What do senior lawyers pay their junior advocates in Chennai?

Some lawyers in Chennai believe that the onus to ensure that juniors are paid must not be foisted on seniors alone; the State government should step in to provide subsidies to young lawyers.
Madras Lawyers
Madras Lawyers

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 trend in Chennai is similar to the pupillage system in Mumbai, where experience gets priority over payment. Most senior lawyers in Chennai believe that the early years of legal practice are meant for learning on the job, and in providing their junior associates a platform for such growth.

There are some chambers in the city that do not pay freshers at all. But then, there are also some seniors who pay a percentage of their fees to junior associates.

Most of them, however, agree with the recent statement made by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, to an extent. They believe that the onus to ensure that juniors are paid must not be foisted on the seniors alone, but that the State government too must step in and offer some sort of subsidy for young lawyers, at least for the first three years of their practice.

In fact, the State government had taken up such an initiative not too long ago. In 2020, the AIADMK government that was in power at the time announced a stipend scheme for young lawyers. The Tamil Nadu Young Advocates Monthly Allowance Scheme, as it was called, promised a monthly stipend of ₹3,000 for two years to "newly enrolled lawyers."

Junior lawyers who did not own a four-wheeler and whose annual family income was less than ₹2.5 lakh were eligible to receive such stipend. The scheme also required the applicants to produce a certificate from their senior lawyers once every six months to prove continuous practice.

When the scheme was first launched, 1,000 lawyers were given the stipend amount for the first year. However, once the regime changed, the government stopped paying such stipend, members of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry said. The Bar Council further claimed that its members have been sending representations to the current DMK government to get the scheme back on track, but their efforts are yet to yield a result.

Senior counsel NL Rajah
Senior counsel NL Rajah

Senior Advocate NL Rajah, who began his practice as a junior to former Advocate General Govind Swaminathan, was "one of the few lucky ones," who got paid well, as his senior was particularly generous. His friends at the time, however, used to earn ₹100-150 a month, Raja revealed.

At present, however, the trend is that juniors, especially fresh law graduates, get paid a modest stipend to cover their basic expenses and the amount is enhanced as one learns the ropes and proves one's mettle, he said.

"Juniors in terms of salary fall within two categories. The first is juniors who wish to practice, and the other is those who want a more comfortable position by becoming employees at law firms. For instance, in my office, since I am a senior counsel, I do not do filings. I allow my juniors to sometimes handle their own cases.

But, for category two, you run the risk of hitting a plateau and get to a point of stagnancy, unless you become a partner at a law firm. But, the general trend is that most law firms are family-owned. Of course, working for a law firm gives you financial stability from day one. Others, who opt for private practice, must know that in the beginning, you really have to fend for yourself, either on your own or, under a senior."

Rajah added that he allows his juniors to take on cases of their own.

"But, since they are only spending a part of their time with me, they usually get paid ₹15,000-20,000 per month to begin with. But, you must remember that the first three years are an immense learning opportunity. After three years, if you have done well, you can earn reasonably well," he said.

The senior counsel cautioned that in the beginning, young lawyers must know their challenges. It is a rough fight, but they have to be brave and they might need support from their families, he added.

"The State government must look at some sort of a subsidy scheme to sustain such young lawyers. But that must strictly be for students who have graduated from that particular State. And the concerned Bar Council can work with the State to come up with a modest stipend for the first three years. The CJI saying so is welcome, but that is only half the problem solved. The balance must come from every state government. The State must commit, as it has a stake in getting good law officers. The State is the largest litigant.

So, the CJI's speech must not be seen as being pushed only upon seniors. A good system must be put in place by all stakeholders - the Bar, the Bench, and the government. A fearless and independent Bar is possible only when its members have financial stability," Rajah concluded.

Senior Advocate D Nagasaila
Senior Advocate D Nagasaila

Senior Advocate and human rights activist D Nagasaila agreed with her colleague on the need for the State to provide some financial stability for young lawyers.

"When you are talking about lawyers and financial stability, there is a huge disparity. Some lawyers stay hand-to-mouth forever. We have all seen lawyers sitting in cars outside court buildings and working from there. Today, the juniors are treated more like apprentices and are paid as they grow," Nagasaila said.  

The senior lawyer added that such trend of not paying freshers adequately presupposes that these young lawyers have wealthy backgrounds, or a support system.

