Taking the decision to build a career in litigation requires courage and determination. It is a difficult journey.
One of the questions people have when they set out to build a career in litigation is about backup plans. What are their backup options, if, for some reason, a career in litigation does not work out? Or simply, if they choose to shift to a different career, what are their alternatives? Does the prior litigation experience count in their favour, or is it irrelevant?
Let us take a look at the options available for litigators in a law firm and in the in-house legal department of a company.
Some of you may also be interested in becoming a judge, which we will discuss in a separate article.
Dispute resolution team of a law firm
Law firms are frequently looking to hire experienced litigators to head or work in their dispute resolution practice. Dispute resolution is subdivided into different kinds of sub-practice areas, so if you are not senior enough to head the entire dispute resolution practice area, you still have the opportunity to manage a team.
For example, you could handle insolvency and bankruptcy work, or white-collar crime work, and have a team of 3-5 litigators who report to you.
From time to time, law firms commence a new litigation practice around an emerging area or diversify their existing litigation practice. For example, a law firm which primarily performed investment disputes-related and arbitration work for its corporate clients may intend to hire a litigation partner to handle work around money laundering, black money act, or Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, 2018 etc.
If you want to work in a law firm, therefore, business focussed specialized litigation experience is very useful because of that reason.
For example, if you have specialized experience in regulatory litigation, such as before SAT, TDSAT, NCLAT or APTEL, that is highly attractive to a law firm for lateral hire.
Why is your experience as a litigator valuable for a law firm?
- As a litigator, you have built a practice from the ground level, which means you are familiar with building something from scratch. Therefore, it is understood that you will be able to help a law firm in building a new practice area from scratch, as you are familiar with the challenges during different stages of creation and growth of a new practice area.
- Successful litigators are used to taking a high-level of accountability for their actions. While they cannot guarantee successful outcomes, their effectiveness and success depend on the degree to which they can take accountability for a client’s case. They do not depend on multiple disclaimers and exceptions in their advice or their argumentative work. As their advice is very direct, clients appreciate it.
- A lot of commercial law firm advice is limited to identification of the applicable law and delegated legislation (rules, notifications and circulars), its interpretation and identification of available case law to clarify any grey areas. However, a lot of strategic advice may not have clear answers. In fact, regulatory authorities may not act as per the correct interpretation of the law. In this regard, litigators find it easier to plan a few steps ahead and accommodate the subsequent strategy if a few things go wrong along the way. By way of an example, an Income Tax Officer may use a provision of the Income Tax Act in a very different way for assessment from the instructions of the Supreme Court on the topic. A litigator is able to factor these events in advice or strategic work pertaining to the clients. For this reason, a litigator’s advice can potentially be more end-to-end, richer and holistic.
- A litigator’s inputs are relevant not just for the dispute resolution practice, but for the transactions and the advisory team as well. A legal opinion, a contract or an innovative legal structure for a large transaction is often reviewed from a dispute resolution perspective as well, to ensure minimal litigation or regulatory risk. Inputs suggested by litigators at this stage are indispensable. This is one of the reasons why most law firms want to build a litigation team in-house, that is, to improve the overall quality and superiority of their transactional and advisory work.
- Litigation work is very technical and high-margin work, and least likely to be adversely affected by technological or market developments which may, to some extent, render corporate lawyers redundant. For example, the growth of in-house legal has taken away a lot of work from law firms in the last 10 years. Use of sophisticated AI in due diligence and contract drafting has led to less lawyers billing for these tasks. In comparison, even though litigation-work and justice delivery has scope for automation, the work of a litigator is not so easily dispensable.
If you join a firm with some experience as a litigator, you may have a certain level of freedom and flexibility to build new practice areas within the firm. You may also have the opportunity to move in with your juniors or hire new people in your team, which can be very exciting.
The opportunity to build your own team within a law firm affords a different kind of perspective and work satisfaction. While you enjoy the benefits and stability of a law firm job, your prior experience enables you to retain the freedom to customize your working style to a significant extent, which is not a privilege that is regularly enjoyed in a law firm.
However, whether or not a law firm gives you such opportunities will depend a lot on your prior organisation building experience as well as a reputation as a litigator which would often define your ability to attract clients within a law firm’s business development ecosystem.
In-house litigation teams in companies
Indian companies are expanding globally, and with the increasing complexity of the regulatory framework in India, the size of their in-house legal teams is increasing. The in-house legal team of some companies and banks is often larger than a law firm. For example, the Tata Group employs around 700 lawyers, Mahindra & Mahindra has around 60 lawyers in the parent company and more than 400 lawyers at the group level. ICICI Group’s banking, insurance, securities and venture business employs around 300 lawyers according to publicly available data.
