What does Benjamin Button have in common with Litigation practitioners? A Calcutta HC Judge and a Karnataka HC Judge explain

What does Benjamin Button have in common with Litigation practitioners? A Calcutta HC Judge and a Karnataka HC Judge explain

Justice Shekhar B Saraf of the Calcutta High Court and Justice Suraj Govindraj of the Karnataka High Court spoke on Court craft, values and ethics in a CAN Foundation webinar organised with RGNUL, Punjab on Saturday.

Meera Emmanuel

A webinar with the theme "Candid Conversations on Professional Journeys: Court Craft, Values & Ethics" conducted on Saturday evening saw Justice Shekhar B Saraf of the Calcutta High Court and Justice Suraj Govindraj of the Karnataka High Court impart valuable insights when it comes to the practice of law.

The webinar was hosted by the Confederation of Alumni for National Law Universities (‘CAN Foundation’) along with the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL), Punjab.

While speaking on their professional journeys and life experiences thus far, Justices Saraf and Govindraj had several pieces of advice for young lawyers, starting with why perseverance is key in a litigation practice.

A Litigator's contribution does not start on Day 1

"Whether you are a first, second or third-generation lawyer - you have to struggle for the first five years if you want to make it big in litigation. There are no two ways about it", Justice Saraf remarked.

The analogy of Benjamin Button, a fictional movie character who aged backwards and grew more youthful over time, was used to illustrate how the returns as a litigator are slow, to begin with, but pick up over time.

"For the litigator, I would draw the analogy of Benjamin Button. You start old, earning less, but when you become a senior counsel or you become a senior lawyer, there is no comparison at that time."
Justice Suraj Govindraj

However it takes work to get to this point, the judges highlighted.

Justice Saraf said that being a second-generation lawyer gave him a kickstart, but did not dispense with the initial years of struggle that comes with litigation.

"I left a job of Rs 45,000 rupees a month at that time in 1997 and I came to Calcutta. I got married also around the same time. My father was in Allahabad and he used to send me Rs 10,000 a month and we used to manage with that", he recalled.

He added a note of appreciation for efforts being made by the Bar Council to allow young lawyers a stipend, observing, that "If that programme comes through properly, then it really is a boon. That would help them (junior lawyers) go through the first 3-4 years."

He also opined that seniors should consider ensuring the payment of minimal remuneration to juniors so that they can survive at least for the initial years of practice.

Justice Govindraj agreed with this view while recounting similar humble returns during his first years of practice.

"I was a first generation lawyer, an accidental lawyer. During our on campus recruitment, I did have an offer from one of the premier banks and one of the premier firms which, at that time, was offering Rs 15,000 on the on campus recruitment. But my mind was set on litigation. So I knew I would probably get around 500 rupees, although I ended up getting a little more than that. But I was okay with 500 rupees to start of", he recounted.

However, Justice Govindraj went on to note that nowadays most senior lawyers do not grudge payment to junors as long as there is a contribution from the junior.

The issue, however, arises when you compare the initial returns of a litigation practice with corporate firm salaries. Justice Govindraj highlighted that such a comparison should be avoided. He explained,

"As a litigator, you will earn much, much lesser because your contribution does not start on day one. Your contribution is only when you are able to link 3-5 enactments, weave a story around it, put it across, the client has confidence in you for you to take it up, you are able to draft and argue … it takes a longer time... It is a survival for the first few years."

On the other hand, he said, "As a corporate lawyer, you start high and you plateau out after a particular point of time."

Marshall the Facts

While the law may seem important, in legal practice the judges observed that it is all the more important to "Marshall the facts very well" while presenting a case.

"We all think the law is very important.. but It’s extremely important to Marshall your thoughts. Prepare your list of dates. That’s possibly the most important thing for any litigator - to have an excellent list of dates in front of him so that the moment a judge asks you a question, you can answer it, take it to that particular page. That’s how the Judge knows a person is prepared", Justice Saraf said.

"The law does not change, the facts change."
Justice Suraj Govindraj observed.

While agreeing with Justice Saraf, Justice Govindraj explained further, "The decisions of the court are fact-specific. So if your facts doesn’t fit the law, then you don't have the case…. Spend some time, have empathy, listen to the client. The client doesn’t know what is important, what is not important. You have to virtually cross-examine the client to get the relevant facts.