"I have seen so many lawyers quit the profession or, take up other jobs, save some money, and then come back to practice. That is why there has been a long standing demand in Tamil Nadu to offer some stipend in the initial years to help them stand on their feet," she said.

Nagasaila said that there are several lawyers who can pay well, and yet do not pay anything to their juniors, either out of habit or because they are conservative when it comes to the issue of remuneration.

"Sometimes, even a senior lawyer takes up cases where the litigants can barely afford to cover even the court fee. So it is not a straight forward issue. It is multi-layered. It depends on so many factors such as the nature of practice, the kind of lawyer one is.

My juniors are paid ₹15,000 to 20,000 per month. But I don't think this amount is uniform. There are some chambers who do not pay at all.  You have to be very frugal when you are a young lawyer, because even ₹15,000 to 20,000 isn't that much money," she said.

Cautioning against off-the-cuff remarks on seniors paying juniors, Nagasaila believes that the malaise is much deeper and raises many more fundamental and complex issues.

"When I began practicing in 1988, I used to get ₹500 per month. 30 years ago, it was a lot of money. And my husband was enrolled in a fellowship programme and was being paid ₹1000 to 1200. So we did okay and even managed to pay ₹600 as rent. But today, even legal education has become very expensive. Many youngsters have education loans to repay and several other pressures. So, today the reality is far more complex."

Advocate Deepika Murali
Advocate Deepika Murali

Advocate Deepika Murali, who practices at the Madras High Court and the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), said that she started her practice in the year 2010. At the time, she was paid around ₹6,500 per month. She then moved to a firm, where she was paid ₹35,000 per month. 

Today, she has a team of her own, with three associates who get paid ₹40,000 per month "regardless of anything," Murali said.

"Apart from the fixed pay, they get a variable pay roughly every quarter for specific matters they work on. I also give them an end of the year bonus. So, in our office, it is very performance-based. As you develop a niche practice in a city like Chennai, you must encourage young lawyers. And monetary incentives play a really important role," she said.

Senior Advocate Shubharanjani Ananth
Senior Advocate Shubharanjani Ananth

Advocate Shubharanjani Ananth, who started her practice from the offices of TS Gopalan & Co, says that when a young lawyer begins work, the emphasis must be on the "learning curve and not the earning”. Ananth believes that learning in litigation practice comes from a senior's chambers or a court room.

"So, up to the age of 30, those who can and those who do not have the burden of having to sustain themselves, must focus on learning and not earning," she said.

She argued that it it was difficult to follow a fixed salary system in the legal profession. However, at the same time, a senior must be conscious of the fact that sustaining a decent standard of life is very expensive in the current times. The senior must think of fostering the growth of the younger lawyer rather than seeing it as payment of salary. That way, there would be a more fair compensation to the younger lawyer. 

"The cost of legal education is high; parents expect that their children will start earning as soon as they begin working. That is why a lot of youngsters end up quitting litigation practice. This is unfortunate. So, should salaries be standardised? Maybe not...there can be no standardisation of junior lawyer fees because of factors such as varying nature of practice. The legal profession's incapability to ascribe a value to the learning component, no uniform hourly billing system being followed by all lawyers, varying skill-sets of juniors and their actual contribution to the brief, all of these are variables," Ananth said.

Ananth pays around ₹15,000 per month to freshers who work with her.

Additional Advocate General J Ravindran
Additional Advocate General J Ravindran

Senior Advocate and Additional Advocate General J Ravindran has decided to not follow the trend and to instead be liberal while paying his juniors.

"I completely agree with the CJI. I believe that junior lawyers are severely underpaid. One worrying factor in Chennai is that some of the senior lawyers do not even pay the minimum one-third of the fees to the engaging counsels, which really should be a matter of practice," Ravindran said. 

"I have decided I am going to pay 40 per cent of my fees to my juniors because, currently, a very sorry state of affairs is prevalent here," he said.

Ravindran said that he personally had a relatively good experience when he began working fifteen years ago.

"Two names that I must mention are former Advocate General R Krishnamoorthi and Senior Advocate K Alagirisamy," he said.

After he completed six months at work with Krishnamoorthi, Ravindran started being paid ₹12,000 per month, he said. And Alagirisamy was someone who would give a substantial portion of the fees to his juniors "as soon as he received a cheque," Ravindran said.

