The best way to learn law is to see the great masters at work. The way they study the facts, analyze the law and make their presentation to the Court can teach you more than you can ever hope to learn in a classroom. And the fees they charge can inspire you to do your best in the profession. Surprisingly, these great wizards of the law don’t have a magic wand. Instead, their secret recipe for success is sheer hard work and concentration
Lawyers across the World are amongst the most highly paid professionals. Indian lawyers are no exception. Apart from a 5 figure fee for one appearance, limousines to transport you, business class travel (chartered flights, if you are in the super-elite category) and five star accommodations (only VIP suites, if you are in the super-elite category) are de rigueur. Of course, there is no question that all of this is fully justified! So, lets’ get down to listing the top lawyers and see if we can get some inspiration from them.
Ram Jethmalani is the quintessential lawyer. Loud, irascible, never afraid of a fight, given to seeking publicity, he fits the text book definition of a lawyer as seen in Hindi films. In fact, the memorable role of the scheming lawyer Indrajit Chaddha brilliantly played by Amrish Puri in the film Damini is supposedly inspired by Ram Jethmalani.
Anyway, whatever may be the public image of Ram Jethmalani, there is no doubting his razor-sharp mind. Even at the age of 89 years, when most of his peers have called it a day, he is more than a match for his much younger opponents.
Ram Jethmalani has a unique style of arguing in Court. He has a larger-than-life persona about him that commands attention. Not for him the bulky briefs. He carries just a couple of pages on which he has made a few jottings. He stands at an angle, rests his right leg on the chair, takes an occasional sip of water, and addresses the Court in a clear voice. His voice is loud enough to be heard even by those sitting in the last row. Jethmalani keeps his presentation simple. He never hurries up and you can sense that he is carefully sizing up the judges as he speaks. If he senses that the Judges are not with him, he will either put the point in a different way, if he is convinced about its’ merits, or abandon it, if he feels it is not strong enough. But, all the time, Jethmalani seeks to ensure that the Judges do not lose interest in the matter.
Ram Jethmalani says that lawyers have to be good judges of human nature and one can see him implementing this in practice. He will never browbeat the judges or get into a quarrel with them. If the atmosphere in the court room gets heated, he will break the tension with a small joke. “Antagonizing the judges is the worst way to argue a matter” he advices.
In a Youtube interview, Ram Jethmalani advised junior lawyers to always speak in a clear tone and put the point across in a simple and clear way. “Avoid unnecessary histrionics and be straightforward in your submissions”, he said.
Jethmalani is a great believer in hard work. In the same Youtube interview, Jethmalani emphasized that “the heart of success in the legal profession is Industry (hard work). It is meant for people who are capable of extreme hard work“. He cited the example of a bright young lawyer who went for his first interview. The senior partner asked him how many hours of work he could put in. The young lawyer tried to strain the truth as much as possible and said “About 10-12 hours, Sir“. The old man glared at him and said “Young Man, I am twice your age and I put in a minimum of 22 hours a day“.
Ram Jethmalani can be very persuasive indeed. Once he has explained what he wants to say, it is very difficult to not agree with him. If you are in the opposite camp, you have to check yourself to ensure that you do not sub-consciously nod your head in agreement with him.
Conferences with Ram Jethmalani are generally a relaxed affair. He is very sociable and usually in an affable mood (except when Karan Thapar or Sagaarika Ghose have rubbed him the wrong way). Also, because of his wide interests, you can talk to him about anything and have an engaging discussion.
It is obvious that the hoi polloi cannot afford Ram Jethmalani and nor does he have the time or the inclination for them. At Rs. 40 lakhs for an appearance, only big-ticket Industrialists like Nusli Wadia or Anil Ambani can afford him, and that too only in matters of life or death. Alternatively, it must be a controversial matter that will ensure wide publicity for him (e.g. the Manu Sharma – Jessica Lal murder case). His latest appearance was in the Bombay High Court a few days ago in the Lilavati Hospital matter. It was a treat for all those who were in Court to listen to how he put forth his propositions with amazing clarity.
Fali S. Nariman:
Fali S. Nariman, the other grand old man of Indian law, is the anti-thesis of Ram Jethmalani. Fali is known to be quick tempered and very impatient with his juniors and the instructing attorneys. A conference with him will leave you feeling breathless and helpless. Nariman will shoot ten questions at you at the same time and if you don’t have the quick answers to them, he will glare you down. “Its’ like being before a firing squad”, a client said after he came out of the conference. Fali’s intellectual comprehension of the facts and law is so fast, that you just cannot cope with it, no matter how well prepared you are.
One thing to remember is that if Fali gives you a conference for 6 O’ clock, you shouldn’t land up at 6PM. Why? Because the conference will usually be for 6 in the morning. Fali Nariman likes to start the day early and it is not unusual for him to hold early morning conferences, when he is still dressed in his night clothes, with a robe on top.
Reminiscing about Fali Nariman, Ghoolam Vahanvati (himself an eminent senior advocate) says he is a very “hard taskmaster” and that the one thing he learnt from Fali was “the importance of extreme hard work“. Vahanvati recollects how, when he was a junior, Fali would give him work late in the evening and expect the legal research to be done by 9 am in the morning. Vahanvati and the other juniors would sit throughout the night preparing for the cases. Fali Nariman is a “phenomenon“, an “irresistible force“, Vahanvati says with awe in his voice.
Nariman’s personality also frequently intimidates the Judges. They dare not question the propositions of law that he formulates for fear that Nariman will lash out and they will appear ignorant. Of course, the foundation to this is the confidence that Fali Nariman will never formulate a proposition that is wrong or can be faulted.
