first generation lawyer

This article is written by Mohona Thakur, Marketing Manager at iPleaders.

Just the other day, I was reading this article titled ‘How I Blew My Interview With Amarchand Mangaldas’ and I was amazed not only by how much I could connect with the author, but also at the ease with which the article conveyed mistakes that twenty-two year olds make right before they join the not-so-cushioned real world after finishing college.

Everyone has a story. And here is mine.

I’d like to take you back seven years down the line to the interview that eventually led to my admission at ILS Law College, Pune. Tell me something. How many times have you lied through your teeth at an interview where you were asked “Why law?” I have. Multiple times, especially at interviews, just like the one at ILS.

Ms. Smita Bhattacharya was the professor that took this interview and I had my answer rehearsed in order to sound as convincing as possible. I still remember having said, “Everyone I see around me, even in my family, is either an engineer, MBA or a doctor. I want to be different. Hence, law.” She smiled at me and replied saying, “When you graduate out of law school, you’ll realise that there is no dearth of lawyers in this world.”

I wasn’t entirely lying about why I pursued law. I have always wanted to be different, different than everyone around me; and as an excited eighteen year old, I was under the impression that being different is in fact a privilege. Only if I had any idea about the inherent nepotism in the industry I was about to enter.

However, the sad truth behind why I did want to take up law comes with a lot of baggage. A baggage I plan on shortening into a couple of paragraphs, as I tell you my story. I believe my story would be incomplete without this.

My family was settled in the middle east for as long as I can remember. I was taught at a CBSE affiliated school in Abu Dhabi, UAE till the seventh grade. However, mid-term in October 2004 my family had to shift back to India. What I realised was that the level of education in Abu Dhabi (although it was a CBSE affiliated school) was way lower than what was being taught at CBSE schools in India, especially in subjects like Maths and Science. And Sanskrit? What was that? Was that even a language?

Naturally, in spite of multiple tuitions, the gap in understanding remained and I could never score in these subjects. This is when I took the opportunity to strengthen the subjects that I was ahead at – English and the Social Sciences. I dropped Sanskrit and Hindi at the first opportunity I got and chose French as my second language at school. As a result, I had a command over social sciences like no other in my batch and unlike many, I never mugged up chapters; I understood them like they were stories. Taking up humanities as my stream in 11th was an obvious choice for me.

What future does a kid from the humanities background have in India? Forget parents, the schools distinguish the students and segregate them into science, commerce and humanities streams on the basis of the percentage of marks they score in their 10th Board exams. If you’ve managed to score a 90% plus, you are a perfect choice to take up science and attempt the IIT-JEE and medical entrances. If you’ve scored lower than 80%, you deserve to study humanities because you’re good for nothing and humanities is “easy”. We Indians and the education system in India decide the careers of our kids and students on the basis of board exam marks.

I struggled through law school, and the struggle was a lot more real after law school, but that’s a story for another time. Today it is about the struggles that clueless, aspiring first generation lawyers face in law school. I’m going to break it down into pointers for ease of understanding:

Not Having Adequate Information

With the presumption that law being a professional course would ensure not only stability, but will also be financially rewarding, I prepared myself for five years of law school. This was why I wanted to be a lawyer; it wasn’t just a choice I made in order to be different, it was a conscious choice I made presuming I could pursue humanities, and law would allow me to  have a stable career with sufficient income.

This was my first struggle as a first generation lawyer: not having adequate information, or in other words, a reality check. Back when I was making the choice of pursuing law as a career, there weren’t websites such as Lawctopus or blogs such as iPleaders that could enhance my ability to make a decision that was well thought through.

Negligible Guidance

When I entered law school, from my very first month I knew I had to up my game as I was naturally competing with batchmates who came from families neck deep into law, and when not neck deep into law, most of them had a relative or a distant cousin who always turned out to be a lawyer. In plain simple words, there was always a reference.

What about me? I had absolutely no lawyer in the family, dead or alive.

As a typical eighteen year old with values as imbibed in every kid since their childhood, I decided that hard work was the answer to this. I mean aren’t we all taught this for as long as we can remember: work hard and everything else shall follow.

While most of my batchmates decided to not intern and take it easy, I scheduled an internship with a lawyer at the Delhi High Court and interned with him twice in my first year. The idea was to learn as much as possible, and as quickly as possible to be able to have equal if not more knowledge than them. I participated in the only moot that first years were allowed to participate in – Novice – and while I did stammer the first minute in the very first round, I had a brilliant journey and beat over 100 participants to reach spot number 2. This was equivalent to an assurance to me: You’re on the right track, keep going, hard work does pay off.

This very assurance was my second struggle as an aspiring first generation lawyer: negligible guidance. Most seniors in law school would ask you not to intern if you were in the first couple of years into law school. In fact, I have heard multiple seniors ask juniors not to intern in the first or second year of law school because they wouldn’t learn anything as the law subjects only began from the third year onward. However, if you do tell them that you’ve already interned twice by the end of your first year, they wouldn’t say it was useless, they would in fact say that it was a good decision to have begun interning early. The exact opposite. Do you believe them? If not them, who do you go to? With no real guidance, you begin relying on the immediate results that every activity you are doing is producing, or your instincts, which may or may not be the best thing to do.

