Meet Samapika Biswal and Kanu Agrawal: The lawyer couple who tied at second place in the 2021 AoR Exam

The results of the Advocate-on-Record Examination, 2021 that was released last week was cleared by 253 lawyers.
Kanu Agrawal and Samapika Biswal
Kanu Agrawal and Samapika Biswal

The results of the Supreme Court Advocate-on-Record (AoR) Examination, 2021 released last week saw Samapika Biswal and Kanu Agrawal, a married couple, tying at the second rank.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, the duo reveal their journey leading to the choice to write the AoR exam, how they went about preparing for it, and how becoming an AoR shapes their futures.

When did you decide to write the AoR exam?

Kanu Agrawal (KA): It is really difficult to pinpoint one particular moment when I decided to write the AoR Exam. Even prior to starting my course in National Law Institute University, Bhopal, I always wished to practice before the Supreme Court. After interning at a few corporate offices while in law school, I interned at the chamber of Saurabh Mishra, Advocate-on-Record (then Standing Counsel for State of Madhya Pradesh, now Additional Advocate General). It was at this stage during the internship that I realized that it is imperative to become an AoR at the earliest opportunity if you seek to establish a regular practice in the Supreme Court.

Over the years, my clerkship at the Supreme Court (under Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre), my work at the chambers of Sandeep Das (AoR) and Vipin Tyagi, and my work at the office of Solicitor General for India Tushar Mehta for the past five years, reinforced the belief that the AoR Exam is a must in terms of taking the next step. The pandemic delayed the exam by two years (as I was eligible in 2019-2020) and further increased the competition for the limited places.

Samapika Biswal (SB): Becoming an Advocate on Record is essential if you wish to have a practice in the Supreme Court. Being able to file cases in your own name, gives you an indelible identity in the Supreme Court. It was therefore a natural progression for me, after I completed 5 years of my practice. Though there was of course a delay of almost 2 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did you go about preparing for the exam?

KA: Considering that as opposed to the previous occasion when the exams used to be conducted during the summer recess, the AoR Exam 2021 was conducted in December, in the middle of the session of the Court. Due to this reason, almost all advocates appearing for the exam, including myself, had limited time to prepare for the exam while balancing professional commitments. Due to the prior engagements and responsibilities in pending court cases, I could only take about seven days' time to prepare for the exam. The Solicitor General was extremely supportive in this regard.

I attempted the exam preparing and studying in a group of three. My primary concern was ensuring that I am able to study all the questions papers of the past years, listen to the excellent lectures conducted by the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (SCAORA), and thereafter make a pointed attempt at studying the syllabus highlighted in the lectures. I also made an attempt to try and gather the approach of Senior Advocates setting the questions paper from the comments made by them during the lectures in order to understand what exactly the examiner would be looking for in the answers.

The material supplied by SCAORA was useful and some of the notes that were in circulation on social media of previous years’ toppers were helpful in ensuring a quick survey of the course material. I generally have difficulty in remembering academic points and cases, therefore, I prepared handwritten notes in order to develop a deeper understanding of the issue. Lastly, my small study group helped in ensuring that we were able to gather a vast amount of material in the short time that we had. In some cases, one or the other member of the group who had proficiency in a particular subject often helped the other one in the group to efficiently develop a proper understanding of the subject.

SB: Prior to my articleship, I worked at the busy chamber of Manmeet Arora and practiced predominantly in the Delhi High Court. I took advice from my seniors who had cleared the exam as well as my colleagues at the Bar. They advised me to meticulously listen to the lectures which were held by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and SCAORA, solve the old question papers and to complete the course. I also had the benefit of perusing the notes prepared by the earlier toppers of the AoR exam, which were extremely helpful and gave me that reference point to start.

I think what especially helped me was to have a small study group, to prepare for the exam and have discussions on various topics and judgments. My study group had regular practitioners from the Supreme Court, which helped me to stay abreast of the latest developments, and gave me that practical knowledge to score better. Due to my relatively limited exposure to Supreme Court practice and rules, it was an uphill task at first, but with clarity of direction and preparation, clearing the exam seemed achievable.

How difficult was the exam?

KA: I don’t mean to pass any adverse comment, however, to my limited understanding, especially in comparison with the question papers of previous years, the questions of the 2021 AoR examination were relatively simpler. While the questions were relevant and often arose in day-to-day practice in the Supreme Court, they could have gone further to elicit a deeper conceptual understanding amongst the advocates taking the exam.

However, apart from the questions, the thing that advocates found to be difficult was sheer amount of writing they were expected to do in a short span of three hours. Time management and clarity of answers in your mind before attempting them were key to scoring well and finishing all the questions in the exam.

