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The 3 biggest challenges nearly every first-generation advocate will face (and some sound advice) by @atti_cus

An up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?”

This is how Tom Cruise describes his relationship with Cuba Gooding, Jr in the movie Jerry Maguire.

It is also how most first-generation, financially self dependent, ill-networked litigating lawyers will describe their initial years at work.

The following nuggets of wisdom are a result of several ‘interesting’ experiences (to put it politely) that I and some of my friends have gone through.

1. Money. There will be very little of it, if at all.

A well known senior lawyer practising at the Delhi High Court once told me:

Juniors should be grateful for anything they’re paid for the ‘first few years’, after all, college doesn’t even teach the basics of practising in courts.

Juniors at his office start with a monthly salary of Rs 5,000. He’s a generous man.

One of the most successful lawyers in India doesn’t pay his juniors a dime for the first one year.

The chances of working with a well-paying lawyer/law firm are very few unless you’re from one of the national law schools or belong to a well-connected family.

Wait, scratch that.

The chances are very few, simply because there are very few lawyers / law firms which pay a respectable amount.

Two reasons are offered by most lawyers:

a) Law School leaves you ill-prepared for practising before courts.

It takes a few months before a fresh graduate is of any use for an experienced lawyer.

There is a fair bit of truth in the first half of this reason.

The irony however is that the Bar Council of India, which is a body of several accomplished lawyers, regulates law schools.

So basically, lawyers decide what/how law will be taught, only to (rightly) claim later that the training imparted by a system they regulate isn’t good enough.

b) ‘You shouldn’t even think about money when you start, you should focus on work.

Believe it or not, the practice of paying juniors a pittance is considered a proud custom.

Senior lawyers speak fondly of how even they weren’t paid anything respectable when they started and emotionally communicate to the fresh graduate that the baton of this custom is being passed on to him/her.

I’ve heard instances of lawyers taking offense at their associates asking them how much they will be paid.

Advice: Try to compensate for what law school doesn’t teach you by working hard in your internships and don’t hesitate from having a polite and honest conversation with your senior about your remuneration (or lack thereof).

2. Prejudiced and sometimes predatory clients

Everyone wants to get Harish Salve and Ram Jethmalani to fight their case.

Those who can’t afford them / don’t have the kind of cases these lawyers take, go to other lawyers.

Clients, like banks, want to give you their money / work if they’re reasonably certain that you don’t need it

Since lawyers are prohibited from advertising, how does a litigant decide which lawyer to engage? The answer is a combination of “Let me ask my friends / family / colleagues” followed by an analysis of how big the office / cars / clientele of the lawyer in question is.

“He’s so rich, he must be a good lawyer’ is the popular perception. Clients, like banks, want to give you their money / work if they’re reasonably certain that you don’t need it.

They assess these needs by how fancy your office is and how many cars you have. (Yes, they do.)

Some Clients even try to exploit young lawyers if they know that the lawyer in question is desperate for work.

Payments will be delayed and sometimes never made.

Some people offer tons of future paid work if only a particular assignment is done for free.

The work never comes, of course.

Advice: To counter the prejudice, try and work out an office sharing relationship of some sort with a friend or a senior - it will make a major difference. Do not share with your clients that you’re struggling. To put it very crudely, fake it till you make it. To counter the predatory tendencies, always request that a part of the fees is paid in advance to you. If this isn’t possible and the work represents a great learning opportunity, do the work expecting that the promises made to you will not be fulfilled, it will prevent disillusionment.

3. Your family will be the brand ambassador of an MBA Degree

 

Mom, I had a great interview with a lawyer I applied to and I’m starting work tomorrow. Congratulations beta! What is your annual package? Beta?

Beta?

1 year later:

Beta there’s still time, why don’t you pursue an MBA and get a ‘Normal’ Job’?

If your family isn’t aware of the unique customs of this profession, chances are you will have a hard time convincing them that you’re not supposed to even ‘think about money for a few years’ while sacrificing any notions of work-life balance that you or your loved ones may have had for your life.

You will be constantly reminded of all your cousins and friends who, having attained the popular MBA degree, have ‘settled down’ with good ‘packages’.

Advice: Talk to your yourself and then your parents about your reasons for doing this. Persevere.

This post isn’t meant to discourage aspiring lawyers.

If you’re passionate about practising law, there are few professions which are as fulfilling and as challenging.

Also, for those of you who care, make sure the next generation doesn’t have to go through the same obstacle course that you did, for starters by paying a respectable amount of money.

Dushyant Arora is a Delhi-based advocate. He tweets at @atti_cus

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