This article is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, CEO, LawSikho.
Litigation! Something that every law graduate is attracted to and scared of in equal measures.
The most difficult part of litigation is that you start with a very low income. The most alluring part is that you are going to earn a lot if you succeed. How much?
Before Mukul Rohatgi became Attorney General, he was reported to be earning 300 Cr per year in the media.
Forget such high profile lawyers, it is well known that even far lesser known lawyers can charge INR 50,000 – 1,00,000 for a single appearance even in lower courts. Even junior lawyers can make lakhs from a single case.
There can’t be any doubt that you can make a lot of money from law practice. Yes, the initial pay in a law firm may be great, and in-house legal departments of big companies can give you security, and judiciary can give you prestige, but if it comes to money, power and fame, nothing comes close to litigation in the long run, provided you can break into the hallowed circles of successful lawyers.
So let’s say you bite the bullet and decide to litigate. What are the challenges you are going to face?
You need to be part of the right community and you don’t know how
There are a lot of lawyers. However, most do not matter. The successful lawyers usually belong to a close-knit small community. You want to find this community and become a part of it. There are some courts where there may be multiple such communities. However, they will not accept you as one of them until they see if you have substance or not and whether you can be trusted.
You need to put in the effort. It’s worth it. If you have access to the right people, say through your college seniors and alumni community, as many NLUs and universities like Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge etc. tend to have, that will make life far easier. LawSikho has a powerful community too, with thousands of progressive lawyers having done our courses, and referring work to each other from all corners of India and even abroad.
Being part of such a supportive community makes life easier as a beginner. Those seniors can show you the ropes and take you under their wings. They don’t have to be formally your senior in whose chamber you are interning. They will informally advice you and guide you at all times. This is critical for success.
You will not know which lawyers you need to observe and emulate
Many lawyers appear successful and have all the trappings of success. But in reality, it’s a pretence. You do not want to waste your time with these lawyers. You don’t want to waste your time shoring up their ego and fueling their hunger for showing off.
I suspect that some old lawyers just take in juniors because they feel lonely otherwise, while they have little exposure or training to offer! There are other lawyers who want you to serve as cheap labour in his chambers and do not want you to grow your own wings ever. Be very careful about which seniors you associate with.
Check how their previous juniors are doing? Are they doing well? That’s a good sign. It does not matter if your senior is harsh, or a tough taskmaster. Expect to work hard. But going hard in the wrong direction is not of any use.
The world of courts and litigators will make no sense to you in the beginning
There are no clear hierarchy or rules of how you operate in the legal industry. However, unwritten rules are plenty in number! That makes your job as a newcomer, as you are trying to figure out how it works, doubly hard.
Peer interactions and evaluation are greatly valued in the litigation circles. Many discussions and interactions may feel bizarre for newcomers. You may find it hard to understand when to speak up and when you are expected to be quiet!
These lawyers are supported by a vibrant ecosystem of clerks, office boys, court staff and administrative staff who seem to speak a different language altogether.
A new entrant might feel like a confused outsider in this fluid system, unaware of its functioning. This is fuelled by the fact that the members of this ecosystem to take a while adjusting to new faces and confused voices.
There might be many instances wherein one is sent from one table to the next just to unearth a file that has been buried under multiple files in the scrutiny branch. There might be instances wherein the court clerk just refuses to let one see the order sheet as he/she is not on Vakalath. There might be instances where the Presiding Officer refuses to adjourn the matter and rather demand to hear the arguments of this junior (probably yourself) for the case.
One’s patience, one’s presence of mind and one’s ability to maintain his/her cool despite trying situations are tested repeatedly. Then one day, finally, you get comfortable with the chaos, buzz and constant pressure of the litigation life and it all begins to make perfect sense.
Long and irregular work hours
It is not unusual for junior litigators to fall sick from sheer exhaustion, lack of sleep and overwork. There is strict timing when you must show up at the chamber to carry files to the court, but there is no telling when you are going home. It is usually safe to assume that you will be going back well past midnight.
You will consider yourself lucky if you get a few hours of sound sleep.
It’s not just long hours, but the sheer amount of alertness you need to have is incredible for most other people.
The legal profession is demanding and requires an individual to be in switched ‘on’ all the time. Even while one is waiting in the court hall for the matter to be called out, you must be paying attention or all hell may break loose.
Inattention may not just cost one a hearing, but may also cost a client his case.
However, keeping this up might become quite difficult within a few days as the work hours are long and variable.
Social life definitely takes a hit and Sunday seems to be the only day that one can tune into Netflix. Added to this, the time spent at work would involve both physical and mental work leaving one’s body and mind exhausted at the end of the day. This, in turn, can have a debilitating effect on one’s health.
