court jurisdictions. Accordingly, it has the highest concentration of legal practitioners from across the country. It is in the interest of the lawyers there to continue to centralize it to ensure there is enough workflow and that lawyers from the place of origin of the dispute don’t teeth into their business. At the same time, in non-metropolitan cities, there is a dearth of good advocates. Online video conferencing would make it easier for clients to approach outstation lawyers, who as of now charge for the entire day of travel, to bring the cost down to just one appearance. The difference can be massive and extremely lucrative for a comparatively much better service. It would face resistance from local lawyers for this reason and at the same time, it is in the interest of outstation lawyers to have e-courts for a broader practice base. Finding real balance will be tough. It’s the economics of law as a profession, which we shouldn’t be blind to and It would play a huge role in resistance to adoption of online hearings. I have not even come to the point of the perils of technology for demography not adept at it and for persuasion and advocacy over the video, with voice breaking multiple times and a seeming distance with the judge. Therefore, as I see it, once the pandemic subsides, in practice, courtroom lawyering would return. Although it may see wider acceptability in alternate dispute resolution proceedings.

Akanksha: You have quite an experience in the legal field. You have been a legal associate in Luthra & Luthra Law Office, a Legislative Assistant and currently, you are an Advocate in the High court of Chhattisgarh. What skill sets, in your opinion, are required for a law graduate to secure a job in top gear firms? What activities apart from academics should law students consider doing during their undergraduate years?

Aman: Law firms usually work on very tight deadlines. That’s because of immense competition in the market and short deadlines that are promised to the clients even though that may not be when the deliverable is ideally due. Therefore, they are looking for people who can give quality output at tight deadlines and can do that on a day-to-day basis. I have seen so many who have gone on extended periods like 38-40 days without a single day off when the deal is at its peak and all workdays stretching well past midnight. So grit to be at it without experiencing burnout is certainly the foremost skill.

With respect to activities a student must involve himself in, for me, Law School was an opportunity to try everything that it had to offer, while also learning the law. Hence, I took possible experiences as checkboxes that I must tick before my time is done. To this end, mostly to keep myself amused, I played for multiple university sports teams; contributed to the moot trophy cabinet; took up a teaching assistantship; went to World’s University Debating Championship as an adjudicator. I also won the election for the President of Student Bar Association and brought about essential academic reforms in the form of electives at law school which brought it at par with universities like Harvard and Oxford and afforded freedom of choice in education to students. There is no one straight answer to what you must do but it will help to try out a lot of things to figure out what you like and you don’t. It all contributed immensely to my personal growth and evolved me into the person that I am today.

Akanksha: Having experienced by working in a law firm and now practicing on your own, what advice and tips would you like to give to professionals who are working in law firms, have gained experience, and would now like to practice separately?

Aman: I’d tell you an interesting realization that I had. When I was at the law firm and most of my peers were too, we used to crib so much about long working hours and working on weekends. There was a literal contest on whose life at the firm sucks more. What I realize is that in litigation; I am working similar hours if not more, and I don’t get a single off all week, every week. My day now starts earlier, I am up till post-midnight on most days preparing for the hearing, researching for the same, or drafting an urgent writ. At the same time, my fixed stipend from the litigation office is not even the same as the TDS of my retainer at Luthra. Although what I can vouch for is the drive and motivation when you are practicing is rock solid, the juice of enthusiasm of signing a new client and thrill of arguing a real matter with real consequences before a judge makes up for lack of similar monetary rewards that an A0 at a law firm would make as against a fresher at litigation. For me, at a law firm there existed a significant gap between my work output and the eventual outcome, resulting in minimal job satisfaction.

So my advice to those looking to join the bar is that wait out the pandemic, now might not be the best time for a job transition due to increased vagaries (as if there wasn’t enough already) that it has brought for the profession but do seriously consider it if all of what I said above excite you too. I will not paint an extremely rosy picture that it doesn’t matter whether you are a first-generation lawyer or not, it does immensely affect your pace of career. As a young advocate, you may not get as much deference from the bench as someone else who has grown up in the same circle as theirs and who doesn’t have to worry about signing clients for a considerable period of time due to cushion of existing ones, but with the right amount of grit and tenacity, you can overcome this and make your own space in the bar. There is always the value of merit and hard work, and it does payback eventually. Never forget that.

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