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?
In the fifth segment of the series, we looked at the City of Joy and came across conventional practices governing the earnings of junior lawyers, who do not get paid directly by seniors, but by solicitors who brief them.
While some seniors facilitate this mode of income as a part of traditional system, others blame the "poor" fee structure for junior lawyers' incomes in the city.
There are, however, a few like Senior Advocate Milon Mukherjee who pay a monthly remuneration to juniors.
Mukherjee, a leading criminal law practitioner in the city, ensures a monthly sum not less than ₹20,000 to each of the juniors who join his chamber fresh out of college.
“The day they join my chamber, I give ₹5,000 a week as pocket expenses. Their fathers may have been my juniors. Basically that’s how they come to me. It also depends on the client who pays what,” he said.
The juniors in his chamber get 15% of what he charges a client because once they sign a brief, they are entitled to some payment.
“But the fee structure in West Bengal, especially in Calcutta, is the worst in the country,” emphasised Mukherjee.
Litigation in Kolkata is bifurcated into the Original Side and the Appellate Side, akin to Mumbai. While the Original Side is dominated by the solicitors, the Appellate Side, which is Mukherjee’s domain, sees his clerks negotiating with the clients.
According to Senior Advocate Ratnanko Banerji, not paying junior lawyers directly is a customary practice of the Kolkata legal community.
Designated as a senior in 2014, Banerji practices in the Calcutta High Court and often travels to other High Courts and Supreme Court for cases.
Although junior lawyers in his chamber are not paid a fixed sum or stipend, they are briefed and paid by solicitors in matters, at least those on the Original Side.
In Calcutta, we call it ‘devilling’. When you come to a senior’s chamber, it’s more of a gurukul kind of a system
Ratnanko Banerji, Senior Advocate
“You try and see that for every new matter, one junior gets the brief. And in this way, the solicitors/instructing advocates actually pay the juniors. And according to me that is also a very good system. In Calcutta, we call it ‘levelling’. When you come to a senior’s chamber, it’s more of a gurukul kind of a system,” he pointed out.
The idea is to inculcate a sense of earning independently among young advocates, and to help them get prospective clientele and cases.
“If you deliver, then whoever is briefing you is impressed and gets you more briefs with your seniors. The senior is happy with you and the instructing advocate is happy with you, so you get more briefs. And it also gives, according to me, a sense of competition among the juniors and a sense of achievement,” added Banerji.
He recalled the early days of his career, when his chamber senior had four juniors and allocated briefs to them. If someone did better, they were handed over more briefs.
“So after your senior puts you onto someone, it is really like earning your own fees and your own merit. And that gives a sense of competition in people and self-reliance as well,” he said.
He opined that the exercise might also pave way for juniors to get briefs from other chamber seniors, thus allowing them to work independently.
Banerji, nonetheless, suggested that juniors ought to be looked after financially and encouraged, as they are the “backbone” of our legal system.
While Advocate Jishnu Chowdhury agreed that juniors should be paid a stipend in the chamber, he doesn’t believe that seniors should pay them a remuneration.
"This will kill the impetus which the juniors have for succeeding in the profession,” he noted.
Chowdhury apprehends that if paid, the profession would turn into a job, rendering junior advocates as research assistants.
“The system in Calcutta is that if the juniors perform well in the seniors’ chambers, they are visible to the solicitors and they get independent briefs. And therefore, it's not that the juniors don't get anything and keep working for free. Their remuneration is in the form of independent briefs from the solicitors,” he said.
Please remember that in Calcutta, maximum juniors come from recommendations where seniors don't actually select them. Juniors are really thrust upon the seniors, and then it just goes forward.
Jishnu Chowdhury, Advocate
Chowdhury has six juniors in his chamber and tries his best to have a “performing" junior get briefed in matters. He felt the time has come to pay a basic stipend to the junior lawyers for their financial needs till they start getting work.
But he has a caveat — paying juniors would be possible when seniors have an “absolute option” to pick their juniors.
