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 Union Territory of Chandigarh is home to the Punjab & Haryana High Court, where legal practitioners have followed certain established practices that determine how much juniors get paid in India's first planned city.
The majority of lawyers in Chandigarh receive a lump sum from clients, distinct from the patterns seen in legal practice hubs like Delhi or Mumbai. And when it comes to seniors paying their juniors, these practices are factored in.
Senior Advocate Gurminder Singh dislikes having many juniors trail him in the court corridors.
At present, six juniors work with him and their remuneration broadly depends on the nature of work he gets and the client's fee.
“I pay my associate lawyers on per case basis. Whenever we book a client, it is marked to a particular associate. The associate gets a separate fee from the client, which could anything between ₹40-50k per case,” he said.
For counsel who work with non-designated seniors, the pattern of pay, he said, would be very different from those working with offices manned by designated seniors.
“I feel as a fresher in a city like Chandigarh, what is normally being offered is anything between ₹30-50k to a junior counsel from the start, and then of course depending on the input they give, utility that they create for themselves, the remuneration can increase handsomely."
The bulk of his practice lies in the Punjab & Haryana High Court, where the pattern of payment has largely been on the basis of a lump sum fee.
Nowadays, lawyers also charge on a per-hearing basis, especially in matters concerning states, companies and corporate clients, but the lump sum fee pattern still continues for about 95% of the lawyers in the city.
“The pattern has largely changed because of the pendency being so long for a case that if you are engaged today, the matter could continue some times to the extent of 10-11 years,” Singh revealed.
Given the scenario, getting clients interim relief becomes important and they don’t mind paying a good fee to a senior counsel for such relief and "motion hearing".
Eventually, at the time of final disposal of a case, the client can take a call as to whom they want to engage and the money they are willing to shell out.
According to him, a “two-fold” issue determines the remuneration.
“One, the numbers entering the profession are really large, the influx into the legal profession has really no checks and balances either on the seriousness or the competence."
The other aspect, he opined, stemmed from the pattern of practice. A high quantum of Supreme Court and High Court cases are concentrated with only a few chambers, he revealed.
Singh nonetheless hoped that juniors get rewarded “far more” than their existing emoluments, as their "hard work" mitigates most of the work of the seniors.
Senior Advocate Bipan Ghai, on the other hand, has a theory of paying each of his 12-15 juniors and treating them as his own "family members" for the cumulative growth of his chamber.
He accordingly pays them ₹3 lakh per annum.
Ghai, who has been practicing since 1985, and was designated as a Senior Advocate in 2008, said,
"I pay them ₹3 lakh per annum. The purpose is that at least they can sustain in Chandigarh. At least they can get food. It is the beginning of the career. Or else they lose interest in the profession if we don’t pay them,” he said.
I have found that whichever office pays juniors well, has big work, and grows.
Bipan Ghai, Senior Advocate
He believes that paying well works for both the senior and the juniors alike. Ghai also helps his juniors by recommending them to clients and allowing them to use his own office space for their private cases
“So they start earning much more than what we pay them. In addition to it, there is a friendly atmosphere. I treat them like my family. That pushes them to grow further."
Over the course of his practice of almost four decades in the city, Ghai has seen juniors being paid sums that differ from office to office. One of the key reasons to pay juniors is that they travel from far-off places of Punjab and Haryana, he revealed.
“Without payment, nobody would like to work. You create a good atmosphere when everyone is paid….I have found that whichever office pays juniors well, has big work, and grows,” he maintained.
Former Advocate General and Senior Advocate Anmol R Sidhu pays all his 20 juniors while allowing interns the exposure of court proceedings to learn the craft.
“But when they pass and get their certificates, and come to me, I pay them. We pay on a per-case basis and percentage basis also. Suppose the fee is a lakh, we offer ₹10,000 and sometimes more than that depending on the fee,” he said.
Paying properly is something Sidhu advocates for and expects other seniors to follow suit.
“I hope they are also doing it, but they can only tell,” he said.
Both states (Punjab and Haryana) should allot land in either Panchkula or Mohali to the Bar Council for building hostels for young lawyers
Anmol R Sidhu, Former Advocate General and Senior Advocate
Sidhu understands the financial constraints a beginner may face when they come from outside of Chandigarh, and therefore, pays freshers as soon as they join his office.
“The cost of living is high. Taking a place on accommodation is costly. Even living in a PG is more than ₹20 or 30k. To settle in this profession, hard work is required. Those who come from outside face it. But it is a part of life,” he said.
He believes that any help from the Bar Council or the State government in creating a fund or building hostels or dedicating a piece of land would go a long way in helping youngsters who want to make Chandigarh their home for practice.
“Both states (Punjab and Haryana) should allot land in either Panchkula or Mohali to the Bar Council,” he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many young lawyers to professional instability and financial uncertainty. And Senior Advocate Anu Chatrath has seen some of the young lawyers experience this predicament.
For young lawyers, she said, bearing costs of their rented accommodation and transportation got challenging. Chatrath, therefore, pays her juniors between ₹2-12 lakh per annum.
“It (the pandemic) taught us many things. I fully agree with the statement of the Chief Justice of India. The cost of living these days is very high. A fresher who joins my office is paid a minimum ₹2-2.5 lakh per annum. In addition, just to inspire them, to prepare replies, writs, I pay them additionally,” she said.
Chatrath, who has five juniors in her chamber at the moment, allows them to appear before benches in order to hone their skills and prepare them for their independent practice.
The process could take at least a couple of years before they have enough to confidence to start on their own, she says.
