Associates, In-House Counsels & Advocates

Augustine Chatterjee on setting up independent litigation practice and being a junior litigator

Augustine Chatterjee graduated from University School of Law and Legal Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in the year 2011. An avid debater, he participated in a number of events throughout college. He wanted to enter litigation right from the offset and set up his independent practice within 8 months of his enrolment. His area of practice is civil law, specifically property disputes and commercial transactions and his work is primarily before the trial courts.

In this interview, he talks about

  • How to gain the most from college
  • The phase of setting up an independent practice
  • Attitude of judges towards new entrants into litigation
  • Important skills for the field of litigation

 

What would you say was the main force behind the decision of taking up law as a career? As a student, what were your expectations from the profession?

For me taking the decision of pursuing law was only because I miserably failed in almost all my subjects during my plus 2. Science was never my thing I guess. Back in those days, my opinion about law and courts was primarily based on what is shown on TV and in movies. Since I was an avid debater throughout my school life, I chose law as I felt that the ability to convince or win over one with your argument and speaking abilities is what probably could help the most.

I expected nothing short of a lot of excitement from the profession. The ability to be able to help the common man and that too while speaking in a room full of people when everyone’s attention is on you is nothing short of brilliant. Of course now I’ve gotten used to the feeling. But even then had always expected good things, and so far I’ve been happy with the way it’s going.

 

According to you, what was the most relevant thing you were able to take away from your 5 years at law school?

I’m not a very ardent admirer of the term law school. I feel it’s a very foreign concept which is not necessary to be used here as well. Here in India school is something different and college is something different. Even though my college itself is called University School for Law and Legal Studies, but even then I much rather prefer using the term college instead of school.

I never bothered to study even a single aspect or concept while in college. Most of my preparation for exams was from Dukkis and Kunjis and with the sole purpose of passing the exam and not retaining any knowledge. So I really cannot aver that I imbibed something academically.

However, one thing which might sound a bit unconventional is that I carried with myself a lot of memories and bonds. Most of the other courses, especially non-professional courses are not that long and hence people don’t really get that much time to know each other.

Here in law, those 5 years make you a totally different person and hence what I came in as is absolutely opposite to what I walked out as. Similar is the case with my friends. So I guess, the friendships and ties which I established during those 5 wonderful years is what strikes me as the most relevant thing I got from law college.

 

When and how did you finally decide upon litigation as the area you wanted to enter professionally?

To be very honest I think it would be when I saw Govinda throw a rubber snake at a judge in some movie, to prove the theory of self-defense.

However on a serious note, since the first day that I had decided to do law, I knew I wanted to be a part of the courts and the surrounding environment. So the time of the said decision would be somewhere around the later stages of my class XII. The said decision, as I mentioned earlier was purely because of an extremely layman’s point of view towards the entire ordeal as I thought law was all about speaking eloquently in court and winning admirations from people listening to you.

The mandatory prerequisite of having to study and actually know the law before speaking in court never struck me until I entered the profession. But once I became a part of it, the studying did not seem so bad.

In the world of courts, the more you know the higher chances you have of gaining money and respect. So that way reading has more incentive as compared to college where the only incentive was clearing the exam. My decision to do litigation was based primarily on my attraction towards public speaking since a young age and I guess litigation gave me that.

 

Please tell us about your debating experience in law school. What all were you able to take away from such experiences into your professional life?

Debating was a passion since school. I chose to continue the same during college as well. Debating was extremely fun for me. Not just because I got to do what I liked, but also because many of the major debating competitions were hosted by colleges who were based out station away from Delhi and hence the participation in such contests actually involved planning trips to the said places with friends. I travelled to at least 6-7 places in the course of debating including Kolkata, Pilani, Bangalore and Chandigarh and had a blast on all of these trips.

Debating definitely keeps the speaker inside you alive. That in turn boosts your conversational skills, ability to build an argument structurally and also the ability to present it in a way that it convinces the listener. This in turn helps a lot in litigation. For those who are looking to debate, don’t think twice. It’s a great experience with lovely excursions and brilliant moments.

 

For someone looking to enter litigation, what would be the most important thing to look for in internships? Please tell our readers about some of the internships you did in law school.

Most of my internships during Law College were spent either loitering around the courts with friends or sleeping in Air conditioned CBI Court rooms. I was never serious about those internships back then. I didn’t even know what I was doing there. I used to go there only because my friends were doing the same. Had I been a tad bit serious about my internships back then, it would have helped me a lot more now in my career.

