Avik Ghatak graduated from Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College, Kolkata in 2011. He started his legal career as an Advocate in the Sub-Divisional Court of Asansol and District Court of Burdwan. Thereafter he pursued Masters from University of Exetor, Devon in International Human Rights Law. He also attended the Certificate Course on International Humanitarian Law organized by the Instituto Internazionale di Diritto Umanitario in San Remo, Italy and Geneva. He has also published numerous papers and currently practises at the High Court at Calcutta.
In this interview he talks about:
- Law college experience at JCC Law College, Kolkata
- Masters at University of Exeter, Devon
- Publishing various papers
- Building a career in criminal law litigation at the Trial Courts
Please introduce yourself to our readers. Tell us a little bit about your childhood and your background?
A warm hello to all the readers of SuperLawyer. I am Avik Ghatak and I am an Advocate at the Hon’ble High Court at Calcutta. It gives me immense pleasure to be able to reach out to all the readers of this forum and share my views and experiences with them.
I was born and brought up in Asansol in the state of West Bengal. I studied at St. Patrick’s Higher Secondary School till class X and completed my higher secondary from Burnpur Riverside School.
After that, I had gotten through to Symbiosis Law School, Pune for my LL.B., but decided to pursue my graduation from Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College, under the aegis of the University of Calcutta..
I started my career as a junior advocate at the chamber of Mr. Somenath Chattaraj at the Sub-divisional Court at Asansol.
Occasionally, I also had the opportunity to appear before the District Court at Burdwan, West Bengal. After a year of practicing as a litigator, I got through to the University of Exeter in the U.K., from where I completed my LL.M. in International Human Rights Law. After completion of the same, I re-joined the profession and started practicing at the Hon’ble High Court at Calcutta.
While being able to give relief to clients gives me an immense satisfaction as a litigator, academics too, continues to interest me to no end. After having completed a Diploma in Cyber Laws through the distance mode, I was fortunate enough to be able to get the opportunity to attend a short certificate course in International Humanitarian Law last year.
Do you have lawyers in your family? Would you say your parents were instrumental in your decision to pursue law?
I am the 4th generation in a line of advocates. There is no dearth of advocates on my mother’s side too. My mother is also an advocate while her elder brother is an Ex-Judge of the High Court at Calcutta and his elder daughter, i.e. my cousin and her husband are advocates too.
As interesting as it may sound, neither of my parents wanted me to pursue law as a career. In fact, I had decided on leaving Symbiosis Law School after getting through to the same, and joining the University of Calcutta, since I thought that Kolkata would be a better place to prepare for the engineering entrance exams that are held in the state. However, fate had other plans in store for me. By the end of the 1st year of LL.B., I was so interested in the subject of law, that changing my stream was no longer an option for me.
Your father, Mr. Moloy Ghatak is a prominent lawyer & former Law Minister of West Bengal. How did he influence your career as a mentor? Did you get to hear legal discussions right from your childhood days?
Considering the fact that almost my whole family is comprised of advocates, including both my parents, there is no denying that I did in fact, come across legal discussions and terminology from a very young age.
Ever since joining practice, my father has been a source of constant support for me, whether as a senior to consult or a mentor to guide me through the times when I have come under duress. He has always been my idol as a human being. Now, his success as a counsel is also something that I look up to and would like to replicate in the days to come.
Your father is also an MLA and a member of All India Trinamul Congress party (TMC). Did you ever think of joining politics?
Like in advocacy, my father is not the first politician of our family. Politics in our family, to the best of my knowledge, goes back even further than advocacy. Inspired, as most young minds are during their college days, by such a background and charged with thoughts of revolutionising the prevalent scenario, I did dabble in college politics for a couple of years before realization dawned on me that politics is most certainly not my cup of tea.
How would you describe your time at Jogesh Chandra Choudhuri Law College (affiliated to Calcutta University)? Please share some memorable experiences of your college life.
