“As a first-generation lawyer, building my practice from scratch was indeed a challenge, but it was also a journey filled with rewarding milestones.” – Sanjay Jain, Senior Advocate and former ASG of India

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

Starting as a first-generation lawyer, you faced the challenges of building your practice from scratch. Can you share a turning point from those initial years that significantly impacted your professional trajectory? Could you share some insights into your early school days and college life journey, the struggles you faced during your studies, and what motivated or inspired you to pursue a career in law?

As a first-generation lawyer, building my practice from scratch was indeed a challenge, but it was also a journey filled with rewarding milestones. We all know that the legal profession was not very rewarding for beginners, particularly in the 1980s, resulting in a significant number of lawyers leaving the profession within five years of joining it. Naturally, I, too, needed a turning point to stay put in the profession. In 1989, in the aftermath of a long-drawn lawyers’ strike in Delhi Courts, I was in two minds about continuing my independent practice. Then came a phase when, within a period of a few months, in three different matters in Delhi High Court, I received appreciation from the Bench for my performance as a lawyer in open court. Encouraged by the same, I banished all thoughts of quitting the profession and kept looking for opportunities to improve myself as a lawyer of substance. In my free time, I would prefer to go and sit in any courtroom randomly and watch the proceedings. Many tools in the kit that I possess as a lawyer today were picked up from watching other lawyers, which later got chiselled with experience.

In terms of professional growth, the next level turning point came in years 1993 when a few MNCs, particularly, American Express Bank’s Card Division, gave me a retainer, whereafter, by the grace of God, I never looked back and I was able to augment my practice not only in terms of volume of work but also qualitatively and geographically. The trajectory gradually gained width, and I started getting briefed for matters in courts spread all over the country.    

Reflecting on my days as a student, I believe that all the credit for my development as a person and particularly my acquiring a taste for reading books on different subjects would go to my teachers, who encouraged me to participate in extracurricular activities and encouraged me to be a bilingual debater. To prepare for my debates, I would read more and more books, and visit all public libraries in Delhi and perhaps, in one of these moments, the Almighty God scripted my destiny, which eventually led me to a profession where reading is quintessential. 

As regards struggle, I had my own share of it, in plenty. The students in my days, even those hailing from well-to-do families, by and large, were not loaded with deep pockets, and socialism in its true sense could be seen when almost everyone would be running to board a crowded DTC bus. Thus, a sort of existential struggle was part of life, notwithstanding the fact that family support secured basic needs for most of us, including me. Since in my entire family, be it from my mother’s side or my father’s; nobody was in the profession of law or judiciary, I cannot say that I was angling to be a lawyer at the time when I joined the Law Faculty. Options were wide open. Inspiration to become a lawyer came from the Dean of Law Faculty, Professor Ponnuswami, with whom I had regular interaction as the President of the Student’s Union. I would not know what he saw in me, but he was very sure that my place was in the Courts and in one of the meetings in his office on the DU Campus, he told me that the straight road from his office goes to Tis Hazari Court and that I should be walking on that road without wasting any further time.  

Once again, it was my teacher who helped me in choosing my career, and it is the collective blessings of all my teachers in school, lecturers, readers and professors at the University of Delhi that have shaped my life, professional as well as personal. I am particularly indebted to Mrs. Sunanda Roy, an Advocate, who referred many high-profile individuals in my first phase of practice, enabling me to find my feet and to Mr. Arun Jaitley, Senior Advocate and later, a Minister in the Union Government, who guided me at those crucial moments in my professional life, which proved decisive and helped me to elevate to the next level.

In simple words, I would say that motivation and inspiration are part of a constant dynamic process, and one has to draw them through an honest introspection of one’s abilities, strengths and quotient of enjoying a particular field of work. Speaking for myself, I applied the method of elimination and over a period of time, I realised that given my strength as a speaker, my ability to analyse situations in an objective manner and the fact that I enjoyed the situations where academic knowledge and practical solutions could be blended, law was best suited for me as a profession and I have never found myself lacking in motivation to continue in this profession.     

During your college years, applying for internships and gaining practical legal experience was a crucial step. Could you share some insights into how you navigated the process in an era before online applications? What challenges did you face, especially in securing internships with renowned firms or senior advocates?

In the 1980s, there was no structured system of internships in Delhi. Even at the university level, there was no such initiative or program whereby the students were encouraged to take up internships. Any student interested in exposure to courts would have to use his personal contacts, in as much as there was no practice of applying in a formal manner. Ordinarily, first-generation lawyers would not get opportunities to intern, barring a few whose parents were in a position to secure it for them. Speaking for myself, I did not do any internship while pursuing my LLB course. The mode of teaching law at Delhi University was case law based, and the classes were highly interactive and illuminating, particularly with some extraordinary gentlemen teaching us as lecturers, readers and professors, and we were generally in good pace with the latest judgments pronounced by the Supreme Court. The classroom discussions and the discussions in the canteen and corridors did not make me feel the need to go for an internship involving court visits or visiting a lawyer’s office. Besides, my extra-curricular activities in the college and my involvement in the students’ politics, blended with the fact that I took my classes seriously, left me with no time for internships.     

