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Shalin Mehta is a Senior Advocate at the Gujarat High Court. A graduate of Columbia Law School, Mehta happens to be one of the youngest ever lawyers to be designated a Senior. In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, he talks about his experience working in the United States, what Indian lawyers can learn from those abroad, and more.
Aditya AK: Why did you choose law as a career?
Shalin Mehta: I have a long lineage in the profession. My grandfather was an acting Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court. Thereafter my father also entered the profession. He was only 47 when he died but he also had more than 20 years of practice in the High Court. I am told that my great grandfather was also a solicitor. So it’s all in the family.
AK: You went on to do a Masters from Columbia Law School, and ended up working in the US for a while.
SM: I got a job in Los Angeles, with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which is one of the top five firms in the US. The firm was excellent and the partners and lawyers were brilliant. But the problem was that I was always looking for litigation and in the US, it’s very difficult, because ultimately when you enter a law firm, you are just a cog in a big wheel. I was like the sixth or the seventh person in line to appear in a case.
So, one day I asked my Partner when I would actually get to go to court. And he said, ‘Shalin, I got to chair my first trial in the sixth year.’ He also added, ‘With your Indian accent, you can add two more years to that!’ (laughs). I was never cut out for non-litigation, and I realized that the US was just not the place for me.
With your Indian accent, you can add two more years to that!
AK: Did you find it difficult to come back here and practice?
SM: Not really, I mean I was there only for two years. If I had stayed for more than five years, it would have been difficult. The only difficulty I experienced when I came back was the disparity in what I was earning there and what I got here. In the US, I was earning ninety thousand dollars as my starting pay. And this was in 1996-97. When I came back, I started my career with a senior lawyer, who used to pay me two thousand rupees a month.
So my friends used to chide me that I was foolish to leave a job paying fifty lakhs a month for a job of twenty four thousand a year. But I had told myself that in this profession, you have to give it at least five years, whatever the pay. I also had the option of going back to the US if it didn’t work out. But, I never looked back.
AK: How much would you say your LLM helped you as a litigating lawyer?
SM: Some of my senior friends said that it would not be helpful. They said, ‘How will American law help you when you come back?’
Now I can say with conviction, that one year has played a very, very important role in my life, because of what I faced, what I read, and the people I met.
In Columbia, we have students coming from 50 different countries. This was the only year where I actually studied! And I tell this to all my colleagues and all my junior friends actually that if you get a chance, you cannot miss out on it.
In India, the professors will come, they will lecture and hardly ask any questions. The American system is just not that; it is only question and answer. So you are assigned five cases and you are expected to read those cases. The next day, the professor opens with questions and this debate takes place. What happens is that debate brings you closer to real life situations and real arguments in court.
I think in India we must realize that reasoning is very important. Indians are prone to making conclusive statements, but we never question why.
AK: So what was it like coming back?
SM: I came back in ‘97 and was on my own for some time because my father had some old cases, so I started appearing in those cases. I had cold feet, butterflies in my stomach. Unlike my brother, I was never a glib speaker, but I was very hard working. So from day one, I would read the entire brief, all the pages. I would never go unprepared in court.
Then I joined a senior, and then ultimately I was hopping from one corporate office to another. The problem is you don’t get the opportunity to argue. They have big cases, and obviously can’t assign these to a raw junior. So I realized that being in an office which does less corporate work is better for me. I joined Mr. Girish Patel, who is a human rights activist also.
He had lots of PILs and service matters. And then he saw that I was interested in arguing. He was more of a professor actually. So, he used to like me taking up his cases and arguing them. He had faith in me and he was also a family friend actually. He was my father’s mentor.
AK: When were you designated a Senior?
SM: I applied for designation in 2012. I was one of the youngest lawyers to be designated, at the age of 40. It was just out of the world. In fact I was informed by one of the sitting judges that it was unanimous. This is for me it is one of the biggest achievements of my life.
AK: How do you think the Gujarat Bar has changed over the years?
SM: I don’t think I am the right person to ask this question, because I have never been that much associated with the Bar. The Bar does several things and I’ve never really involved myself in those activities. When I joined there was a very small Bar. I think I knew everyone as a lawyer in those days. Today, it’s just a different variable altogether because it’s full of people now.
