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Which 9 top lawyers easily charge Rs 15+ lakh per hearing? 42 Delhi seniors' fees revealed

The post colonial-era building with the red sandstone dome on Delhi’s Bhagwaan Dass Road is home to an elite class of lawyers, who are likely to be the most expensive in the world: they are typically paid between Rs 5 and 15 lakh per hearing.

Interviews by Legally India with more than 32 Delhi lawyers who brief seniors in the Supreme Court and Delhi high court have revealed that the top bracket in terms of pay is dominated by advocates who are or were also politicians (overwhelmingly from the Congress party). All the lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity.

Elder Statesmen

Senior advocates Supreme Court range per appearance (lakh Rs) Delhi high court range per appearance (lakh Rs) Comments from the seniors
Ram Jethmalani 25+ 25+  
Fali Nariman 8-15    
KK Venugopal 5-7.5 7-15 Large number of cases handled free. State governments & gov't institutions charged far less.
Gopal Subramanium 5.5-15 11-16.5 Rs 25 lakh at tribunals, no trial courts.Does 8-9 pro bono briefs per month.Does not charge if does not appear.
P Chidambaram 6-7 7-15  
Harish Salve 6-15 6-15  
AM Singhvi 6-11 7-15 Figures broadly correct but vary according to category of case and workload. “There is no size fit all formula possible.”
CA Sundaram 5.5-16.5   Does not negotiate on fees, also handles pro bono
Salman Khurshid 5+ 8-11 Accommodates young lawyers and accepts pro bono briefs. Works with more than a dozen junior colleagues whom he provides reasonable earnings unlike other senior lawyers
Parag Tripathi 5-7 5-10  
KTS Tulsi 5-6 8-9  
Kapil Sibal 5-15 9-16  
Shanti Bhushan 4.5-6 4.5-6 Confirmed
Dushyant Dave 5.5-10 5.5-10 Never charges armed forces, civil services, teachers, doctors, NGOs, lawyers and their relatives and usually does not charge individuals. Appears in 3-5 pro bono matters weekly. Charges much more in outstation briefs.

Most of the ‘class 1’ seniors (although there’s no actual such term for them) can be retained to represent clients on ordinary matters in the Supreme Court for between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 7 lakh, said one of the lawyers interviewed.

The nonagenarian Ram Jethmalani is one of the oldest senior advocates still regularly practicing and is also one of the highest paid senior advocates in India at the apex or any other court.

According to several briefing lawyers, it generally costs at least Rs 25 lakh to have Jethmalani’s name attached to the case file and for him to read it.

Jethmalani can afford to price himself out of the market for all but the most affluent clients, since a majority of the matters he does act for these days, he handles pro bono, without charging a fee, according to lawyers, and he only appears in a few cases per week.

Former finance minister P Chidambaram charges in the range of Rs 6-7 lakh for one appearance before a bench of Supreme Court judges.

Former Rajya Sabha member Fali S Nariman, who by most accounts takes barely any cases anymore, charges between Rs 11 Lakh and Rs 15 lakh per appearance in the Supreme Court. “(Nariman) like Chidambaram is very choosy. He only accepts (a case) if it involves a challenging question of law. (He accepts) not more than one [case] in a day,” explained a Delhi advocate who has previously engaged Nariman and Chidambaram for clients.

Former law minister Kapil Sibal charges at least Rs 8 lakh and up to Rs 15 lakh for one appearance before the Supreme Court.

Congress politician Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Harish Salve, the son of former Congress politician NKP Salve, who is now also a London barrister, generally charge upwards of Rs 6 lakh for one day’s appearance in a case in the Supreme Court, with Salve charging up to Rs 15 lakh.

However, the fees charged in that top bracket are fairly variable, depending on the complexity and interestingness of a case, the relationship with the client or briefing lawyer or a variety of other factors, including the day of the week.

The rates are usually lowest in the Supreme Court on Mondays and Fridays – the so-called miscellaneous days when the apex court hears new matters before deciding whether to admit them for proper hearing.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays the Supreme Court hears arguments in cases and fees for advocates such as Sibal, Singhvi and Salve can range between Rs 11-15 lakh.

