[Inside Legal Minds] Give your best in litigation, but don't work yourself to death: Sajan Poovayya

In this edition of Inside Legal Minds, we observe the inner workings of noted commercial lawyer, Senior Advocate Sajan Poovayya.
Sajan Poovayya
Sajan Poovayya

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 Sajan Poovayya, a Senior Advocate practicing in the Supreme Court of India, the High Courts and various other fora.

Second floor of this minimalistic yet sophisticated structure is where the senior lawyer conducts his conferences.
Second floor of this minimalistic yet sophisticated structure is where the senior lawyer conducts his conferences.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

It was still bright when we entered Poovayya’s state-of-the-art space located in South Delhi’s opulent Nizamuddin East area at around 5:30 PM.

Nestled in the lush green neighbourhood overlooking Humayun's Tomb and its sprawling gardens, the multi-storied building is both his residence and workplace.

By the time we reached the second floor of the minimalistic yet sophisticated property, the first conference had just begun.

The six persons briefing and assisting him in the meeting included a team of lawyers, company representatives and in-house associates.

The matter at hand was to come up before the before the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), Delhi. Poovayya represents one of the land owners in one project.

Poovayya staunchly believes in keeping up with the changing technological advancements.
Poovayya staunchly believes in keeping up with the changing technological advancements.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

Poovayya, whose area of practice essentially revolves around commercial and constitutional laws as well as technology laws, staunchly believes in keeping up with the latest advancements. He abides by a "zero paper" rule at his workplace and encourages his associates to follow suit.

We bear testimony to this self-imposed norm. Poovayya and all his associates use tablets to map, mark and manage the documents shared by each briefing law firm and lawyer. The decision to go completely paperless was taken two-and-a-half years ago, during the pandemic.

"One fine day, we decided we will not touch paper. It was hell for the first, maybe, two months. It was total hell. But then it just changed our lives. Heaven broke loose," he says.

Poovayya and all his associates use tablets to map, mark and manage the documents shared by each briefing law firm and lawyers.
Poovayya and all his associates use tablets to map, mark and manage the documents shared by each briefing law firm and lawyers. Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

His team has made conscious efforts to refuse papers and instead request lawyers to “Air Drop” documents, if case they use an iOS platform. Others can send in digital copies via email.

Two photocopier machines at his office that churned out multiple dockets of papers 24x7 are now relics of the past. 

The only time I hold a pen is when I have to sign. I still write my letters, basically. 'Thank you, this, that, etc.,' I sign. Otherwise, not even that,” Poovayya turns to show a tray full of untouched multi-coloured highlighters.

Two photocopier machines that used to copy multiple dockets of papers, running almost 24x7, are now relics of the past.
Two photocopier machines that used to copy multiple dockets of papers, running almost 24x7, are now relics of the past.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

The first conference ends with a dialogue on the strategy the team needs to apply. Apart from the participants in the room, Poovayya is connected virtually to another lawyer from the briefing team and the rest of his associates.

"If you make it complicated for the bench, we may not get a favourable order. It should be simple," he tells everyone.

The conference lasts for about 45 minutes, following which Poovayya takes a short break.

Poovayya ends the conference with a dialogue on the strategy the team needs to apply.
Poovayya ends the conference with a dialogue on the strategy the team needs to apply. Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

During the break, Poovayya takes us on a tour of his elegant home and the terrace, from where the striking Humayun's Tomb is within discernible range.

The apartment's terrace overlooks the Mughal-era Humayun's Tomb.
The apartment's terrace overlooks the Mughal-era Humayun's Tomb.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

On one of the floors below, the senior lawyer has his treasured collection of Harvard Law Review volumes, dating back to first publication in 1887.

The senior lawyer shows his treasured collection of Harvard Law Review volumes, dating back to first publication in 1887.
The senior lawyer shows his treasured collection of Harvard Law Review volumes, dating back to first publication in 1887.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

After a 15-minute recess, the next conference begins. The second conference involves public interest; the senior counsel represents one of the respondents. Undue gains through illegal share transactions between companies has been alleged.

The second conference involves public interest and the senior counsel represents one of the respondents in the litigation.
The second conference involves public interest and the senior counsel represents one of the respondents in the litigation.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench
The matter apparently would require "15% arguments on merits" and the rest "80% will be strategy"

He chalks out the strategy for the line of arguments before the bench. When someone present in the meeting describes how insurers work on penalties, Poovayya advises,

"That's not a line of argument we can take as lawyers."

The matter apparently would require "15% arguments on merits" and the rest "80% will be strategy".

Just like in the previous meeting, Poovayya formulates a strategy on succinctly and effectively contesting the opposite party's claims.
Just like in the previous meeting, Poovayya formulates a strategy on succinctly and effectively contesting the opposite party's claims.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

Just like in the previous meeting, Poovayya formulates a strategy on succinctly and effectively contesting the opposite party's claims.

"Keep the SEBI Act handy. Let's fight...You have my assurance that I will push and scream," Poovayya tells the briefing team and company representatives.