“Please remember that in Calcutta, maximum juniors come from recommendations, where seniors don't actually select them. Juniors are really thrust upon the seniors, and then it just goes forward. So if this system, and paying stipends has to be brought in, then all juniors would have to be picked on merit and nothing else,” he maintained.
In Kolkata, a junior advocate can be paid ₹25,000 a month by someone having an experience of over two decades like Chowdhury.
“But the juniors have to be good and they must be doing my work. Now, today, if I'm paying ₹25,000 to them and if I find them doing their own work, then that also creates an unfair situation,” he said.
Comparing the system followed in Kolkata with the one in Delhi, he said,
“If you go into your seniors chamber and work hard, and intelligently, you do start earning. The Delhi situation is where a junior who is paid a stipend doesn't do any independent work. He only works for his senior."
With most of his juniors being busy with independent work and that of the chamber, Chowdhury hardly sees them in office.
"And I'm quite happy with that situation. So when I see a junior less, I am happy that I have launched somebody else into the profession. That’s Calcutta for you," he explained.
Advocate Dilawar Khan is one of the four partners at a Kolkata-based law firm, which pays ₹10,000 to freshers. The money can go upto ₹30,000 or 40,000, depending on experience and expertise.
“And the highest we pay is ₹50,000. We have five juniors and two wings — real estate and litigation,” said Khan.
A junior counsel’s fee may vary from anywhere between ₹500 per brief to ₹30-40,000. Senior counsel, on the other hand, could demand lakhs, he revealed.
“Usually some firms pay a minimum fee of ₹5k or ₹10k, whereas other law firms pay really well.”
Practical knowledge plays an important role in determining the amount of money a junior earns, according to Khan.
“Many of the students don't know Manupatra, SSC Online. They don’t know Bar & Bench, LiveLaw. Whenever a student come to me, I'll advise them to go to these two websites. They ought to be updated,” he said.
Advocate Debapriya Mukherjee rejected the popular belief of Kolkata being a cost-effective city. She had joined the profession in 2011, when she earned ₹500 a month.
“And the next chamber paid me ₹1,500 per month in 2012. After that, I moved to Bombay and worked for Senior Advocate Gayartri Singh, and then my payment got regularised. Our working hours were more than 12 hours a day,” said Mukherjee, who has since moved back to Kolkata to go independent.
You can’t think of motivation when your stomach is empty.
Debapriya Mukherjee, Advocate
Legal professionals from middle-class backgrounds don’t have the luxury to feel motivated or demotivated, she added.
“When you can’t sustain yourselves, you don’t stay in litigation even if you feel that you have the passion or talent for it. You can’t think of motivation when your stomach is empty,” she noted.
According to her, the fee structure in Kolkata is “poorly designed," where the remuneration to this date is calculated in colonial Gold Mohurs (GM), translating into a paltry sum of money.
"For a fresher, it was 10GM, which is ₹170 which was very low. This was pre-independence I think. They can implement the system by making it better. That should be revised. A minimum amount can be fixed and juniors should not be paid less than that,” she added.
A minimum of ₹20-25,000 a month would suffice for someone to find a foothold in the city, opined Mukherjee.
After completing his legal education in Mumbai, Advocate Arjun Gooptu headed back to Kolkata to make a living in his hometown.
"The general trend is that seniors that are established here generally don't pay their juniors anything at all. In most cases, what you get is as per the matters where you appear with him or her, and you get something from that. You generally don't get any stipend or anything from them," he said.
On the contrary, there are lots of seniors, not designated, but in practice (seniors) who probably at some point of time, have faced the same situation when they were juniors, and are now themselves in a position where they have the money to pay their juniors.
"They are the ones paying," added Gooptu.
But that too is between ₹5-6,000 a month to freshers, he said adding that unfortunately for some people the amount remains the same even for two to three years.
“So pay here in general is pretty abysmal,” he said.
Gooptu, who began practicing just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, says that getting briefed as a fresher doesn’t come easy.
"I studied in Mumbai and graduated from Government Law College, Mumbai. We got a couple of good offers, from the campus placements and everything. Apart from that also, I've gotten quite decent offers from there. Like upwards of ₹60k, 70k from firms, not chambers. But you can argue the cost of living in Bombay is adequately higher, ergo the salaries are on par. You can make that argument," he said.
