This article is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee and Suman Chatterjee, Team LawSikho.
While everyone in social media is talking about Sushant Singh Rajput and the devastating effects of the nepotism in Bollywood on him, a question arose in my mind.
“Is nepotism restricted only in the realms of Bollywood?”
What do you think?
If you ask my answer, I would say, of course not. The truth is, it is found everywhere. Whether it is corporate, academics, sports, entertainment, nepotism seems to be something that you cannot escape.
What about the profession of law?
Law has always been an openly and proudly nepotistic profession. Just look at the number of Supreme Court judges who had a family member who was a Supreme Court judge before them, and you will wonder if only the children and relatives of judges are so exceptionally brighter and suitable to make it to the Supreme Court.
And of course, it is normal in this profession that children of a successful senior advocate or a law firm owner would be expected to inherit the practice or the firm.
The elite have many advantages in the legal profession, money and access being just two of them. It is so normal and so commonplace here that it is hard to recognize a lot of things as nepotism, because we have come to accept them.
Nepotism festers rather easily in the legal profession. And the reason is obvious. Network and trust is a big thing in this profession. Who knows you matter as much as, and sometimes more than how much law you know. Especially in the beginning of your career, your network and peer support is a key factor.
Who amongst you haven’t heard of a classmate who wasn’t the brightest but always got the best internships thanks to his family connections!
That way, the legal industry is not all that different from the film industry. And this is an ideal condition for nepotism to breed!
Many law students and young lawyers often find it frustrating when they see children of illustrious parents climbing to great heights seemingly on elevators while they climb through treacherous hilly terrain on foot.
And there are older lawyers who blame nepotism for their failure in the legal profession.
However, the truth is not so simple. First generation lawyers have been doing extremely well in the legal profession for a while.
While we need to acknowledge and question the nepotism in the profession, it would be unfair and inappropriate to ascribe every success of a second or third generation lawyer to nepotism. And we need to keep checking if we are deceiving ourselves and using the excuse of nepotism to justify our own lack of initiative, execution or success.
What is nepotism
Here’s what Merriam Webster says:
But when it plays out in real life, it probably looks like this:
Daniel Alarcon, a novelist, journalist and an award-winning radio producer, said, “nepotism is the lowest and least imaginative form of corruption.” I also read somewhere where it was defined as “a disease that cannot be transmitted but rather inherited.”
Still not getting what nepotism is?
When you hire your friend or nephew to play in your sports team just because they wanted to play ignoring other better candidates, it is nepotism.
It’s actually not as simple as that though.
Just that someone is favorited for a particular task, it does not mean that it is irrational and bad. We will see that later in this email.
Nepotism can look like competence
Nepotism often masquerades as talent and competence.
You may look at the Supreme Court judge, whose father was also a Supreme Court judge and wonder if nepotism played a part. But then you may discover that the same judge went to Harvard or Cambridge. He has written and published books with top international publishers. Maybe he has written joint research papers with top academicians around the world while he was still a student. Also, he has worked with a top law firm for a while and practiced in a High Court very successfully.
So of course, he is clearly very talented!
But another way to think of this is:
How difficult is it to get a law firm job when your father was a Supreme Court judge? How difficult is it for your father to make a quick phone call to the managing partner of the top law firm, or just ask someone in his office to make that call discreetly, in fact?
How difficult is it to find a publisher or illustrious co-authors when the whole legal establishment wants to oblige you with a favour? How difficult is it to get a glowing recommendation from even a head of state while applying to Harvard?
And how difficult is it to find a senior to take you under his or her wing, or to even get a lot of matters referred through a network always eager to be in your good books?
Most of the time, we will never know how much was true competence and how much is just appearances.
That said, all children of judges do not succeed, so nepotism is not almighty or all encompassing. It is only the meritorious among the children of the legal elite who tend to make the best of such favourable situations, while many others completely fail to make any sort of mark.
Massive pressure on children of successful lawyers and judges
It is not all stars and roses for children born in illustrious legal families. They often face massive pressure of expectations. They often do not have any agency or choice in what they are supposed to do. It is as if by default that they are supposed to become lawyers or judges. Someone else is making the plan for their career.
On the top of that, they are expected to perform like their father or mother by clients from day 1, which is not realistic at all!
Many try to undermine them just due to their lineage. They don’t like that someone is born into privilege and they will try to make things difficult at every turn.
Many children from powerful legal families move to a different city where nobody knows them to start their career, in law or otherwise, just to avoid that continuous pressure.
It is not always nepotism
Some law firms in India have rules against nepotism. For instance, a partner at JSA cannot hire his own, or another partner’s children or family members into the firm.
They made this rule to make sure that it always remains a professional firm and does not become anyone’s family turf.
Children of successful lawyers have a right to succeed if they can demonstrate their merit. It is unfair to always write off their success as privilege. It is a form of prejudice to always assume the worst about them.