A ten-minute delay in starting the conference prompts the senior lawyer to apologise to the briefing team.
A ten-minute delay in starting the conference prompts the senior lawyer to apologise to the briefing team. Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

The third conference begins at around 7:13 PM ,with Poovayya telling his associate to map the changes on the digitally shared documents of another senior counsel traveling to Delhi from another city and appearing in the matter.

He is particular about the timeframe he sets for his conference. A ten-minute delay in starting the conference prompts the senior lawyer to apologise to the briefing team.

"I am growing old," confides Poovayya.

Poovayya is particular about the mapping of notes in the digital documents shared by his associate.
Poovayya is particular about the mapping of notes in the digital documents shared by his associate.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

In this matter, he is representing the appellant in the Supreme Court and the case involves the provisions of the Mega Power Policy (MPP), 2006 and the Foreign Trade Policy, 2009-2014. The issue revolves around the entitlement of benefits under the MPP.

The briefing lawyers take Poovayya through the intricacies of the issues governing foreign trade, mega power plants and power distribution. He carefully listens to them and chalks out the strategic arguments he will be putting forth.

Poovayya remains particular about the mapping of notes in the digital documents shared by his associate.

In Poovayya, there's a keen sense of attaining harmony with the briefing lawyers when it comes to law points.
In Poovayya, there's a keen sense of attaining harmony with the briefing lawyers when it comes to law points.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

The final conference of the evening starts at around 7.38 PM and lasts little over an hour.

"We have to re-argue the matter," says one of the briefing lawyers after Poovayya asks him what the plan is.

The senior lawyer is appearing for the appellant in the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT). He is representing a minority shareholder in a company while challenging the scheme of arrangement under the Companies Act, 2013.

On a point raised during the meeting, Poovayya retorts to the suggestion and asks how he could make such an argument at the stage of issuing of notice and intervention.

"It is as if it is the final hearing," he says.

In Poovayya, there's a keen sense of attaining harmony with the briefing lawyers when it comes to law points and developments.
In Poovayya, there's a keen sense of attaining harmony with the briefing lawyers when it comes to law points and developments.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

In the meantime, Poovayya calls for the causelist of his appearances for the next day. This is the only time he, reluctantly, touches a physical copy of a paper.

In Poovayya, there's a keen sense of attaining harmony with the briefing lawyers when it comes to law points and developments shaping the current stage of the case. There seems to be sense of urgency to arrive at that harmony.

He usually aims at ending his conferences by 8 PM subject to occasional exceptions.
He usually aims at ending his conferences by 8 PM subject to occasional exceptions.Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench

On completion of the conferences, Poovayya has a brief discussion on how the next day's hearings will be mapped on the basis of the approximate time these cases would come up at before different benches.

He usually aims to end his conferences by 8:00 PM, subject to occasional exceptions.

He begins preparing for the cases alone, at around 5:30 AM the next morning and takes about two-and-a-half hours to finish.

The morning's quiet helps Poovayya's to channelise his focus on the exact law points, developments that he wants to remember and argue before benches.
The morning's quiet helps Poovayya's to channelise his focus on the exact law points, developments that he wants to remember and argue before benches.Bar and Bench

The morning's quiet helps Poovayya narrow down on the exact law points and developments he wants to remember and argue before different benches.

Poovayya is in the middle of mapping his notes with the documents on his tablet when we meet him at around 6:00 AM.

"Cross-referencing is the most effective tool a lawyer can use. Another (tool) is spending time on the brief. If you have ten minutes in court, you would at least spend an hour on the brief," he says.

Before he sets foot in his office, Poovayya prefers going out for an early morning stroll to the adjacent Humayun's Tomb. Sometimes he takes work along.
Before he sets foot in his office, Poovayya prefers going out for an early morning stroll to the adjacent Humayun's Tomb. Sometimes he takes work along. Bar and Bench

Poovayya, who is now in a white tee and track pants, uses a stylus to map all relevant points in the PDF case files that he would be relying on. There are handwritten notes on the right-hand corner of his device.

"I have an excellent team. The stack I am working on has 26 volumes. If there were physical copies, there would be papers scattered all over the table and I would have required the assistance of at least two people, asking them to give me this, give me that," he says.

The list of dates are colour coded, where each colour denotes a particular time period.
The list of dates are colour coded, where each colour denotes a particular time period.Bar and Bench

He colour codes the list of dates, with each colour denoting a particular time frame in the case. In the case file he is currently reading, there are dates of different transactions. Even different aspects are marked with different colours. Blue, for example, represents regulatory aspects whereas black is used for law points.

Yellow is generally what I should highlight. Within that, if there is something of particular emphasis, I have put a double highlight.”

Green, on the other hand, is used to highlight points that would probably come from the court. 

When you're mapping your file, you're also kind of contemplating what questions will come from court. It's not just one-way mapping. It's very important for you to map it from the judge's perspective. What would they ask? I know this is something that they will want to pin me down on.”

From NCLAT, Poovayya rushes to the Delhi High Court, where he is appearing in the public interest litigation (PIL).
From NCLAT, Poovayya rushes to the Delhi High Court, where he is appearing in the public interest litigation (PIL). Bar and Bench

All the studying and preparation will now be put into practice as Poovayya makes his way to the courts and tribunals. He appears before the NCLAT in a case where he is representing the intervener.

