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S&R partner Rajat Sethi’s memories of Arun Jaitley: A remarkable man

Arun Jaitley: A one of a kind lawyer
Arun Jaitley: A one of a kind lawyer

Over the last several days, many have remembered Mr. Arun Jaitley as a politician, as a person, as a mentor, as a friend, as a colleague, and as a devoted family man.

When I learnt of his demise on 24 August, memories came flooding back. Many of these were of the personas described above – he was indeed a colossus with a larger than life personality. However, I realize I knew him best as a lawyer. I worked in his chambers from July 1996 to October 1999, and was thus fortunate, in that brief period, to have a ringside view of his sparring in court and his interactions with lawyers and clients outside court.

What were the reasons for his spectacular success as a lawyer? A few thoughts are set out below.

To me, the most striking aspect of Mr. Jaitley’s advocacy was his ability to present the case on a larger canvas. He had great knowledge of the law, a superb memory and was one of the most articulate lawyers that one has come across, but it was really his ability to draw upon a broader set of experiences and his deeper understanding of the people around him – the Judge, the opposing lawyer, the instructing lawyer, the client, and the opposing client, that set him apart. All of this was consistently brought to bear on his presentation in court. He could operate very well in an intellectual mode and engage in legal hair-splitting as well as, if not better than, any one else. But that was not his default mode. His default mode was to seek to present to the court a broader understanding of the issues at hand, and only then consider the facts and the law. That single attribute, in my view, distinguished him from very good lawyers, and made him one of the leading lawyers of our times.

A second aspect of his personality as a lawyer which I think deserves to be emphasized was his integrity. Of course, in financial matter, he observed the utmost rectitude and restraint. However, this attribute went far beyond financial propriety. While he was an extremely sought after counsel and had numerous other commitments, he always found the mind space and the time to undertake matters without financial considerations. Equally, there were matters and clients he tended to find a reason to avoid, irrespective of the levels of fee available. This screening was based on his own internal moral review mechanism. The “blacklisted” clients could come and see him, and were given an audience, but he would not act for them or provide them written opinions. Judges invariably regarded him as a fair counsel and tended to be reassured by his presence, secure in the knowledge that he would not encourage them to take any missteps. He had a strong work ethic and was relentless with his preparation for matters. His moments of relaxation were inextricably mixed with his work – the discussions on the state of the world in between matters, his lunch break with his colleagues who were also his life-long friends and weekend conferences for Monday matters woven in with his non-law related pursuits. He did not require any marketing and no effort was made to seek any work or matter. He was accustomed to everyone praising his performance in court, but did not invite praise, and moved very quickly from one matter to another. Superficially it could appear on occasion that he was taking a conservative view on certain issues, but for him actions spoke louder than words. An extremely strong liberal streak was reflected in the positions he consistently adopted and the cases he took up.

A third pillar of his immense success as a lawyer in my view was his inter-personal relationships. He was rarely condescending with lawyers instructing him, and despite his busy schedules and multiple commitments, the initial part of any conference with him as legions of lawyers will testify, was devoted to his asking the instructing lawyer about the instructing lawyer’s practise, family and other shared experiences – all information that was volunteered to him was then duly filed away in his mind to be drawn upon for his next encounter with them. If the instructing lawyer made even half an insightful point, he or she would be accorded a look of approval – it would be presented in court the next day with a few dimensions added to it. He was open to absorbing new points that had not occurred to him and was comfortable with these points originating from anywhere, including the junior-most lawyer in the room. While he had a well-known, well-honed and well-timed skill of repartee, it was rarely offensive or even caustic. His response would be quick, sharp and, most importantly, tinged with a sense of humour and his inimitable play on words. It would, without fail, draw a chuckle or two from the Judge and, at times, even the opposing lawyer. He rarely ever took the bait in courtrooms (this in Delhi, where, I dare say, somewhat more aggressive behaviour is perhaps a norm). He could easily ignore any barbs, sit back, observe, listen and respond with logic in a measured fashion. It is said that true power lies in restraint and he exemplified it in the courtroom. This went a long way in forging life-long and enduring inter-personal relationships with his contemporaries since his advocacy was bereft of personal attacks whatever be the provocation. It seemed to me as a viewer that this approach also brought out the best in other participants in court proceedings.

These qualities, among others, together led to his presentations in court often transcending strong beliefs and barriers. He will be remembered and deeply missed. He was a remarkable man.

Rajat Sethi is a partner at S&R Associates in Mumbai.

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