I have only one suggestion, and that is we need to raise our level. I have seen lawyers of 1980’s and 1990’s whose arguments used to impress me. Today, logically you should have better lawyers, but I don’t see that happening. And I think I would only blame this on the lawyers.
AK: Do you think there are some practices from abroad that lawyers in India can adopt?
SM: Definitely there a couple. In India, I have seen that if you ask someone a question, irrespective of their area of expertise, they will answer it. In America, I saw that if someone is an expert in corporate law and he’s asked something about environmental law, he will just say, ‘I am not an expert in that field.’ I learned to not answer for the sake of it, without being thorough with the subject. No one is expected to be an expert in every subject.
Secondly, their lawyers are absolutely thorough with case laws. Here, what we do is just read the headnotes. I have yet to see a lawyer in the US who would only read the headnote.
The third is legal writing. I don’t really blame Indians because our system is quite oral. In the US, it is completely focussed on writing, because you are given only 15-20 minutes to argue. If you have not taken it upon yourself to read the written brief, I don’t think you can argue. You will be actually committing a breach. We ignore that completely over here.
AK: A lot of chambers and senior lawyers don’t believe in paying juniors.
SM: I have very, very strong views on this actually. It is nothing but exploitation. If you ask why they choose not to pay, they will say that it’s an obligation to be associated with this man. If people are working with you, they have got to get paid. I started my career with class four employees who were not even getting minimum wage and I know I have fought tooth and nail for those people.
If you ask why they choose not to pay, they will say that it’s an obligation to be associated with this man. If people are working with you, they have got to get paid.
When you employ people or have colleagues working with you, then why would you not use the same analogy? You argue for the rights of those people and then you say that it is an honour to be associated with so-and-so senior lawyer, therefore the junior doesn’t get paid?
You argue for the rights of those people and then you say that it is an honour to be associated with so-and-so senior lawyer, therefore the junior doesn’t get paid?
AK: Any memorable cases?
SM: I started my career with PILs and labour and service cases and then ultimately moved on to corporate law copyrights, trademarks and all that. But I was never given criminal work; it is only in the last two, three years that I have done some bail matters.
One of the greatest moments for me was in a case in which we were opposing anticipatory bail, and there were three of four senior counsels appearing for the other side.
Arguing for the complainants along with me was Mr. SV Raju, who is the leading criminal lawyer in the state. I had to argue after he finished. After I finished my arguments, Mr. Raju told me that I was excellent. And I am like ‘Well, if I get a certificate from you, there’s nothing more to ask for. I must immediately walk out of the court today because I don’t want to suffer any disappointments now!’
I also appeared in the challenge to the 10% reservation for economically weaker sections. Ultimately the High Court rendered a judgement in our favour, and the matter is now in the Supreme Court. It was difficult case to argue, because I believed that there should be reservation for the poor; my heart was with them.
AK: How did you reconcile with that?
SM: I don’t know. My wife actually tells me that I am a chameleon, that I change colours so fast!
I saw the legal side of it and frankly speaking, according to me, the reservation was not given for good grounds. We had a very strong argument that before you grant any more reservation, you must have empirical data as to why people need it. The strongest point was that reservation for SC, ST are in place, because these are categories that stick. If I am an SC, I will never be able to wipe out that birthmark.
They wanted to create a separate category for those who earn less than five lakhs a year. My argument to the court was that today if I want to get reservation, I will show my income as less than five lakhs. Tomorrow, my income will be again more than five lakhs. So that is not a category that sticks.
AK: Do you have any advice for young law graduates who want to pursue a career in litigation?
SM: They must enter the profession without any trepidation because there is lot of good litigation, and we need good lawyers. In Nani Palkhivala’s words, you have to work like a horse and live like a hermit. So there are no shortcuts in this profession, only hard work.
When I see freshers argue in court today, they have so much confidence; I had never this confidence when I started! That confidence would be better if you are well-read, and that is lacking in these young lawyers. Maybe this is because there are a lot of distractions, like phones, which we never really had back then.
You have to constantly update yourself with the latest case law. If you want to be a really good lawyer you have to form the habit of reading non-law material.
(Views expressed in this interview are of Senior Advocate Shalin Mehta. Bar & Bench neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)