Senior counsel and new additional solicitor general Sidharth Luthra’s credo - becoming so good that nobody can lay a finger on you - sits well with his propensity for hard work at nearly superhuman levels and a passion for the criminal court room. And if anyone in the Delhi courts was not already aware of him, there are also his well-known pre-court-vacation parties of course.
Advocate Adit Subramaniam Pujari meets Luthra for Legally India’s new Debrief series to find out about his practice and what makes the man tick.
All work and some play
Luthra is perhaps one of the hardest-working senior advocates around. An ordinary week in his office sees him start work at 7am and continue post court hours until 9pm, Monday to Saturday. Naturally, Sundays are also busy (after all, Monday begins in less than 24 hours!), although he says that he tries to avoid meeting clients.
I meet Luthra for our interview on 21 June, during the summer break. He returned to Delhi late the previous night; now he is here with me at 10am, after advising clients who walked in an hour earlier. This, I repeat, is during the summer break.
When I see him again about this interview on 5 July - the night before he’s appointed additional solicitor general for the Supreme Court - clients are walking into his office at 10.20pm to begin their meeting with him. It is not unusual for Luthra to work until 1am on days when heavy matters are on, and to see him back in the office at 7am the next morning.
“When I started my practice, in the first few years, I had a lot of time and little work. When my practice picked up around 1998-2000, I was working about 16 to 17 hours a day, six days a week and about 12 to 14 hours on the seventh day,” recounts Luthra about his early years in the profession. “I did that for 10 years.”
“Presently, I start my morning at about 7 am and work till about 9 in the night. If I can, I take a break in the evening for about 45 minutes to an hour. Sometimes I read after dinner as well.”
Part of this may be a by-product of his time spent with his PR Vakil, who was more than just a mentor to him.
Despite his late father KK Luthra being an eminent senior advocate, Sidharth Luthra started out his legal career with an unlikely background. He studied sciences in school, followed by a BA in mathematics.
“I wish I could have done architecture but I had no one to guide me towards architecture,” he muses. “I tried my hand at the engineering entrance classes but didn't enjoy the training. In our time, the best options were medicine, engineering, chartered accountancy or a normal graduation followed by an MBA or selection as a management trainee straight out of college.”
But as a university student he instead gravitated towards freelance journalism, he says, beginning with the photography for a friend’s weekly university affairs column, later “dabbling” in written journalism, including on legal issues, as well as radio, TV and a bit of sports commentary. It was fun, he remembers, and the pocket money by his standards then was good too.
“All of this, and my interest in theatre, debating and moot-courts, put me in a frame of mind for a career in law and specifically litigation.”
But after finishing his law degree at the Campus Law Centre, Delhi and a criminology masters in Cambridge, he still had no desire to practice criminal law. “I did not want to be in the shadow of my father and it was a long and large looming shadow.”
Sidharth Luthra fact file:
1984-87 BA Math.
1987-90 LLB Campus Law Centre, Delhi University
1990-91 MA, Criminology, Cambridge University
1991-92 Bhasin & Co, purely civil work at the district courts (Tis Hazari), consumer forums and commissions, and “a little bit at the high court”
1993-96 “My grandfather was not well and needed me. I began my own work and though I used my father's chambers, I stuck to civil work.” Practised both corporate work and civil litigation, and patents and trademarks applications. “During this period, I did very little criminal work, although I was on the legal aid panel of the Supreme Court and got some opportunities there.”
1996 to Date: Criminal law practice, defence and prosecution
2007: Designated senior advocate
2012: Designated additional solicitor general, Supreme Court
“In 1990, when I graduated from law, there were few firms doing what is now called corporate practice, as the profession was not as organised as it is today.” He remembers that the top Delhi firms back then were JB Dadachanji, Bhasin & Co, Shroff & Co, Karanjawala, and Gagrats, while in intellectual property there were ACME and Co, Anand and Anand, and Remfry and Sagar.
“The other alternative for a lawyer was to try and join as a law officer, in a corporate house such as Levers [now Unilever], which had the best in-house legal team any corporate has ever had,” claims Luthra. “The legal heads of many corporations today have begun their careers or worked at Levers at some point of time.
