The #BombaySeniors: In Conversation with Janak Dwarkadas [Part I]

The #BombaySeniors: In Conversation with Janak Dwarkadas [Part I]

Anuj Agrawal

He is a hard man to follow, quite literally. He may be in his early sixties, but senior counsel Janak Dwarkadas walks with a pace that belies his age. So if you do want to interview one of the most successful lawyers at the Bombay Bar, step one is to actually catch the man.

But once you do, and once you do get an hour or so of his time, you get an up-close look at the quintessential old-school lawyer. He answers most questions with his eyes half-closed, much like he argues in court, running his hands through his hair every once in a while. And, just like in court, he often uses multiple arguments to drive home a point. Relentlessly.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, the senior counsel talks about his childhood days, why he swore to never become a lawyer, and the pressures of counsel practice.

Anuj Agrawal: In an article you wrote about (former Attorney General) GE Vahanvati, you said that he had once advised you to “slow down”.

Former Attorney General Late Mr. Goolam Vahanvati
Former Attorney General Late Mr. Goolam Vahanvati

Janak Dwarkadas: You are right. Goolam did tell me that one priceless piece of advice he received was from Mr. Nani Palkhiwala, who emphasized the importance of a lawyer’s ability to say ‘No’. He always told me, ‘Learn to say no. This is very important’. I can’t fault him for saying what he did. I find that even after 38 years in the profession, I am still not able to practice this.

Partly because temperamentally, I cannot sit idle and partly because of the current system of listing of matters in court. If we were to follow the date system of listing and hearing of cases, it would be easier to implement this advice. Besides, the high that I get in simultaneously juggling 3-4 large stake, intense cases in a day, the sense of satisfaction and fulfilment are immeasurable.

I would like to qualify this though. It would not be right or fair to handle more than one case in a day if it would compromise the quality of preparation and delivery or if it resulted in being unable to make it in time when the case comes up for hearing. Besides this, I tell my juniors they should not emulate my “style” just because I enjoy this form of practice. Each one of them has to identify what works best for them.

AA: Going back to your early years, you come from a family of lawyers.

JD: I am a third generation lawyer in my family. My grand uncle Trikamdas Dwarkadas was a leading solicitor in Bombay. He was a pioneer in the sense that he was responsible for giving M/s. Kanga & Company, Advocates & Solicitors, the rich name and reputation it enjoys even today. One of his protégés was Mr. ML Bhakta, who is currently the senior most partner at Kanga and regarded as one of the most successful and highly respected solicitors of his generation. I regard him as a father figure.

My father, Dilip Dwarkadas, was a counsel who mainly practiced Income Tax law. My paternal uncle Damodar D. Damodar was also a partner in the firm of M/s. Kanga & Co for more than 50 years, before he retired and passed away. Besides myself, three of my cousins, a nephew, and my two sons are also Advocates.

AA: Was law always an obvious choice for you?

JD: No, not at all. On the contrary, I was a very poor student in school. I was extremely lazy, very reticent and shy. I have never ever been on stage in school, never participated in any debate, or dramatics or in an elocution competition. My teachers probably don’t even remember me.

AA: I find that difficult to believe.

JD: My reluctance to join the profession also arose out of watching my father get up at 4am every day to read his briefs. When I had my exams I would be sitting on the same table as him and telling myself, ‘One thing I will never do is become a lawyer!’ Over the years when he tried to persuade me to do law, I said to him, ‘I hate exams – and you seem to be working for one every day. I don’t think I can ever do it’.

AA:  And then?

JD: I got into law by accident. I was influenced to a great extent by my friend Pankaj Patel, who was my classmate when studying for a B.Com degree. At that point of time, he felt that the right profession to pursue was Chartered Accountancy. Therefore, during the final year of B.Com we started studying for our CA entrance exams together.

On the fourth day of our exams, when we were riding to the examination centre, he suddenly asked me to stop the bike. He told me in Gujarati, ‘Nathi karvu’ (we are not doing it). So I asked, ‘What are we not doing?’ He replied, ‘CA! You don’t realize it, this is not a rewarding profession!’

Soon thereafter, Pankaj and I attended Palkhiwala’s budget speech on the East Lawns at the Cricket Club of India. We were so impressed that we immediately went and enrolled ourselves at the Government Law College. At that time, the principal was Professor TK Tope. Admissions to the law college were easy to get. Though classes had begun, we were still able to secure admissions.

AA: You graduated from GLC in 1977. At what point did you think you liked this profession?

JD: Initially I was quite overwhelmed by the sheer presence of all the highly successful Senior Counsel and Barristers practicing at the Bar at that time. I was also overwhelmed and quite flummoxed at the ease with which my Senior, Mr. Chagla, would present his arguments in court and dictate complex pleadings whilst in chambers. The way in which he could answer questions posed to him during conferences also made me wonder whether I had done the right thing in joining the profession and whether I could ever make it.

However, with the encouragement I got from Mr. Chagla, other Seniors at the bar and even from the judges, I soon realized that the very challenges which every assignment threw up were what gave me satisfaction and what I really love about the profession.

AA: But didn’t you suffer from stage fright?

JD: That’s the point. Once I started arguing, all the fright completely vanished. I must also mention that one of the big pushes my father gave me was making me join the Indo-American Society. This took away a lot of my stage fright.