If you seriously seek to pursue a career in litigation, make sure that from your first to your fifth year you take advantage of the duration of the course and get an experience of every sphere of litigation. Invest one month with a trial court advocate. Learn the basic working and functioning. Then the next time join an advocate working primarily before the HC.

Most lawyers practice all over the city and not just trial courts or at the High Court exclusively. So you could join a lawyer who practices before both and see how that works for you. By the time you’re in your fourth year try following up someone to join them at an internship at the Supreme Court. Then once you’ve seen how things are at all levels, choose where you want to work professionally. Remember that your decision to be at a particular place might differ while you’re interning for a fixed or not stipend as opposed to when you’re working full-fledged to build a career.

One thing I specifically suggest is not to feel that interning at the trial courts is below your level. Unless you know how things are at the grass root level you won’t be able to learn anything substantial. Many High Court lawyers often complain that the reason while appeals do not stand before the High Court is because the case wasn’t handled properly at the trial. So focus on learning and joining a senior or firm where you are entrusted with work and get to learn stuff rather than walking behind seniors while carrying files. Don’t run after brand names and big shots just to get that tag as it won’t help you in the long run.

 

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Please tell us about the area of law in which you do most of your work. How does one decide upon the specific area one intends to take up ultimately?

I deal with mostly matrimonial and civil disputes. Amongst civil disputes I like to believe that I specialize in property disputes as well as commercial recoveries. As such I chose to specialize in this line because I personally find civil law very interesting. In my opinion, it is extremely vast and involves the most complex appreciation of law, especially codified laws. I am an ardent admirer of the way the Indian Courts interpret civil statutes and hence look forward to handling as many civil cases as possible. I do a bit of criminal as well.

Deciding on what kind of work you wish to take up while specializing depends on totally on what you enjoy practicing the most. Matrimonial law is relatively easy and routine. But it’s financially rewarding. Criminal matters offer hefty earning opportunities during bails. And of course in civil cases, people literally shell out pots of money if the property they’re fighting for is actually worth it. So it can be said that monetary gains exist in all spheres. Even arbitration and other forms of relatively lesser practiced arenas pay well. So where you specialize depends totally on which part of law interests you the most. It actually depends from person to person.

 

What would you consider as being the toughest challenge you had to overcome while setting up your own practice?

The toughest challenge out rightly would be to get work. As much as I like to regard what I do as a profession, it is also in some way a business. Every month I have to spend a fixed amount on expenses such as rent, bills, personal expenditure, staff salary etc. So the outgoing debit is constant. Now during some months, when the incoming is not so high, the profit ratio becomes low and so do the opportunities to save money.

Hence during the initial days, if you are a first generation lawyer, you might just have to go through a tough time. In fact that’s an understatement. Right at the beginning, there may be months where you sit alone in your office or chamber waiting for work, but to no avail. People generally tend to harbor this myth that the older the lawyer, the better are his skills, which is the biggest fallacy possible. Lawyers perform on knowledge and not age. No doubt that experience plays a huge role. But that is not the only criteria.

A young gun who knows what’s where can equally do well. But unfortunately clients don’t know that. So those times I mentioned where you sit alone without work, don’t get disheartened. Study, study and study. Invest that time in learning, both theory and practice. If you don’t have the guts to go through that initial phase, then seriously don’t opt for first generation litigation.

 

Most students looking to take up litigation today are concerned about the duration of time it would take them to make their own place in the field. What are your thoughts on this?

This is probably where I reiterate what I mentioned above. The duration of time cannot be determined as a thumb rule. Struggle is a relative term. For some people earning around 70K a month is a struggle while for some it’s a Pandora’s Box.

But yes there is a huge buffer period for a first generation lawyer in litigation. Not just that for those looking to make it absolutely on their own, managing to get real estate and a set up for an office is also a task.  But even then, all things said and done, if your heart and mind is absolutely set for litigation, then you probably wouldn’t mind the initial few years where you might have to substantially reduce on those weekly club visits and that expensive apparel.

If you want to struggle, it will take a lot of time. Neither is there any assurance that it will eventually work out. I still don’t know whether it will work out for me or not. But if you’re really up for it, then it’s worth the wait and the suspense. Build as many contacts as possible, try and maintain a decent friend circle (non-lawyers preferably), and focus on building yourself as a lawyer by polishing your skills over time.

