Sarthak Karol, Justice DY Chandrachud
Sarthak Karol, Justice DY Chandrachud

Between Law School and Law Practice: My Experience of Judicial Clerkship

Sarthak Karol

The clerkship programme at the Supreme Court of India has been one of the most challenging and intellectually stimulating experiences of my life.

Law school taught me the black letter ratios of judicial decisions. But I wanted an insight into the mind of a judge, who I believe to be one of the most powerful individuals in the legal system.

There is an old adage that “justice is what the judge ate for his breakfast”. I was certain that this factoid of legal realism could not be extrapolated in real life and therefore, I decided to work with Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Judge of the Supreme Court of India, to get an insider’s perspective on the adjudication process.

The purpose of this article is to share my experiences and provide a perspective on the clerkship programme.

At the outset, I must make an important disclaimer that each judge has a distinct style of working and the experiences of each clerk may vary widely. However, the key to a great clerkship experience is always the nature of the judge and the relationship the judge shares with her/his law clerks.

In a nutshell, working with a judge for nearly two years has exposed me to the broadest possible range of work, both in terms of the law and the administrative processes of the court.

The common and yet well documented misconception among law students today is that the clerkship programme is a shortcut to a rubber-stamped letter of recommendation for a Master’s abroad. This has unfortunately cheapened the currency of clerkships in India. The benefits associated with a clerkship are understated and undervalued.

Those who aspire to work as law clerks must come to terms with three realities – first, the Indian Supreme Court and its judges have extremely high workloads. Due to structural problems, judges often only receive limited assistance from the Bar in terms of research. As a law clerk, you will be expected to work twice as hard and shoulder the workload by assisting your judge in filling the gap in research and reasoning. This makes it an extremely demanding job where time, holidays and weekends often lose relevance, leaving very little time for yourself.

Second, the judgments of the Supreme Court are the final say on the legal position and even beyond that have a global outreach, often shaping the legal jurisprudence of many countries. Therefore, the inputs of a law clerk must be the product of extensive and exhaustive research to ensure that the position of the law laid down is tenable, equitable and looks to the future. Having a strong skill set of effective research and concise presentation is a pre-requisite for the position of a law clerk.

Third, which I personally believe to be the most important precept of a clerkship programme, is commitment to public service. Just as judges, even law clerks must at all times work with a sense of service and not profit. It is always the institution that will take the credit for your hard work, but you will always have the satisfaction of knowing that your work has facilitated administration of justice. Having this sense of realisation helps in pushing through difficult times.

Briefly, the work profile of a law clerk includes attending court proceedings, taking note of counsels’ arguments, preparing case briefs, oral briefings, drafting research notes, proof reading and speech writing. I spent my initial months in the office preparing one-page briefs for admission and daily hearing matters. At first, I found the bulky files intimidating, but over a period of time I got the hang of sieving the relevant facts, reasoning of the judgments under challenge, and identifying key issues in each case.

Judges usually handle a caseload of 30-60 cases a day. Therefore, it is crucial for them to be well versed with each case so that the arguments in court can be focused on the key points. As a result, they dedicate a significant time to studying files. During the course of my clerkship, I prepared over 600 briefs on matters that involved questions of civil, criminal, company, service, environmental and constitutional law.

As a lawyer who wishes to litigate, this exercise allowed me to – first, understand that written advocacy can be an effective tool to supplement oral arguments in order to get your point across effectively to a judge. Justice Chandrachud always appreciated concise and to-the-point briefs that saved him the time of having to leaf through copious and often irrelevant written records.

Second, reading impugned judgments from various courts and tribunals exposed me to unfamiliar areas of law and varied styles of drafting judgments. And third, it acted as a ‘pendency mirror’, that allowed me to identify reasons for India’s long wait for justice (repeated adjournments and practice of frivolous appeals being few amongst the gravest offenders).

Justice Chandrachud loves his work and enjoys challenging questions of law. He also appreciates a collaborative workspace. Unlike my previous job in a corporate law firm, where the turnaround time of deliverables was incredibly short, Justice Chandrachud gave me an opportunity to undertake in depth research on legal issues that had a broader impact on the society.

He always gave me the liberty to test my own wings by urging me to challenge and analyse legal propositions by providing fresh perspectives.

Before he dictated a judgement, he expected me to do the exploratory work of having read the main brief and judgement under challenge, flagging relevant documents, reading written submissions and case compilations, and carrying out some preliminary research on questions of law involved in the case.

Before beginning, we had a friendly and open discussion on the structure of the judgment, arguments made in court, interesting issues to be addressed and additional points of research. He would even invite me to play devil’s advocate on a particular position of law.

Working with a judge who has over 20 years of experience at the Bench, I came to realise how good legal intuition stems from being well-grounded in the first principles of the subject matter and legal adjudication.

Justice Chandrachud also gave me the liberty to discuss the case with my colleagues, undertake independent research, and draft research notes. This gave me an unreal opportunity of having my work being dissected by a man who had such great experience and legal acumen.

The relationship between a law clerk and the judge is a symbiotic one. Whilst my colleagues and I had much to learn from Justice Chandrachud’s professional guidance and constant mentoring, he always considered us as a window to the outside world, bringing in fresh perspectives and a taste of current thinking.

Often, Justice Chandrachud hosts a tea for all the interns and law clerks where he has an informal discussion with everyone on recent developments in law, suggestions to improve the administration of justice, and even to share recommendations on music and movies.

I have come to realise that judges live an extremely secluded life. Human frailties are a part of judging, and just like an inquisitive law student, judges too are at all times trying to learn more about the law and life.

One of the highlights of my clerkship was working on and witnessing all 41 days of India’s second longest dispute - the Ayodhya proceedings. This gave me the opportunity to see the work of the Bar’s brightest legal luminaries in action. I was left in awe of the ability of the arguing counsel to marshal and outline complicated sets of facts and then develop on arguments.

I learnt that a lawyer’s secret weapon is not just using the technique of logical or legal persuasion, but also mastering the art of effective courtroom strategy. Being in court when the matter was argued, I was able to encapsulate the courtroom courtesies, spontaneity, flair, emphasis, and strategic pauses.

The clerkship programme at the Supreme Court is a gold mine of opportunities and fulfills one’s intellectual curiosity in one way or the other. The position of a law clerk places you at a vantage point, where it provides a strong foundation for anyone who wishes to pursue a career in litigation, academia or even public service.

This opportunity should not be considered by only fresh law graduates. The institution stands to gain immensely from the valuable inputs of those with prior work experience and higher education qualifications.

The clerkship has been a rewarding experience for me. In addition to what I have stated above, I have gained a better appreciation for the legal process and judicial decision making. I could not think of a better avenue a few years out of law school that offers such an engaging and important role in facilitating administration of justice.

More than anything else, I will always value the connection I shared with Justice Chandrachud that will continue to influence me in countless ways. I will always be indebted to Justice Chandrachud and the institution for this phenomenal experience.

The author is a graduate of Jindal Global Law School who is currently working as a law clerk to Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud. Views are personal.

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