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In the first of a multi-part series on lawyers in Hyderabad, Bar & Bench speaks to Niranjan Reddy, one of the most high-profile lawyers practicing in the AP High Court. In this interview with Anuj Agrawal, Niranjan Reddy talks about his love for litigation, his thoughts on the appointment of judges and why he recommends the legal profession.
Bar & Bench: Why did you decide to join law?
Niranjan Reddy: Well I come from a family of lawyers but that was not why I decided to join law. I wanted to go to Pune and do my studies there because I wanted to go out of Hyderabad more for the exposure of living in another city. I had the option of either doing a BCom or law. The advantage of law was that I would have some level of flexibility after three years in case I wanted to go for an MBA or something like that. At that point of time I was interested in public life also. So I thought that being a law graduate would give me an advantage if I chose to join political life.
B&B: You graduated from Symbiosis Law School, Pune in 1992. How was the experience?
NR: It was fantastic. Pune in that sense was a great academic centre and you got to meet a lot of people from all over the country. It was like a melting pot. So in that sense I thought I greatly benefitted from going to Pune.
B&B: And how is SLS in terms of classroom teaching?
NR: Symbiosis [Law School] was one of the better institutes, it was established even before these national law schools. Back then (SLS) had already started tweaking the syllabus and getting more dynamic about legal education. So I prospered from that obviously. The second thing, which helped me more than the classroom teaching, was the fact that I was part of a university. It was not just a law school there. In those days law schools did not have the kind of infrastructure that you see in national law schools today. Because Symbiosis was a University by itself, it had a fantastic infrastructure. We had some very good teachers and they were very proactive. So in that sense, I benefitted academically by going to a place like a Symbiosis.
B&B: And after SLS, you started practicing immediately?
NR: I came back to Hyderabad and worked in the AP High Court for two years. A couple of my batch mates [from SLS] were practicing in Delhi, so I would keep in touch with them. When I spoke to them, I knew that I would get a different kind of exposure if I went to Delhi –
B&B: Do you mean in the Supreme Court?
NR: No. You see, Delhi at that point of time had just started becoming a commercial centre so there was a lot of transactional work going on. There was the Supreme Court obviously, and the Delhi High Court has original jurisdiction, something which the AP High Court does not have. So the [Delhi High Court] started becoming the intellectual Court of the country. A lot of IPR matters were being decided by the Delhi High Court. And also, you had a lot of other forums such as the MRTP, CLB, other tribunals etc. Hence my friends in Delhi had a much more diverse experience than I did and I felt that I will be able to take some learning from working in Delhi.
B&B: And who did you work for in Delhi?
NR: I met Mr. Gopal Subramanium when he had come to argue a matter [in Hyderabad]. I started discussing my plans with him and he said that I should think of doing a stint in Delhi. So in October ’94, two years after completing my law course, I moved to Delhi. I worked with Gopal Subramanium for about a month or so but then he was travelling quite a bit. He was in Delhi for say about seven days a month. Those days he used to accept to lot of briefs outside Delhi.
Then one day, he asked me whether I was very keen to move back to Hyderabad or whether I was thinking of settling down in Delhi. I told him that I was very keen in to move back to Hyderabad after doing a 6 month to one year stint in Delhi. So then he said look that if I was thinking of going back to Hyderabad, I should work for an Advocate on Record because that experience will be more useful than working with a senior counsel in the Supreme Court. So he introduced me to Mr. S. Muralidhar (who is currently a judge in the Delhi High Court)
B&B: How was that experience?
NR: It was fantastic. He is my guru. Everything that I have learnt in my legal profession, I have learned from him. The first thing he told me about litigation practice is that you must have commitment. He said that you can’t afford to make mistakes because you are acting on behalf of your client.
There are a lot of facets about his practice that people do not know. He is a fantastic company law lawyer. He is a brilliant constitutional law lawyer. Those were aspects of his talent which, I believe, were not fully exploited. Anyway, he was appearing for the Election Commissioner in the Supreme Court and for most matters, he would argue the matters rather than brief seniors. The Election Commissioner was very comfortable with him arguing the matter. Justice Muralidhar must have been all of 35 or 37 then. His drafting was brilliant. I think he was one of the best AoR’s we have ever had. [He was a] very conscientious person.
B&B: So how long did you work in Delhi?