Lack of Networking Knowledge or Skills

With no real insights from home for obvious reasons and with majority seniors advising to intern with law firms that paid the big bucks and expected you to work weekends, or to intern with lawyers and learn the nitty-gritties of litigation to fend for yourself a few years down the line, I chose neither. To be honest, most of the well-known law firms wouldn’t take second year interns. In addition, most applications went unanswered as they were directly sent to HRs at law firms without any references. This is when I decided to take my chance and intern in-house, only to fall in love with the work-life balance I saw there. The teams would come in early by 9pm and wrap up work by 5pm on most days and have a life to look forward to. Although the pay scale possibly wasn’t as good as a law firm, it was enough to be self-sufficient.

I would ideally call this the point where I faced my third struggle and one that continued to haunt me even after I graduated law school: lack of networking knowledge or skills. I used to detest people who used their network to reach places – I always thought of it as a privilege that I never had. What was worse was that I didn’t know how to network. I knew how to make friends, but how on earth do you build networks? I had grown up to see two very hard working parents land jobs on their own merit, no references, and I was brought up to want to be self-made. As a law student with zero connections, it is a pertinent question to ask to yourself – How do I land an internship with law firms? What is the plan of action? What happens when cold-calling doesn’t work? Today, if you google, you’ll find courses on how to land an internship with law firms. Back then this wasn’t an option, so we learnt from our experiences and even more so from our mistakes.

Most of my nearest circle of friends were trying to make it on their own but at the end when things didn’t seem to work out, they would pull in a reference with someone their father knew. In my case, that was not a solid option since my father had built a career in the middle east and not India.

No Adequate Knowledge about the Functioning of the Legal Industry

Law firms looked like they were unachievable. As though I was an ant at the bottom of the pyramid and I had to climb a steep hill without any clue as to how to. Most seniors I asked for help could refer me to advocates (which I had ruled out in the first year after I realised that most advocates get paid about 10,000 Rs. as a freshers salary) or had contacts to find me an internship in-house. I took the latter option and continued to intern in-house and believe it or not enjoyed not only the work but also the work culture immensely. Over the internships, I did acquire a very different set of skills about which I have written in this article. I do not regret the choices I made, I only wish I knew what law firms had to offer.

When I made the call to want to pursue a career as an in-house lawyer, I was under the impression that I had enough working knowledge of how companies function and what may be expected out of the legal teams. And to be absolutely honest, I still believe that is something I do know. Where I possibly faltered was not having adequate knowledge about the functioning of the legal industry as a whole: what I would call the fourth struggle. By the time I realised that companies do not always have a vacancy, contrary to the mass campus placements with companies that I was used to seeing over the years at ILS, it was too late. In fact, while I was giving interviews with a couple of companies was I informed of their policy of not hiring freshers right out of law school. You don’t find company policies on google, you do not even find these companies openly advertising on job portals. And trust me, I tried all portals right from Naukri.com to MonsterJobs to LinkedIn to iimjobs. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

Imagine, if I had known enough lawyers, made not one but many contacts during law school who would vouch for me, and not absolutely relied on hard-work paying off, as is taught to us, I probably would have landed the dream in-house job that I wanted. I had no reason not to. I had a resume that was focused – good grades, won moots, convened events, even worked part-time for Lawctopus, had in-house media and FMCG internships, had a post graduate diploma in media laws, publications. Isn’t this everything that is asked of us at law school? Aren’t these attributes of a strong resume?

What exactly went wrong?

When I look back, I feel that it wasn’t one particular thing that I could point at. I presumed that law would give me a stable lifestyle after five years of hard work, I believed that the world was sane enough to look through the pool of people and pick the meritorious one over the one with contacts, I believed that law was a financially rewarding career – after all we invest half a decade worth of our lives. Most of all I believed I could be different and survive, pas de guidance.

With the advent of technology and the boom in the blogging industry, today the law students are far more equipped with resources that give them more than adequate information about law firms, interviews with insights from lawyers working in the industry available on SuperLawyer, online courses  and career development programmes that give you the one chance to not only network with lawyers but also acquire practical skills at the same time, blogs that are run that give you enough information about pay packages for lawyers, and even legal recruiting agencies like Vahura that look into your profile and look for opportunities suited to your profile.

It took me a while to write this article to be honest. It takes courage to admit the mistakes that you have made and even more courage to revisit them to figure out what you may have done right. I do know that this will stay on the internet for a long while, but what I do genuinely hope for is that no one, whether a first generation lawyer or not, has to go through similar struggles while in law school, or even after, and fail.  

The struggle is real, and you’re not alone.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Anubhav,

    It is heartening to read your post, sometimes you end up looking at the career path you’ve chosen and wonder why on earth? I too belong to the underside of the glossy exterior of the law profession. Not having anyone in the family as lawyers, not having had the exposure to develop those networking skills en masse. I totally get your portion about detesting those people who can polish that apple so bright, you can spot it a mile away. It’s funny, I interned at a relatively reputable law firm (Medium Sized corporate) and asked, what was the fresher’s salary in 2010? It was 25 K. I now know someone who happens to work at the same firm as a fresher and asked what the salary was. It’s still 25 K. You’ve got 9 years worth of inflation at 5% so what was once 25 K is now presently Rs.11,250/-. Beat that.

    The other portion for aspiring litigants is also true, the starting salary is indeed 10K in 2019. I happened to watch an ad for workindia.com and was looking for an office clerk/back office helper. The starting salary is presently 14-16 K in Delhi. So all in all, yes. The struggle is real.

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