The grass is greener

Some of the Supreme Court seniors can also be enticed to leave their traditional home turf of the Supreme Court and cross the road to Sher Shah Suri Road, but it will cost you – usually a minimum of Rs 7 lakh at the top end.

One extreme is that since most successful senior counsel on the above list are extremely busy, those specialising in one court generally don’t want to waste their time travelling between courts when they could be arguing another matter in their home court in the same time.

Various Delhi advocates told Legally India that preparation for appearing in the high court was similar to preparation required for final arguments in the Supreme Court since the high court hears full and detailed arguments every day.

Seniors therefore usually appear in the Delhi high court on any day, for around the same fee which they charge to appear in the Supreme Court on a Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays – a non-miscellaneous day.

Sometimes their high court fees are also intentionally set at a bar so high as to discourage all but the wealthiest from retaining them.

Gopal Subramanium is one extreme example. His Supreme Court fees of Rs 7 to 15 lakh per appearance is up there with the rest of the elder statesmen (despite Subramanium never having been in elected office, other than his short stint as solicitor general under the previous United Progressive Alliance government).

But when Subramanium goes to the Delhi high court he charges Rs 11 to 16.5 lakh. And when he heads to tribunals, his rates are at least Rs 25 lakh per hearing.

Rajya Sabha member and congress politician KTS Tulsi, who is also a former additional solicitor general (ASG) of India, charges between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 6 lakh in the Supreme Court. But the sought-after criminal attorney is busier in the lower courts and the high court where he charges around Rs 9 lakh.

SC: Between 3-5 lakh

Senior advocate SC DHC Seniors’ comments
Ranjit Kumar 4-5    
L Nageswara Rao 3-5    
Sidharth Luthra 3.5 4-5 Declined to confirm or deny figures. 30-40% of his matters are pro bono.
Rajeev Dhavan 3-5    
Balbir Singh 2.7 1.7  
Gopal Jain 2.2-3 2.2-3 Figure not cast in stone. Is very flexible. Does not charge fee in advance. Does 6-7 matters a day easily, sometimes goes up to 12. Hasn't done any pro bono matters yet but enlisted himself with the Delhi legal aid cell recently. Reduces fee for needy clients. Doesn't raise fee comparable to primary senior if he is the second senior counsel on a case.
Ajit Sinha (former judge) 2-5    
Raju Ramachandran 2-4    
Shyam Divan 2-4    

Others charging in the range of Rs 5-6 lakh in the Supreme Court are CA Sundaram, former ASGs L Nageswara Rao and Parag Tripathi.

Dave and Sundaram are rarely seen in the Delhi high court by most accounts, but Rao charges in the range of Rs 3-4 lakh and Tripathi charges in the range of Rs 7-10 lakh for one Delhi high court hearing.

There are also seniors in Delhi who appear almost exclusively in the high courts. The more popular ones among them charge in the range of Rs 3-5 lakh per appearance while the ones in nearly as high demand charge in the range of Rs 1-3 lakh.

Senior advocate SC DHC Comments from the seniors
KV Vishwanathan 2-3 3.5  
Dhruv Mehta 2-2.5 2.75  
Harin Raval 1.65-3.3 2.2-3.5 Only seldom appears in Delhi HC and if appears (like National Herald case) then generally pro bono.
Indu Malhotra 1-3    
Jayant Bhushan 1-2.2    
Ravi Sikri 0.75-1+   Correct but in respect of miscellaneous matters. For non miscellaneous it is much higher but very variable.
AS Chandhiok   5-7 Does 15 cases per month for free.
Rajiv Nayar   4-5.5  
Arvind Nigam   3-3.5  
Sandip Sindhwani   3  
Sandip Sethi   2.5-3.3  
Pinky Anand   2-3 Is ASG. confirmed rates for PSUs.
Pratibha Singh   1.5-2  
Joy Basu   1.5  
Meet Malhotra   1.5 This is a minimum fee. If private individual find it difficult to pay he waives it completely and does pro bono. Doesn't negotiate. Is more experienced in telecom, broadcasting and electricity regulations so rarely appears in Delhi HC.
Sudhir Nandrajog   1.1  
Amit Sibal   1-3.5  
Dayan Krishnan   0.55-1.1 Declined to comment.
Geeta Luthra   0.5-1  

There are also a whole range of senior counsel who can be retained by clients for between Rs 1 lakh and 5 lakh, and many younger non-senior counsel are also coming up and becoming acceptable to clients in high-profile matters, said several lawyers interviewed.

