“Always remember, our credibility is something that will yield the best work and results in the profession for us. Without it, we cannot truly consider ourselves to be in the noble profession.” – Bhavik Lalan, Counsel at Bombay High Court(Chambers of Sanjay Jain)

This interview has been published by Namrata Singh and The SuperLawyer Team

Could you please introduce yourself to our readers and share the journey that led you from your early days as an Articled Clerk to your current role as a Counsel, Mediator, and Arbitrator?

In 2009 I was a judicial intern with the then Bombay High Court Judge Mr. V. C. Daga that was the period when I decided to practice as a litigation lawyer upon my graduation. In the year 2010 I joined a Solicitor Firm M. S. Bodhanwalla & Co. as an articled clerk and had 4 years of work experience in the practice areas such as conveyance, civil and commercial litigation, legal opinions and advisory assignments from corporates like Hindustan Times, Lowe Lintas, RCF Ltd. etc. I recommend the young and buddying law students to undergo such a training process. In Mumbai, we have the option to appear for the Solicitors examination which is conducted by Bombay Incorporated Law Society. I appeared for said examination after which I joined Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (“CAM”) in their dispute resolution team in Mumbai. My experience of working at CAM was very enriching. Handling litigations of high stakes involves tremendous readiness and preparedness in the back end. Also, in Mumbai, we follow a dual system of practice where Solicitor firms brief an arguing counsel and therefore, firms have to be always ready with briefing notes, compilation of judgments, and ensuring court records are updated and in order. My practice at law firms is of 6 years after which I started my counsel practice at Bombay High Court. I first joined the Chambers of Justice Mohit S. Shah (Former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court and Calcutta High Court) where I gained my Tribunal Secretary training and also had wide exposure to large stake arbitration matters. I then joined the Chambers of Mr. Sanjay Jain. Mr. Jain is an arguing counsel at Bombay High Court with a standing of 26 years. As an arguing counsel, my entire approach towards the practice has changed. I had to undergo a process of reformation where my basics of law were refreshed and my skills of drafting pleadings and evidence affidavits were sharpened to a great extent. In my view, these are the fundamental learning for every lawyer who desires to practice dispute resolution/ arbitration. In the year 2022 I completed my Masters in Mediation and Conflict Resolution from MNLU, Mumbai. It’s a two-year full-time course with a magnificent syllabus to enrich skill sets in mediation practice. After completing this Masters Course, I started getting references to act as an arbitrator and mediator in civil disputes. I have also been appointed as an Arbitrator by the Bombay High Court recently in a few matters and I consider myself to be fortunate that the Hon’ble Bombay High Court has entrusted with such a responsibility. While performing my role as a counsel, arbitrator and mediator I have to be constantly conscious that my responsibility is to assist the courts and parties in this process. We have to think about professional ethics and etiquttes while we take up our role as we are directly working in a public field/ domain and our actions and steps matter a lot to our clients and society at large. In the last 12 years of my practice, I have learned a lot from my seniors and colleagues. Law is a practice where learning does not stop till we retire. Our openness to learn even from our juniors testifies to our real approach towards problem-solving. 

Could you walk us through what a typical day in your professional life looks like? What are some of the tasks and responsibilities that fill your day as a Counsel, Mediator, and Arbitrator?

As litigation counsel, we have a long day of about 10-12 hours of working which involves court and arbitral hearings, conferences with client and senior counsels, reviewing/ settling of the pleadings and conducting legal research to keep ourselves updated. While doing this, I do spend time at our Advocate’s Bar Association Hall in High Court where interacting with senior counsels and colleagues provides me with an opportunity to exchange ideas and knowledge with them. I have seen that in the last 15 years, the trend of young Advocates sitting in the Bar Association Hall has drastically reduced. According to me, it’s a loss to such junior Advocates as they miss opportunities of gaining first-hand interactions with senior counsels and colleagues at the Bar. Having a little know-how of the practice and profession adds to the skill-set of lawyers which makes them multi-facet in approach.

As a trained Mediator and Arbitrator, you’ve been involved in resolving several disputes. Could you tell us about a particularly challenging case you’ve handled and how you navigated through it to achieve a resolution?

During my training process, I was taught that the goal of a good mediator is not to arrive at a settlement but to move the parties from their rigid position to a flexible one and provoke them to think about the solutions by encouraging dialogue between the disputing parties. My endeavour had always been to follow this teaching. So far I have handled about 150 mediations referred through the ODR platform SAMA to me and a couple of arbitrations that involve Bombay High Court-referred matters as well. Being a young practitioner sometimes I do find my role as a Mediator and Arbitrator challenging, but once we start practising to be a good listener and adopt neutrality it helps us a lot to navigate the parties towards solutions. This requires a lot of patience and controlled temperament. In one of the mediation matters (I cannot disclose particulars of parties due to confidentiality) where the dispute was between a multinational bank and a customer, the bank constantly tried to use the mediation meetings to pressurise the customer to pay back the alleged outstanding loan with interest. This was during the COVID period. The customer alleged that the bank was charging a higher interest wrongfully. Instead of speaking to each other parties initially resorted to the issuance of strong-worded legal notices, which triggered their egos. When the matter was referred to me, I had the challenge of bringing both the parties on same platform for a dialogue as they were not willing to see each other’s face. However, gradually with the mediation process moving further parties started attending mediation meetings. There was a time when they started exchanging verbal talks during the joint caucus. That was the time when I encouraged them to exchange some without prejudice written proposals. The parties did that and the dispute was resolved amicably. In this matter I see the victory of both parties, however, to bring them on same table to start the communication was a herculean task, by putting open ended questions to them, I had to prepare them mentally to leave their ego aside and come forward to have a joint talk.