“Else, you could join a bank, or a government corporation as a law officer, or pursue the teaching of law.”
Teaching and research, incidentally, was his first love, he says, but he missed the deadline to teach at Delhi University’s law faculty when he returned from Cambridge in 1992.
When he got the chance to teach again in 1997, his father passed away unexpectedly in May of that year and Sidharth Luthra recounts that he was hit with the professional and financial constraints of having to “come to grips with the practice”.
Luthra likened his feelings upon the loss of his father to Abhimanyu of legends. “I saw the way in but not the way out. I would see his files and notes, and with no grounding in criminal law, I hoped I knew what the crosses and marks meant, but I was never sure. In such situations, necessity is the mother of invention and innovation was the only way forward.”
He gives much credit to his mentor and father-figure PR Vakil (a “brilliant” Mumbai criminal lawyer). “He and my late father were opponents for three to four decades but were also great friends. After my father’s death, I worked with him closely and he encouraged, supported and taught me criminal law.”
Vakil also had “an endless capacity to work hard”. “We would work from 11 pm to 4 am at his residence, when he would offer me a drink and still expect me to be back with him at 10 am!”
A new beginning
It was around that time that Luthra reinvented himself as a criminal lawyer, which he is now best known for. But he says: “Since my grounding was in civil law, I believe that my understanding and reading of civil procedure law is still better than my reading of criminal law.”
Client referrals initially came from friends, relatives and even neighbours at times, sometimes unpaid or only partly paid, and sometimes he says he would even end up out of pocket when a client did not pay.
“Every experience was a learning experience. I met people who were active socially in local clubs, resident associations, some of whom took a liking to me and would keep recommending my name to prospective clients.
“I call them my guardian angels, they taught me a lot about law, though they were not lawyers but had great experience in mukadmebaazi, as also public dealing.
“Every year, there were lean periods and there were busy periods. One would rationalise the lean periods and hope for the busy periods.”
Lineage may be an asset or a liability and comes in two types, according to Luthra: familial and from chamber seniors. “I can only tell you what my late father told me: he said that you have to be so good and thorough that no one can lay a finger on you.”
The legal profession, and litigation in particular, is about hard work, intelligence, focus, thinking on your feet, court craft, and on-the-job skills. “Anyone with a combination of these factors, and with the necessary opportunities, call it luck if you like, can shine.”
Litigation is like being an actor on stage, requiring an opportunity to showcase one’s talents before one can actually shine, he continues. “If you are too picky and choosy, you won't get that opportunity. If you are careless in your work, you will not make the cut.”
Luthra says that legal aid and amicus briefs can be great at providing opportunities to hone your talents and give back to society. “Unfortunately,” adds Luthra, “not enough lawyers work for legal aid authorities.”
The client is (not) always right
Luthra has seen and experienced first-hand the highs and lows of being a junior litigator, despite the common sentiment of preferential treatment being meted out to the offspring of lawyers.
“As a young lawyer, you do come across situations where your client puts forward a factual scenario which he wants you to present in court. Sometimes, such a factual statement is not appropriate for a lawyer, being an officer of the court,” shares Luthra. “However, a distinction between what is in the clients’ interest, what is discernibly factually correct and based on the record, and what is inappropriate, is something you learn with the guidance of seniors in the profession, colleagues, from judges, and by experience.”
“I remember that just around the time I was about to get married, a client gave me seven files. His cases were in a mess and he wanted the matter to be put on track. He insisted that his previous lawyer had been unfair to him and had not appeared or represented him properly, and that was the reason he was moved ex parte.
“I inspected the files, and found that the in most files the situation was similar. His lawyer had not been present on a few dates, and I noted that there were other lawyers also who had not appeared in the past and there were previous adverse orders, by which he had been proceeded ex parte, was in default and later got restorations done.
“I moved an application stating these facts, and when I appeared, the opposite lawyer AK Gupta, an elderly gentleman and a fine, garrulous man, saw me and began attacking my client as a man of dubious practice. He pointed out that this was the seventh such restoration application and he laughingly told me that I knew nothing about my client, who was his contemporary in college and would ditch me once he got the restoration order.