The constant pressure and stress also often pushes young lawyers towards smoking and drinking excessively, further injuring their health. Infrequent food intake or skipping lunches in order to complete some urgent pending work will only make matters worse.
Therefore, it becomes very essential that as a fresher, one does not sideline the obvious ‘take care of your health’ statement and tries to manage time and rectify these poor habits. Those who fail to do so soon discover that they are not able to continue as a litigator and have to look for a more sane job.
Taking some time off to rejuvenate oneself or spending a few extra minutes in the day chewing one’s food rather than gulping it down is definitely not a reflection of the poor commitment to one’s work but is essential to keep up his/her productivity and positive contributions in the long run.
But yes, please be mentally prepared to work very, very hard. The first year is probably the hardest and over time you get more used to that hectic pace and get better at managing your time.
Seeing no tangible results
This challenge strictly stems from fresher’s expectations. For nearly 20 years, this fresher has only been accustomed to an effort-result approach:
Study for the exams, pass them.
Participate in competitions, win awards and medals.
Organise events and fest, generate revenue and have fun.
Usually, effort-reward cycles are short.
Therefore, it is rather obvious that you would expect to see immediate, quantifiable results of activities undertaken and tasks completed during your work hours. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and might leave you rather disappointed when it comes to litigation career.
This instant gratification in terms of tangible results like a quantifiable evaluation or immediate rewards of one’s progress in a month, or even in a year, just does not exist in this profession.
Neither is there any promise of monetary gains happening anytime soon. Only one thing is certain that it will take a while to start earning even a subsistence wage. This is demotivating. It becomes rather important that one adjusts, rather lowers, one’s expectations and concentrates more on the quality and quantity of input rather than evaluating the output.
The progress, on all fronts, will show gradually. It is just a matter of time and perseverance.
Overnight successes take many, many years to develop and one day all of a sudden amazing results begin to show! However, most people give up far earlier.
You will be expected to know everything and be updated about everything
As a young litigator, you may not always be appreciated for what you know, but you will almost certainly be always judged for what you don’t know.
The common expectation is that advocates are well-informed and are abreast with the latest developments in the social, political and legal arena. They not only need to be knowledgeable about whatever legal case has turned up, but they must even be able to enthusiastically participate in the banter and trivia that lawyers are always engaging in. If you can’t, it is a problem!
A long day at work is not a good excuse to skip reading the news or not knowing the latest notifications regarding GST or the IBC or whatever else you are remotely expected to know would be embarrassing. As an advocate is often revered for his or her vast knowledge bank, it is imperative that a new litigator ensures that voracious reading becomes an inextricable part of his/her daily life.
You are probably not used to such rigorous learning habits. But you better begin to pick this up without wasting any time!
Your idealism is not going to cut ice
Most law students graduate with a false sense of idealism, quite naturally so. Idealism is not bad and can propel one to great heights, but naivety is of no use. It can be the cause of your downfall. For most law students, idealism comes coupled with naivety and lack of pragmatism.
Having lived the idea that law is a ‘noble’ profession meant to ‘serve’ the public, graduates feel that they will be an agent for positive change. They feel like the harbingers of an era of fairness and justice. Overcoming this might seem especially difficult as this would also involve silencing the ego that accompanies the nobility that is believed to be so innate in this profession.
The legal system is riddled with loopholes and has its fair share of backlogs, nepotism and corruption. It becomes quite difficult for an entrant to experience the evils that were only hearsay a few months ago. Cheap idealism does not cut the ice here, rather you need to be resilient, resourceful, truly courageous to stay honest, develop professional integrity, protect your reputation without stepping on too many toes and making enemies right from the beginning that put your survival in jeopardy.
I want you to be a robust idealist who wins the long war and not a naive one who loses battles after battles and give up.
Re-calibrating your attitude towards paperwork and clerical tasks
Oftentimes, and this seems to be especially true in India, we accord some disdain towards work that does not require much of a mental effort. As a fresh graduate from law school, a natural expectation is that a typical day in ones ‘dream job’ would involve bits of drafting, court work, client meetings and senior briefings. Basically a lot of cerebral work.
However, in reality, it involves a lot of trips to the photocopying shop, hours in the court basement waiting for certified copies, precious minutes updating the diary and case dockets and other clerical/administrative work.
With this expectation reality-gap existing, one might have serious second thoughts about the work that they are doing.
However, it is this expectation-reality gap that needs to be discarded at the earliest, as these otherwise mundane and seemingly simple logistical works have considerable ramifications on one’s practice as a whole.