Transitioning from working at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (“CAM”) to starting your own practice must have been quite a journey. What motivated you to take this leap, and what are some key lessons you’ve learned along the way?

My tenure of working at law firms was 6 years. I joined CAM after I worked at M. S. Bodhanwalla & Co. for 4 years. I was conscious that my role at CAM is going to be challenging as I was hired as a direct lateral and not through their campus recruitment annual training program. However, my earlier experience of working at a mid-size Solicitor firm helped me to navigate the work challenges of big law firm. At a big law firm, the infrastructure and support team provided to us is very helpful and efficient. Team learning and working is the main feature there. Delivering work before time is always expected on high mandate matters and that keeps us on our toes. If one cannot do this at the age of 25-26 when else will we do such action learning. This golden opportunity provided me the launch pad for leaping independent counsel practice. As a litigation counsel in Mumbai, the initial years are quite challenging in terms of getting briefed and generating revenue on your own. At the same time, the role of a counsel is of much more responsibility than the role of an Associate of a law firm. As counsel, we are all on our own when we appear before the court to argue a matter. We are shouldered with the responsibility to present the case before the court by applying the best of our abilities. Some cases have merits few don’t but our readiness to face the court and ensure best assistance to the judge is far more challenging. I got my inspiration from my spiritual mentor His Holiness Spiritual Sovereign Jainacharya Yugbhushansuriji Maharaj Saheb to take up this challenging role of an arguing counsel. His Holiness has entrusted upon several significant matters pending before the Supreme Court and High Courts/ Trial Courts in India, involving the rights of the Shwetamber Murtipujak Jain community. This role was challenging initially but later on after gaining good learnings from my seniors and colleagues I now do not find any challenge while appearing before the Supreme Court in such significant matters. The lessons which I have learnt so far is that we must first have faith in ourselves before we start looking for help outside. Litigation is a practice which provides fruit at a later stage but the sacrifice and rigours of initial days makes us efficient and better individual/ professional. So far I have had opportunities to assist legal stalwarts like late Mr. Fali Nariman, Mr. K V Viswanathan (presently a Supreme Court Judge), Mr. Harish Salve, Mr. Dushyant Dave, Mr. Arvind Datar, Mr. Darius Khambata, Mr. Navroze Servai, Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad, Mr. C S Vaidyanathan in various matters involving tricky constitutional and such other legal issues. This was possible only after I chose to practice as a litigation counsel.

You’ve been a frequent contributor on various issues, including public policy, diplomacy, and the use of technology in the legal field. Could you share your thoughts on how technology is shaping the future of dispute resolution and legal practice?

Technology and law can go hand-in-hand. I am working from a paperless office post-COVID rollout. According to me, we lawyers will have to adopt technology wherever possible in our day-to-day practice as it has resulted in ease of doing practice. Imagine it was due to this advanced video conferencing technology that our Supreme Court and High Courts were able to function uninterruptedly even during the COVID lockdown. Today majority of my arbitration and mediation meetings are conducted virtually. Not limiting it to meetings, but data storage and utilisation are also done through cloud cloud-based system. Effectively, all my briefs are accessible to me 24×7. This has resulted in improved efficiency and quick delivery of solutions to the Attorneys/ clients. I am confident that in the next 5 years, we will have the majority of our Trial Courts providing us with virtual hearings and e-filing facilities. This will not only make the legal practice more inclusive and wide but will also cut down the pendency of cases.

Balancing a legal career with personal interests can be challenging. Outside of your legal practice, what are some hobbies or activities you enjoy to unwind and recharge?

Honestly, my first 10 years in the practice have been completely devoted to my work and training process under the guidance of my seniors and mentors. However, I have found my interest in reading the autobiographies of legal luminaries from India’s legal practice. I also read spiritual books regularly as it motivates me to take up higher challenges. Post-COVID health and fitness have been my priority and I ensure that I have physical exercise or morning walk sessions daily along with yoga. I have realised that those who do not take care of their mental and physical health during the early days of practice have to face tough times in the later phase. Our legal practice is such that with the rising age number of dockets keeps increasing, in such a scenario it is necessary to focus on health and mental well-being from the initial days. My thoughts for all my young colleagues is to stay away from addictions of smoking, drinking alcohol and drugs or any such harmful habits that shall severely affect our mental, physical and financial well-being. To be vocal about this, to some extent smoking a fancy cigar or cigarette might have been glamourised in our profession by some stalwarts but young lawyers should be mindful to understand that besides addictions we have many more other good qualities to adopt from them. I also, dedicate some time to pro bono matters which have been my activity to pay back to society. I am empanelled with the Bombay High Court Legal Services Committee where I am entrusted with cases to argue for the underprivileged and marginalised individuals. Appearing in these matters gives me a feeling of satisfaction.