In your journey, you’ve been involved in high-profile cases, including intellectual property laws and family partition disputes. Can you share a particularly challenging case and how you approached its resolution?

As regards family partition disputes, I would not like to speak much as they are essentially confidential in nature and are close to the emotions of the individuals who were forced by circumstances to be litigants. However, I can take pride in the fact that as a lawyer, I handled family disputes with a conciliatory approach, not by questioning the conviction of the clients because the clients are highly emotional in the truth of their version. Therefore, the strategy that I would adopt was to elevate the level of the contest both by way of pleadings and/or cross-examination, so that the opposite party would feel the heat and prefer to come to the table for settlement. I personally believe that in all property matters involving family members, whether it is a suit for partition or a dispute of succession, the settlement is the best conclusion of litigation.  

I had the good fortune of representing top MNC brand owners in trademark litigation, mostly from the plaintiff’s side, courtesy of the trust reposed on me by two major IP Law Firms in Delhi, Remfry & Sagar and K&S Partners. In one such case, when I was engaged for the plaintiff, the Application for grant of ad-interim injunction was pending for a long time since no ex-parte relief was granted, despite highly reputed seniors appearing for the plaintiff. A challenge before me was to get the case heard, for on each date the matter would be adjourned due to the weight of the volume of the brief and the perception of the Court that the arguments would take long. I decided to take a risk, albeit taking my briefing firm in confidence, by keeping my opening arguments lucid, without compromising the contents and touching all points in a brief and succinct manner and to deal with the contentious points in the Rejoinder arguments. The strategy worked and, in a case, where the plaintiff was without interim orders for several years, was able to get one within two hearings. The point I am making is that as a Senior Advocate, one cannot rest on the basis of briefing alone in a ritualistic manner, but in each matter, there is a need to make value addition and above all, there is a need to strategize the arguments and if possible, to make a plan B to meet contingencies in the Court.    

Returning to independent practice in 2023 after serving as the ASG for the Supreme Court, what aspects of your independent practice are you most excited about, and how do you plan to leverage your experiences in your current role?

Resuming independent legal practice in 2023 after serving as the Additional Solicitor General for the Supreme Court of India is a momentous step in my career and I am truly enjoying it. This transition brings a renewed sense of excitement and purpose, especially given the wealth of experience and insights, that I have gained during my tenure as the ASG. The prospect of handling a varied and challenging caseload is particularly exhilarating. I am confident that my new innings will enable me to delve deeper into complex legal issues and encourage me to learn new nuances and perspectives of the legal issues. It will also give me an opportunity to learn from the colleagues, whom I missed facing/working with during my tenure as ASG.

I am particularly excited about the new dimensions of legal practice, particularly the regulatory practice before specialized tribunals such as the Competition Commission, NCLT, NCLAT, PNGRB, APTEL, CERC, Lokpal etc. I am also enthused about the advent and growth of white-collar litigation in the criminal law field. I am also looking forward to upgrading myself in the fields of IP Laws, Information Technology and Telecom Laws. 

Reflecting on your extensive experience in litigation, what are your thoughts on the field, and what suggestions would you offer to students aspiring to pursue a career in litigation? Could you share insights into the challenges you foresee or personally faced during your early days of practice that would be valuable for them?

The legal profession is intertwined with challenges at each stage; only the nature of the challenges can differ. The challenges that I and my contemporaries faced during my early days were primarily existential in the sense that we were all looking for work, in order to continue our existence in the profession, coupled with the challenges as a breadwinner for the family. Since then, the diversification of the profession has infused more work, both in terms of quantity and quality, but at the same time, the advent of five-year law courses has intensified the competition with a very large number of lawyers joining each year.  Now, the challenge is to carve out a niche for oneself, or else, one may get submerged in the deluge of lawyers, who have shown greater alacrity in reacting and grabbing the opportunities. 

It is the quest to carve out a niche that is the biggest conundrum for a young lawyer and to resolve the same, s/he would need the guidance and insight of seniors. The first question that confronts a young lawyer desirous of pursuing litigation as a chosen field in the legal profession is to take a call if she wants to gain foundational exposure to legal practice at the trial courts, tribunals, High Courts, Supreme Court or one or more combination thereof. Once a call is taken on this aspect, the next question is whom to join or where to join. In my view, both the questions are inseparably linked. It is a hard fact that every lawyer would not have the luxury of picking up the place of joining or the practice profile. Therefore, the ideal situation would be to internally prepare a list of preferences and look for opportunities accordingly. 