Gooptu is currently associated with a chamber in Kolkata.
"Although I have received multiple lucrative offers from other cities and the potential to earn outside my hometown is much higher, I have not been able to move out of the city so far, due to familial reasons," he shared.
Advocate Sudeshna Hazra decided to hang up her robes for a corporate job after three years into practice.
Hazra, a 2014 law graduate, joined the profession as a solicitor and earned ₹2,000 a month.
“I agree that back in 2015, inflation was not this high compared to now. But still, like people of my graduating year or rather my peers and my friends, they started their corporate job with a minimum bracket of ₹15-20k,” she recounted.
It becomes very difficult to place yourself and to live with this practice for the next five, six years with an expectation that someday I will get a lot of money
Sudeshna Hazra, Advocate
The motivation Hazra once had to run around attending meetings and drafting cases attenuated as the payments stagnated.
“I had a similar kind of issue when I was practicing. So being a lawyer or a law graduate, the foremost thing that we all love is practice. That's the best that we can do. Leave the corporate, leave the other sector paralegal, etc. That is secondary. The primary thing that we all desire is practice,” said Hazra.
But a majority of the people, in her opinion, fail to get into that line because of the money.
Although she did not face trouble with affording accommodation, having a social life and seeing peers and friends with more income impacted her.
"It becomes very difficult to place yourself and to live with this practice for the next five, six years with an expectation that someday I will get a lot of money. That someday, I'd be paid what I deserve.”
Hazra practiced for about three-and-a-half years and was happy with her work, but had to leave as she needed money.
“I have a family where I have a lot of responsibilities. Similarly, responsibilities towards myself as well. When I left, my salary went up by 2x or 3x max, but not more,” said Hazra.
Her senior from her days of practice has had a practice of seven-eight years and knows every minute detail of the soliciting scene in the city.
“After knowing everything about the job, she was making only ₹24k. Now being a junior, I used to see that get a bit demotivated.”
Like Mukherjee, Hazra doesn’t entirely buy into the argument that Kolkata has a low cost of living.
“So Kolkata is cheap in the street food aspect. I get rice for ₹20 a plate. But what about life beyond that? We have a general life in that a basic expenditure takes place. Like, you need to take cabs, you need to go to restaurants, you need to have a busy social life. These are equally expensive in Bombay and Bangalore, I see no difference.”
Sometimes, the "low-cost city" notion that is attributed to Kolkata translates into lawyers believing that juniors need not be paid well, which Hazra finds problematic.
“Like saying ‘you're from Kolkata, you can be paid less’. No. My level of work is the same. How could I be paid less in Kolkata? These things are there, and especially with courts, it is too much. And I have heard people saying, seniors saying ‘you must be paying us because we are teaching you the work’.”
Advocate Minal Palana said that juniors who get a monthly or weekly stipend of ₹2-5,000 from a few seniors do not get clients.
“So there are few chambers who give money to their juniors. They don't give clients to their juniors. So the juniors assist the seniors in their matters, but they don't get any clients personally from the seniors,” she said.
The initial couple of years of struggle pave the way for a relatively better future in Kolkata’s legal scene, Palana opined.
“I don't know about other cities, but in Calcutta, the initial two-three years...and I have seen that. But that initial two-three years, it's very difficult and you don't get to work easily here. You don’t earn and you don't sustain yourself. But eventually, if you get work, you are paid,” she said.
A lawyer should be looking for matters from the senior, not money, she believes.
“That is what a junior looks for when they are with a senior. You come to learn from a senior, you don't really come to work for him. If I'm coming into practice and I work with a senior, I would look for matters, to assist them to learn from the matters; to learn from my senior and eventually develop my own practice. I don't really look for money from my senior.”
The State Bar Council apparently had a scheme for graduates from state-run colleges where a monthly stipend of ₹1,000 was paid to the lawyers for a year.
"But I am not sure if it still exists. Even otherwise, mostly no one is aware of the scheme or opts for it," said Palana.