 

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How balanced would you say is the attitude of the judges, especially towards the new entrants in the field. Are there any memorable moments that you would like to share?

Judges are also people. Many of them were advocates at some point of time and all of them were law students at one point of time. So there’s no reason to be intimated of judges at any point of time. They are sitting there to impart justice just like you. So if you do your job on time, don’t pray for unnecessary adjournments and be diligent and respectful towards your approach, judges shall treat you very nicely.

In fact young lawyers are often let off easier as compared to middle aged advocates. But don’t expect judges to forego and condone it if you simply appear for seeking dates unnecessarily as proxy towards your senior.  Know what’s written in the file, be prepared to argue the matter in case the judge isn’t keen on adjourning and always be up to date with what the law concerning the case is. That way you are no different than your senior and hence can manage to replace his place in case he or she isn’t there. Hence no need for the adjournment and no reason for the judge to tell you off. This is just an example.

There are many other ways in which you can make sure that the judge is satisfied with your work. Those you shall learn once you’re a part of the profession. But always remember. Don’t try to outsmart judges. They too are smart enough to be able to see through stuff when you’re trying to pull one off with them. Be fair and most importantly be honest. Judges are generally nice. Be respectful while addressing them. Do your homework on time. Don’t demand things from them. They’re not obliged to grant you anything. Yet they are obliged to afford opportunities to you in case you wish to delay the proceedings for some genuine matter. Judges and lawyers are part of one system i.e. the judiciary. No reason to consider each other separate from each other.

I’ve been on both sides of the coin. Once when I tried to appear in a court without being enrolled, I was told off very badly. Yet once a judge declared in an open court that my argument was probably the best one she had heard the entire year. So no memorable moment in particular. But so far so good.

 

What are the most important factors one should keep in mind while attempting to build a respectable clientele?

This again is a very tricky aspect. Clients treat lawyers like desserts. If I put a cake in front of you, and it just appears to be bread and cream, you wouldn’t want to have it that much irrespective of how much I assure you about it being delicious. But if I put ten different coloured frostings on it, add some colours, different flavours and fruits and all that jazz, your mouth will water and you’ll want that. The appearance will make you want it so much that you shall give it the benefit of doubt by assuming that it must taste good.

Similarly, if a lawyer has an ironed coat, parker in his pocket, an iPhone in his hand and a Rolex on his wrist, clients will automatically assume that he is wonderful in court. It seems cruel and materialistic, but trust me it’s true. No client knows of your skills prior to engaging you. Most of them come by word of mouth or through contacts. So during the time when they’re trying to figure out whether they want to engage you or now, they judge you based on your appearance and your office environment. It’s cruel and demeaning but that’s how they judge you. You don’t have to buy all that expensive jazz just to impress clients. But then make sure you are prim and proper most of the time. Also make sure that you come across to be confident and dominating.

As far as building clientele goes, make sure you try and meet as many new people as possible. Make sure they all get to know that you are a lawyer. If necessary, fight a few cases pro bono so that you gain their trust. Maintain a good network amongst nice educated people. Also join a club or a gym where you might meet new people.  Basically it’s all about advertising and how you can manage to do it subtly and not overdo it to make it appear as if you’re trying to sell yourself.

 

How important would you say are higher studies, for someone looking to enter litigation? Consequently, how beneficial do you consider higher studies for other fields that a student might consider taking up?

I personally think it doesn’t help if you’re looking to go independent. The money and time you invest in higher studies can be utilized by you during the initial struggle, if you’re first generation that is. Firms too judge you mostly on your experience and not your qualifications. As such litigation is more about practical aspects and not just theoretical knowledge. So personally I doubt it helps that much.

 

On a lighter note, what would be the one piece of advice you wish someone had given to you while you were in law school?

Invest thirty percent of your energy in studying because that is very important and will definitely help you eventually. Invest the remaining seventy percent in enjoying life. Party with friends, go on trips, fall in love and paint the town red. Because that time of your life will never come back, no matter how much you try.

But most importantly invest hundred percent of yourself in becoming a better human being. Unless you’re a good person, you can never be a good lawyer.

 

 

This interview was taken by: Arjun Rekhi, II Year, GGSIPU

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