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A few days back, I was waiting for a shipment from Amazon to be delivered at my chamber near the High Court of Kerala.
After waiting for some time, I got a call from the delivery person. He asked me whether I could come to another place, which is almost a kilometre away from my chamber, to collect the order from there.
I was upset at first, but I thought that he might be having a hectic day and decided to go to the place he had suggested.
When I reached the place, I saw him waiting for me as I could identify him with his heavy bag containing items for delivery. My appearance (I was dressed in the black trousers and white shirt) brought an instant sadness to his face and I wondered why.
I collected the item and gave him the money as it was a ‘Cash on Delivery’ order. As he opened his wallet to give me the balance amount, I could see a Bar Council of Kerala ID card in his wallet and it struck me why he did not want to come near the High Court area. I collected the money and rushed back to my office without letting him know that I realised his identity.
This is not an isolated incident in my state, and I am sure this is no different across our country also. There are lawyers doing all kinds of jobs to make both ends meet. I personally know lawyers who have worked as painters, police constables, clerks and much more. My argument is not that other professions are insignificant or undignified. Rather, what strikes me is lawyers leaving the legal profession and looking for alternate career options or jobs.
Why do lawyers leave the profession? Litigation is only a gap filler for a fresh law graduate until he gets some kind of permanent employment. Why does this happen? The sight of a lawyer working as an Amazon delivery agent and this question of why lawyers leave the profession, kept haunting me.
Lawyers leave the profession for mainly these reasons:
To retain promising lawyers at the Bar, there should be good Seniors at the Bar who not only mentor the juniors, but also pay them decent money so that there is an incentive to endure those initial years when money is less and pressure is more.
The issue with Seniors these days is that though they hire juniors, it is only for carrying the files of their office, checking the board when the Court is sitting, and seeking adjournment or a pass over for a case.
Many Seniors who hire juniors do not mentor them in any way. Instead, they are made to do only clerical work and without adequate compensation. In some offices, though there is no payment, Seniors allow juniors to file their independent cases and earn money out of that. But managing their own cases along with their office cases becomes almost impossible. So, many juniors avoid taking independent briefs. In many instances where juniors are paid a decent salary, they cannot file independent cases and are made to do only the odd office jobs.
Even after several years of practice, it is very tough to setup an independent office owing to the cost involved. I am not saying it is impossible, but it is a herculean task. Be it the infrastructure or setting up of the office or a library, the cost involved is high. And once a lawyer has an independent chambers, there is no guarantee that he/she can have a steady flow of clients. Many times, an independent lawyer has to don the role of the clerk, the typist, and much more, at least for the initial few years.
To justify not paying their juniors, the usual rhetoric that a Senior employs is “we were not paid a single penny in our initial days, this is a noble profession and juniors come to learn from their Seniors”.
I only have a moment of silence for such Seniors! There are Seniors whose monthly earnings run into crores, and yet they pay their juniors less than Rs. 10,000. These Seniors are not only doing injustice to the juniors, but also to the Bar and the Bench. This is because law graduates have many avenues to explore these days other than litigating at the Bar for peanuts.
Only if there are good junior advocates today will there be good lawyers and judges tomorrow. I am not asking Seniors to give fat pay checks to their juniors. However, a Senior doing well at the Bar is obligated to pay his/her juniors an amount which will help them survive the initial years in the legal profession. Along with payment, Senior members of the Bar should also ensure that the juniors have a prominent role to play in the Court, rather than just seeking adjournments.
Recently, the Kerala government had sanctioned a grant of Rs. 5,000 as monthly stipend for lawyers with less than three years practice at the Bar and an annual income of less than Rs. 1 lakh. The lawyer should be below thirty years of age to be eligible for this stipend. Further, the lawyer should submit an affidavit attested by his/her Senior (who has at least fifteen years practice) or concerned Bar Association every three months stating that he/she is still in active practice. The fact that the government had to step in to ensure that a junior lawyer gets a minimum amount of money every month, small as it is, reflects the pathetic state of affairs in the legal profession.
The other welfare measures for lawyers in Kerala include schemes that guarantee an amount when an advocate retires from the profession or at the time of his death or an accident. Though these are fairly small sums of money, it is better to have something rather than nothing.
I strongly believe that the only people who can bring a change in this state of affairs are the Senior members of the Bar and not the government. The Senior members have a great responsibility on their shoulders to not just protect their juniors, but also to save the profession for the future. We will have great lawyers and great judges, only if the Senior members at the Bar step in now. I hope that we do not have another lawyer who is also an Amazon delivery boy!
End Note: By Senior members of the Bar, I did not mean lawyers designated as Senior Advocates by the High Courts or Supreme Court, but all lawyers who are Senior members of the Bar, whether designated or not.
Raghul Sudheesh is an advocate practicing in the High Court of Kerala. This article was first published on LinkedIn. An edited version of the article appeared in the law journal, Complete Kerala High Court Cases.