Another reason why family is preferred in some businesses is because it works. Many of India’s top businesses have been hereditary. Take the Haldiram Bhujiawala business empire for example. It earns over 1 billion USD in revenue in a year, and has been built over 3 generations by the same Agarwal family.
It is so hard to trust partners and employees in the legal profession. Look at the rate at which law firms break up, partners leave with business, and sometimes cripple the original founder. It has happened many times. Naturally, many law firm founders are paranoid, and find their own family members far easier to trust.
I have seen several law firm founders broken and desolate when the business they built up over decades were taken over by partners who engineered mutinies, walked out with clients and employees, unabashedly, unapologetically.
Don’t you think that the same founder, when she builds up her firm again, would prefer people who are from her trusted circles, or if possible, her own family?
Would that be nepotism? Maybe. Will that be a smart business decision? Perhaps. Can I blame her? Absolutely not.
They are very well within their rights to prefer their family over strangers. It is a pure survival instinct.
As per this Psychology Today article, it has been found that it’s likely that people tend to assume favouritism whenever a relative is hired, regardless of whether the question of merit is justified or not.
But as we navigate this complicated topic of nepotism, we should develop a better understanding of what it really is and what it is not, rather than develop a biased, one-sided view about nepotism, which is rife on the internet.
How can we stop nepotism?
Nepotism can give someone a leg up. But even in the film industry, it has its limits. Same for the legal industry.
Nobody can really stop your rise if you have merit, and if you consistently work towards your goal.
Very often, the people who make it in an industry on their own, make it easy for their children or siblings to join the industry. It is an instinct of every person to help the people they love.
The only way this can change if nepotism becomes culturally unacceptable in our society. If it is considered morally reprehensible, nepotism could come to an end.
A good example is that of Rahul Gandhi. While I do not believe in the pappu propaganda, and he comes across as a reasonable, honest person to many of us, he is facing a huge backlash and crisis of faith because it is believed that he has got his position in the Congress only because of his family lineage.
The Congress itself has faced setbacks after setbacks due to its reliance on one family to helm the party.
India has begun to be suspicious of nepotism, and the new generation detests it. It may appear that there is a new public morality on the rise, where nepotism in public life is seen as a sin.
Nepotism will get a massive push back in public life if this trend continues. But short of a massive socio-cultural shift like this, nothing can stop nepotism.
What if you have to fight nepotism in your own career
Surely, you will have to encounter it in the legal profession.
I had to when I started in the legal education business.
There were big online education companies started by big people, with lots of fanfare and backing from top lawyers. They had friends at the Supreme Court, at BCI, and where not!
They could get legendary lawyers in Delhi to come and take a few sessions for them, or do some marketing videos on their YouTube channel, which was unimaginable for us!
One of them got a massive multi-crore BCI contract without any bidding process, while their classmate was the convenor of the bar exam. Of course, we do not know if there was nepotism, though there was no bidding process followed, and the next BCI president Manan Kumar Mishra alleged in writing (to LegallyIndia) that there was financial irregularity as the same company submitted a 30% lower bid than what they got paid originally, next time when there was actual bidding!
This company raised tens of crores in funding, including from managing partners of India’s top law firms. I am sure having amazing connections helped.
They outspent us 1:50 when it came to marketing. Their videos were sleeker. They hired top professionals while we had a very small budget and no options for advertising.
And nothing worked. They failed, disintegrated, disappeared.
We succeeded, with little resources and no such connections. We fought on, improving ourselves every step of the way. We improved day by day.
We are here and they are not.
I could give other examples. But I think you know of enough examples all around you – of self made lawyers who built an empire and legacy on their own.
Capital, access, power, nepotism – you can beat all that, with passion, perseverance and commitment. It has been done in human history again and again, and today the ground is prepared better than ever for your success to take root.
You have your strengths, and you can play according to those strengths.
But you will have to focus on one thing: become really good at what you do.
And then you will have to keep getting better. When you stagnate, the game is over.
What if this happens…
Lets say, you are applying for an associate’s position at your favourite top tier law firm. In the interview room, you find out that the other interviewee is a close relative of a senior partner at the firm.
Should you leave right away?
I do not think so.
You should expect it to happen. You should prepare for it.
No law firm can afford to make bad hiring decisions based on nepotism all the time and still do well in the market. They need talented lawyers. They will hire you if you are that good and attractive hire.
Instead of cursing your luck about how easily the other guy is getting opportunities, you should focus on how to be 100 times better at your work. That ensures you cannot be overlooked.
You should know that your path to success will be studded with competitors whose papa ji, mummy ji, bhaiya ji, fufa ji or mausa ji will be influential and powerful, and will be backing them up throughout their career.
Do not make the mistake of saying, oh, I do not need anyone! I will do it all alone. That is just ego.
Instead, you will build a superior influence through relationships you will cultivate.
You will create your tribe.
You will nurture your own professional network, people who will back you up when you need them.
And of course, you will be superior at your work.
Believe in yourself and work very hard. Set goals, and set out to achieve them. Make things happen for yourself.
Nothing else matters.
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