With a spring in his step, he begins explaining his client's position, which is of a minority shareholder. He elucidates the stages the case has seen so far before another counsel interjects and opposes his plea.

"These are technical arguments. I may be heard," Poovayya insists before the bench.

He then makes his stand clear on the point of "prejudice" as pointed out by the other counsel. He explains the three proceedings that have taken place in the case until now.

The submissions are crisp, without any pauses. Poovayya places the reasons behind his intervention before the bench. The bench in turn wants the appellants to explain the transfer of shares among companies. The matter is adjourned.

Poovayya is one among a battery of senior lawyers appearing for different parties in the case.
Poovayya is one among a battery of senior lawyers appearing for different parties in the case.Bar and Bench

From the NCLAT, Poovayya rushes to the Delhi High Court, where he is appearing in a public interest litigation (PIL). He is among a battery of senior lawyers appearing for different parties in the case.

Before the hearing starts, Poovayya asks his associate Abhishek Kakkar to explain the transactions that have become the bone of contention in the PIL.

When the hearing starts, Poovayya's contentions become the bulk of the day's submissions in the case. He stresses on the role of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), opposing filing of the PIL. The PIL, he argues, causes prejudice to him.

Poovayya exhibits a peculiar control over his pitch during arguments. A claim made with a hint of poignancy follows a point stated matter-of-factly.

It has been almost 30 years since Poovayya began his practice in 1996.
It has been almost 30 years since Poovayya began his practice in 1996. Bar and Bench

It has been almost 30 years since Poovayya began his practice in 1996. Over the years, a few daily practices have become sacrosanct to him. To begin with, he likes to look at his brief dispassionately. 

“ It is very important to think of the brief with a calm mind and not to think of it from your perspective alone as to what that brief holds or what that issue holds from an overall perspective. You need a calm mind. Sometimes, a look at the brief dispassionately is very important,” he says.

In his opinion, the second requirement of a litigating commercial lawyer is to understand business in order to understand what the legal issue is involved.  

To identify a legal issue without understanding the business is sometimes a death knell in a commercial brief," Poovayya says. 

His methodology is to first arrive at a holistic answer to what the problem is. And the solution doesn't necessarily lie in an academic legal answer. 

Poovayya as a result insists on understanding the commerce behind the problem and then knowing the law.

"So marrying that economic aspect of the law, I think is the bedrock in any  transaction, whether corporate, commercial or regulatory litigation. And only when you understand the commerce behind it very well can you really assist the court holistically in terms of these things,  which I think many lawyers don't do," he says.

Poovayya believes that sometimes, a commercial predicament may bring more harm than a setback in a criminal case.

"In criminal law you'll say, if I don't do a good job, this man will be hanged. Commercial death is even worse. It's not hanging one man. If an entity really goes down, thousands of families go down with it. So the stakes are really high," he says.

The senior lawyer prefers to work in smaller teams, as he believes broad-basing a team unnecessarily leads to a protocol-driven structure and dissolution of interpersonal relationships.

Poovayya's Associates at work
Poovayya's Associates at work

"In a senior chamber, I think it's very important to connect to your junior, your junior to connect to you in terms of how you're thinking and enjoy work irrespective of what time of night or day."

Poovayya maintains what he calls a "decent time" compared to others. However, he admits that sometimes, his team's schedule also goes awry.

"Why should anybody work till 9:30 PM? I think it is inefficiency. It should be done by 7:00 PM. That itself, according to me, is late," he says.

"Why should anybody work till 9:30 PM? I think it is inefficiency. It should be done by 7:00 PM. That itself, according to me, is late...

He also feels that when older legal professionals start earning better, it becomes important to benchmark salaries they pay to juniors.

"It's not about how much the junior needs. They still have that tendency, 'oh, to live in Delhi you need 50,000 rupees, so let's give him 50,000 rupees.' That's not the way. How much can you pay?"

Poovayya, therefore, emphasises on attracting the right talent and paying them adequately.

"If every other segment in the economy can pay salaries which actually achieve a particular threshold, if the tech industry can pay that, if the hospitality industry can pay that, the medical industry can pay that, why can't law pay that much? When law as a profession is the most paid," he says.

Sajan Poovayya in his Chambers
Sajan Poovayya in his Chambers

His advice to the younger generation of legal practitioners is to give their best to litigation, but to not "work yourself to death". 

"There's more to life than just working on briefs. It's very important for you to enjoy that journey. And the only way you'll enjoy the journey is not work yourself to death. You should have that optimal rigour for the adrenaline you need to run. You can't just walk and run, but how much to run — whether it's a marathon; whether it's a 50 metre sprint, you need to take that decision," he says, adding,

"I think marathons are far more fulfilling than 50 metre sprints."

His advice to the younger generation of legal practitioners, on the other hand, is to give their best to litigation but not "work yourself to death".
His advice to the younger generation of legal practitioners, on the other hand, is to give their best to litigation but not "work yourself to death". Kabir Jhangiani for Bar and Bench
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