“Having a substantial legal background actually makes people judge you more harshly than they would otherwise” – Amit Sibal
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“Having a substantial legal background actually makes people judge you more harshly than they would otherwise” – Amit Sibal

Pallavi Saluja

Amit Sibal, a graduate of Cambridge University, has recently been designated Senior Advocate by the Delhi High Court. Sibal did his BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. Sibal went on to study law in Cambridge. This was followed by a Masters in Law from Harvard University. After his Masters, he worked at first the New York office and then the Hong Kong office of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. In 2002, he moved back to India to litigate. 

In this interview with Bar & Bench, Sibal talks about his decision to take up law, what it means to come from a family of lawyers and his thoughts on the legal profession.

Bar & Bench: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Amit Sibal: I didn’t decide to be a lawyer until I had actually finished my first undergraduate degree. When I was younger, I felt that anything was possible; I could have chosen to do a number of different things. I was cautious that I should not choose the profession only for the reason that two generations before me had been lawyers. I wanted to study the subjects that I enjoyed and look at what was available to me and then decide about my career. Being abroad at the time of my undergraduate degree helped me have an open mind because I was actually a step removed from my family in India. I had gone abroad at the age of 15, which helped me have an open outlook to freely exercise choice in my career. So, it was only at the end of my undergraduate degree, by a process of some elimination, that I decided to practice law.

B&B: Did your father ever tell you to study law?

Amit: I suspect that my father was keen but he was too smart to ever express that because typically when you express your desires to your children directly, they go in the opposite direction. The reason I chose law at that time was because I was interested in a career that involved analysis of issues with a practical application to society.

B&B: Growing up in a family of lawyers, how did it help you shape your career?

Amit: Actually my career path was against the grain of my family background; my first stint was as a corporate lawyer at the Wall Street firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell. And I did that for substantial time – three and a half years in New York and one and a half years in Hong Kong. It was only in 2002 that I came back to India to do litigation. So in that sense the family background didn’t have much to do with it. Even my education has little to do with my family’s background. No member of my family went to Oxford or Cambridge before me.

And while on campus at Harvard, I saw that firms were interviewing students and I thought, “Why not explore the possibility of work experience in New York city? It could only help”. So that is the decision that I took because it seemed the right decision at that time and I am happy that I took that decision.  It has given me something more as a lawyer than I would have had if I had started simply with litigation on the first day.

B&B: Your decision to move back to India and litigate?

Amit: I was with Davis Polk in Hong Kong and then it was time to go back to New York. I made the decision that it would be much more interesting and exciting for me to be in my own country practising in a variety of areas which litigation would give me the opportunity to do. A law firm in the United States, of course, offered a very comfortable and secure environment but the law there has been developed for some time. Compared to that, the prospect of being here was much more attractive.

B&B: Being a corporate lawyer for 5 years, you didn’t want to join a law firm here in India?

Amit: I was clear when I came back that I wanted to be the master of my own time. More importantly, if I wanted to do corporate practice I would have stayed abroad. A number of my friends have done that very successfully and in a way they have best of both worlds because they live abroad but they come to India to do transactions for their firms. But I came back to do litigation so there was no question of joining a corporate firm.

B&B: How were the initial years? Did you join a senior’s chamber initially?

Amit: My practice model from day one has been that I have sat at this table and I have argued cases. I have been briefed to argue by Solicitors and by clients directly. But if clients ever came to this office, I would suggest a lawyer outside my office who should be on record based on the kind of the case the client had. I suggest to them the best lawyers suitable to their case. I have never filed a vakalatnama ever in my own name or through my office. I have always appeared as arguing counsel from day one and never otherwise. My practice has been the same throughout. In terms of its model, what has changed over time obviously is that the practice has grown and diversified.

One of the reasons that I wanted to have that model was that I never wanted to compete with those who came to brief me. I never wanted them to feel that I might take their client away. I felt that I had the wherewithal to actually do a good enough job for them so that they would come back to me again and again to argue the case. Till today it has never happened that I have taken away anybody’s client.

B&B: Within 11 years you have been designated a senior advocate?

Amit: Eleven years since I enrolled, yes. I want to point out that I practised law longer than that. I was admitted to the New York bar and started practising in 1997 at Davis Polk & Wardwell. So I have been practising for a good 16 years. I also think it is not the number of years, it is about output, quality and quantity.

I think you learn a lot more when you are on your legs arguing a case than in any other situation as a lawyer. You learn while you are arguing because  you are alert to every single question that the Bench poses and every reaction of  the Bench and every utterance that comes from the other side, and you have to react immediately, in the manner best suited to the interest of your client while at the same time being fair to the Court.

There are so many variables that you face simultaneously all of which are outside your control and they all converge upon you when you are the arguing counsel. If that is your practice model from day one then 11 years is almost like 22!

B&B: Your father has been one of the leading senior advocates and is the Minister of Law and Justice. Do you think this anyway helped you get the senior gown?

Amit: My father was younger than me when he became a Senior Advocate and he didn’t have any godfather in the profession. So the mere fact that you are designated at a young age doesn’t mean that there is anything other than merit involved. So I don’t think it has anything to do with it.  If at all, it has made it more challenging.  Having a substantial legal background actually makes people judge you more harshly than they would otherwise and it makes you strive all the harder to excel in the profession. On me, it is a positive influence and drives me to do my best.  As far as those who judge are concerned, they judge by higher standards than they would [judge] someone who doesn’t have a legal background. So the bar set for me has always been higher in the eyes of others. It is a situation where you have to do more to make the cut rather than less.

