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Bar & Bench Editor Pallavi Saluja spoke to the Attorney General of India, Goolam Vahanvati. In this interview, he talks about his initial years as a lawyer, his decision to become a law officer and his experience as a law officer. He also discusses his views on the present state of legal education and the reforms that he would like to see in the justice delivery system of Indian courts.
Bar & Bench: What made you choose law as a career?
Goolam Vahanvati: My father was a lawyer and it was more or less ordained that I would follow in his footsteps, though there was a lot of pressure on me from my various teachers and masters in school that I should not do law. My science teacher even came up to me and asked me “Why do you want to be a liar?” I told my teachers that I want to be a lawyer. There was never any choice in my life. It was assumed that I would be a lawyer.
Bar & Bench: Tell us a bit about the initial years of your career.
Goolam Vahanvati: The initial years were tough. I joined my father in late 1972 but unfortunately he passed away in 1975. After that I never had a chamber and never had a senior. I had to fend for myself. I practiced on my own. Some seniors were very good to me. They picked me up on various matters and I worked with them. They recommended my name in a lot of matters and frankly after that I never had to worry.
I have worked with the best seniors. Fali Nariman and Atul Setalvad were very kind to me and they used to particularly push me a lot. Solicitors Mulla & Mulla and Gagrat & Co. also helped me a lot.
Bar & Bench: You are the highest law officer of the country. What are your duties as Attorney General?
Goolam Vahanvati: I have been a law officer for thirteen years now. I was Advocate General for five years in Maharashtra. It was a very tough assignment because that included the Bombay, Aurangabad, Nagpur and Goa High Courts. Then I was Solicitor General for five years and now for the last two and half years as Attorney General.
The difference between the post of Solicitor general and the Attorney General is that the buck stops here. As a Solicitor General, you do your work and as Attorney General you are more or less responsible for the conduct of the government litigation and there is much more advisory work involved and that too some very complicated advisory issues come up which require a lot of time. There is no quick fix. For instance, the army chief’s opinion, which I gave; each opinion took 15 to 17 days. It was very solid work. I had to go through each and every document and also I had to worry about the fact that I was dealing with the top officer of the army. It’s a very onerous responsibility.
Bar & Bench: What factors were responsible for your decision to become a law officer? How has the 13-year journey been?
Goolam Vahanvati: I was all over the place. I did a lot of varied commercial work and had a lot of international practice prior to 1999. I used to be regularly briefed in matters in England, Singapore and Thailand. Then I thought I should really concentrate on serious litigation in the Bombay High Court. That is the main reason why I opted to go in for becoming an Advocate General, which helped me to settle down as well. There comes a time in your life when you have seen everything and you want a different experience. So since then, I have been a law officer for almost 13 years.
It has been a tough journey. You have to make lot of sacrifices. As a law officer, you cannot make the kind of money, which people in private practice do. There have been times when I have gone to high courts on a fee of Rs. 30,000 knowing fully well that the counsel appearing against me is charging Rs. 30 lakh but it doesn’t matter. You know what you are doing and what you are going in for. And if you are not happy, then give it up. But you do get compensated because you get opinion work, you get PSU work and even government ultimately pays and its not a bad fee though compared to the distortion that there is in the legal profession today, it may not be comparable but not a bad fee.
Bar & Bench: Please share your thoughts on the present system of legal education.
Goolam Vahanvati: There is a lot to be desired. The legal education is definitely much better than what it was in my time. When we became law graduates, the first thing we realized was that we knew nothing. Today’s product is much better but I feel that at some point of time you must give the law student a chance to specialize. Today, the products that are coming out are very general lawyers. I feel that after the third year, if the student is let’s say, inclined to do transactional work then give him a choice which could make him a better transactional lawyer and if he wants to be a litigator, then hone his skills that way. Today, the students are being fed with everything and then they are left to make the choice after becoming a lawyer. Perhaps the students can be given a choice after the 3rd year, so the 4th and 5th years can be used to shaping the mind and molding it. That is what I believe in. Things are much better now. The quality of young lawyers is very good and even those who come for internships as interns are very good.
Bar & Bench: With the kind of choices available to law students today, what advice would you give to students and budding lawyers?
Goolam Vahanvati: I have been counseling young lawyers for the last 13-14 years and I believe that it is very necessary for senior advocates to counsel young lawyers because most of them don’t know what their choices are. Today young lawyers think, “Its either litigation work or non-litigation work.”
I also used to draw a chart and show them that in litigation alone there are so many choices like criminal, civil, regulatory, income taxes. Now there are so many different regulators also.
I used to give them a whole big canvas of choices. I used to help them a lot by telling them which level they should start, as everybody doesn’t get a chance to go the high court. Today there is huge amount of regulatory work that we have. Electricity by itself has become a specialized subject, so has power sector. There is tremendous scope for lawyers especially who are creative. Securities work is itself a full time work.
Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on entry of foreign law firms?
Goolam Vahanvati: It is a controversial subject. I don’t know how long we will be able to resist it. Perhaps instead of just shutting the door, I think it may be necessary for us to have a very limited entry in areas, which will not threaten Indian lawyers but give them an opportunity of getting better avenues. It is a very difficult subject to talk about because there are such strong views on it.
Bar & Bench: What reforms would you like to see in justice delivery system in the Indian courts.
Goolam Vahanvati: It is a humongous problem. We have been struggling with this problem ever since Veerappa Moily had taken over as Law Minister. We had a vision statement; we had vision documents and a national litigation policy. However, no amount of reform can happen unless there is reform in the mindset.
I will give you the example of Singapore. We used to go to Singapore quite often. Sometime around 1988-89, the Prime Minister told the new Chief Justice that he wanted Singapore’s legal system to change and wanted to remove all the arrears. He told the Chief Justice that he would give any amount of money to get the best judges, to get the best infrastructure. So the Chief Justice said, “Fine” and he issued general notices fixing cases one after another. So the lawyers went howling in protest and said “Don’t fix my case on this day, as I am busy in another court.” So the Chief Justice told the lawyer to “Give the case to your partner.” The lawyer informed the court that his partner is also busy in another court. The Chief Justice said, “Give it to your associate.” but the lawyer said, “My associate will not be good enough.” The Chief Justice then suggested giving up the case. Basically, he took that approach and absolutely cleaned up the arrears. It is something like this that is required today.
I will give you another example. When we had our National Mission Conference in October 2009, the question of adjournments came up, as it always does. There were some district judges from West Bengal. Normally district judges don’t come for these conferences but they came and there was this issue of frequent adjournments. They said it’s all very well for you to tell us that we should not give adjournments. The moment we refuse adjournments to powerful lawyers, they go and complain against us to the administrative judges and they have an inquiry against us. I was shocked to hear that. So the district judges said “Why should we be strict? So we give the adjournments.” So, basically the mindset needs to be changed.
I suppose it has to be a concerted effort. Everybody will have to get together. Everybody will have to say that this is the state of the Indian judiciary and we will not allow this to happen.
Bar & Bench: Do you think the collegium system should be removed and instead a National Judicial Commission set up for appointment of judges, considering there is no transparency for proceedings of collegium? Your thoughts..
Goolam Vahanvati: It is a very troublesome question. There is no clear answer on this. The Chief Justice said recently that don’t throw away something until you have an alternative. So unless we are very clear as to what we want to replace it by, there is no point. There are no open and shut answers to this issue.
Bar & Bench: Tell us about the most interesting and challenging case that you have come across in your career.
Goolam Vahanvati: There are quiet a few cases. In the high court there was the Enron case, which was extremely challenging. In the Supreme Court, I did a constitutional bench case in Kuldeep Nayar v. Union of India involving 9 judges. In the Supreme Court, it was the environmental case of Lafarge. There are quite a few extremely challenging cases that I have dealt with.
Bar & Bench: Who would you say has been your mentor?
Goolam Vahanvati: One person if I had to say was my mentor; it was Mr. JR Gagrat of Gagrat & Co. I owe a hell of a lot to him. He was not only my mentor; he was my philosopher, my guide. It was an unbelievable relationship.
Bar & Bench: You are widely regarded as one of the finest epicureans in the country. Could you tell us more about your favorite foods/restaurants?
Goolam Vahanvati: I love trying different foods. I have been very lucky because I have traveled a lot from 1980 onwards. I have been traveling all over the world and have tasted everything. I am adventurous, so I love different kinds of foods. Of late I have been discovering Cantonese food. I was in Hong Kong recently and I had dinner at Michelin three-star restaurant in Four Seasons. It was an unbelievable experience.
Apart from Cantonese food, molecular cooking is something, which fascinates me. I have not been able to go to Ell Bulli, which is something that I wanted to do in Spain but now it has closed down. I have gone to the finest restaurants in the world. I have had shortbreads and things like that.
Bar & Bench: Last question. So how do you unwind?
Goolam Vahanvati: I enjoy music and I am very fond of horses. I was heavily involved in horse racing before coming to Delhi. I had to actually cut myself from horse racing. I used to be a member of the Turf Club Committee and Chairman of the Board of Appeal. I was a Steward and I used to conduct racing. I used to have horses at stud. It’s all gone now and I don’t know, sometimes I wonder whether I took the right decision by leaving Mumbai and coming to Delhi.
I have the most eclectic collection of music. I have got all the rock music from the 60s and 70s. I have got performances by Led Zeppelin, The Doors. I have the rare collections of Pearl Jam. Then I went into lounge music around 2002-2003 and I found the best lounge music is not sold in stores. It is sold on some rare sites where you can access and order. For instance I found a site in Sweden called loud music and the site had the most incredible music of Indian musicians who used to record abroad and we had never heard of these musicians.