In sharp contrast to the sanitised, ordered confines of a corporate law firm or a company where an entrant's career progress is securely charted out, practicing in the courts ("litigating" in the insiders' jargon) involves swimming in an environment of uncertainty. Promotions, regular pay-cheques, and perks are unheard of- hopeful talk of "job security" is worthy only of contemptuous laughter. No wonder then that most law graduates in India end up practicing in the courts solely because they have no other alternative open to them.
Litigating, however, retains a unique charm and to the old-timers is all that counts as being a lawyer. The adrenaline rush that accompanies addressing a courtroom packed with spectators hanging on to every word, the power to shape the outcome of disputes potentially impacting upon the lives of millions of people, the ability to mould relief in legal battles involving even larger sums of money, the opportunity to put the guilty behind bars and safeguard the liberty of men wrongly accused… litigation offers unparalleled thrills. Add to that the fact that the top lawyers in the country routinely figure amongst the highest income-tax paying assesses in the nation, ranking with Bollywood starlets and marauding businessmen, and you actually have all the makings of a profession to die for. Why, then, aren't graduates of law faced with any semblance of options more willing to shun a comfortable corporate life for the anything-is-possible world of litigation?
The answer lies in the fact that the initial years in setting up a practice can be fairly daunting. The money takes so long to start pouring in that the phrase "young, hotshot lawyer" in India is most often incomplete without the adjective "impecunious" thrown in! The point, however, is that even though the initial years are a particularly hard grind, often it is purely a matter of personality as to whether you have the stomach to ride them out. The object of this exercise is to provide suitable reading fodder if you are contemplating a career in litigation by drawing upon the experiences of those who have "been there and done that" - namely, other young litigators who have recently graduated from premier law-schools in India and are striving to build up a successful practice.
To begin with, what does a litigator do? Essentially, he argues on behalf of his clients in court-room proceedings as opposed to restricting himself to paperwork in the chambers. The proportion in which litigators divide their time and attention between chamber-work and arguing in court varies depending upon the level of court in which they are practicing in as well as whether they have been designated a "Senior Advocate" or not.
At the trial court stage, a far greater proportion of litigators' energies are devoted towards compiling and scrutinizing evidence, both documentary and material, as core preparation towards stages involving final arguments of sorts. Because such compilation and analysis can never be completely de hors the law, detailed research on the legal issues thrown up by the evidence in question must be undertaken simultaneously - unsurprisingly, this is where the grind hits trial court lawyers. Also, litigators in the trial court continually indulge in "application work", moving innumerable small applications and innovatively using provisions of the procedural codes (Civil Procedure Code, 1908 for civil matters; Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 for criminal litigation) to preserve their clients' rights and create grounds for further action in the trial court itself or the higher courts at a later stage.
At the appellate level, strictly the exercise of analysis of evidence must take place again depending on the stage of appeal. That apart, paperwork is largely restricted to researching on questions of law and rarely requires the voluminous effort required at the lower court stage. Further, the work profile of Senior Advocates and other advocates at the High Court and Supreme Court levels must be distinguished. Senior Advocates are those lawyers who have achieved an eminent standing at the Bar owing to their long years of experience and success, and have accordingly come to be explicitly recognized as such by the High Court (or Supreme Court, as the case may be) where they practise. Senior Advocates argue the briefs entrusted to them by non-Senior Advocates/solicitors at the appellate stage who interface with the clients and complete all necessary procedural requirements. Further, even research on the questions of law arising in the brief are generally entrusted to and completed by the coterie of juniors routinely employed in the chambers of every Senior Advocate. Thus, apart from familiarizing themselves with the contents of the briefs they are handling, the principal task of Senior Advocates is restricted to wresting the requisite relief from judges in courtroom proceedings.
Setting up a practice as a litigator means starting from the bottom. While there is no bar of any sort to beginning practice entirely on your own, the customary route is to perform an apprenticeship of sorts under an established advocate by working as a "junior" for him. Depending, of course, on which level of court your "senior" (not to be confused with Senior Advocate) is practicing in and whether he is a Senior Advocate or not, the nature of the junior's work would vary as detailed above.
Picking a senior to work under is always a tricky proposition. As a student in law school, one route through which you can go about ascertaining whom to begin working under is through internships under established practitioners at various levels (trial or appellate) in different locations. This is also the best route to get a feel of what litigation is all about. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no guarantee that you can find the ideal senior - employing the internship route or otherwise - until perhaps you actually begin practising. There is no organized database or recruitment fair either that can help out in this regard.