From outstation to free

The fee for any senior, be it in the outlier, high, or low division, will sky-rocket even further if they are called to appear outside Delhi, after adding the bills of business class or charter flights and potential five-star hotel accommodation.

Add to this the billings for losses incurred on unattended cases in Delhi during the outstation trip.

My colleagues do four "outstation matters" per month and are set for a month with a crore in income, half-joked one senior counsel when interviewed.

But then there's also cheap or free, as several of the lawyers contacted for this story were quick to point out. Subramanium said he does eight to nine pro bono briefs per month; KK Venugopal said he handled a large number of cases for free and charged less for government institutions; Dave that he did three to five cases for free per week (particularly for individuals, members of the armed forces, civil services, teachers, doctors, NGOs, lawyers and their relatives): Luthra that 30-40% of his cases were pro bono; Chandhiok that he did around 15 matters per month for free; and out of the other senior advocates contacted who replied, Sundaram's junior, Khurshid, Harin Raval and Malhotra also said they accepted briefs to argue for free in some circumstances.

Battles half-won

While seniors charge for “appearances” in courts, their role in these appearances according to the Advocates Act 1961, is to argue for the litigant who has engaged them. And yet, there is little the litigant or lawyer can do to ensure they honour their obligation, short of filing a bar council complaint against them if they don’t (and who wants to fight lawyers on their own turf?).

A Delhi law firm advocate who engaged a senior in the Rs 5-7 lakh range for his firm’s client, on a retainer of Rs 18 lakh and an appearance fee of Rs 12 lakh, recounted that the senior was “exploitative”. “He didn’t even get up to argue. It was bloody disappointing. I argued myself on the next hearing, (with big names as opposing counsel) and kicked their ass – something he couldn’t do,” he commented.

One Delhi high court senior who, as per the concurring accounts of most advocates we spoke to, was “great at getting interim orders – like how (now attorney general of India) Mukul Rohatgi used to be” but is “not the best orator or legal mind” and “is even crass”, is also known to often “ditch clients at hearings”.

One advocate explained the repetitive cases of not turning up at hearings in which the senior was paid to appear. He said that this senior was overburdened with Delhi high court cases.

It is common for Delhi seniors to appear in between seven and 15 hearings in one day.

If a litigant is engaging Singhvi, Salve or certain other very busy seniors, it is usually common to engage other seniors too as back-up, related one advocate, adding that in such cases if the back-up senior is from a lower-fee range, they are usually prompt to demand an increase in fees comparable to the top-tier senior engaged.

But short of these measures, the litigant, who is usually asked to pay up 100% of the appearance fee in advance, can only hope for the best. On failing to turn up most seniors have been known to refund the fee, after some deductions – usually the fee for one appearance includes one case-discussion meeting with the senior and fee of the senior’s clerk which is 10 per cent of the total. Although one top-of-the-line senior is known to not refund any fee in any situation.

As one advocate commented: “The seniors do not directly interact with the client unless the client is a real big shot... It is up to (the advocate acting for and engaging the senior on the litigant’s behalf) to ensure that the senior gives him a reasonable rate and does a good job of it.”

Most Delhi advocates we spoke to concurred that their aim is to win their clients the best bargain, and their first step in this direction is to suggest not hiring a senior at all.

But clients whose land titles, bail and huge sums of money, among other things, are at stake are cautious to heed to this advice.

When contacted, Venugopal, Subramanium, Singhvi, Dave, Khurshid, Shanti Bhushan, Balbir Singh, Gopal Jain, Harin Raval, Ravi Sikri, Chandhiok, Pinky Anand and Meet Malhotra confirmed that the published rates were either accurate or in the right ball park.
Sidharth Luthra declined to confirm or deny the fees, while Dayan Krishnan declined to comment.
Others of the more than 40 senior counsel contacted in the story or table did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.

Additional research by Kian Ganz

A version of this story appeared in Mint whose association with LegallyIndia.com will bring you regular insight and analysis of major developments in law and the legal world.

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