The Venugopal Canon

The author pens down "Twelve Commandments" that govern the great KK Venugopal.
KK Venugopal
KK VenugopalGopal Sankaranarayanan

Last week, in these columns, our colleague K Parameshwar penned a very affectionate piece about the great KK Venugopal, likening him to the aal marams of his home in Kannur. As with the banyan, he wrote, Venugopal was the tree which nurtured several generations of lawyers and thereby enriched the corridors of the court. Those of us who have been fortunate to be part of that banyan would have much to share about our years at Harrington Road, Friends Colony and Neeti Bagh – the favourite catchphrases, the mild rebukes, the frequent chuckles, the candid chats, the open criticism, the karaoke evenings, the Vishu lunches and…..yes, the whisky. But this piece is not to discuss tipple.

After reading Paramu’s piece, I was compelled to wonder whether others at the Bar, particularly the young, have an understanding of how KKV’s chambers managed to yield such positivity and growth over the years. I must hasten to add that his dear friends Soli Sorabjee and Ashok Desai had sterling chambers as well, and all three of these gentlemen shared a grace of another era – of kindness, warmth and wit. I am sure that others will tell the tales of the Bombay banyans, for they must be told, but I only wish to give an account of the twelve commandments that I believe govern Chez Venugopal.

Soli Sorabjee and Ashok Desai
Soli Sorabjee and Ashok Desai

Number One: Avoid being insecure. The profession is built on conflict, and unfortunately there is enough of that to keep everyone busy, so do not begrudge others their clientele and the volume of their work. With patience, hard work and honesty, you are bound to achieve success. Boss is one of the rare seniors who never insists on being ‘lead counsel’ despite being more senior (and more sound) than many of the young turks seeking to make a splash. Yet, he always made his mark wherever it was his turn. After all, you don’t have to open the batting to score a century.

No giving interviews, sound bytes, Supreme Court lawn lectures or writing articles on cases that one has been a part of

Number Two: Handling the media. No giving interviews, sound bytes, Supreme Court lawn lectures or writing articles on cases that one has been a part of. Especially in this age of social media, no Facebook posts or Tweets mentioning how proud we are to have gotten bail for a beleaguered accused (full with photo of client clutching a Birkin bag with a toothy smile). Even now, some of the most outstanding lawyers of the country are rarely seen on the small screen, and KKV least of all.  

Number Three: Learn to delegate. The quality of the output only improves if more people are involved in research, crunching data, making notes and exchanging ideas. Rather than working in a silo, try to share your burdens – not only would the courts be enriched by the assistance it receives, but you might even wind up making a friend. For us, being able to work on a single proposition or a list of dates for Boss made us feel needed, and thus accountable. Of course, that might also explain why my hair is all silver and his isn’t.

Number Four: Talk. Don’t hold back from free-flowing discussions that help all of you explore an involved point of law. Many are the occasions when KKV would use the conversations he had with the juniors to develop a completely new angle on an argument that could marshalled the following day. For us, these lessons would hold stead on another day to be drawn on when the need arose.

full with photo of client clutching a Birkin bag with a toothy smile....

Number Five: Help the Bar grow. The expansion of the banyan depends on the same values being inculcated in every passing generation. KKV does not appear before vacation benches as he feels that it is an opportunity for the junior Bar to address the court and gain confidence – this is something we all emulate, hoping that the benefits will be to the Court and its practice. 

Number Six: Be generous in praise. To compliment an opponent, to appreciate a young advocate, to recognize the assistance of one’s associates and to acknowledge a point offered by a colleague are all staples of the KKV handbook. It not only lightens a moment that may be fraught, but also reminds us of how much we are all part of a community that grows together.

Number Seven: Show restraint in speech. As officers of the Court, KKV used to remind us, we are expected to remain calm and not give in to provocation, even when ‘twisted by knaves’. In a congregational profession such as ours, it is but natural to encounter adversaries (and this includes the occasional judge) who offer a colourful turn of phrase. It is in maintaining composure that one triumphs over oneself.

Show restraint in speech...Maintain your ethics...Be brutally honest...Be innovative

Number Eight: Maintain your ethics. One of the earliest lessons from Boss (perhaps adapted from a hundred apocryphal accounts) was that it takes years to build a reputation at the Bar and just a minute to ruin it. For those of us in this unforgiving profession, temptation beckons in the form of conflicting briefs, visits to clients, opportunities to advertise, applying for law awards, making promises to get onto Government panels and many others. Any single misadventure would be carried along our corridors with suitable embellishments to destroy a fair name, for the serpents in this Garden are several. 

Number Nine: Be brutally honest. Whenever a solicitor suggested that Boss avoid an adverse point, KKV would do the opposite. He would not only address it squarely, but also launch a forensic attack on it, thereby taking out the wind from the sails of the opponent. There would be no suppression or prevarication to a question from the Bench, and this is why he is still the most trusted voice at the Court.

Number Ten: Be innovative. Litigators, particularly Senior Advocates, are not engaged to merely recite points from a prepared note. It is for them to draw on their years of experience and their unique approach to come up with arguments that have not yet been contemplated. In this, KKV is without peer. I have had the good fortune to work with several leaders of the Bar over the last three decades, and nobody comes close in terms of formulating novel contentions. At the final court of justice, it behooves us all to perhaps put in a little extra effort.

Number Eleven: Generosity of spirit. (No, it isn’t what you think) It is important for young lawyers at the Bar to try and scratch about on their own while devilling in a chamber. It is necessary to allow them to do their own independent work which usually starts with small drafting or research assignments. It is only when the chamber permits this that they are able to grow, just as KKV did with all of us. I still remember the very first matter I got to argue in the Supreme Court thanks only to a chamber senior (Shahid Rizvi) giving me a go on behalf of some DTC employees. If it were not for Boss allowing me this freedom and my colleagues covering for my absence, I would have been stuck at the starting line. 

Number Twelve: Kinship. If the other precepts are in place, then this is bound to follow. Across generations, the deep sense of affection and belonging that each of us have for the chamber is born out of the knowledge that the same core values are imbued in all of us and courses through us to be further imparted as the banyan grows.

KK Venugopal
KK VenugopalRajshekhar Rao

KKV’s chambers have been a blessing to all of us who are a part of it, and in our own small way we endeavour to further these values that he holds dear. Of course, they were bequeathed to him in large part by his own father, the legendary M.K.Nambyar, and is thus traceable to the very birth of the Republic. As the banyan spreads its cloak wider, we can only invite more to snuggle in its embrace.

About the author: Gopal Sankaranarayanan is the Author of the Model List of Dates in 5M&T.

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