NR: I worked with him for about six months and then I felt that my stint was complete. I did not want to be away from Hyderabad for too long. What happens is that you learn how to go about conducting your matters, preparing briefs, briefing seniors – which I thought I had learnt in Dellhi. I used to follow him about, see how he was going about his work. I started emulating him.
B&B: Were the initial years of setting up a practice difficult?
NR: They were. My family is not from Hyderabad; rather they are from a mofussil court. I am a first generation lawyer in Hyderabad. So when I came here, I did find it very difficult. I studied in a boarding school in Hyderabad so I didn’t have any social contacts in Hyderabad.
What happens in litigation initially is that people will only come to you if they know you or if people hear about you. This will take some time. To show that you are a good lawyer you need some briefs. Now that will only happen if they know you and trust you enough: it is a typical chicken and egg situation.
So when I came here I started working on my own for about 5-6 months. I would barely get two or three briefs a month but I was using my time to go and attend criminal and civil proceedings so that I could acquaint myself with the procedures etc.
B&B: But how were you able to support yourself financially?
NR: See, two or three briefs in those day meant that I was earning three to four thousand rupees a month. Yes, we were living like a poor middle-class family. My wife was also working. It was not bad. In that sense I was a little luckier than others. There was a Senior Counsel named Pratap Reddy who saw me in the court. May be he thought I was somebody with some potential so when I came back [from Delhi] he told me that he was thinking of retiring from practice. He had a few old briefs from the time before he was designated as senior counsel and he needed somebody to take care of those matters. He asked me if I was interested and I volunteered since I was looking for opportunities to argue. I started appearing in those maters and I started getting noticed in the court and that is how I built up my practice.
B&B: And what is your opinion about the profession itself?
NR: I think it is very exciting. As I told you I entered the profession as a reluctant lawyer – I studied law with something else in mind (moving to public life). But as I started working here, I started realising how much I love this job and the kind of diverse experiences you have as a lawyer.
Today I have completed 20 years but each day I am excited about coming to office, getting justice for my client. I think it is an amazing profession and when people ask me whether they should join this profession, I very strongly recommend that they should because it gives you the kind of intellectual stimulation that very few jobs will give you.
B&B: What do you think about the concept of having Senior Advocates? Do you think that the criticism which this practice comes under is warranted?
NR: See what I think is that a lot of [this criticism] is taking place because of the way the designations are being made. See if you were actually going to designate the most deserving lawyers and you had a uniform rule, you would not have this [criticism]. I am talking about the uniformity of standards that the court will adopt.
You have varying standards across High Courts. You have some High Courts designating seniors at the age of 36, some High Courts have a rule that they will not designative till the lawyer’s age is 45. And then you see that people with a pedigree get designated earlier and that’s more often the case then not. There is a standard of ethics which are specified for senior counsels. I have found that that by and large, except in places such as Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, these ethics need to be followed a little more strongly by the [Senior] Counsels. That is the whole point of having somebody designated as a Senior Counsel.
B&B: And in terms of pendency of cases, what do you think are the practical solutions for reducing the caseload?
NR: All the alternate dispute resolution mechanisms that were introduced have failed, mainly because of I think a lack of sincerity on the part of government. When you set up a tribunal, you need to have competent people in the tribunal and you also need to properly equip it.
Today I am not recommending arbitration to most of my clients because in India arbitration has become a stepping stone to litigation; it is a pre-litigation issue now. Arbitration is also become very expensive because arbitrators have been charging abnormally high fees so it renders the whole purpose [of arbitration] redundant.
See clients don’t mind if they have to incur a slightly higher cost than they would have to incur in court, if they are assured of an efficient and speedy [process] and a decision which they would not doubt as something which is lacking in integrity.
Now look at the system of appointing arbitrators. People prefer going before a sole arbitrator since it is cheaper than paying for a panel of three arbitrators. Given the nature of the things, people rarely agree on who is to be the sole arbitrator so they end up going to the court for appointment of arbitrator. And I think the court has been little a dogmatic in the manner of appointing arbitrators. They appoint arbitrators across the board mostly amongst retired judges and I think there is some fault there. There is no accountability.
