How To Find Clarity In Chaos: Fali Nariman

fali s nariman

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!

Legends in Law

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.

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11 comments on “How To Find Clarity In Chaos: Fali Nariman
  1. Very good book and a good review…

    Just finished the book. The book is like a Gita for Professionals in the legal field. One of the chapters dealing with the mindset and Do’s and Don’ts for Lawyers is so convincingly written that one feels as if one is reading a code for lawyers.

    Kindle edition is also available..

    Happy reading..

    CA. Bhavik Dholakia

  2. CA ANIL JAIN says:

    I have not gone through the book but the summary given above is very inspiring & encouraging. I do not know how people find time to read full books. i am always entangled with small problems & trying to find their solutions.

    Hats off to the true & honest description of events. … time to retire comment of Judge.

    really good to read even these short narratives.

  3. CA. V K Gupta says:

    I have gone through the summary only.
    It is inspiring and worth to adapt & follow the tips received. I have no doubt that even the summary reading has change my though process thoroughly.
    I will try to read the book at the earliest available opportunity. My salute.

    CA. V K Gupta

  4. rajendra sharma says:

    In my view this is gra8 classic work all advocate irrespective of standing in the bar should read the book for enhancement & value addition the his/her carrear in law as well as legal field

  5. CA Anupam Petkar says:

    Hi. The summary above is very fascinating.. though i’m from accountancy field and not a lawyer.. by reading a summary , have developed a desire to go and buy the book.. will share my views , once read …

  6. c.sai prasad says:

    knowledge brings humbleness and humility. Nani and other seniors stood for that. every one should emulate the above character and avoid show-off. simplicity ; high thinking; working more and expect less. that keeps one in good stead in the life.

  7. CA. Mohit Dhiman says:

    Yeah… I can’t resist myself from going through this fabulous lifestory describing each and every thing in such a lucid and narrative style. Hats off to the legendary lawyer….

    CA. Mohit Dhiman

  8. rajendra sharma says:

    in my view every young lawyer shuld read the books & autobiograhies written by sr.advocates,lawyers such as Sir Motilal Setlwad,J.hidayatullah,Sir ashutosh Mukharjee,H.M Seervai get inspiration to make progress in carrer as lawyer

  9. CA Kishore K Senapati says:

    I read the above summary. It is inspiring, coming as it does from a legend of legal profession. Would like to go through it’s do’s and don’ts as I think irrespective of the profession one pursues, some advice / practice are all the same across profession / life.


  10. I had the pleasure of working with him 20 years back and we used to admire his sharpness, detailed analysis, and convincing argument in simple terms. When I read the summary I was moved and my thoughts went back to those days. I am placing order for the book. It will be a model to young professional aspirants. Even now I used to quote anecdotes of F.Nariman to my juniors. I wish every professional should read this book


  11. true. it is important to grasp the point in the facts collected, then apply the facts to the available law, if it accommodates or throws out if throws out the law you are trying to fit in is not appropriate that way what correct sections of law fit in need to be seen, that means you have to be sharp to the issues as also the law proving help.

    you as a lawyer need to present things simple way very cogently without getting into unnecessary flower bedding the sentences but one has to make things very clear to judges while duly respecting the opponent advocacy that would cover more than 75% chances of your case succeeding but see your facts are bound to be within the ambits of relevant law then only judge might get convinced, else you are bound to fail is the fact in any advocacy.

    for example see in Nokia’s case or Vodafone’s cases , there are clear road of loop holes in law as also so called finance acts relevant that any good advocate need to exploit so that next FM might ensure to plug his mistakes likely in such issues.

    no point in blaming opponents advocacy but see points of law when synchronizing with the relevant sections foisted on our issues, that is where several times respondents get blocked.

    true nokia r vodafone wanted to make merry go round just because of your own deficiency is laws or sections, after all arguments only win rightly provided you argue the matter rightly and clearly and concisely and briefly that could be possible if your approach is meaningful, that is all what fali says, after all poverty is the right driving force and that way poverty also helps one to be great !

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  1. […] and see how it was in the “good old days”, you have to read Fali Nariman’s autobiography “Before Memory Fades”. Interestingly, the policy of “under-cutting” was probably in vogue even then. Fali talks of […]

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