Some important points must always be kept in mind whilst choosing a senior to work under. While there is always the temptation to work under the biggest name around, that is by no means a guarantee that it is the best deal for you. You must keep your objectives in mind at this juncture: you need a senior who is prominent enough to attract litigation raising cutting-edge legal controversies but yet is able to take time out to supervise your progress; it is not enough that your senior himself is a fabulous exponent of the art of court-room theatrics and oratory, but his office must also be an ideal environment for you to acquire the skills necessary to flourish in the often chaotic world of litigation; your senior should ideally keep you engaged with important files, but at the same time must allow you a degree of freedom in terms of what you choose to do so that you can gradually begin picking up your own files and thereby set the stage for your own practice; and so on…
Also, another aspect, which is unerringly neglected by fresh graduates, is that your senior must also afford you a window into learning the administrative side of running a law office. As inconsequential as that proposition sounds on first hearing, most juniors learn its importance only to their own cost after naively branching out on their own from their senior satisfied that they have "learnt the law". This is because merely delivering the goods in court is not all that there is to being a successful practitioner; having office chambers that function in a business-like manner is almost equally important in winning and retaining the trust of your clients. After all, your office is often the only place that your clients witness you in action. Thus, you must personally have a hold on all the details involved in the running of your office to ensure its smooth functioning at all times - for instance, keeping a meticulous track of all monetary transactions, delegating specialized functions only to competent staff members…even operating the photocopying machine in an emergency and rationally deciding whether it would be better to invest in a coffee machine over that microwave everyone in the office is clamouring for! Because none of this is taught in a law school, only a senior can help out on this score.
Finally, learning the ropes from the point of view of a law clerk is vital, menial as that sounds. A clerk essentially greases the wheels on which lawyers continue onwards and upwards - he ensures that the case diary is maintained, that office files are in order that filings are in shape and on time, that appointments are met on time, and that all procedural formalities are completed. All lawyers of standing keep clerks to help them manage work, and any young/upcoming lawyer worth his salt is expected to be able to do everything that a clerk can do, if not better. It’s no joke - the difference between success and failure in this fiercely competitive world is frequently defined by how good your clerk is/your own "clerical" skills are.
The daily schedule of an upcoming litigator is inherently unpredictable, given the very nature of the profession. On an average, most of such litigators - whether working as a junior under an established advocate or pursuing their own practice - would reach their chambers about an hour before court-room proceedings for the day begin, say by 09:00 or so. This period is spent either completing a last-minute conference with a client or familiarizing themselves with files of those matters posted for hearing on that day. Litigators with flourishing practices (especially in New Delhi where they may be simultaneously practicing in the trial court, the High Court as well as the Supreme Court) may be slated to appear in numerous matters on the same day and therefore get "cause lists" drawn by their clerks listing the various matters by item numbers and courtroom.
Courts open for hearings between 10:00 and 10:30 in the morning. Much of the day is spent either arguing in various court-rooms (or listening to the submissions of your senior) or in the corridors outside, waiting for your matter to be presented to the judge. As there are large numbers of other advocates too waiting their turn (there is no shortage whatsoever of litigation in this country), these interregnums are suitably employed by litigators to engage in heavy duty fist-pumping and networking. Most courts tend to close proceedings for the day by 16:00-16:15 in the afternoon, with litigators making a bee-line for their chambers after closure.
The evenings are reserved for conferences with clients, perusal of files of matters posted for the following day as well as research for the same. While these hours obviously vary from office to office, last client meetings for the day end latest by 22:00. In many offices, there is even a post-dinner session with work carrying on almost until midnight. Of course, if there is an extraordinary matter that has suddenly sprung up, work may carry on even further into the wee hours of the morning.
As for the salary stakes, the initial earnings can be positively unappetising. The average stipends offered by established advocates to those graduates whom they agree to take under their wings is a measly Rs.5, 000 to 10,000 per month even in large cities such as Mumbai or New Delhi. Graduates of top-tier law schools can perhaps hope for as much as Rs.15, 000 per month, but no more. This is why many fresh graduates choose to work in the litigation department of a law firm (where the salaries are on par with those offered to recruits on the corporate side) and shift to private practice after familiarizing themselves with the entire process and how the system works. Also, it must be remembered that even after setting up a stable practice, a litigator's income always tends to swing to some extent from month to month.
Because there is no clearly defined career progress chart, the shift up the ladder varies tremendously. But the possibilities at the very top are clear, and positively sizzling. Senior advocates in the Supreme Advocate reputedly charge around Rs. 3 lakh per hearing. Considering that they may sometimes make up to three to four hearings a day if not more, not only does it add up to a whole load of money but also more than compensates for the struggles of the initial years.
Patience is not just a virtue but also a necessity on the litigation front. Even for as long as the first two years, the learning curve overrides the "do it yourself" aspect. Grades at college, curriculum vitae and other such academic considerations take a back seat as it is only when cutting your teeth in hard-core practice that you actually start learning what it takes to succeed in litigation. One especially startling realisation that upcoming litigators make is that the profession is not always scientific in its methods or processes - equations with clients and even judges, public persona etc. are all as important as the black letter of the law itself. Nevertheless, especially from a medium term and long term perspective, this option is a clear winner. This is why each year, small but highly talented and courageous bunches of graduates from the top law-schools unfailingly turn down attractive compensation packages during the recruitment process in their final year of college and choose to plunge headlong into the bustling world of litigation. All it takes is a little daring, and a dash of dreams.