“I also advise them to form group of young lawyers and have independent cases, but it should not affect my office functioning. They are free to have colleagues from the same chamber or their classmates as members of the group. The stress is on whenever they leave our office, they should give an impression that they learnt something from the senior’s office,” said Chatrath.
She believes in paying according to seniority and contribution, besides calibre.
“Some students are very intelligent and believe in hard work...I have seen very few girls were in the profession. Now because I have been the Dean of Panjab University, at least 50% are girl students,” she said.
Chatrath thus endorses more women participation in the profession, and regularly gets them on board.
The pay check of an experienced lawyer in her office can touch ₹12 lakh per year.
“If they bring cases, they get one-third also,” she added while advising young lawyers to never say “no" to any case.
“Whether district courts or DRT or wherever they get a case, they should take it up,” she said.
Advocate Prashant Manchanda practiced in Delhi before moving to Punjab. He was appointed as an Additional Advocate General a year or so ago.
Like many first generation lawyers, he found his true calling in criminal trials before moving practice to higher courts.
“In trial courts, the harsh reality is that most clients don't have the capacity to pay. However, given the stakes involved, one has to toil very hard and exert even more efforts and labour as compared to lawyers practicing in the higher courts,” he said.
He underlined that trial court lawyers, especially the ones without any panel work, don't have a fixed pay slab.
Many of Manchanda’s old associates practice independently.
“Initially, due to my own monetary constraints, I tried to compensate juniors by appearing for them pro bono in their own matters and also entrusted some of my cases to them,” he said.
With his legal practice seeing him shuttle between Delhi and Punjab, Manchanda is now on a more stable footing to pay juniors.
“Now that things are fairly settled, I pay to ₹25-30k to freshers. In Chandigarh, there are three of them assisting me. And the experienced ones, who have absolute independence to take up their own matters, are paid monthly on retainer basis and also a percentage from the fees,” he said.
Another peculiar practice in the city is that lawyers visit district courts each Saturday to solicit work. Advocate Harish Mehla used to do this until a few years ago.
“They go to lawyers' (mostly first generation lawyers) chambers to solicit work. I am not sure if this exists in Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh. But in our State, it is very common. I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t there. I have known lawyers for the past 30 years who still go,” he said.
Mehla, who has three associates working with him, pointed out that agreeing or disagreeing with the CJI's statement on paying juniors depends on many factors.
“Suppose in Delhi, there are law firms working in litigation and non-litigation. So there are two different aspects of their working. We don’t have such a culture here as yet,” he pointed out.
Interestingly, the harvest season plays a role in determining a lawyer’s fee, given that the clientele comes from two states that rely a lot on agriculture.
“In metros, there is affordability of a big space, whereas in our areas, the lawyer has a kothi (bungalow) and can’t afford to have an office in a rented space. It gives out a very bad impression to the traditional litigant...I have a house in Panchkula where the ground floor is reserved for my office,” he said.
Depending on the individual, Mehla pays ₹10-15k as a starting sum.
"So many people do not even pay this much. I know students starting with ₹5-7k,” he revealed.
A saying in Punjabi - jadon vakeel di umar hai kharche karan di, tad una de kol paise nahi; Jad una de kol paise hunde ne tad oh kharche karan di umar nahi - holds true for the legal profession, said Advocate Harinder Bains.
“When age is on a lawyer’s side, there is no money to spend, and when they make money, it’s too late,” he translated.
The profession did not seem promising when Bains began his career in 2014, but almost a decade and many challenges later, he has established his own chamber and has one junior at present.
“I try to pay him as decently as I can. I pay ₹10k initially. If a person can independently handle then it goes to ₹25-30k,” he said.
Trial (courts) and tribulation
In district courts, a whole different set of challenges seep in.
Advocate Sukhwinder Singh practices in the district courts of Chandigarh as well as the High Court.
Paying juniors differs from office to office and seniors practicing in district courts mostly don’t pay, he said.
“(Paying is) more of a High Court concept than in district courts. Depends on the quantum of work. I don’t think anyone pays more than ₹5-10k in district courts. If someone is very good, may be ₹10k, not more than that. That’s the normal practice,” he revealed.
Before the pandemic, he had two juniors working with him, and he paid them ₹4-5k a month depending on the amount of work he got.
“Entire work of the district courts were affected by COVID-19. The juniors left the profession and found alternative paths,” said Singh.
The eighteen years of his legal practice saw him struggle initially, especially because he is a first generation lawyer. But he has somewhat settled in his career as of now.
“The difficulty not only comes in learning the trade, but also having clients. And the biggest aspect is getting fee from the client’s pocket,” he believes.
Junior lawyers mostly come to chambers through references, and are largely untested, said Advocate Jaspreet Singh. He added that no one pays juniors working in district courts for the first month.
"Seniors first watch if they (juniors) can sustain (work). If they are found to be good at their job, then they are paid a nominal amount. This is in the district courts. I have one junior. I pay him ₹5k,” he said.
Another lawyer, on the condition of anonymity, revealed that some associates of a few seniors earn ₹5-6 lakh a month in Chandigarh.
“But those have been associated with chamber for the last 15-20 years. The juniors/associates draft cases and earn extra. The client bears the fee. And here, clients pay a lump sum and not per appearance. A senior could charge ₹5 lakh for a writ and ₹35,000 as the fee for their associate or junior counsel along wiht ₹15,000 in expenses, rounding to ₹5.50 lakh. In district courts, juniors hardly get ₹15k a month,” he said.