The bottom line is patience, for one must remember that Rome was not built in a day; and that there are no shortcuts if a young lawyer wants to become a lawyer of substance. Therefore, a young lawyer should not get inspired by a rapid-fire success story of a particular lawyer; for all one knows, it may be short-lived, it may be a fluke; maybe such a lawyer whose success gained in a short time looks attractive is actually a windbag juxtaposed to a lawyer of substance. The stories worth emulating are only those where a lawyer, taken as a role model, has built up her body of work with hard work, exemplary court demeanour, following ethics, maintaining integrity and exhibiting skills based on domain knowledge and comprehensive research. I would suggest that even in the choice of senior or a firm, the above factors should always be weighed. In my view, it is extremely important to how a young lawyer conducts herself in the court in terms of observing the dress code, which in my view includes footwear, in terms of leadership and communication skills, in terms of maintaining decorous behaviour in the court and courtesy exhibited in the interaction with the colleagues including opposite counsels.  

Most of the tools which an arguing counsel must possess are developed and chiselled in the courtrooms only because the court craft cannot be taught in law schools. A young lawyer needs to learn when to start, when to pause and when to end. Voice modulation, submissiveness and calculated aggression are priceless tools that need to be keenly observed at the Bar and then inculcated into one’s system, not by copying but by blending the same into one’s own strengths and qualities. An eye for detail is highly recommended. Seeing is believing should be the philosophy before relying upon a document received from clients. Above all, it must be understood that more often than not, a client would not be in a position to assess or may not be voluntarily willing to part with the necessary information or documents required in the best interest of his/her litigation. A lawyer has to develop a skill to elicit information from clients to anticipate the documents that would be required for the case and to insist that those documents are collated and supplied. 

Last but not least, familiarity with the court building and the court procedure, where one practice is a sine qua non for the success of a litigation lawyer. In my view, a young lawyer may call herself a dispute lawyer, which is the term in vogue, only when she passes the above stage and is able to deliver for the client and at the same time, is able to inspire confidence in clients, colleagues and courts.      

Your college days at Delhi University seem to have played a pivotal role in shaping your diverse interests, including your art collection, your extensive library, and your love for both vocal and instrumental music. Can you shed light on your non-legal life during those days and how these interests continue to enrich your personal journey?

My college days at Delhi University left a lasting impact on my diverse interests outside the legal sphere. During those years, I immersed myself in a world of cultural and artistic exploration that continues to enrich my personal journey to this day.

One of my enduring passions from my college days is the art collection. The vibrant cultural scene in Delhi, especially within the university, exposed me to a wide range of artistic expressions. I found myself drawn to various forms of art, including paintings, which eventually contributed to the art collection that I currently have. Collecting art has been an enjoyable journey, filled with inner peace, spirituality and the ability to view things from diverse perspectives. 

My extensive library includes books, not only books from different parts of India but drawn from all parts of the world, written in different languages. I have admired the beauty of the classics, drawn inspiration from autobiographies and travelogues, gained knowledge from historical narratives and interpretations, widened my understanding of different genres of fiction writing, mythological stories, critiques, both social and political, broadened my wisdom and comprehension by reading religious and philosophical writings and have truly enjoyed the comics.

My love for both vocal and instrumental music also has its roots in my college years. Delhi University’s rich cultural heritage exposed me to the vibrance of music from different traditions. I developed an appreciation for classical and folk music, often attending music concerts.

As a bibliophile, can you recommend a book that has significantly influenced your perspective, either personally or professionally, and why?

In my formative years, I read a variety of literature. I was hugely inspired by the vernacular literature comprised of the writings of Munshi Prem Chand, Dushyant Kumar, Jaishankar Prasad, Maithili Sharan Gupt, Ram Dhari Singh Dinkar, Mahadevi Verma, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Dharma Vir Bharati, besides translated works of many regional giants, who have graced the landscape of literature in Indian languages. I also enjoyed the monumental works written by the stars of BhaktiKal / RitiKal, such as Goswami Tulsidas, Kabir, Rahim, Bihari and Surdas. I immensely enjoyed the translated works from Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu. 

However, if I have to point out one book that left an indelible imprint on my thought process in my growing years, which surely must have impacted my personality subconsciously, it is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The underlying message of the book, departing from its various complex interpretations, which I personally absorbed for myself, was that in the ultimate analysis, it is me only who is responsible for my actions and that, therefore, there is nothing wrong in flaunting a bit as regards my instinct for preserving my self-respect even if it is construed as ego by others and as regards my efforts to watch my self-interest, as distinct from selfishness for the simple reason that unless I watch my self-interest I cannot be of any use to others in the society. The ultimate takeaway of the book was that each person has to respect himself/herself in order to grow as a person, and it is this realisation alone which is the fountainhead of human progress.  I have taken the message of the book as I have construed it in my own way and have followed it invariably. In fact, in Hindi, I prefer to call this element of self-respect “Asmita”, which is also the title of the collection of my poems.