In his autobiography “Before Memory Fades”, Fali Nariman has set out some priceless & practical tips on how lawyers must prepare for and argue important cases. He says that the “most important” and “invaluable” lesson that he learnt in his lifetime was that “it is better to spend more time thinking about a case than merely reading the brief”.
Fali Nariman also says that “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”. He adds that “the skill of a practicing lawyer is not flamboyance or verbosity but hard work”. “Avoid histrionics and stick to the record; you will find the judge receptive to your pleas”.
When engaging a giant like Fali Nariman, you can’t be worried about mundane things like fees. But if you really have to know, his fees are really not that exorbitant when compared to some of his younger peers. Between 5 to 15 lakhs a day is the fee that you can expect to be charged.
Soli Sorabjee is popularly known as “the Brahmin without a sacred thread”. In a city where your success is measured by the size of your car and where even juniors flaunt their BMWs and Jaguars, Soli Sorabjee stands out like a sore thumb with his beaten down Maruti Esteem. Worse, Soli Sorabjee is opposed to lawyers charging high fees. “To charge Rs 30 to 40 lakh per day is nothing short of extortion. It is no excuse to say that the client can afford it”, Soli Sorabjee is reported to have said.
Sorabjee is really of the old school. He is obviously inspired by H. M. Seervai, the great constitutional lawyer who, when asked what was the objection to charging high fees when clients are willing to pay and able to afford it, retorted “If a man is willing to be robbed, will you be a thief?”
So, it is no surprise that Soli Sorabjee’s fees are amongst the lowest. At just Rs. 2 to 3 lakhs an appearance, he is literally a steal for when you are looking for an ‘A’ lister senior counsel to defend you.
Mukul Rohatgi’s USP is that he instinctively knows the one point that will appeal to the Judges and he will home in on that. When you go to Mukul Rohatigi for a conference, he will poke through the papers, asking you seemingly random questions in a seemingly disinterested manner. All the while, Mukul Rohatgi is looking for that one “magic” point that will catch the Judges attention.
When Mukul Rohatgi gets hold of that “magic” point, he will start his argument with that, knowing that if that strong point does not convince the Judges, nothing else will. Rohatgi puts the point across with such force and conviction, that it usually sways the Judges. The Judges will look at the opposing counsel and ask “Yes, Mr. Opposing Counsel, what do you have to say about this point”. The opposing counsel will usually be a little bewildered because he wasn’t quite expecting the point to be put the way it has been put by Rohatgi. “MiLord will give me a moment to take instructions”, the opposing counsel will say, hurriedly turning to his client for inspiration. “Yes, please consider it and file a reply. In the meanwhile, we will grant interim stay”, the Judges will say. That is what Rohatgi wanted. Once you have an interim stay, the chips are in your favour and you can call the shots. His clients beam with joy.
The downside of Mukul Rohatgi’s “shotgun” approach is that while he is great in “admission” matters, he doesn’t have the patience or the temperament to handle long-drawn “hearing” matters. For him, a point must be stateable in 5 sentences or it is not worth stating at all.
Mukul Rohatgi is invaluable in admission matters where all you want is that your matter should be admitted and you should get an interim stay. At Rs. 3 to 5 lakhs for an admission, he is full value for money.
Harish Salve is our all-time favourite professional. The one that we aspire to be. He is a role model for all professionals on how one can balance professional work with personal life and work hard while enjoying the fruits of that work. We paid our tribute to him here.
Salve also represents the ideal mix between technical perfection and raw aggression in the Court room.
The best thing about Harish Salve is that he is a “thinking” counsel in the sense that when you pose your problem to him, he is thinking beyond the contours of the law. He is also thinking of the problem from a businessman’s perspective. And so, when he is arguing the point in Court, Salve is able to slip in a practical example of how the non-acceptance of his point will adversely affect business prospects. Also, Harish Salve’s training as a Chartered Accountant has given him an edge over all others. In matters involving complex accounting or finance issues, you can see that while the other counsel are sub-consciously feeling that their knowledge is inadequate and are diffident in their presentation to the Court, Salve has no such complexes. He knows that there is no one in the Court room who knows the subject better than him and this gives him an air of superiority which he exploits to the core.
Harish Salve is capable of immense hard work and has a never-say-die approach. We saw this in full force in the celebrated Vodafone matter where despite having successively lost two times before the High Court and having a seemingly unstateable case, he did not give up. He was continuously at work, 24 by 7, reading and re-reading hundreds of judgements, developing new arguments, refurbishing the old ones, drafting and re-drafting written submissions, always confident in the strength of his case. Such was Harish Salve’s dedication to the matter, that he gave up all other matters to focus on the Vodafone matter.
Also, because he knew he would be distracted in Delhi, Harish Salve took up temporary residence in London and arranged for his entire office to be relocated there so that he could focus exclusively on the Vodafone matter.
In all the interviews that he gave in the wake of the spectacular Vodafone success, Harish Salve emphasized one point again and again. The need for hard work and industry if one wants to be a good lawyer. “You must have the ability and the desire to work long hours with great concentration and enthusiasm. You must keep thinking about the matter and always keep your mind open for fresh ideas. And you must never give up” he said.
After the back-to-back success in the Vodafone & Reliance matters, Harish Salve has become everybody’s lucky mascot. He is the must-have counsel for everyone. Fees are no question. However, refreshingly, Harish Salve hasn’t taken any advantage of the situation. Instead, his fees are still very reasonable at Rs. 3 to 5 lakhs for an appearance. That speaks volumes for the thorough gentleman and professional that Harish Salve is.