Suppose an arbitrator is appointed by the court, the court relieves itself of the case at the stage the arbitrator is appointed. It is understood that there cannot be a continuous supervision of the court but somewhere there needs to be a feedback that the court should get, at least from the parties who came to court seeking appointment of arbitrator, if they are happy with the arbitrator, whether he has conducted the arbitration efficiently, economically and to the satisfaction of the parties. In the absence of any feedback, the court continues appointing some arbitrators who might not be cut out to be arbitrators.
I find that in most cases where I have to go to the court to seek the appointment of an arbitrator, the worry is that you don’t know who is going to be appointed as arbitrator and you don’t know what the client is in for.
B&B: Other than ADR’s do you think that courts should be more proactive in imposition of costs?
NR: See that is very important. I think costs in India are almost a joke. I think cost have to become realistic. Today if a party has been dragged to the court or if a party is compelled to go to court for unlawful purposes, when cost are to be imposed it must actually be compensatory in the true sense. I don’t think there is a greater case for damages than a frivolous litigation in court or when a litigation is being delayed because one party benefits from it.
B&B: But don’t lawyers have a role to play in undue delays?
NR: If you notice most of the lawyers act on the instructions of the client. There is a client who is interested in delaying the matter so those are the instructions you get. Yes, it is fine to say that lawyers are officers of the court at the end of the day and he must not be guided by such instructions. But if a couple of lawyers start acting purely as officers of the court, you will soon see their practice floundering. Clients will stop trusting them, they will say that they are acting against the client’s interests.
So lawyers have a sense of compulsion. I am not justifying it but suppose if I knew that a client wants me to delay a matter and I tell the client “Look, you want to delay the matter but there is a possibility of the court imposing these costs on you if the court thinks that the delay is not justified”, maybe the client will rethink [his decision]. That is a more practical way of achieving it. In a utopian world you may think that lawyers will be conscientious and tell the client that you can’t delay the matter more – that won’t happen in the real world. I think there has to be a practical approach which needs to be taken with regard to delays in courts and how to expedite them.
B&B: What is your take on judicial activism? Do you think that courts are overreaching themselves and entering into the field of policy making?
NR: I definitely believe that yes courts, at times, are over reaching themselves. But I personally believe that it is better that the court errs on the side of activism than errs on the side of being dormant. Today there are lot of issues that even the executive and the legislature for whatever reasons, be it political experience or lack of will, don’t want to take a call on. I think that [in such situations] the court will need to step in. If you look at the 2G judgment, it is not that the Supreme Court took up the matter in the first instance or that the Supreme Court was over vigilant in the matter. The correct mechanism were given a chance to redeem themselves- there were parliamentary debates, the opposition was crying hoarse about it, you had a CAG draft report which said there was a loss – there were several such debates which took place. But the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister steadfastly contended that there was nothing wrong. The country felt that there needed to be an independent probe by somebody they trusted and today, I think, that the Supreme Court is the body that people continue to have the largest amount of trust in. So when Supreme Court took up the matter, I sincerely believe that most people were very happy that this issue is being probed. People did not want to pre-judge somebody’s guilt. But somebody needed to go and verify the facts at hand and they did not trust the government.
B&B: But do you think that this “trust” in the Supreme Court is on the decline?
NR: This is a very serious issue which is why I think the Chief Justice has been talking about it. I believe that the only way the judiciary will continue to retain its respect is if they make the right appointments. There used to be a lot of thought that would go into the appointment of judges earlier. And I, as a lawyer, believe that after the second judges case (In Re Supreme Court of Advocates on Record Association), the quality of judges has seriously deteriorated. The judgment came out in 1993 and the appointments, through the collegium system, started in 1997 or so. I believe that there has been a serious erosion in the quality of judges being appointed since that judgment. Judges are now being selected on various other factors. You were earlier accusing politicians of making political appointments but now, I would think, quite a large number of appointments are not the best any High Court could have. Take any High Court, after the second judges appointment case, the common complaint amongst lawyers is that not necessarily the best of the people who were willing to be judges were made judges. So if you have the quality at the top, then it will start trickling down.
In terms of lack of trust, at the end of the day, the people who man the judiciary are people from the society. There is an all around decline of moral standards of society. Earlier it was generally believed that ministers and legislators are not corrupt – I am talking about the ‘60s and ‘70s. There has been a slow deterioration of that trust. Then it was generally believed that somebody from the higher administrative services was generally not corrupt – 90 to 95% of the people were not corrupt. That percentage has fallen drastically.
