Nepotism: Only in Bollywood?

If a lawyer who is not from a legal family starts doing well, the first thing people might say is that he is unethical.
Lawyers at the Supreme Court campus
Lawyers at the Supreme Court campus

Having been in the profession for almost a decade, I have heard a lot of my friends who are second generation lawyers say that it is more difficult in the legal profession for them, as they have their fathers’ name attached to them. By virtue of being second generation lawyers, their work is scrutinised more critically, they say.

At the outset, I would like to state that I won’t just rant about how the legal field is filled with nepotism or how there is a legal mafia that runs the show in the courts.

I have nothing against second generation lawyers. I have had the most cordial relations with lawyers who have been either second, third, or fourth generation lawyers. Having looked up to judges like Justices Rohinton Nariman or Dhananjayay Chandrachud - who themselves have been sons of legal stalwarts/luminaries and still have made a name for themselves in their own right and arguably have even surpassed their legendary fathers - I find it extremely difficult to just take the word "nepotism" with a negative connotation to it.

But at the same time, I would like to share my experience as a first generation lawyer and an outsider trying to make his way in the ‘Old Boys Club’.

Whenever I hear my second generation lawyer friends complain, I get reminded of actress Ananya Panday, who had infamously said during an interview that Chunky Panday, her father has struggled too as he was never called on Koffee with Karan or had never been in a Dharma movie. My reply to all those friends would be exactly what Siddhant Chaturvedi had said to Ananya during that interview:

“Jahan hamare sapne pure hote hain, wahan inka struggle shuru hota hain.”

(Where our dreams are fulfilled, that is where their struggle starts.)

The reason I mention Bollywood is because nepotism exists not only in that field, but in every other profession, in varied proportions.

In my opinion, if there is a list made of top lawyers in the country, four out of five of them would be second generation lawyers. It obviously takes nothing away from what they have achieved over the years in the profession by proving their own mettle. But at the same time, I am sure they will agree that they have probably had it somewhat easier than others who are new to the profession.

Being someone who is not from a legal background, I know how difficult it is to get your first client and then slowly and steadily, simply through word of mouth, make a clientele base over the years. It gets even harder if you are from outside Delhi or from outside the place where you have started practising. Meanwhile, for others, their clientele is passed onto the next generation.

I vividly recall that sometime in 2011, after having drafted written submissions for a client for a nominal amount, the exact same written submissions were filed by simply writing: Settled By “Judges son’s name”. This lawyer was paid 100 times more for just signing what I had drafted. I had felt distraught and angry at the client who was finding it extremely difficult to even pay me the paltry fees.

That day, I decided that I am never going to let these things affect me. On the contrary, I became a part of that culture while maintaining my self-respect. My suggestion after a decade of practise to all the juniors and interns who ask for recommendations for internships is to try using your background and identity as an advantage rather than an excuse.

I say so because we first generation lawyers definitely have an advantage, because we are neither joining our fathers' office, nor are recommended to an office of our fathers’ friend when we start as lawyers. We usually find a place completely on our own merit and are never treated differently, and are made to slog our way up. That probably makes us better prepared to serve our clients, as we are not shielded by our fathers and have the liberty to strategise our cases in our own way. So, the credit for both failures and successes are ours and ours alone.

The biggest drawback a first generation lawyer faces is that if and when he makes it big in the profession, the cartel is there to pull him down. If a lawyer who is not from a legal family starts doing well, the first thing people might say is that he is unethical. No one will try to see the hard work he puts in.

Nepotism and the Collegium system

In my humble opinion, the Collegium system should definitely be abolished and the National Judicial Appointments Committee (NJAC), without giving power to the executive to select judges, should be brought into force again. I just wish that through the NJAC, someday, the “Chacha-bhatijawad” ends, especially for appointment of judges.

I say so with utmost humility at my command, because if you visit the Supreme Court website or any High Court website and see the judges' profiles, you will find that a majority of them started out as second generation lawyers. Without naming anyone, I find it extremely strange that even some of the Supreme Court judges mention their fathers’ names while adding that they were either renowned lawyers of their time or they were retired High Court or Supreme Court judges. I don’t see any point in introducing yourself as so-and-so's son while serving in a Constitutional post.

Cronyism in the legal profession

Cronyism in the legal profession is when you belong to a certain chamber or are an ex-junior of a certain chamber, you get recommended for a post or for a case more easily. I feel that in the legal field, over the years, cronyism has surpassed nepotism.

As previously mentioned, there have been exceptions in the legal field, as there have been in every other sphere. I also genuinely believe that one can be the son/daughter of the biggest legal luminary in the country, but if the person doesn’t have it in him to make it big, he would probably have a mediocre career.

Also, most of the top lawyers today are probably bigger lawyers than their fathers. Take Senior Advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi or Mukul Rohatgi for example. The same goes for the sitting Supreme Court judges like Justices UU Lalit, Nariman and Chandrachud, to name a few.

So, in a nutshell, nepotism in the legal profession exists, and is here to stay. All we can do probably as clients is choose a lawyer not because he is someone’s son, but because he is a good lawyer, and as Senior, choose a junior not because he was recommended and because of his surname, but because his CV speaks for himself. Let us make law a noble profession once again, rather than a family profession.

At the same time, I would put a caveat that if my son wants to be a lawyer, I will not ask him to not take up that profession just because I am a lawyer. Being against nepotism, I would not want it to be a piece of cake for him, and would want to let him chart his own course.

I would like to end this piece with a saying which I used to hear a lot from former Union Law Minister and Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan.

The famous saying which was told to every new lawyer who entered the Allahabad High Court was :

“Chinta mat karna beta, practise chal gayi toh MotiLal, nahi chali toh Jawahar Lal.”

(Don’t worry son, If you succeed in the legal profession, you will be a great lawyer like Motilal, if not, you will be a great politician like Jawahar Lal).

Even Jawahar Lal Nehru, who followed in the legal profession after his father Moti Lal Nehru (who was arguably the highest-paid lawyer of those times) was actually a product of failure of nepotism, as he couldn’t succeed in the legal profession. In turn, he joined politics and went on to become India’s first Prime Minister.

Kartik Seth
Kartik Seth

The author is the Managing Partner of Chambers of Kartik Seth, an Advocate on Record firm.

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