Senior advocate and Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi talks about his education experience at India's and the world's top educational institutions and explains how tough it is to become a senior counsel, despite having a famous father.
Video and below interview summary reproduced with permission of Rainmaker. Interview conducted by Delhi advocates Gopal Sankaranarayanan and Haripriya Padmanabhan (left and right).
On the subject of being the son of a famous lawyer, senior advocate and Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that it is not correct to say that one is born with a silver spoon and progresses through a platinum system. "It clearly gives you a push and a backup of infrastructure, with a library and a certain amount of resources. But this is a very unforgiving profession and very early on, if you do not work hard enough and if you are not able to prove yourself in a few cases, the system rejects you. The initial push is only like a rebuttable presumption in your favour. It is up to you to see that it is not rebutted."
Talking to Rainmaker, he said that he never felt a direct attraction to law even till his days of doing an undergraduate in economics. "The omnipresent sights and sounds of law if you are from a family of lawyers makes a difference."
"I did my schooling in St. Columba's and did very well. I used to joke that academically everything has been downhill since then because I stood first in India. Even though during those days, law was distant in my mind, I saw my father getting dressed and going to court, I had the books of law all around me and my grandfather was a lawyer, so it does make a difference. However, there was absolutely no pressure in my case to enter the profession. In fact, there was a kind of anti-pressure. It happens by a process of elimination."
"You think at times that you will not do what your father is doing and you examine other options. And it is the same with my two sons, I have scrupulously avoided pushing them into the profession but by a process of elimination, one is a lawyer and the other is studying law."
He also described his study of law as having possessed a "peculiar trajectory". "While I was doing my BA in Economics from St. Stephens, I got admission into Trinity College in Cambridge. But during the gap before the term started there, I also joined the Law Faculty of Delhi for about two months but went straight from there to Trinity, where I stayed on and completed my undregrad and my PhD and came back after six and half-odd years.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi also said that while being a good student, he was a complete introvert at school and retained some of that even in vibrant St. Stephens. It was only when he went to Cambridge, partly for survival in the strange context and climate, that he became more confident and extroverted.
He also said that there was no question of him staying on abroad after his PhD. "In my case it was always a fixed case immigration. During my PhD, I also taught at St. John's college in Cambridge to supplement my income and also to keep my foot in academics. I was also doing my dining terms at Lincoln's Inn. But the moment I finished my PhD, I did not have a second thought and I came back to India."
About his initial foray into profession, he said that though he had technically not studied the nitty-gritty of Indian law, his fears were misplaced because he learnt soon that it was a vocational profession where you learnt on the job. "Also, I had done a PhD in law - something that 99% of people, including my father who was a doctorate LLM from Harvard and a doctorate from Cornell dissuaded me from doing. Statistically in Cambridge, 50% of the people who join for a PhD do not complete it, and the remaining take up to six to seven years to complete it. The fear that you are wasting your time and your colleagues are getting ahead and there is no tangible nexus between a PhD and success in the profession were with me."
"The third set of apprehensions set in when I returned to India and went looking for a senior and found that there were very few systems here that actually encouraged a junior-senior relationship. The few which were available were also filled up. So I decided to be with my father for a year and a half and then I remained on my own. The fourth major problem was that Delhi in particular, unlike Mumbai and Calcutta, had no slot for the intermediate counsel at all. People would be happy with drafting, your hard work and the fact that you could put a point across, but they would insist that you either had to be there at the side of the senior or you had to be the Advocate on Record on the vakalatnama. And the only reason I went into counsel work was the tremendous fear that I had of procedure. So it was a difficult period of about four to five years where you had good work and good clients but could not hold on to them.
He also said that the system has changed substantially over the years. There is a greater appreciation and awareness of a person who assists a senior counsel. There is a greater willingness to brief a person who may not be a senior. "In those days, Delhi had no tradition - being a district court as late as 1966, so the practice was based on a principle of distrust, that if you were an intermediate counsel, you would walk away with the Advocate on Record's clients."
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