A noble profession with not-so-noble paycheques

One might wonder what is so noble about a profession that makes people become tea sellers or street vendors to earn a living.

In the last few years, multiple Chief Justices of India have spoken about the need for more law graduates to join litigation and serve the nation by protecting the interests of the underprivileged masses by providing pro bono services.

Speaking at the 8th Convocation of National Law University, Delhi, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said “the legal profession is not about profit maximization.” He also expressed his concern about NLU students and their preference for joining corporate law firms.

“Due to various considerations, most students from these universities end up in corporate law firms. It is unfortunate that a comparable addition is not being made to the ranks of lawyers practicing in courts from the National Law Universities,” he added.

The discourse about law students preferring corporate jobs over litigation is not new. Nor has a Chief Justice of India raised this issue for the first time. Former CJI P Sathasivam had cautioned NLU graduates against chasing money in a speech he gave in 2013. In 2014, former CJI HL Dattu in his address to the first batch of graduates of National Law University in Visakhapatnam told them that lawyers should not focus on making easy money, and should instead serve the noble legal profession and fulfil their social responsibilities.

As idealistic as it may seem to freshers or people in high school aspiring to join the legal profession with noble intentions, considering the social realities of a capitalistic economic system is crucial. With the exponential rise in inflation in the last decade, everything from food to fuel has become more expensive than ever before. Travel costs have significantly gone up, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away the option to travel in public transport.

How are law graduates fresh out of college expected to join litigation in these distressing economic conditions with abysmal pay?

It is no secret that most advocates and litigation law firms who employ undergrads as interns offer only ‘exposure’ and a ‘certificate of internship’ as perks. The lack of a stipend means that interns must travel to and from the workplace at their own expense. Getting an internship opportunity by spending money from one’s own pocket is not a viable and sustainable professional practice.

Conversations with multiple law students from Mumbai and Delhi revealed the extent to which they are overworked and underpaid. A prominent Tier 2 litigation firm in Mumbai pays interns just ₹1,500 per month. Their working hours are 10 AM to 8:30 PM, for six days a week, and they often get called to the office on Sundays too. A litigation firm in South West Delhi recently posted a full-time job opening on LinkedIn for a junior advocate. The working hours were 9 AM-6 PM and the salary mentioned in the post was ₹5,000 per month.

A 2020 survey conducted by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a legal think tank, revealed that over 79 per cent of lawyers across 7 High Courts believe that junior advocates with less than two years of experience earn less than ₹10,000 a month. Welfare funds set up by the Central and State governments under the Advocates Welfare Fund Act, 2001, remain defunct in many states.

An overwhelming 92 per cent of advocates practicing in the Delhi High Court were not aware of anyone who had received financial assistance from the fund. The situation was no better in Gujarat and Madras, with 75 per cent and 66 per cent of the advocates in those High Courts respectively denying knowledge of any beneficiaries.

A Supreme Court advocate interviewed for this article revealed that her first salary in 2012 was ₹8,000 monthly. Even after a decade, junior advocates still get paid this measly amount for putting in ten to twelve hours of work for six and sometimes even seven days a week.

A student pursuing LL.B. from the University of Delhi said she wants to pursue a career in a corporate law firm because “the paycheques there are plush” and described the pay in litigation initially as a series of “dry days.” Another student explaining the rationale behind not choosing litigation talked about the lack of family background in law, which is often considered to be one of the most crucial factors for success in litigation. She also voiced her concerns about the slow pace of professional growth in the first few years and the type of menial tasks senior advocates often ask their juniors to do.

An article by the New Indian Express shared the story of an advocate in Chennai who had to resort to selling tea owing to loss of employment and lack of institutional support in the Coronavirus lockdown. With over four decades of experience at the Bar, the man also shared how many of his colleagues have started looking for odd jobs. An advocate from Hyderabad began a catering business during the same time.

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These are just a couple of instances that made it to the headlines with countless others which did not. Law schools across India instil the idea of law as a noble profession in the students’ minds. Upon looking at the advocates doing odd jobs just to make ends meet, one might wonder what is so noble about a profession that makes people become tea sellers or street vendors to earn a living.

The state of affairs in the litigation sector is bleak. Graduates who choose corporate law firms over litigation and social service do so not because they do not want to serve society and help people, but because they are aware of the dismal financial security that junior advocates have.

Another pertinent fact to keep in mind is that the cost of acquiring a chamber in a High Court is often unaffordable to first-generation law graduates. The prospect of a stable job and a decent paycheque every month is all it takes to lure graduates into the corporate world. Unless senior advocates and litigation firms offer adequate remuneration to undergrads, the concerns raised by multiple Chief Justices will continue to echo for a very long time.

A massive overhaul of how interns and junior advocates have conventionally been treated is the need of the hour. Providing a certain minimum stipend to cover basic expenses like food and travel would be a welcome first step. Creating a healthy work environment and maintaining a work-life balance so that interns don't work for ten to twelve hours a day without pay would be another step that would go a long way in reducing the lack of willingness to join litigation.

In March last year, Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court had expressed his “tremendous amount of satisfaction in being a Judge.” If the litigation sector successfully implements the much-needed reforms, the concerns voiced made by the CJIs might be redressed as more law students join the litigation sector and find satisfaction in service to society without having apprehensions regarding financial security.

Raunaq Bali is a student at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news