Balancing a legal career and personal interests can be demanding. Do you have any specific routines or rituals that help you maintain this balance and stay inspired in both your professional and personal pursuits?

I personally believe that where there is a will, there is a way. I also believe that I do not have to throw my weight around, and I need to retain my humility. I always remember that after the game of chess is over, the king and the pawn are packed in the same box. Therefore, I have been able to manage the balancing act with reasonable ease, and the reasons for the same as I see it are that I enjoy my professional work, and do not perceive it as a burden or something in conflict with my other interests. With that bend of mind, I seamlessly transit myself to the experiences of other interests of mine, be it movies, books, theatre, concerts, travel or other aspects of my life. It is correct that in terms of time, my profession consumes most of it, but it is always possible to make the most of the remaining time. The key is how one organises one’s life and how well the time is utilised with a bit of multi-tasking and an uncluttered mind. Above all, I have a full realisation that I am unique, hence incomparable; that I need not know unnecessary information about others; that I cannot be a character in every story, so let it go.    

You’ve received an Honorary Doctorate in acknowledgement of your contributions to the legal domain. Could you share with us how such a significant recognition influences your sense of responsibility and commitment to the legal profession? In what ways do you perceive this honour shaping your future endeavours and the impact you aspire to make within the legal community?

Receiving an Honorary Doctorate as a recognition of my contributions to the legal domain is an incredibly humbling and gratifying experience. This significant recognition brings with it a heightened sense of responsibility and commitment to the legal profession, which influences me in several profound ways.

Firstly, this honour reaffirms my dedication to upholding the highest standards of legal practice. It serves as a reminder of the impact one can have through diligent and ethical work. In response, I feel an increased responsibility to continue contributing positively to the legal community, maintaining integrity, and striving for excellence in all my professional endeavours.

Additionally, this recognition motivates me to further engage in mentorship and education within the legal field. I see it as an opportunity to inspire and guide the next generation of lawyers. I aim to share the knowledge and experiences I’ve gathered over the years more actively through teaching, writing, or speaking engagements. By doing so, I hope to play a part in shaping a future legal community that is skilled, ethical, and dynamic.

The honour also strengthens my commitment to pro bono work and access to justice. It reminds me of the importance of using my skills and knowledge to serve those who may not have easy access to legal assistance. I feel a renewed drive to contribute to causes and cases that can bring about social change or aid individuals in need.

Furthermore, this recognition broadens my perspective on the potential impact of my work beyond the courtroom. I’m inspired to engage more deeply in legal research and policy-making, areas where I can contribute to the evolution of law and its practice. This could involve working on law reform, participating in think tanks, or advising on policy initiatives.

Lastly, receiving an Honorary Doctorate fuels my desire to continue learning and evolving. The legal field is constantly changing, and this honour is a reminder that one’s education and development in the field never truly ends. I’m encouraged to keep abreast of new legal developments, technologies, and methodologies to ensure my contributions remain relevant and impactful.

Considering your extensive legal career, what advice would you offer to the current generation of aspiring lawyers regarding the choice between gaining practical experience through internships and pursuing higher studies, particularly the prospect of doing an LLM abroad?

When considering the choice between gaining practical experience through internships and pursuing higher studies like an LLM abroad, it’s important for aspiring lawyers to first understand their career goals. If you aim to specialize in a specific area of law, engage in academic research, or pursue a career in academia, then an LLM from a prestigious international university can be highly beneficial. Such a degree can provide in-depth knowledge and a global perspective, which can be invaluable in certain legal fields. It’s also an opportunity to develop a network of international legal contacts and gain exposure to different legal systems, which can be particularly advantageous if you’re interested in cross-border legal work or international law.

On the other hand, the value of practical experience gained through internships cannot be overstated. Internships offer a real-world understanding of legal procedures, client interaction, and the day-to-day workings of the legal system. This hands-on experience is crucial for developing practical skills that you cannot learn from textbooks or in a classroom. It also helps in building a professional network, which is essential for a successful legal career. Internships can provide insights into how law firms operate, the challenges of legal practice, and can help you determine the specific areas of law that you’re most passionate about.

It’s also worth considering a combination of both paths. For instance, you could pursue an LLM abroad to gain specialized knowledge and international exposure and then focus on internships or practical legal work to apply and further develop these skills. This approach can offer the best of both worlds – the advanced knowledge and prestige of an LLM, along with the practical skills and real-world experience gained from internships.

Finally, remember that each path has its unique set of advantages, and your choice should align with your long-term career aspirations and personal circumstances. Some legal careers benefit more from advanced academic credentials, while others prioritize practical experience. Reflect on where you see yourself in the legal field and make a decision that aligns with your professional goals and personal growth.

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