How much do seniors pay juniors? Part I: Delhi lawyers

In the first part of this series we speak to senior and junior lawyers in Delhi, the hub for litigation practice in the country.
lawyers
lawyers

Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud recently called upon lawyers across the country to pay their juniors well, echoing a sentiment that has been expressed over the last couple of decades.

The meagre remuneration one can expect while starting off in the litigation space continues to be one of the reasons why the best graduates from the top institutions in the country look for greener pastures.

And given the sheer workload junior lawyers working in chambers are put through, it beggars belief that some of them aren't paid at all for their services.

With this in mind, Bar & Bench spoke to lawyers from across India - both senior and junior - to find out how much (if at all) litigating lawyers pay their juniors. What are the trends and practices across different cities? How do some lawyers justify not paying their juniors?

The first part of this series kicks off in Delhi, the hub for litigation practice in the country.

Even though we found that most Delhi lawyers we spoke to agreed with CJI Chandrachud's idea, the responses don't reflect the general trend across the capital.

Paying his juniors “reasonably well” was something Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra imbibed from his senior, late Union Minister Arun Jaitley.

I try to emulate the model by showing generosity to my juniors. Not just juniors, I also pay my clerks and staff well,” he said.

Senior Advocate Siddharth Luthra
Senior Advocate Siddharth Luthra

A fresher working for Luthra would be paid over ₹3 lakh per year, whereas the pay grade for an experienced lawyer is between ₹22 to ₹25 lakh per annum.

Luthra's employees have health insurance, in addition to cars and homes for his staff.

Senior advocate and additional solicitor general of India Madhavi Divan had her early years of practice at the Bombay bar where juniors were not paid. 

I considered it a great privilege to be inducted into my senior’s chamber-to be exposed to his work, to have access to his library and to watch him prepare a case. Having said that I know that many fresh graduates forgo litigation practice because they do not have the financial staying power particularly those from other cities or towns,” said Divan.

Divan, therefore, feels a lot of good talent gets driven away from the bar and unlike the Bombay bar, other parts of the country offer very little opportunity to be briefed as a young junior so financial support from seniors becomes a must.

Madhavi Divan, Senior Advocate
Madhavi Divan, Senior Advocate

However, the senior lawyer finds it important to define the relationship — where the junior is a professional in her own right, not an employee, merely because she earns a stipend. 

The stipend should not be equated with a salary. A junior must always aspire to have her own practice and not bask in the comfort of a secure job. The relationship of senior and junior continues through life, but seniors must try to provide opportunities to their juniors to grow- to argue and develop their own standing at the bar.  That is also the test of a good senior- not merely her own practice,” added Divan.

On a broader reading of what the CJI said, Senior Advocate Sajan Poovayya expressed his agreement and pointed out that a number of juniors do get paid very badly. 

I can’t speak for the entire community, but the ones I know or deal with in Bangalore and Delhi, the seniors pay well. I have always believed — now that I am almost a decade into my designation but even as a younger lawyer — whether young or old, it doesn't matter as long as a lawyer contributes. They are bringing value to the table. They must be compensated and remunerated well. That’s the key,” he underscored. 

Poovayya stressed that it was essential for lawyers who enter the profession to be remunerated well so that they maintain a particular lifestyle and decorum in order to build a strong Bar.

Senior advocate Sajan Poovayya
Senior advocate Sajan Poovayya

Financial independence also brings about a great deal of intellectual honesty and independence,” he added.

Juniors who join the senior lawyer’s chamber start with a base salary of ₹1.2 lakh a month, which is about ₹15 lakh a year. 

Those who are a couple of years into the profession, typically a junior with three years of experience at the Bar, earns anything between 36-45 lakh a year, which is about 3-4 lakh a month. Anybody having an experience of 5 years or more - there have been juniors who have earned 1 crore a year, which is close to 8-10 lakhs a month,” said Poovayya.

Even as Senior Advocate Dayan Krishnan’s generosity in paying his junior colleagues has garnered accolades among juniors in the city, he was stated to be particular about hiring lawyers with an experience of a minimum of three years.