For these companies, the volume of litigation work can be huge. Sometimes a large company may be dealing with tens of thousands of ongoing litigation at a time. These companies divide their in-house legal teams into litigation and other verticals. Further, if a company is operating in a heavily regulated or litigation-prone sector, such as banking, insurance, tobacco, liquor, media and entertainment, infrastructure, it is likely to have a separate in-house litigation vertical within the in-house legal team. Mahindra is an example of this (see Livemint article here).
Do you know the volume or scale of litigation work in these companies? As per the Hindu Business Line article here, Hemant Kanoria, a promoter of the SREI group, an Indian conglomerate with a global presence across multiple industry sectors, stated that more than 500,000 crores are locked up in infrastructure disputes.
Can you imagine the experience of creating strategies for the entire company or the group to work on disputes of such high value and importance?
Now that you recognize the opportunity for a litigator in an in-house legal team of a company, you might want to look more at the advantages of being a litigator.
Several litigators who subsequently moved into the in-house team of a company shared the following advantages in their new role, which arises from their prior litigation experience:
- An in-house counsel with prior litigation experience has a key role to play in the development of the in-house strategy for work which involves complex structuring or litigation risk. This part of the exercise requires extensive involvement with the promoters and the key business heads. It is a business strategy-related exercise. Based on this strategy, law firms are briefed for the execution of follow-on transactional and structuring work.
- An in-house counsel with a litigation experience plays a crucial role in the formulation of national and international dispute resolution and enforcement strategy with the board and the management, in litigation-prone sectors.
- A litigator with prior experience is highly capable of working effectively with lawyers from different jurisdictions and forums across the country and ensure a high quality of output from them. If someone in this role does not have prior litigation experience, he or she may not be able to effectively control the case strategy or obtain favourable outcomes. Also, the costs incurred may be much higher.
- Some in-house counsels with litigation experience say that court-related work gives them the ability to think on their feet and make quick decisions, which is highly relevant for formulation of strategy in industries which are rapidly developing. It also enables them to have a lot of clarity about their advice.
- Sector-specific or forum-specific experience can come in handy too, so play to your strengths. For example, if you have worked as a tax lawyer, you will have significant advantages in working with a company like ITC, which has a lot of tax disputes. If you have recovery litigation-related experience, working at a bank may be beneficial. If you have experience of securities litigation, working at a stock brokerage may be lucrative.
- Indian lawyers have a lot to contribute to the global expansion of Indian companies into other regions such as the Middle East, Africa, South-East Asia, etc. Insights acquired from the experience of dealing with Indian regulators and the legal system are useful in handling disputes-related scenarios offshore as well, especially in countries where the legal system has developed from the common law and which do not have the best international law firms to advise, or where approaching these firms is not cost-effective for the Indian promoter.
Thus, irrespective of whether you work in a law firm or as an in-house counsel in a company, your prior litigation experience is the secret ingredient that sets you apart, in comparison to your peers.
The opportunity to transition into a career at a law firm or as an in-house counsel is available early in your career, say, after 2-3 years of experience or even, later on, say, after 7-10 years or afterwards.
In order that you are able to benefit from new opportunities in your career, you will need to ensure you develop a personal brand of your own and cultivate professional relationships with partners at law firms, general counsels and even with headhunters. Also, keep in mind that the law firm or company acting on the other party’s side may also be a potential recruiter in future, so treat them with respect and dignity, while taking care of your client’s interest. We address a lot of these issues in online classes for learners who have taken up the Lawsikho Master Access, a Lawsikho Diploma or an Executive Certificate Course.
If you want to explore a career in litigation, you can take a look at a course on civil litigation, criminal litigation and arbitration (extremely relevant for a generalist’s profile) or insolvency and bankruptcy code to learn practical legal work around these areas. The executive certificate course on corporate taxation and the Companies Act diploma (includes NCLT and SAT litigation) are relevant if you want to specialize in litigation work pertaining to a specific sector. If you are interested in more than one or two courses, remember that the Master Access may provide you unlimited access (see the terms on the page) and a significant discount over the per course price you will pay, if you enrol in the courses individually. Master Access is currently not open for subscription. Keep an eye here to know when we will launch it again.
We are going to launch an attractive package for lawyers who are looking to do only litigation courses. Again, keep an eye on this space.