The best lawyers have the ability to turn a case in their clients' favour with their impressive arguing skills and attention to detail. Their courtcraft demands the attention of judges they are arguing before and inspires the next generation of lawyers.
But how do they do it? What happens behind the scenes? What are their mantras for success?
In this series, Bar & Bench's Aamir Khan delves deeper into these aspects. Inside Legal Minds captures the inner workings of these lawyers through visual storytelling, from the point of preparing a brief to arguing it in court.
For this photo essay, we followed senior criminal lawyer Rebecca John, who practices before courts in the national capital.
John has appeared in high-profile matters such as the Hawala scam case of 1996, the case pertaining to the Anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Hashimpura Massacre of 1986, the Delhi Diwali blast case of 2005, the Ishrat Jahan encounter case and the Aarushi Talwar murder case. She had also represented a death penalty convict in the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder case.
After holding a conference with independent briefing lawyers, John is preparing for an upcoming bail matter.
Apart from an array of various law books that are neatly stacked on wooden shelves behind John's desk, pieces of artwork including a painting by the inimitable Jamini Roy add to the room's decor.
John has just begun reading the case file. She maintains that all her briefing comes from outside lawyers, whereas one or two of her junior associates assist her. The exercise offers John convenience, and her associates a learning experience.
"And then they provide me with in-house support - whatever is needed; whatever else is done. Sometimes that in-house support is much more than what my briefing team gives me because of the robustness with which they are trained. Aside from that, they of course, do other work which doesn't require my presence. They're allowed to do their own independent practice as well," she says, while intently looking at the case file.
John's case is at the stage of interim bail and she insists on examining previous orders in the case. She asks her associate Anushka to provide her with all prior orders.
"The one thing that usually teams from outside don't give me are orders of the court. This is a pending application. The previous orders are not here, which is why I've told Anushka to get me all the orders and then in the event that there is any, is there an order?" John asks Anushka.
Anushka leaves the room to return with the orders and informs John about the listing of the case on July 3, the day the Delhi High Court resumes work after a long summer break.
"It's item 9," she tells the senior lawyer.
John and Anushka go through their client's medical history to build a case for bail. They mention to each other the medical conditions the client is suffering from and discuss what could come handy in court.
After noting down the client's medical history, John marks the tenable points of her defence. She takes note of the contents of the first information report, a prior petition in the High Court and the current stage of police investigation.
John wants to be "completely on board with facts" even before the grounds are laid down.
"You develop grounds later, unless there are cases where legal grounds are apparent. But complex cases like the present one require you to be absolutely sure about the facts and then assess the facts against established principles of bail. In criminal law, the endeavour always is to first completely understand the facts of the case," she advises.
Although it applies to other cases as well, John differs on a popular belief that criminal law is purely about facts. She says though facts largely determine the outcome of a criminal case, legal grounds can be argued.
"But in a case like this, I would first master the facts," she says.
She is almost done reading the file when she emphasises how "meticulous keeping of records" has to be prioritised.
"I think a lot is lost in confusion. So every file is paginated, flagged."
The associates go through judgments which are to be relied upon, before she can. They then place those judgments on top of the file. Any failure to be meticulous, the team has learnt, hampers their role as lawyers.
While records are maintained diligently, John likes to clear the clutter on her desk after the meeting.
The conference with the briefing lawyers sees John assuming the role of a judge. There is a lot of cross-questioning, which can become "excessive and deliberate" at times.
"There is quite an intense cross-questioning that takes place when briefing actually takes place. Sometimes, my role is of listening because I need to know, particularly if matters have not yet been filed. Because, whether or not that particular case is sustainable; whether it's worth it to move forward," she reveals.
People also come to John for advice, and that's what the next briefing is about. Two women have come to meet John for a discussion that could potentially turn into a case.
"It might require more materials, more stuff on record than is presently aware. So there it is one of listening," says John.
The discussion ends with John suggesting to them a few more factual and legal additions to the case's narrative. In order to build a strong case, that too one that is of public interest, John would require more voices.
On July 3, we trailed John in the Delhi High Court to observe how her preparation transforms into action.
John and her associates wait their turn in courtroom 31. At around 10:45 AM, the case comes up for hearing. This one is for quashing of a First Information Report (FIR).
She vehemently argues on the circumstances under which her client was called to join the investigation. The State counsel and John have an emphatic exchange, following which the senior lawyer proclaims that she is not asking for a stay on the investigation, but rather objecting to the manner in which the investigation is being conducted. The Court eventually asks for a status report.
In the second half of the day, John appears before another court in a bail plea. Assertively but not aggressively, John puts across her plea for extension of relief so that her client can take care of his medical needs.
She tells the Court how her client has been on interim bail and that extending his reprieve would allow him to undergo surgery, which has been advised by medical practitioners.
The State counsel opposes, citing differences of opinion by different doctors. John, however, convinces the Court to grant her client interim relief.
John, who is among the few senior women lawyers in Delhi, was designated as a Senior Advocate in 2012. With over a decade as a senior counsel, John doesn't yearn for power.
"I definitely want to keep working, because this is the only thing I'm trained to do. Aside from that, I don't go after matters. I don't network; I don't do any of those things, and in that sense, I'm a bit of an aberration," she says.
Interestingly, the misogyny she faced when she started her career is faced by younger lawyers even now.
"Perhaps there was less misogyny then. There was just surprise that a woman has chosen to be a criminal lawyer in a criminal lawyer's office. So there was genuine surprise and people thought I was crazy and asked me why I wasn’t doing family law. Why I was not doing other traditional things that women do. Even lawyers used to ask: 'Do you meet these guys at night who come from jail who are very dangerous? Have they threatened you?'," she recalls.
John found it less competitive when she had joined the profession. She has noticed a gradual escalation over the years.
"Everybody wants the big matters. It was much calmer when I was growing professionally. And I was doing big trials pretty early on in my professional life. There was a lot of space to do it right. There weren't that many people who were around. It's packed now. Chock-a-block packed, and everybody's in this race," she says.
As a rule, if she isn't able to give her junior associates space to work, she doesn't take anyone on board.
"These are people with no references. These are people who honestly want to do work, they may be coming from smaller cities and towns. I can't keep them all and it worries me sometimes that it has become such a hugely competitive space, and therefore you need umbrella protection," highlights John.