Now it has become epidemic. Say you want a caste certificate in your name or even a certification of your name, you will not get it unless you pay money. And the system has accepted it. See today when you look at the way elections are fought – I think that is where it starts. The germination of corruption starts at the election stage; people are being elected by corrupt means.
There will be a reversal though. As one judge once told me, India is a very young country. If you compare it to other countries, sixty years of independence is not a very long period. So we have gone from the post-Independence period where integrity was valued very highly to now where corruption is accepted amongst people. I think there is going to be a turnaround, the curve is going to go up and hopefully we will have more values coming in. And if more values come into society, then society will be less tolerant of a judiciary that is corrupt. If today, people are accepting a bureaucracy which is corrupt, a political system which is corrupt, than as a common man they accept that maybe the judiciary is also corrupt. It does not alarm them.
B&B: You have represented some of the biggest names in Andhra Pradesh, some of whom face several allegations of corruption. Do you ever feel morally uncomfortable in representing such people?
NR: See in a few cases, when clients came to me and it was very obvious that they were corrupt, I declined those briefs because I knew that if I did not have conviction in [their] matters I would not be able to take it up. I told the clients as much and send them off.
Then there were also a few cases, mostly on the criminal side, where after the State has initiated investigation and they have filed cases, then you move away from this moral dilemma because then you are not the judge. Once a criminal case has been launched, then there is someone who is fighting for their liberty. So it is only in criminal cases, where someone is alleged to have committed an act, I do not want to exercise any of my moral judgment. I want to discharge my duty as a lawyer in that matter. You have to fight for that person’s rights within the justice system.
B&B: Speaking about your work, you have a slightly unusual working style for a lawyer in Hyderabad?
NR: It is believed that the mind is the freshest between four and six in the morning. In Hyderabad, most lawyers start working in the evening and then work late into the night. So when I came here, I decided that I will not go by these conventions. I will just go by what I think is correct and I will structure my work accordingly. So I try to wind up my work by seven thirty in the evening and then get up early in the morning to read my briefs. I take half hour to read what would take me an hour in the evenings.
And once I realised my effectiveness in the morning, I made it my habit to read in the mornings. So much so that after eight or nine in the night, my mind starts shutting down. I am there to meet clients, receive papers etc but generally I try to wind up by seven thirty or eight in the evening.
B&B: You apparently inspire a lot of loyalty amongst your juniors. Was that a conscious decision?
NR: You should ask my juniors about that. What I believe is that the profession is not about a person. I look at my office as an institution in the sense that I believe that all of us are in it together. So I ensure that whenever I have people working with me on a matter, there is some amount of teamwork taking place. I have not consciously tried to develop these elements, it is just the way I work – I bring in juniors at the first stage itself. They sit with the clients, go through all the details with them and prepare a list of dates. So they are more thorough than I am by the time the brief comes to me. Then I sit with the brief and have the client and the junior explain the brief to me. The client may know the facts while a lawyer would know which facts are important.
B&B: And when a junior makes a mistake, how do you deal with it?
NR: Oh I am supposed to be very short-tempered (grins) but I am hoping that with age I will mellow down. But this is something that I learnt from Justice Muralidhar – he was also very short tempered as a lawyer when it came to mistakes. He would get very angry on a matter, but once the brief was sent away within two minutes he would sit and have coffee with you. And he would be laughing. I realised very quickly that his anger is only because of the mistake; his commitment towards the client was so high that he could not tolerate any mistakes. He realised that these mistakes could affect somebody else.
So I have noticed that when I do work in my office I get very angry but when other people come to brief me, I don’t get angry at all because I get into a different mindset. I then become an appellate lawyer. I start thinking about the ways in which I can ensure that my client does not suffer because of these mistakes.
B&B: A few of your juniors have graduated from a five-year law program. What is your opinion of these national law schools? Do you think the five-year course is a good idea?
NR: I think it is a great idea. When I did law, I was one of the very few students who opted for a five-year course. We were more of an exception really. We had the then Law Minister [HR Bharadwaj] coming and telling us that he thought a five year course was a luxury because it was only for the rich. But now when you see people in the 10th or 11th grade preparing to be lawyers, you see the same kind of commitment which we used to see in people wanting to become engineers or doctors.
B&B: Don’t you think that there is more hype than substance with respect to national law schools?
