Jobs, offices, mental peace: Young lawyers speak on what they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic

Stories of how lawyers in Delhi have struggled to keep their professional aspirations afloat amidst the pandemic.

On a nippy morning in October 2020, Advocate Anurag Das struggled to get out of bed. The 29-year-old lawyer would later drag himself out, just five minutes prior to his scheduled morning meeting. The morning routine had become a habit as he found himself in a professional slump owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Das is one of the many lawyers in the national capital who have struggled, and continue to struggle, to keep their professional aspirations afloat amidst challenging times.

As a result of the pandemic and the consequent loss of revenue and decrease in litigation, Das' former firm had to downsize its team. Das, thereafter, faced an exponential increase in clerical work.

“We weren't prepared, as we depended heavily on physical files. No data was instantly available in digital format. It took us months to convert data/files into digital copies that again had to be updated manually and regularly as cases proceeded. No system was in place to shift to digital from physical,” says Das, who obtained his law degree from Delhi University in 2018.

The unprecedented situation had reduced individual cases that Das and his team were handling.

“Hardly could I find or close new cases because litigation had hit an all-time low. Clients refrained from legal expenses if not in dire need,” he says.

Two months into the lockdown, Das’ mental health started to deteriorate. Faced with little or no litigation, trimmed income, and an uncertain future, he found no respite in his work.

“Risking Covid, I visited the office on occasions for files. But the fee was not enough to compensate for the risk involved,” he says.

Anurag Das at a city court complex
Anurag Das at a city court complex

His visit home in August 2020, for three weeks brought no solace.

“Working remotely and adapting to the new ways of litigation that required voluminous conversion of physical files to digital, took all the time,” he recalls.

The post-pandemic period has been the “most challenging” phase of Das’ professional and personal life.

“Though my parents have been supportive, I didn’t want to burden them with my financial troubles. Being all alone in the city drove me to a point where I just couldn’t handle work-related pressure,” says the 29-year-old lawyer from Shillong, Meghalaya.

With mounting pressure and a paltry income, Das’ consolation, quite ironically, came in the form of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. With a “positive” interpretation of Kafka’s book, as well as motivational videos on YouTube, Das tried to inspire himself.

He stresses that the prevailing situation has ensured no new job opportunities for those looking for a change.

“Lack of opportunities still exist as no substantial hiring has been done for the past one-and-a-half years. Many young advocates have borrowed money from friends. I also received calls from distant acquaintances. Shows the level of desperation that has creeped in,” he adds.

Impact on judicial officers and lawyers

The pandemic witnessed an alarming rise of COVID-19 cases among judicial officers, staffers and lawyers in the last one year. While many succumbed to the virus, others struggled with recovery. In April 2021 alone, over 30 judicial officers in the subordinate courts and 60 staffers there had been affected. Two judicial officers posted in the district courts in the national capital lost their lives after getting infected.

The onset of the pandemic also changed the way legal proceedings were organised in courts. The shift from physical to virtual wasn’t a smooth ride.

Though the transition has often elicited mixed reactions from lawyers, it has paved the way for a “new normal”.

Advocate Vrinda Grover told Bar & Bench that human beings are social creatures, and that the pandemic had deprived lawyers of physical space.

“A lot of learning in this profession takes place through observation. One is constantly a student and learning. Those who have joined the profession newly and those who are very young in the profession have been deprived of a huge opportunity,” she says.

Grover clarifies that she does not advocate for physical hearings, with the third wave around the corner.

“We shouldn't have physical hearings. But I think most of the lawyers in Delhi would have access to a mobile phone. It is very important that links are shared openly,” the lawyer suggests.

She believes that the financial assistance to lawyers should be disbursed through the channels of the bar associations and the Bar Council of Delhi for effective results.

However, Grover terms the legal profession as a “profession of extremes”, where we have lawyers earning exorbitantly and those who survive on a day-to-day basis.

“Therefore, bar associations could tap into those who can be generous at this juncture to support the lesser fortunate in the profession,” she adds.

"Took friendly loans to sustain a living"

Being the eldest of three siblings in the family had its own pressure for Vikas Manav, 40, who was set to get engaged in early 2020, when the pandemic first hit. The lawyer, who practices in Delhi trial courts for a living, had also taken a loan for renovating his house where his family, including his senior citizen parents, reside.

“The earnings that came from criminal litigation in Karkardooma and Tis Hazari courts, where I generally practice, started to dry up during the first phase of the pandemic-induced lockdown,” he says.

Manav refers to his condition as “hand-to-mouth” after the second wave of the pandemic diminished the little he was making.

With his income drying up, the lawyer was left with no option but to borrow from friends.

“I used to handle domestic violence cases against women, but didn’t have a lucrative clientele as most of them worked as house helps after being ill-treated at their matrimonial homes. But that too disappeared in the pandemic,” says Manav, who is the sole earner in his family.

He has been practicing litigation for nine years and didn’t want to shy away from the professional responsibility of representing clients despite little or no monetary compensation.

But with an outstanding loan amount that he needs to repay, his worries are far from over. Manav, who also looks after his two younger siblings, now hopes to improve his “critical financial situation” when litigation returns to normalcy.

"I had to leave the office space as I couldn't afford it"

After graduating from Pune, Siddhartha Jain (32), who hails from Kanpur, made Delhi his home in 2011. In 2018, his lawyering ambitions turned him into an independent lawyer who took up civil and corporate cases of individuals.

Jain was steadily rising up the professional ladder until the pandemic hit, bringing, like everything else, litigation at Delhi courts and tribunals to a standstill.

“I had a few companies, which were very small, as my clients. I had an office on a sharing basis. But I had to leave that office space as I couldn’t afford it,” shares Jain.

Luckily for him, some lawyers he knew constantly gave him work.

“That was the only respite I had. The issue was that earlier, for the same work, I was getting a substantial amount. But during the pandemic, the same amount got reduced to one-fourth. It was my necessity to ask them for work. I was after them to give me work and I couldn't negotiate,” he says.

Though he had his family’s support, many of Jain’s friends have familial obligations and are struggling to survive. He currently lives in a flat owned by his parents in Noida.

For Jain, 2020 proved to be more taxing, as he was desperate to find work and borrowing from parents wasn’t something he had anticipated.

“I was compelled to join an office as I wasn’t able to survive as an independent legal professional. Maybe I'll start independently when we are through with the pandemic situation. Maybe in a year,” he says, hopeful.

Helped 18,067 needy lawyers with Rs 9 crore: Bar Council of Delhi

The Bar Council of Delhi (BCD) states that it has distributed Rs 9 crore among 18,067 lawyers who suffered financially during the pandemic, from March 2020 till date.

Speaking to Bar & Bench, Senior Advocate and BCD Chairman Ramesh Gupta says that besides the financial assistance given to lawyers affected by COVID-19, those who lost work were also extended aid.

“Even ration kits amounting to around Rs 3 crore were distributed among 5,000 lawyers,” he says.

The Council claims to have aided 4,015 lawyers affected with the virus and those in home quarantine with Rs 6.29 crore. According to BCD, the total financial aid to lawyers is Rs 19 crore till now.

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