For example, in all four papers, I ended up spending about 50 to 70 minutes on the first question itself, trying to answer it exhaustively and perfectly as the questions were of such a nature that they required detailed answers. I believe it would have been better if I was able to manage the time and the extent of my answers efficiently and equitably for all questions presented in the question paper.

SB: The exam was challenging; the questions were pointed and application-based. The format of the papers was different from the previous years' papers, and some of the questions were tricky. Time management was a huge challenge. I found myself spending too much time on one question, and then scrambling to complete the rest of the paper.

What was the format of the paper?

KA: The format of the paper in terms of distribution of subjects was the same as the previous year, having four broad subjects of (1) Practice & Procedure; (2) Drafting; (3) Professional Ethics; and (4) Leading Cases. Every year, the number of questions and the choice provided in answering the questions in each of these papers and the style of questions vary. Therefore, while it is beneficial to study previous years’ question papers, one must not solely rely on them while preparing for the exam. The exam requires preparation of all four subjects issue-wise and the questions seek to test the advocate on his understanding of the issue, apart from his ability to present the basics of the issue in the course material.

SB: There are four papers, viz. Practice and Procedure, Drafting, Professional Ethics and Leading Cases. The format of the papers was different from that of the previous years.

Practice and Procedure had eight subjective-type questions of 10 marks each, and 10 short questions of 2 marks each. Drafting had 4 questions of 25 marks each, in each section. There were two options in each section, pertaining to different subject matter.

The paper on Professional Ethics had 4 long questions of 20 marks each and 2 short questions of 10 marks each.

The paper on Leading Cases had 6 questions, each carrying equal marks.

How do you feel now that you’ve emerged a topper?

KA: To be honest, not very different. After giving the exam, I was confident of clearing it, as I had been able to attempt all the question-papers in a decent manner.

It was never my intention or endeavour to score marks amongst the top candidates. I am not sure as to what extent emerging amongst the top candidates would make a difference in the long term. As of now, I am pleasantly surprised for myself and extremely happy for a large number of my friends who have also cleared the exam. It is also a sweet surprise that I share the position with one of the members of our study group.

SB: I am humbled, as I did not expect to have emerged among the toppers. My focus was on completing the course and being able to answer all the questions, to the best of my ability. All of us learn everyday as lawyers, but this gives that opportunity to go back to basics. It was a huge learning experience for me, preparing for and giving the exam.

Any advice for future exam takers?

KA: The most relevant advice would be to listen to the lectures very carefully and try and understand what the examiners are looking for, specifically, in terms of the content of the answer and the style in which you have to attempt the answer. Next, it is necessary to be abreast of the latest developments in the Supreme Court in terms of the landmark orders or judgments that have been passed by the Court in the past 2-3 years. Honestly, my study group had printed copies of Bar & Bench reports on the summaries of major Supreme Court orders of the past 2-3 years which were very helpful in attempting the exam. Having contemporaneous knowledge of the latest developments in the Supreme Court provided key inputs to my answers. This may have also helped in depicting to the examiner that the advocate has a better understanding of the Supreme Court.

A thorough study of the Supreme Court Rules, various drafts, their styles and formats, the material provided for on Professional Ethics including the Advocates Act and the genuine understanding of leading cases in a timeline of their jurisprudential development, segregated on the basis of issue, is necessary.

Last, but perhaps the most important aspect, is to make your own handwritten notes which serve a dual purpose – one, it ensures that you are able to cull out the major aspects of the subject matter in one place; and two, you are able to develop some practice of writing by hand which most advocates would not be used to, considering that they would be attempting the exam after years of practice.

SB: It is absolutely essential to practice writing for the exam, which one can do by taking notes while preparing for the course. Your notes must be self-sufficient, as these will become the final reference that you go through one day prior to taking the exam.

One should read all the topics and focus on completing the course in advance of the exams.

One should stay abreast of the recent judgments and developments in law. This can be done simultaneously with each topic that one reads.

Lastly, your experience in litigation will help you while taking the exam, so one should draw on that experience while answering the questions.

How does becoming an AoR change a lawyer's career?

KA: I am not sure how becoming an AoR would change any advocate’s practice, as different advocates may have different styles and different approaches. Becoming an AoR allows you to file cases in your own name and ensures that there is a centre point for the litigation that any AoR is involved in. For lawyers like myself, who are not locals from Delhi and have migrated from other states, becoming an AoR may open an opportunity as it provides a minimum qualification which is often a prerequisite when any person approaches you for advice for a case in the Supreme Court from places outside Delhi. I believe becoming an AoR in many ways is what any person makes of it and there cannot be a set pattern as to the progression it would provide to an advocate’s career.

SB: It is certainly a privilege and a position of responsibility. I have recently gone independent, and I think this has come at the right time, and I hope to now expand my practice in the Supreme Court.

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