A lawyer is first an officer to the Court

Justice Saraf emphasised that Being truthful to the court is very important."

He explained, "You might be able to fool a judge once, twice but not a third time. If the impression goes out to a particular judge that this guy pulls a smart one, that’s the end of your career. You need to be truthful and officers of the court first."

"Clients will come and clients will go, but your place in the courts will remain.”
Justice Shekhar B Saraf

During his years of practice as well, Justice Saraf said that, I was first the officer of the court and thereafter the lawyer to my client. If that principle is clear, that we need to be true to the court first, then the court also appreciates that ...

"Don't flog the wrong principle or wrong argument, it won’t lead you anywhere", said Justice Govindraj while echoing Justice Saraf's view. In a lighter vein, he added "Everybody is watching.. Everybody knows what you did last summer.

Read the Pulse of the Judge

"When the judge is with you, never argue with him", Justice Saraf advised.

He explained, "when you have got the pulse of the judge and the judge is dictating the order in your favour, there’s a tendency of lawyers to try and put an extra point through. I’ve seen that work sometimes drastically against the person and the judge will decide to pass a completely different order."

Your opponent in Court is not your enemy

Speaking on the need to respect court room opponents, Justice Govindraj said, "Your other side lawyer is not your enemy. Your other side lawyer is your friend at the Bar. You will go have a coffee with him, you will have a drink with him or go have dinner with him. He is there (on the opposing side) only for that matter. Please have courtesy and respect for the other side. As my senior said, ‘do unto others what you want done unto you.’"

On the topic, Justice Saraf chimed in, We had this habit of shouting at each other in court during matters and then the other side and we would go outside and have a smoke and chai together. That is the practice in Calcutta…I am sure it is the practice in other High Courts also.”

It is important to fail and rise again

During his talk, Justice Saraf took note of the worrisome trend of law students dying by suicide. Raising concern over the same, he advised young lawyers and students to take life a little easier and to enjoy their years at law school.

It doesn’t really matter if you have done badly in a particular year", Justice Saraf said.

He added, "From my own experience, I did one year of Bcom before going law school. That really hasn’t made any difference to my life. I’m very happy. It makes no difference whether if instead of five years it took you six years for law school. That is not a reason to get depressed. In fact, from some of my friends’ experience who gave repeats and recourses, I can tell you, their knowledge of that subject is far superior than us who only took one exam. If you took a recourse, don't worry - it's good. You learn better and possibly you take up that particular subject itself in the profession.”

Justice Govindraj agreed, while also pointing out that the legal field is so vast that a lawyer may end up pursuing something in law, only to find other areas of interest later.

"You may have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your proverbial prince."
Justice Suraj Govidraj added.

Law students can chill out a little

During the course of his talk, Justice Saraf also urged law students to chill out a bit.

While speaking on how the advent of National Law Schools in the late 1980s eventually raised the standards of the average lawyer and law students, Justice Saraf commented, "Today when I look at the interns who come to intern before us, I feel ashamed when I think of my days when I went for internship. For me, it was like a party of one month. We hardly did any work… It is very different now. These students are very serious."

In this backdrop, he advised law students, "Chill out a little bit. This is the only time you are going to be able to relax, because after these five years of law school, it’s going to be a lot of slogging that is going to go into it. Enjoy the five years. Of course, you need to work, all of us have had to work. But you must enjoy those five years."

In a lighter vein, he remarked, "I think while I was in law school at Bangalore, I did everything but law. And I think it’s turned out fine for me, so it’s not a problem.

Young lawyers have to change the system

Before the session came to a close, Justice Saraf also urged young lawyers to work towards changing the system in so far as cutting down unnecessary or protracted arguments in Court are concerned. He said,

"It is you guys who we are expecting will change the system. It is you guys who would come in and not drag matters. We are expecting that you will try to finish off matters quickly. The traditional old way was - let the matter be there, let it continue, you must have a lot of briefs in your office - that needs to be changed. We need to finish off matters and move to the next. That’s how we are intellectually stimulated and there is an excitement that is there in the profession. Let us not hold on to matters and take adjournments…"

Watch full sesson:

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