I joined the chambers of Mr. Arun Jaitley as an associate just out of law school. Two days in, I was asked by his secretary to brief him on a matter. I was nervous but made it through the briefing without fumbling. Curiously, while I was briefing him in his living room (his office and home were in the same building in Kailash Colony), he was getting a haircut, watching the news on TV, and intermittently responding to political phone calls. Despite all this, he was carefully listening to me and during that brief conference, he was able to crystallise the important facts of the case and the question of law involved. That was the first time I saw his brilliance at work.
During the next two years, I learnt that he was a multitasker par excellence. Politics, cricket administration, and law practice were pursued simultaneously and with tremendous efficiency. On some days, he would start his evening conferences at 9 pm after returning from the BJP party office or the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA) meeting. These conferenced would go on till 11.30 pm, after which he would retire to his home but would continue to work the phone till late into the night.
He never lectured his juniors on the importance of hard work and integrity. We learnt the value of these virtues by observing him practice them. While his preparation for a hearing was never lacking, what made him stand apart in court was his wit, charisma, presence of mind and his overwhelming persona. He could speak on any topic under the sun without being rhetorical.
During the hearing of a matter in the Delhi High Court that involved aspects of cable distribution, the judge hearing the matter asked him a question about television penetration in India. Without opening his brief, he spent twenty minutes enumerating the intricacies concerning the evolution of television broadcasting in India. He quoted facts and figures regarding television viewership in India on which he had not been briefed by the instructing counsel, but which he had come across many years ago as the Information and Broadcasting Minister. He had an exceptional memory and would recall the facts of a case where he had appeared many years ago with considerable ease.
While he was a leading commercial lawyer, he never shied away from taking up pro-bono briefs. I remember a case where a group of medical students whose admission had been canceled engaged him to appear on their behalf before the Supreme Court. The students pooled resources and paid his fee in advance prior to the hearing. Not only was he was able to secure relief for the students, but upon learning that his fee had already been paid, he promptly asked his secretary to return the cheque. The students were elated and I saw many young eyes well up with tears that day outside court.
I also remember another instance where a leading industrial family that found itself on the wrong side of the law wanted to retain his services for a large number of matters. Mr. Arun Jaitley was reluctant to appear for them. However, some members of this family were arrested based on new allegations made against them. Mr. Jaitley felt that the authorities were being unfair to them and that they were being needlessly hounded. He agreed to appear for them out of his strong belief that everyone deserves justice. However, he made it clear that he would only appear in the bail proceedings since he felt that their arrest was motivated. After they were granted bail, the family received an invoice of Rs. 2 lakh, which was his usual appearance fee at the time. However, the family sent a cheque of Rs. 2 crore. This was clearly an attempt to bring him over to their side. The cheque was returned by him without hesitation the same day that it was received. Integrity and professional standards were non-negotiable for him.
One fine day in May of 2009, Mr. Arun Jaitley called us into his chambers and informed us that he had accepted the position of the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and that he was winding up his practice. We were all dumbfounded. While he was under no obligation to quit practice, he felt that these two roles would invariably throw up conflicts. He chose public service over a lucrative law practice and never once went on to regret his decision. Also, he ensured that all his juniors who found themselves out of work that day were taken care of. Some of us started independent practices with his support and encouragement while others went on to join leading law firms.
While the passing of Mr. Arun Jaitley is a momentous loss to the legal fraternity and the world of politics, those of us who spent times as his juniors feel as if we have lost a part of ourselves. He shall forever remain the loving senior who looked after his juniors the way a father would look after his children.
The author is a Partner at Link Legal India Law Services.