Fali Nariman’s autobiography “Before Memory Fades” deserves to be read and re-read because hidden in the fine print is some very valuable advice on the techniques that professionals should follow to improve their life and practice
“The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains”
Sir Jamshedji Kanga in ‘The Law & Practice of Income-tax”
The first thing that strikes you when you look at Fali Nariman’s cover spread photo is how messy his desk is. It is not a very large desk. There are files and papers and books strewn all over it in an untidy manner. There is a simple wooden chair for Fali to sit on. Behind it is an open bookcase which is stuffed to the brim with law books. And each of those books wears a worn out look with the cover torn in many.
Fali Nariman is standing erect in front of the desk, dressed in his pyjamas, with a robe tied neatly on top. It is probably the early hours of the morning.
“How can any man concentrate in this environment” you wonder.
However, when you glance into his eyes, you can see the clarity and the sparkle in them. It is evident that behind that messy exterior, there is a razor-sharp mind at work which is able to pierce through the clutter and the chaos and isolate the critical parts that need attention.
Fali Nariman’s book “Before Memory Fades” presents a rare opportunity to peer into one of the finest minds of the profession and learn from the several nuggets of advice generously given.
Nariman was fortunate that he started his practice by joining the Chambers of the legendary Sir Jamshedji Kanga, the doyen of the Bombay Bar. Kanga’s Chamber was already filled with illustrious lawyers like S. P. Bharucha (later Chief Justice of India), H. M. Seervai, R. J. Kolah and later Soli Sorabjee. There was much to learn from them.
Fali’s description of Jamshedji Kanga’s Chamber is fascinating. It was located in the High Court’s premises and was a small chamber, about 45 feet long and 18 feet wide, with seven tables. One of the tables was occupied by Nani Palkhivala. The tables were narrow with only one extra chair where the solicitor could sit, with the client standing. Nani Palkhivala had, even in those early days, a very large practice, and several of his conferences were held in the verandah outside with everybody – counsel, solicitor and client – standing. Sometimes, Nani even held his conferences in his car – a 1948 Hillman Minx – parked outside the chamber.
Fali Nariman, then an apprentice in the illustrious chamber, had no chair of his own. If he was lucky, he got to share a seat with another junior.
However, despite all the physical inconveniences, the days spent in Kanga’s chamber were the happiest years of my life, Fali says and adds that “the hustle and bustle there trained me to think and work under the most uncomfortable conditions. Since then, I have had no difficulty concentrating on the case in hand, despite frequent interruptions”.
Ah, so that explains the cluttered desktop!
The book also has nuggets of information that gives you an insight into Fali’s gentle personality. One of the things that he believes in is that you must not dispense with members of your staff no matter how old and inefficient they have become. “If you have made progress in life, it is also because of the good fortune of persons around you, including those that are dependent on you”. So, “don’t disturb the even order of things” he says.
Fali Nariman also makes an interesting point on how juniors can learn a great deal from the professional giants by just listening to them and watching them perform. The styles of the seniors are different and you have to pick the one that suits you. For instance, while conferences with Sir Jamshedji Kanga lasted barely a few moments because he would immediately grasp the core point, conferences with Sir Noshirwan Engineer lasted several hours and remained inconclusive.
Fali Nariman also recounts with affection the greatness and humility of Sir Jamshedji Kanga. Kanga was humble to the core and in conferences with clients, Kanga never hesitated to praise his juniors and give them credit when it was due. “I have always noted that greatness and humility invariably go together – a truly great person of the law is also the most humble” Fali says.
Fali also recollects how his early days in the profession were literally poverty-stricken. “Out of misery, you will learn” he says as he reminisces his struggle for work and the pathetically low fees he earned. He also recollects fondly what Nani Palkhivala once told him “God pays but not every week”. These words of wisdom kept Fali going through his difficult days.
From a practical viewpoint, the most important part of the book for us professionals are the priceless “dos and don’ts” that Fali Nariman offers. In a chapter titled “Lessons in the ‘School of Hard Knocks”, Nariman lists out 28 practical pieces of advice. For instance, one important tip that Fali offers is that professionals must keep themselves informed and be up to date with all the reported judgements and decisions of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts. Also, he points out that while the essence of “good lawyering” is acquainting oneself with the relevant law and case laws, “good advocacy” is knowing the facts of the case and how to apply the law to those facts. He criticizes the tendency of budding young practitioners of being “case-law oriented” and of trying to “accommodate” the facts of the case to fit into the decisions. Yet another practical tip is how to argue matters in court. “When you argue a case in court, be clear and precise, not confused. Your mental outpost must flow. And for it to flow you must be well equipped and well prepared”. Also, when a judge wants to know something “Give your answer first and present your own point afterwards”. Fali gives several examples and anecdotes to drive home his points. He also cites from the mistakes that he made to caution us against repeating the same mistake. “The best advice that one can give with sincerity is the lesson that one has learnt oneself” he says and cites an instance when during a hearing he harshly interrupted his opponent, Kirit Raval, and was nasty to him. While Raval did not utter a word, the Judge pulled up Nariman and said “Mr. Nariman, I think it is time you retire”. Nariman was stung by the rebuke but says the Judge was absolutely right. “No matter what your age and standing at the Bar, it will just not do to be rude to your opponent”.
The other important practical advice that Fali offers is that professionals must train themselves to work within the constraints of time. “Believe me, there is nothing like the constraints of time to sharpen the intellect. When time is put against you, you will only have to say what is strictly relevant”.
The book also has a fascinating account of several leading lawyers and judges and of several landmark judgements. Throughout the book, one can sense that Fali Nariman is sending out subtle tips on how we can be better persons and professionals. We should pay heed to these tips and implement them in our day-to-day practice.