“Of course, I took umbrage to this and reacted, and the judge calmed me down. I did get the order, more due to my youth I suspect than any advocacy skills.
“To my horror, the client, on the hearing of the order, and an imposition of a cost of Rs 500 in 1992, expressed his unhappiness to my handling of the situation and asked for his files back.”
“Forget my fee,” adds Luthra, “he didn't even pay the expenses.”
“A few months later,” he remembers, “I got a call from a close friend who asked me why I had left the matter, because he had now been engaged by the same client. Today, if a similar file came, I would perhaps be able to read between the lines, but at that stage, I genuinely believed that my client had been wronged by the previous counsel.”
Experience is a great teacher, comments Luthra about the love-hate relationships at the bench and the bar. “Sometimes you think that you're being pushed by judges and opposite lawyers when you're young.
“Anybody joining litigation should understand that the practice in court is about respect and credibility, neither of which is gained overnight. Lawyers with experience gain respect, credibility and recognition because of the years that they've put in, and so they command a good hearing at times.”
“However, with respect and credibility comes responsibility,” he says: seniors would not be able to get away with the mistakes younger lawyers make that are pardoned by most judges.
“Some of the most wonderful experiences in my early years, and even now is when I see younger colleagues in courts encouraged by judges who insist that freshers at the bar argue matters when seniors don’t reach, but, finding that grant of relief is impossible, adjourn the matters to let the seniors take the brunt of refusal of relief, rather than having the poor junior blamed for it.
Dealings with criminals
“Criminal law is about understanding and appreciating human nature and human emotions: it allows you to see life in its most stark realities,” claims Luthra.
Agreeing that litigators sometimes have to negotiate grey areas in criminal practice, he says that this is common to all areas of litigation. “Say you have a bail order, and you need a dasti copy fast, your client is in custody, and there is going to be a four-day holiday.
“The question is, will you do everything in your power to get that order, or will you stand back as a silent spectator? This is no different from the position in civil law. In civil law too, if you have an injunction and the certified order is not obtained in time, despite having been signed by the judge, the purpose of the interim order would be lost. “The practical realities of work done in the profession are similar to both civil and criminal practice.”
However, Luthra feels that it is possible to practice in the field of criminal law with an ethical, honest and efficient practice. Clients today, he says, look for lawyers who can deliver both in terms of strategy and cross examination and at trial and this area of work is being recognised. “At one stage, a few decades back, the fact that witnesses were turning hostile or due to delays not turning up, meant that there would be no evidence to obtain a conviction.
“However, with courts becoming faster, and a change in how judges appreciate the testimony of hostile witnesses, has woken up litigants to the fact that they need effective cross examination.”
“Of course, criminal law requires one occasionally to visit police stations and to attend interviews in jail with litigants to take instructions… The exposure to the manner in which a person's rights are to be protected from violation and how the criminal justice system works in practice helps [complete] the legal profession. In countries like the USA or the UK it is the trial criminal lawyers who have the most respect and recognition,” says Luthra.
Defenders vs prosecutors
Having appeared on both sides of criminal practice, Luthra says that although he finds both sides fascinating, he’s primarily a defence lawyer. “I think defence work is more challenging today.”
Emphasising the need for ethics in the legal profession, Luthra says: “Ethical prosecution, i.e. a prosecution where an independent prosecutor analyses the material and takes decisions independent of the investigator and also ensures that both exculpatory and inculpatory material is available to the court, is far more important to the defence. The accused has a right to silence, but the prosecution must be fair and equitable.”
Working as a special prosecutor, he has come to appreciate the difficulties and pressures faced by investigators and the prosecutors. “However, prosecutors must not shy away from doing their duty. The role of a prosecutor is not to overawe, but to place facts in the correct perspective and leave it for the judge to draw his own conclusions based on the evidence,” states Luthra.
Corporate vs litigation
Luthra acknowledges that litigation does not pay in the initial years, and many of those looking for money are drawn into corporate practice. “When I came back from Cambridge, I was earning Rs 1,000 per month and my petrol expenditure was Rs 2,000 per month. Every litigator does not make large sums of money.