"However, I have had some negative experiences too. Several seniors for whom I burnt the midnight oil, have not paid me anything. And had they paid me then, I would have been very rich by now," Ravindran said with a laugh.

"On a serious note though, the practice of paying junior counsel who engage seniors, must be uniformly implemented in the Supreme Court as well. Because besides being essential for sustenance, a good pay also works as a source of encouragement for lawyers," he said.  

Senior Advocate Hema Sampath
Senior Advocate Hema Sampath

Senior Advocate Hema Sampath, a veteran on the appellate side, says she pays one third of her fees to her juniors, as is the trend for this side of practice.

These days, there are some districts such as Coimbatore and Madurai, where junior lawyers get paid a fair remuneration but there are other districts where juniors do not get paid at all, she revealed.

"When I began practicing, my clients actually used to come with a jackfruit, or a sack of peanuts instead of money in return for work. So, I have literally worked for peanuts," Sampath said.

"In our office, we pay juniors a minimum of on-third of the fees, and if a junior brings in a lot of work, she gets paid more also. But, it cannot be so in all offices. Ours is a very traditional office and I am a Senior Advocate. Yet, I still do not know how much to charge for a case. There are some law offices that work like companies. They give fixed salaries and juniors keep shifting from one office to another. In our office, we don't work like that. We have been together for years," she added.

Advocate Girissh Sundaram
Advocate Girissh Sundaram

Advocate Girrish Sundaram said that in Chennai, the money that juniors and interns get paid is not enough to sustain themselves in the current economic scenario.

"Monthly pay of ₹20,000 for a fresher may sound too high amongst legal circles, but the truth is that a fresh professional in any other field tends to be paid much more. Hence, there does exist a huge disparity in payment to juniors. In many offices, interns are not paid at all, but work is extracted from them in the name of learning. For the graduates to be, that seems to be good bargain, considering the learning and exposure weighed against salary/stipend," Sundaram said.

He feels this practice is part of the legacy left behind by the previous generation seniors, when the profession used to be mainly chamber-run. 

"But now, advocates who are 25-26 years old are struggling to make even ₹25,000 per month. The seniors must realise that even juniors need to run a home, and sustain themselves," he said.

He went on to say that there are big offices that despite making a lot of money, do not pay their juniors enough. On the flipside, he added,

"Of course, the other side is that there are independent senior lawyers who themselves do not get a regular income as it depends on the number of cases they are handling, and the clients they have. So in such circumstances, how will their juniors get paid?"

He went on to say,

"Advocate profession has become a profession where only seniors can make money. At least those juniors in the High Court still get paid some money, but what about those practicing in district courts? They don't even make ₹10,000 to 15,000 per month. So some form of stipend from the government will prove very useful to freshers to sustain themselves during the initial years."

Sundaram said that in his office, interns get stipend of ₹5,000 and juniors start at ₹15,000 per month. This sum is raised to ₹20,000 based on their performance in a year.

 S John J Raja Singh,  Additional Government Pleader
S John J Raja Singh, Additional Government Pleader

Additional Government Pleader S John J Raja Singh opined that while juniors should be paid well, they must also understand that "no one is intentionally not paying them."

Singh believes that it might not be possible to have a fixed salary in the legal profession.

"Definitely, juniors should be paid. But the fact is that juniors must understand they are not clerks who come to a senior's office to merely to clock in hours. There are some months where one might get two to three cases, while some months, there might not be any cases. My theory is that a junior must understand that a stipend is not permanent. It just something that prepares you to survive when you do not get a lot many cases in the early years of private practice. But, even if one does not get paid, say for a month, one must understand that that is how this profession works. Assume, a junior has a fixed monthly amount that he gets paid, and is a little lethargic, how will such a person be motivated to serve clients?" Singh said.

Personally, Singh initially observes a junior for three to six months and pays him or her a minimal stipend during such period.

"Then, when I see that they are ably assisting me, that they are sharp, punctual, and they do not ask me when it is time to leave office, then I may give them a percentage of my fees.

I work as a government pleader so, there is no guarantee by what time I will get done with work on any given day. Most nights, I work till 11 pm. So, I have to see if a fresher on the government side is willing to follow this work standard. Juniors should, in their own interest, be willing to work very hard for the first five to ten years," Singh said.

Also Read
How much do seniors pay juniors? Part II: Mumbai lawyers
Also Read
How much do seniors pay juniors? Part I: Delhi lawyers
Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news