This article is written by a Practising advocate at the Bombay High Court.
As a Young law student, just about to begin his Internship at the Delhi High Court, I was extended pearls of wisdom by my father, (An established Advocate at the same Court having a fair renown), which went like,
‘Always offer to carry the files for your senior(s)’
And like all obedient Sons, I always did so, with every office, every ‘senior’. Having lost a few years in the process of becoming an advocate, meant that some people younger than me in age, were my ‘senior(s)’ in office, nonetheless, sticking to the pearls of wisdom, I never had any qualms offering to carry the files/coats/gowns, or whatever my ‘senior(s)’ might have asked me to carry while accompanying them to court. No wonder my father thought that this way of functioning would be crucial in conveying (in an unspoken manner) utmost regard and respect for my seniors at office.
Now I met some really generous people on the way, advocates who would refuse to let me carry their files, or prefer to carry it themselves, and as a mark of respect, I sometimes got a hug as well. One female advocate at Madras High Court went so far to even express that, ‘Respect lies in the heart, and not in such activities’.
Cut to 2018, as a Practising advocate at the Bombay High Court, I have become a keen observer of people, and especially Interns/Junior Advocates, (since I myself spent a considerable amount of time being an Intern, so much so that I went so far as coming up with a new Designation for me called, ‘Senior Intern’), I can’t help but notice, the sheer amount and quality of the work that is asked / expected from them. And most people like me, having been extended Pearls of Wisdom from their fathers/seniors alike, None would ever dare to decline any such ‘requests’ from Office Bosses.
In India, needless to say, we function in a ‘High – Power Distance Index’, as more beautifully explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Outliers. According to Gladwell, it is
Of all of Hofstede’s Dimensions, though, perhaps the most interesting is what he called the “Power Distance Index” (PDI). Power distance is concerned with attitudes toward hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority. To measure it, Hofstede asked questions like “How frequently, in your experience, does the following problem occur: employees being afraid to express disagreement with their managers?” To what extent do the “less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally?” How much are older people respected and feared? Are power holders entitled to special privileges?
Meaning, I believe I would speak for the masses when I Say that, a Junior Advocate / Intern first month at office, is terrified to say the least, unsure about even her / his walking style, walking slowly (unless while following a senior in Court), Not wanting to commit a single iota that would annoy or according to them (intern/Junior Advocates), Not be appreciated by the seniors, We at the young level are ready and willing to do almost anything asked of us.
Now let me introduce you to another category of workpeople commonly found in all law chambers across India. This is the ‘Munshi’, roughly translated into English, a ‘Clerk’. Munshis are responsible for the menial / petty / administrative but in no terms small, jobs in and around the office. Their work profile would normally include, Photocopying documents, keeping a stock of Court fee stamps, filing documents, getting them notarised, maintaining the office register, carrying the heavy loads of briefs to courts (as all advocates love Coming to Court with a heavy bag of documents), going around Different courtrooms and Stashing a copy of case files at the Advocates’ table early in the morning, so as to enable easy access to the files when the matters reach later on in the day. It won’t be wrong to admit that an Advocate’s Job begins Only where the Munshis’ (Job) comes to an end.
Owing to their massive experience, some Munshis’ working at chambers of Senior Advocates hold more legal knowledge than a fresh law graduate. Munshis’ are the people that form the foundation of an advocates’ practise. Munshis’ are paid for their jobs, twofold. They are paid for their work from the advocates with whom they are hired with, AND clients on some occasions pay them tip amounts as well. This is with reference to Clerks who are permanently employed to an advocate office, of course, there does exist another variety of freelance clerks who are clerical equivalents to Advocates. They would work and charge fees according to the number of briefs that they need to file, instead of a fixed monthly remuneration.
Moving on, I would like to throw some light on the life of an Intern / Junior Advocate. It is not uncommon for me, practising at the Hon’ble High Court of Judicature at Bombay to note on a daily basis an Intern / Junior Advocate, walking behind her/his senior carrying heavy court files, whereas the senior is enjoying his walk, looking at his phone or talking on it. On certain occasions, I have even noticed these Interns / Junior Advocates carrying coat gowns, bands and other dressing material behind their respective seniors. Most often at fault are some of the established ‘Designated’ Senior Counsels who would treat the office Intern / Junior Advocates like, for the want of a better word, their own private butler. Of course, Interns / Junior Advocates would dare not object to a duty of any kind.
Certain sources, would firmly believe in the idea that in order to prosper as a successful advocate, every person needs to start at the level of the ‘peon’. She/he needs to know each and every nook and corner of the court premises and be able to do all the duties as a court clerk does and thus quite often, the first job an intern is assigned, is to follow the Office clerk on his routine trips to court. I personally subscribe to such a school of thought, and I myself have done all the running around (to an extent, still do) across court premises. It has benefitted me immensely. But at this juncture I would like to put a question, but where do we draw the line?
Clerks or Munshis, get paid for their time and work that they put in, it’s their profession, their bread and butter and their primary source of income. Interns on the other hand, only manage a meagre stipend and that too if they are lucky enough to join a decent law office. Most seniors would not pay junior advocates a farthing, let alone paying Interns. Now in such a situation, getting all clerical work done from Interns / Junior Advocates, and having them carry the heavy loads of case files, briefs, coats, gown, bands, etc. to court is tantamount to slavery and is violative of the fundamental basic human rights of Interns / Junior advocates i.e. Right to live a life with dignity. Quite often, law offices would hire interns instead of clerks, just coz of this feature, that an intern would function the same way as a clerk and would incur far less costs than an actual clerk would.
Therefore, with all due respect, I would like to ask this very important question, does this kind of conduct especially on the part of advocates who are Seniors, referred to as ‘Learned Counsels’ in and out of Court, in special light of the fact that interns are seen in public carrying coat gowns and heavy case files for their Seniors, appropriate?
While returning to office from the Court one day, I thought to myself:
Interns / Junior Advocates or an Underpaid / Unpaid Munshi under the garb?