Your work involves advising clients on an array of transactional matters, including contracts and tenancy laws. What are some common misconceptions clients have about these areas, and how do you address them?

Since I am practicing as a counsel in Mumbai my direct exposure to dealing with clients is very minimal. Conferences through a Solicitor with a client are a very easy thing to handle. But, there are occasions when I am entrusted tasks either through the Legal Aid Committee or through such pro bono service or social obligation where I have to come across direct interaction with clients and at such times I have to be mindful to keep very simple and lucid language while interacting with them. Using legal jargons during client counselling is not at all necessary. What matters is to give a simple solution within the framework of law. I have needed to recuse myself from situations where my advice was sought on some issues which to my mind were not legally feasible. I have made a point that I take a strong stand in such a situation rather than surrendering to the situation for the consideration of fees. Ours is a noble profession nobility of which is to be maintained by we people as the famous saying is “charity begins from home”.

Reflecting on your experience as an Ad Hoc Committee Member of the Students’ Council and your participation in moot court competitions, how do you feel moots help students in their legal career or enhance their skills? Can you share some insights into the practical benefits you gained from participating in moot court competitions during your law school days?

I was fortunate to have good exposure to moot court competitions at Government Law College, Mumbai (“GLC”). My college has been at the forefront in producing great mooters who have won several national and international moot court competitions. I participated in about 10 moot court competitions which are state, national and international. My first-hand experience in drafting a memorial for such a moot court competition is the foundation of my drafting skills. The mannerism to argue at moot court competition forms the bedrock of my present arguing skill. Conducting legal research by reading commentaries and journals was taught to us during our moot court preparations. I feel every law student must participate in at least 2-3 moot court competitions during their academic career. Also, today I cherish those days of preparing for the moot court competition where we used to fearlessly argue the propositions and by doing so regularly we developed a skill to argue real-life matters. I had many friends in my law school days who had stage fear and benefitted a lot due to their participation in moot court competitions. Being part of the Ad-Hoc Committee of the Students’ Council I feel it provided me with an atmosphere to develop a leadership skill and work in a team with modesty for shared goals. We executed several remarkable events (M C Chagla Lecture Series and many more) in GLC through the Students’ Council.  I was also part of the legal aid committee at GLC during my college days. I have had an opportunity to visit central jails and help the poor needy under trials to make their representations and letters for bail application.

Starting a career in law can be daunting for many young professionals. What advice would you give to the current generation aspiring to make a mark in the legal field?

Unlike other professions, ours is not a profession to only earns money. Rather ours is a “practice” which word is predominantly used to address the legal profession (a noble profession). May it be litigation or non-litigation; the practice provides us with several opportunities to serve the society. If we go back in the past, the majority of our freedom fighters and founders of the independent India were lawyers. They played a pivotal role in nation-building through their legal knowledge and acumen. Just like doctors we lawyers are also pillars of the society. My message to the current generation aspiring to make a mark in the legal practice is that have an ethical practice with honest conviction of the work which we do. Even the top practitioners and law firms in India and abroad have highlighted the importance of ethical practice in legal profession. This is because ethics and values play a big role in what we advise and perform. I often come across my Solicitor’s complaint regarding law students abruptly changing law firms during their internship/ para-legal period. I feel this practice should be discouraged as while doing these students create an image of being not reliable and credible. Always remember our credibility is something that will get the best work and results in the profession for us without which we cannot consider ourselves to be in the noble profession. Also, there is a hot issue in discussion these days whether interns/paralegals should be paid hefty stipends or not. I feel that generally during the internship days our priority should be learning. We should be thankful to those seniors who take up the responsibility to teach us initially at the cost of their time and resources. Few cases of exploiting interns cannot overshadow the process prevailing in our practice i.e. teaching and investing time in a junior/ student to make them efficient lawyers. If we observe the history of our profession in Mumbai, several of the stalwarts have undergone this process of training during their initial days without getting paid any salary/ or hefty stipend. At times, non-issues are glamourised more than the significant issues and that results in setting a wrong narrative in society. What I see now and for the next 50 years in India, the legal profession will have a paradigm shift i.e. 360 degree change. The systems are becoming more transparent now. We have a live streaming of court proceedings. The introduction of digital filing and virtual hearings has made things easy and economical for everyone. Those lawyers who are afraid to adopt technology may find it difficult to sustain with time, therefore, an open mindset to adopt technology wherever feasible is the only solution.

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