“I feel that those lawyers who can afford it must train youngsters and must be generous to their juniors.”
“Corporate practice has its charms and it has its benefits. It has different challenges than litigation. However, the firm structure in India is yet to be more inclusive.”
Luthra adds that at law firms the distinction between salaried and equity partners ought to be removed. “If you're good enough to be a partner, why should you not have a right to equity, and fair equity, and not just a minor percentage, which does not even give a sense of belonging?”
“Litigation on the other hand, offers a world of opportunities, especially since there are newer and specialised areas coming up daily. In the last few decades, we've had anti-dumping law, securities law, and competition law, among others. Apart from this, the Indian state continues to criminalise all forms of conduct (of course this needs to be rationalised sooner than later) but until then, it is boom time for criminal practitioners.”
Luthra feels the ideal place to start practice after law school, is to either join a lawyer with 10-15 years of experience who has a lot of work, or with a government lawyer, who has a lot of opportunities. “One could join a firm, or a senior counsel's office, but in my view, that is not the place to start.” He caveats his opinion by clarifying that money can’t be a priority in such situations.
During law school, he believes, the best places for learning are often the moot courts. In fact, Luthra spends significant time and personal efforts organise the annual KK Luthra Memorial Moot Court, which is a popular event that is part of Legally India’s Mooting Premier League. [The 2013 problem is now available for download]
“In our time, the focus of teaching was academic in nature. Moot courts were not a priority. There were two national level competitions - Jessup and the BCI moot. While we had excellent teachers, the focus was not on the practical aspects.”
Outside the box
Luthra credits his initial education in mathematics, which taught him to analyse, search deep for answers, and join the dots. “Creative thinking in a matter means having time for reflection. If you overburden yourself you will lose your creative edge. The practice of law is not a numbers game alone but about the innovation that you bring to the table.”
Stating that the knowledge of law comes with practice, Luthra feels that it is the “application and the strategy that makes a difference.”
“Having lost my father early, I ended up working closely with the best lawyers and judges. All of them bring a combination of brilliance, hard work, and innovation to their work. I have tried to inculcate that element in a small way in the work that I do.
“For many years my wife, Ketaki, and I did matters together where we evolved joint strategies on the civil and criminal side which led to a lot of creative thinking and not just a uni-dimensional approach.”
In the last few years, Ketaki reduced her practice to give time to the family, while Sidharth Luthra says he balances out the weeks-on-end of long hours with at least four holidays a year with his family.
“I want to practice law, but there is at least one book which I hope will be written and is waiting to be written. The practice of law is a wonderful and glorious experience, but writing an academic book, or recording your experiences in a readable manner is something that I would like to do.
“One thing is sure, I will work as long as I can deliver, and enjoy it, and when its time to move on and hang up my boots, I shall try and do it at a time of my own choosing rather than becoming irrelevant.”
“A litigating lawyer must be thick-skinned but not too much. There are moments when a judge may pull you down, and the reasons for that can be his understanding of your case, or an error on your part. Every lawyer has moments when he is distressed or disturbed in the practice of litigation (or so I think), and I've had my share.
“One experience is when in the Tehelka Commission, my witness went up for re-examination… However, he had been cross -examined for over a few hundred hours over days on end, he began reading out answers, at which the judge got very upset. Justice Venkataswami got him to remove the papers from his hand, struck out the answers and was justifiably livid.
“It was a great embarrassment to me, and I was very disturbed. In the lunch recess, I went to see the judge and apologised for what had happened inadvertently. However, when I went in, the judge was very kind. He understood my predicament, and he realised that the client's error was bona fide and a mere lapse. He offered me a cup of tea and consoled me, which was very gracious of him.”
Luthra says that there are moments in court where you feel upset and disturbed, more so because the entire court room is watching you, “but one has to come back, reflect and see where the error lay”.
“The answer is again that you just have to be so good that nobody can lay a finger on you”.
Adit Subramaniam Pujari, a Delhi-based advocate, met Sidharth Luthra. Legally India’s Debriefs series will interview leading litigators and advocates about their practice and how to succeed.