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SC Postcard: How advocates are countries, and the lost souls of litigation

The Courts: Witness to the everyday triumphs of the adovcate spirit
The Courts: Witness to the everyday triumphs of the adovcate spirit
We bump into each other in the long corridor adjacent to Court 5. It’s cruel, I know I shouldn’t be asking but then I do anyway. “Got any briefs yet?” I see the furrows on his forehead. Anxiety. I know what it feels like. Two minutes earlier, after some small talk he had confided in me: “I’m independent these days.”

“Really? But weren’t you working with M_________?,” I asked. “I thought you liked the work and the pay was great!”

“Oh of course. Being a junior with a senior counsel like him is always great but...”


“I was getting too... comfortable.”

I gave him a quizzical look.

“Well... when I started with litigation, we didn’t all intend to work with senior counsel for the rest of our lives did we?”

“No of course not.”

“I figured I had to take the leap, sometime. Now seems just as good a time as any. Besides... it only gets harder the longer one waits.”

“That’s true. I guess.”

“So, I just thought about it, made up my mind, put in my papers, and here I am. Independent!”

“Ha, well. All for the best.”

And as for my somewhat tactless question about his briefs, he answered: “Well... No. Not yet. I’ve just been coming to court these days since I don’t have anything else to do...”

I had to go – my senior needed me. “All the best. I’m sure you’ll do fine,” I mustered.

“Thanks.” A thin, somewhat worried smile. “Let me know if there’s something...”

“Will do.”

Age-old tale

This exchange didn’t actually happen. But in a way it has happened many, many times. In more or less the same form, if not in substance.

Going independent in the legal profession is a big step. A leap of faith if ever there was one.

It’s nerve wracking. Agonising, worrying, the relief and thrill when it’s actually done. Then the despair, fear and doubt.

In law school, one rarely looks beyond recruitment.

For those eager to ensconce themselves in the cubicle comfort of a law firm, the career path is is laid down almost like a red carpet. Associate to senior associate to managing associate to salaried partner to - if all goes very, very well - equity partner, often more likely of one’s own law firm than someone else’s. The relative certainty drives complacency and with the astronomical salaries on offer, comes with more than a few creature comforts.

In litigation only the first step is a certainty. Join a senior counsel. If you’re lucky, you’ll get paid. If you’re in Delhi working with a Supreme Court senior counsel, you could get about Rs 15 to 20,000 a month (and if you’re one of the really, really lucky few, Rs 50,000 a month or more). Few cases come your way, but nevertheless you learn a lot. Sort of.

Yet, approximately two-and-a-half to three years into it all one starts thinking: Now what? You’re earning the same as you did when you started, and all your law firm friends seem to be getting bonuses the size of your annual income. Perhaps it is time to step out of your senior’s shadow.

Then comes the doubt. Am I good enough to go it alone? Even if I am good enough, will anyone know about me? Even if they do, will they trust me with their legal troubles? And most importantly, will I make any money at all?

Confirmed winners, hidden losers

Almost all the autobiographies/memoirs of judges and well-known senior counsel (such as this and this) have some passage or two about the initial year or two of struggle followed by eventual success. Most of the authors conflate “success” with monetary returns for appearances in courts. They conclude that a career in litigation is the best course for an advocate just out of law school and exhort and repeat such homilies about the profession at every forum they can find.

Presumably they’ve never heard of confirmation bias.

In the Supreme Court and I’m sure in every High Court too there are countless brief-less lawyers languishing in the corridors and courtrooms. Like those now successful, they too had their years of hardship but unlike the others it was not followed by a period of slow but steady growth all the way up to eventual recognition and standing at the Bar.

Spend enough time in court, watch and observe carefully and you cannot fail to spot them - the lost souls of litigation. You will see them every day at the court, unfailingly in by 10.30. You will see them in the canteen surrounded by cronies. You will see them in the library poring over journals and newspapers. You will see them leave the premises at 5.00.

You will never see them with a brief of their own or arguing a single case of their own.

Then you hear a confident stride down the corridor; there’s a flurry of black. A well-fed senior counsel strides past with a coterie of juniors and briefing counsel. Hurrying, no doubt from court to court on a miscellaneous day, being briefed and re-briefed on a matter he can comfortably expect to receive a five (or even six) figure sum for 10 minutes worth of argument.

These are only the extremes of course.

Within the spectrum of outcomes, there’s a fine line between failed potential and fulfilled potential.

Does it help to have an “uncle” judge or a relative at the Bar? It does, but not necessarily.

Stories abound of scions of families with high legal pedigree who have been unable to live up to the expectations and demands of a professional legal career. Doors may open, opportunities legion, but DNA is no guarantee of success at the Bar.

Correlation is not causation.

Likewise an advocate who is reasonably competent, honest and diligent about his work, will sooner or later see the briefs start coming in. And those with the hunger can after perhaps six to 10 years earn more at the bar than they would working in most law firms.

The irrational

There is one thing I’ve not mentioned about the conversations I’ve had with lawyers going independent. Amid the fear, doubt, anxiety and (yet) hope, there is another unmistakeable emotion: Exhilaration.

In having made the choice. At having the power to choose one’s own fate. Of the feeling of being the Master of Ones Fate and the Captain of Ones Soul.

But the feeling wears off after a time. In lean periods, when weeks and sometimes months pass without substantive work or bills being cleared, the safety of a stipend is fondly remembered. The urge to give up rises, to surrender oneself to comfort and complacency of a large organization instead of going it alone. Exhilaration does not pay the rent.

As corny as it sounds though, being an independent lawyer is not that different from being an independent nation.

At the end of the day, you might think that if you had done things differently in the past you might have been more prosperous.

Yet one thing you will not contemplate is giving up your independence to be more prosperous.

Court Witness is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India.

Court Witness’ previous postcards:

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