NR: See, I am not too taken in by national law schools. I am not somebody who thinks that national law schools are the best thing that has happened. I am talking about the five year law course being the best thing that happened to the legal profession because people are coming in committed.
Now within the five-year law system, yes national law schools have produced a lot of fantastic students but not because [the school] was able to convert an average student into a good student. What happens with national law schools, IITs and IIMs is that you already get the best talent and you give them a platform for honing. Now two things happen: one, the honing happens at the institution level and the second is the peer pressure. In cricketing terms, if India has to play Kenya or Zimbawe you know how the players will be but if they have to play against Australia or England, then you can actually see the cutting edge.
At the same time, I have had students who have come from very inconspicuous law schools. But in the profession, I normally believe, after three years it all evens out. It doesn’t matter if you are from a national law school or if you are from an average law school. In litigation especially because litigation requires a different skill set – one has to be constantly thinking about the matter, one has to have an understanding of how to deal with a matter before a judge, there is a lot of human psychology which one needs to understand. So I think that this a lot of common sense, which no school can teach you. I have had about thirty colleagues with me so far and I have noticed that in the end of the third year period, whatever advantages people may have had in terms of exposure or education, it all evens out.
The only thing I have noticed is that people coming from smaller towns sometime lack the confidence because they don’t have language skills. So in three years, they will be familiar with speaking the legal language in court but it will take a little more industry from them to actually get over that insecurity of language.
B&B: What is your opinion about the roster system of judges? Is that an efficient way of allotting matters?
NR: I once had a discussion with a retired Supreme Court judge about this and something he said made a lot of sense to me. What he said was that unless you have a roster system, unless you change the listings, the philosophy of judge becomes the philosophy of the Court. Say in the Supreme Court, you have a judge who is only handling tax matters. If a judge is pro-Revenue and he is going to be a tax judge for four to five years, although he will dispose of more matters but then he is setting the law for the country. Whatever that judge believes will become the law of the country. [The roster system] may not be the most productive way but that is the way you ensure that one person does not dictate the philosophy of the Court.
If you talk in terms of practicality and productivity, the roster system can be criticised. But as an institution, with long-term goals, I think the roster system is good. I actually believe that they should not continue the roster for too long.
B&B: You are known to be quite interested in films. Did you ever contemplate a career in the film industry?
NR: Oh no. Films are my hobby. I part-produced two films. I am from the industry in the sense that I grew up in a family which is very closely linked to cinema – a lot of my uncles are distributors etc. I think film is the most complete creative medium. See when you have someone writing books, they just write. Then you have somebody creating music, photographs etc., it is a film which brings all these elements together. It is the most comprehensive creative form because it has writing, music, visuals, human psychology etc. You create a world which you can see.
B&B: As a lawyer you must have lots of stories for movies. Have you ever thought of making a movie on a topic related to law?
NR: Well, law subjects actually make very poor film subjects. You may have a lot of successful television series on lawyers but you don’t have too many movies. Because there is a different grammar for movies – there has to be drama sustained over a hundred and twenty minutes. So I think law episode will be very interesting for thirty minutes or one hour at the most. But anyway, films are just a hobby. It keeps my creative juices flowing and is a nice break from work.
B&B: What is the last movie that you enjoyed?
NR: I loved Gangs of Wasseypur. I also enjoy commercial movies. I watch two movies a week. I have a lot of friends in the film industry. When I was studying law in Pune, I also had a small stint as Assistant Director with Ram Gopal Verma. I was more interested in understanding the creative process that goes into the making of a film.
B&B: Any advice for law students who are considering joining the legal profession?
NR: The words that Justice Muralidhar told me were, if you want to succeed in litigation just be at it. Those are the three words that he said, “Be at it”. And it gets a lot more interesting as you go along. Litigation is something where you start getting very frustrated initially with the delays; you often feel like the system does not appear to be working. But as you keep going forward, at least from my personal experience, I find every succeeding year to be more exciting than the previous one. And not necessarily because of the success one may have.
My advice to people who want to get into litigation is that one, they will have to come in only if they are prepared to give it some time because it starts getting interesting after some time. You will have to give it at least three years before it starts getting interesting. And the second thing I would tell them is that as long as you are committed to your case, without being overzealous, and you are sincere – I am yet to see a sincere litigation lawyer failing and not earning enough money.
(This interview was conducted in August, 2012 in Hyderabad)