Even today, I find that there is always a little reticence before I actually address the courts. I think it never goes away, it is actually good to have it. It reminds you not to become complacent and overconfident. Once you get off the ground, the reticence disappears. Your entire focus shifts to your arguments. It is no longer relevant who is in court, who is around – nothing.

AA: Now when you go to court, do you still feel that tinge of nervousness?

JD: Nervousness is a strong word to use. The concern I have is whether I will start off on the right note. How you commence your arguments is crucial to get the judge interested in the case. This is more so if you’re responding to the arguments of the other side. The judge has already heard one side fully and formed some view in the matter. How you begin your response will determine whether you will succeed in swinging the judge to your way of thinking.

You have to delve into a lawyer’s mind to see how many hundreds of options the lawyer thinks of before he actually utters the first sentence. People watching the proceedings may say, ‘That is just the thing he should have said’. But let me tell you, it is not so simple.

There is no prepared script from which you deliver. You have to be able to think on your feet because you never know what may or may not appeal to the court. You should be quick enough to give up a thought that is not going well with the court. Otherwise, you will falter and fail.

An argument that you may find extremely attractive in chambers or on paper, may turn out to be completely useless in court. If you are not ready to change your tact and shift gears, you’re going to be in trouble.

AA: In 1977, when you started practice, did you always want to be a counsel?

JD: Fortunately for me, I had no doubts that I wanted to be an arguing counsel. Even when I interned with M/s. Kanga & Co. in my last year of the law course, it was on the condition that I would not sign Articles, which is what you need to do if you wish to become a Solicitor. I didn’t want to be a Solicitor.

Justice SP Bharucha was appointed as a Judge, Bombay High Court in 1977. He later became CJ of Karnataka High Court and CJI in 2001 and retired in 2002.
Justice SP Bharucha was appointed as a Judge, Bombay High Court in 1977. He later became CJ of Karnataka High Court and CJI in 2001 and retired in 2002.

Initially, I was supposed to join the chambers of SP Bharucha. However, before I got my Sanad to practice law, he was appointed a judge of the Bombay High Court and subsequently went on to become Chief Justice of India. My father then spoke to Iqbal Chagla who, not knowing my background, fortunately consented. I have never looked back since.

AA: What do you mean by not knowing my background?

JD: He didn’t ask for a CV, as is often the practice nowadays. Today, even applications for internships run into four or five pages. Had I been asked to submit a CV, it might not have exceeded a few lines. This is because I don’t hold any degrees from foreign universities, nor have I secured any academic honours or prizes. I have not participated in a single national level or international level moot court competition.

AA: But surely, the family backing that you had must have helped.

JD: Oh yes. Without realizing it at that time, I was surrounded by lawyers. My father had law reports stacked on the walls of our living room. I would be walking past them every day, handing over books to my dad when he asked for them. I probably never realized that the law was already in me. I just needed a sense of direction.

AA: How did that lazy boy become one of the most hard-working lawyers?

JD: If you ask me honestly, it is the instinct of survival and the fear of failure. Fortunately, and I tell my children this, the best thing that happened to me was that things were not given to me on a platter. My father always encouraged me to be self-sufficient and support myself. As a result, there was a keen desire on my part to make it entirely on my own.

Besides, I was married even before I joined the profession. I already had a responsibility. My first son was born soon after our marriage. That added to my responsibility and I just had to make it work. I had no choice. This does motivate you. A lot.

AA: But devilling with a senior lawyer does not pay.

JD: I was lucky. Frankly, when I joined Mr. Chagla, I didn’t even know how fortunate I was. Mr. Chagla was (and continues to be) one of the most sought after counsel. He has a wide variety of work. I was virtually his first junior. He was very, very busy. As a result, it was easy to get into matters just by being around him.

I often tell my juniors that in this profession it is important to “be around” your senior, especially in the chambers. You can never tell when lady luck will shine on you.

AA: That would also mean that it can be quite a cruel profession?

JD: It can be. You must not forget that you are performing in the public eye all the time.

You are a bit like an artist in a circus. Half the people are there to see you fall rather than complete the act. It’s not an easy profession.

You can’t afford to make too many mistakes. In the beginning people will forgive your mistakes because of your lack of experience, but as you go up the ladder, obviously the stakes go up and your responsibilities go up as well and there would be a heavy price to pay for the mistake.

AA: You must have also faced your share of difficulties or obstacles.

JD: The legal profession is like a ladder which you climb. You are tested at every rung. The difficulties and obstacles you face are very often of your own creation, at least in the beginning. They could be insecurities arising out of lack of self-confidence, lack of opportunity, lack of work or lack of ability to grapple with the complexities of a problem assignment.

The minute you reach a certain level, you are being tested and goaded into the next level. There is no time to sit back on your laurels. The biggest challenge is to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Accepting and learning to overcome your weakness is also a challenge.

Besides my own internal challenges, I also faced several extraneous and unexpected challenges. I had spent about 8 years with my Senior, Mr. Chagla, and was just about finding my feet, when I had to start looking for chambers of my own, because Mr. Chagla and other Senior members at the bar were called upon by the government to surrender their chambers.

A few years later, I lost my first wife to cancer after a three-year struggle when I was only 38 years old and my two sons were only 14 and 7 years of age. Within less than a year of my getting married a second time, I lost my father unexpectedly when he was only 65, making me the sole bread winner of the family.

Maybe, this is all part of growing up.

To be continued…

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