An error in entering a date in the diary, non-service of petition copy to the respondent before filing the petition, missing pages in the office copy of the plaint filed in court are all fatal to one’s practice in the long run. Therefore, no work must be considered trivial and insignificant and efforts should be commensurate to the demands of the job.
Your survival should not depend on what you earn from litigation
You don’t make subsistence amount from litigation these days initially. This is especially true for cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. If you go into litigation as a junior, chances are high that Uber drivers, Amazon and Zomato delivery boys, and even local chaiwallahs and carpenters will earn more than you. Basically, you will find it hard to pay rent even in the cheapest areas of town.
Tons of lawyers pay their juniors just Rs 10,000- 15,000 per month in Delhi. In Calcutta, I know juniors who are paid INR 5,000-6,000. Very few litigators pay at least Rs. 25,000-30,000. In Mumbai many seniors don’t pay at all, and allow the junior to make money by taking up their own matters, but where do you get your own matters?!
Basically, you can’t count on your income, or rather a tiny stipend, that you receive. You have to understand that this is a period of training, and you are easily replaceable. All senior lawyers have tons of great junior lawyers wanting to get an opportunity to even get a chance to sit in a good seniors office.
So you need to either receive support from parents, or you need to have some savings to survive for 2-3 years at least, or you need to have an alternate income that sees you through this lean period.
If you do your work well, this lean period should get over within 3-5 years. But how will you survive these 3-5 years? You must plan ahead. Without a clear plan, you will crash and burn. A vast majority of junior lawyers quit during this period only because they do not foresee or think through this situation.
I suggest to budding litigators that they must learn contract drafting and get some contract drafting work on the side while they are trying to build a counsel practice. This has many benefits.
You can easily charge INR 10,000 for a commercial contract, if not INR 20-30,000. If you start drafting contracts, you can do this work even at the dead of the night! And not only that, while getting litigation work is hard, getting contract drafting work is far easier. People trust non-dispute work much easily to newer lawyers, especially for price reasons.
You draft a few of those and your finances are sorted for the month. And you can focus on the bigger picture and your counsel practice for the rest of the time.
Also, some of those drafting clients will eventually run into trouble with their counterparty over something or the other. If they have worked with you for a while and you have been good, chances are higher that they may then come to you rather than a counsel with whom they have no previous experience.
I will strongly recommend that you take up this commercial contract drafting course and invest a bit of time and money towards this end if you are going to go into litigation practice.
Very slow pace of learning
You learn very slowly in most chambers. Busy seniors have barely a few minutes to talk to you in a day, and they rarely have a deliberate system geared towards training you.
You learn through trials and errors, a lot of painful stumblings, an earful of scoldings, insults and embarrassing moments. Ask the successful litigators today about if they had this experience (unless they had protective family members or mentors who took care of them), and they will have quite a few stories to share.
Almost all good litigators are self-taught. They absorbed the knowledge against all odds through sheer determination and strength of will. They kept their head down and soldiered on for years and years till they could stand on their own feet.
It need not be so hard. We can help you to get the basics and the grammar of litigation in place. We can teach you drafting, procedure and strategic aspects which will help you to learn faster and deliver results to clients. Here are our litigation related courses that can help you to go a long way and cut down the time taken to learn through unsystematic self-learning:
- Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy
- Certificate Course in Advanced Civil Litigation: Practice, Procedure and Drafting
You will have to learn to handle people
Probably one of the most difficult challenges in the lot is to learn how to manage/ deal with/ handle one’s clients, clerks, court staff and colleagues (seniors and peers alike).
It becomes especially challenging as this involves a need to don different masks in front of different individuals. One’s persona and approach need to drastically change in light of the person in front of them because completing one’s tasks successfully are of paramount importance.
One’s communication skills would need improvement and this would not just involve a significantly thicker local accent but also generous layers of praises for the staff’s continual support and a sympathetic ear to the client’s unending problems. You will probably even need friends in the registry who feel obliged to help you out and guide you out of imminent problems. Over time, with the guidance of one’s senior and a few not-so-nice experiences one tends to find this challenge a lot less burdensome.
I would also strongly recommend that you consider taking up our course on law practice management. Though it is primarily intended for more mature lawyers, as a young lawyer if you can build those good habits and develop a powerful vision about the future of your practice, it will take you very far.
I thank Akarshita Yaji, a practicing advocate in Bangalore and a graduate of Christ University, based on whose input and significant write up I was able to write this note. If you find it useful, or disagree, or have any evidences or stories to share, do share your opinion in comments and emails and I would be happy to update the article further.