B&B: What are the changes you have seen both at the Bar and the Bench since the time you joined the profession?

Amit: I have seen a lot more talent in young people. They are holding their own in Court. As far as the Bar is concerned, I think that is the single biggest change along with the fact that people are specializing more and more in the fields of intellectual property, competition law etc. There are dedicated practices that people are focused on which I think is a significant change.

I find that judges also are much more efficient and receptive in my experience, and every year you find, especially in the Delhi High Court, a positive culture which is self perpetuating. It is a privilege to practice there because of the kind of judges that we have who are extremely diligent, responsive and alert to the exigencies of justice and I find this to be increasing and improving every year.

B&B: You handle a lot of arbitration matters. Any thoughts on the future of arbitration?

Amit:  Arbitration has a very bright future. I only hope that there is a dedicated Bar to arbitration. More than just doing arbitration after the court hours, I think arbitration deserves to be an area of practice on its own where you have arbitrations going on parallel to court proceedings and not just adjunct to court proceedings as far as lawyers are concerned. I think arbitration should play a bigger role in our judicial system. It would help to reduce the pressure on the courts if the Bar were to devote itself to arbitration in a more dedicated manner.

That would be much more productive both for the lawyers and their clients and for the system as a whole because then arbitration would play a greater role in resolving disputes than it already does. And the idea is that it should play a greater role because that was why the Arbitration Act was enacted. Given that the Supreme Court and High Court spend so much of their time opining, clarifying and interpreting the provisions of the Arbitration Act, it would be more efficient use of their time if the Arbitration Act is used by clients to actually resolve disputes.

B&B: How do you choose your juniors?

Amit: Based on how well they will fit into the culture of this chamber. I firmly believe that litigation requires a great degree of obsession. I look for people who are obsessed with the law, who have a passion for it, who have the talent to use that passion in a way that we can creatively solve the problems that clients present to us. I always meet and spend time with whoever applies to my chamber and try and see whether they would be a good fit.

I spend time telling them about the model of this chamber because it differs from most other chambers and really try to gauge as to whether this is what they really are interested in. You can’t have a day off every week that is set in stone. You take time off when you can, but it can’t be regimented in the way that you have in a normal job. I don’t see juniors as juniors, I might add, I see them as my colleagues. They are colleagues in the profession. The way we work is that in each matter that I am involved in, I assign it to colleagues in my office and we work together very much as a team. I expect that we have the same passion and enthusiasm for every case and do our very best and that is the kind of people I would like to have around me.

B&B: Interests other than law?

Amit: Lots of them. I am obsessed with the game of cricket. I follow it assiduously, not just the fortunes of the Indian team but world cricket. I am involved in cricket in work as well. I represent various cricketing bodies and that is a thrill for me because cricket is a passion. I love reading fiction, reading about politics around the world and I enjoy travelling. I have had the chance to visit a number of unusual places while they have been closed and before they have been opened to the world. I visited Egypt before the revolution, Myanmar before its own revolution. I enjoy going to countries that really might be off the beaten path. I love to use court holidays to travel.

B&B: Any advice for young lawyers?

Amit: Young lawyers should never be deterred by anybody who tells them that they can’t reach the very top because I firmly believe that with hard work, the sky is the limit. As long as you have the passion, don’t let anybody tell you any different. That is consistent with what I have seen over the last decade or so where young people hold their own against the senior-most in the profession. It gives me so much pleasure when I see that happening because it is good for the profession.

We don’t want too much of a pyramid structure where you have too few people at the top. So I would say that young people should – whether it is litigation or corporate – work hard and enjoy what they are doing because when you enjoy something you are likely to be good at it.  Don’t be too focused in the early years on remuneration because if you focus on the profession, before you know it the rewards will flow in. It is when you are not focused on the rewards that they are more likely to come your way.

B&B:  When you talk about remuneration – don’t you feel senior lawyers should pay their juniors well? What are your thoughts?

Amit:  I am all for that and I practise that myself. I believe that seniors should be extremely generous to their younger colleagues in the profession to encourage them and that is what can keep the younger colleagues focused because then they will not be worried about that aspect of it. You don’t want somebody worrying about making ends meet.  They are collaborators in the office; you should help them out as much as you can and that will attract more talent to litigation.

But I must say corporate practice is very important as well. Who is going to do the transactions that form the engine of the economy? I am not one of those who believe that litigation is in anyway superior to corporate law. I believe that both are very valuable pursuits and the economy needs both.

What will you do if you don’t have deals happening? Who will document the deals? Stakes are involved and you need competent lawyers; you don’t want everything to go to court. The idea behind a good corporate lawyer is that he or she should ensure that the chances of something going to court are minimized. So you need the best minds in the country focused on corporate law as well.

B&B: You studied law at Cambridge University and not at an Indian law school. Did you face any difficulty when you returned to practice here in India?

Amit: Everyone knows that you don’t learn substantive law in law school. Law school at best teaches you the approach and the principles. Law is embodied in statutes and judgments and you learn it by doing it. That is true in India and it is true all over the world.

The best law schools in this country and abroad are good because they inculcate the principles not because they teach you the nitty gritty of a particular section or a particular Act. You need to learn how to read an Act whatever Act is placed in front of you as a lawyer. The duty of your law school is to teach you that. So it matters little which geographical area you went to law school as long as it is a decent place that taught you the right approach. With that approach you pick up a statute anywhere in the world, common law jurisdiction, you will bring the right approach to it and you will be successful provided you work hard enough and are focused. It really doesn’t matter whether you went to the best law school in India or anywhere else.

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