Payment figures of some of the senior lawyers in the national capital.
Payment figures of some of the senior lawyers in the national capital.

He normally hires from national law schools and currently has two juniors working for him from national law schools and another one is a highly-skilled commercial lawyer. He does not take references. Even if judges ask him to take someone, he refuses them and is therefore unpopular because of it,” a source revealed.

Krishnan’s office pays one cheque in the beginning of the month and another around the middle of the month. The average salary is somewhere between ₹3-5 lakh a month. 

Senior Advocate Siddhartha Dave
Senior Advocate Siddhartha Dave

Senior Advocate Siddhartha Dave pays his juniors in the range of more than ₹50,000 every month. 

I agree with the Chief Justice of India that juniors need to be paid and paid well, since they put in long hours at work. Not only juniors, but office staff and clerks need to be paid well since they too put in long hours at work,” he said.

Dave noted that the “old Bombay practice” of seniors not paying juniors since they think they are doing them a favour, had to be buried.

"But keep in mind that there may be offices where the monthly salary is low, but clients are assigned to juniors. That way, they get their money from the client and also have their own work. This is for the non-senior lawyers who own their offices,” added Dave.

Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa
Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa

When Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa began his career in 1995 in the national capital, the opportunities and financial help he received from his seniors helped him through tough times.

Two decades later, he follows a similar approach with his juniors when it comes to remuneration.

I follow the same with my colleagues now and provide them the opportunity to earn more than the monthly salary. They are allowed to raise bills in some cases, and if not possible, they’re paid separately, if they have assisted me ably,” he said.

Although the remuneration in Pahwa’s chamber varies from person to person - considering their seniority, contribution and calibre - they are paid a fixed sum for sustenance and the rest depends on the efforts undertaken by his juniors. 

He underlined the higher cost of living in Delhi and agreed with the CJI’s advice to pay junior lawyers adequately, especially to those who have come from other cities.

Sumer Singh Boparai
Sumer Singh Boparai

Until last year, Advocate Sumer Singh Boparai had worked in Pahwa’s chamber for about five years after starting in 2017.

He paid us handsomely. In the beginning, he gave us a stipend that took care of daily expenses. He allowed us to bill separately which, was a very good amount more than what any other senior paid to their juniors in the High Court,” he said.

Boparai highlighted that learning court craft from his senior was a huge help in developing and retaining clients. Apart from court craft, assimilating skills to deal with clients during his stint with Pahwa helped Boparai prepare for his independent practice. 

Now that he has juniors working with him, Boparai pays a basic stipend and allows them to bill retainer clients separately, a habit he inculcated from his senior. 

Unlike a corporate job, Boparai quoted a ballpark figure between ₹40-50,000 as a good amount for sustenance for someone who doesn’t belong to the city.

Advocate Urvi Mohan hails from Patna, Bihar, but started her practice in Mumbai. She moved to Delhi in 2017 and now works with Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose.

From her experience, Mohan saw two different approaches to paying juniors in both these cities.   

In Bombay, the culture is more towards not paying juniors or paying them a token amount. The thought behind it is that as a junior, you are getting the privilege to work with an established senior. But again, in Bombay, the other side is that you work on a commission basis—as briefs come, you get like a 1%, 2% or 5% and the encouragement there is more towards helping the junior develop and sustain their own practice,” she said.

Urvi Mohan
Urvi Mohan

Mohan, however, said that Mumbai was the most expensive city in the country, where paying ₹5,000-10,000 to a lawyer who is not from the city or from an affluent family, poses a major problem. 

It is impossible to sustain because for that amount, you won’t even find a room to share with somebody,” she added. 

She felt that Delhi was slightly better off.

It’s a lot easier to permeate and penetrate through and do matters and appear before judges, get clients, hold clients. But the problem with that is of course with an open market, there are too many of us,” said Mohan.

Mohan hopes seniors would pay a respectable sum in the light of CJI’s comments.

“When a message like this comes from the CJI, or from other senior advocates, or judges, then seniors also need to do this assessment,” she said.

Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose
Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose

Her senior colleague, Ghose, said that while some seniors don’t pay their juniors well, there were others who were very generous in the city.

Given the nature of the city we live in, ideally for a law school junior, starting salary should be around ₹35,000 in a senior's chamber and there should be a minimum 10% increase on that. And after one or two years, the senior should allow the junior to also supplement their income by taking his or her own cases,” he said.

For Senior Advocate Maninder Singh, someone starting their practice was akin to taking a leap into the sea, and entering an unchartered territory with challenges and opportunities aplenty.

Maninder Singh, Senior Advocate
Maninder Singh, Senior Advocate

By being thrown into the sea, I mean that you don’t know what to do. Assurance of a job at the university level is zero. When you come to the profession, there is no support from the government or the Bar Council of India and no support from the bar association you become a member of,” he explained. 

There are four junior lawyers currently working with Singh, who said that the system of seniors having a notion of “learn from me” also has to include “earn from me”.

Advocate Prasouk Jain
Advocate Prasouk Jain

Advocate Prasouk Jain started his career with a monthly remuneration of  ₹2,500, which increased to ₹7,000 the following month. 

In a career spanning over a decade, Jain has been running his own chamber for about eight years. 

Although there are dozens of law schools churning out numerous law graduates, there still remains a sizeable potential to improve the basics, a factor guiding the salaries he pays to juniors. 

Starting salary can be as low as ₹20k. Many young law graduates lack basics, so the learning curve is quite steep. But ambition is very rewarding in this profession — the faster people pick up the work, the more money they’re able to make,” he said.

Advocate Anurag Sharma
Advocate Anurag Sharma

Not too long ago,  Advocate Anurag Sharma and his batchmates were told by their law faculty that they would get paltry remuneration - not more than ₹15,000 a month - when they began their legal careers. 

Sharma, a 2020 law graduate who hails from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, now works in Jain’s chambers.

We were given two choices - either go for a corporate job where you will get  ₹70-80k or even a lakh, but that would be a profession of glorified clerks, where you are not doing anything on your own but doing some documentation. But if you want to have exposure, then you have to struggle,” he said. 

He gets paid “as per industry standard” in the hope that something good would turn out eventually. 

Someday, I can start my own practice, I can have my own clients. If you don’t have this dream, you can’t pursue this profession,” added Sharma.

When Advocate Rishabh Sancheti joined the Bar sixteen years ago, he got a stipend of ₹2,500 every month. He moved to Delhi from another city in 2010, when the allowances increased to ₹25,000. 

"What my seniors gave, over and above the stipend, was the permission to use their office for meeting my prospective clients. That I believe really helped in terms of starting my own practice and establishing my chamber,” he said.

But not everyone is as lucky as Sancheti, who says that the demarcation between the “haves" and the “have-nots” of the Bar is stark.  

Advocate Rishabh Sancheti
Advocate Rishabh Sancheti

"At the level of the Supreme Court, the stipend ranges from ₹10,000 to a lakh or more — the latter being the sum paid by a handful of senior counsel or very successful advocates on records or firms.” 

He also pegged ₹8,000 as a monthly stipend for beginners at the Delhi High Court. 

And at the level of the trial court, it could also be nothing. ‘Aapko seekhne ko to mil raha hai, woh amulya hai’ (You are getting an opportunity to learn, which is priceless) is what I heard was told to a fresher who queried about stipends,” shared Sancheti.

Soutik Banerjee
Soutik Banerjee

Advocate Soutik Banerjee was paid ₹25,000 a month when he started his career, and received a consistent raise every year.

Banerjee, who works with Advocate Vrinda Grover, found that his boss was keen on rewarding good work, besides a supportive senior colleague.

"Having said that, I was always conscious that I was lucky and privileged to have had the experience which I did when I started working. I was always aware that my office was an exception to the norm, and many of my litigating colleagues were working in their initial couple of years for a salary between ₹10-15k per month," he said. 

Article has been updated with some images.

In the next instalment, senior and junior lawyers from Mumbai share their opinions on the payment culture in the Maximum City.

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