In two words, it was life changing. I went to J.C.C. Law College as someone who was more interested in preparing for the engineering entrance exams next year. At the end of the 5 years there I was convinced that I would have had committed the greatest blunder of my life had I not decided to pursue a subject as interesting as law. The credit of making someone pretty disinterested in the subject to actually start loving the same goes completely to our professors and lecturers.
There are probably too many memorable experiences to write home about. Among them, the experience of organising an art and craft competition for the students, re-launching our College’s law journal after a gap of a few years and winning the Moot Court Competition at Hazra Law College, would probably take the cake. Also, our very first class at college, where we were given a lecture by the then Principal of J.C.C. Law College, Dr. Manik Bhattacharya, remains a memorable experience for me. His statement that those coming from families having legal backgrounds ought not take success for granted since expectations from them would be sky high and almost impossible to meet and his quip that ‘A successful advocate barely ever enjoys his life and it is rather his children who do so’, shall remain etched in my memory for a long time to come.
In Calcutta, universities are always charged up with a political atmosphere. How was your experience in such an atmosphere?
Yes, I was indeed engulfed by such a political atmosphere and activism till I called quits sometime later. It is perhaps better to enter politics when we have something to give to politics rather than the other way round. The best example that comes to my mind is my father, who established himself professionally before taking the plunge. Another person from our very own High Court would be Mr. Kalyan Banerjee, who rose to the pinnacle of success as an advocate before deciding that it was time enough for him to become a legislator from a litigator.
My experience in the midst of such an enlightened community of people, as I stated earlier, was very enriching, not only academically but also through the lessons of life that I had the opportunity to learn during my years at the University of Calcutta.
You have nine publications in various renowned journals. How should one go about writing papers and getting the same published?
The first and foremost thing that one should keep in mind when one intends to write a paper is whether the question that he/she seeks to answer through his/her research work or the topic he/she wishes to deal with is feasible or not. Being over-ambitious is of little help since choosing a vague or a wide ranging topic would pose significant problems for the author of the paper in collecting primary data. More importantly, to be able to collect and collate such a huge amount of information within the restricted number of words, as most journals tend to have a word limit for the submissions that one makes to them, would become that much tougher if the topic is not precise and focussed. A research paper also needs to be structured in the sense that one needs to be able to clearly define what one wants to say through the paper. The cardinal rule while writing a paper is to always remember that each line and each paragraph in the paper must be related to the question one is trying to answer in the paper.
Also, last but not the least, there is no use in giving a long winding introduction or in merely compiling existing information vis-a-vis the topic you have chosen. What is rather of more importance is to be able to do some analysis of your own and preferably coming up with some suggestions on how to improve the law and/or the policy dealt with in your paper so that the law/policy is better adapted to the needs of an ever changing world/ society.
After your graduation in graduating in 2011, you have started your criminal law practice at the Sub-Divisional Court of Asansol and also practised at the District Court of Burdwan. What did you gather from your experience at the trial courts?
On seeing most of my friends joining the High Court directly, I had been a bit averse to joining the lower court before making the switch to our state’s only constitutional court. It was on my father’s insistence that I went back to my hometown to start practicing as an advocate at the sub-divisional court situated there. And now I realise that it was a very good decision since when practicing at an appellate court, like the High Court, it is very necessary for you to be having a clear idea about the procedures of the trial court. And that is exactly what you gain if you practice at the lower courts, at least for some time, before making the switch to the higher courts, whether at the state or at the federal level.
What influenced your decision to start your criminal practice just after graduation?
Criminal law has always fascinated me. Not surprisingly, it had been my forte at college as well. Also, both my parents were criminal law practitioners. It is perhaps a combination of the above stated factors that influenced me to take up criminal law practice immediately after graduation. I would, however, also like to state that I consider these divisions in legal practice to be very artificial. This is especially true in the backdrop of the fact that at the graduation level we study all the major laws and as advocates, we are supposed to have a basic understanding of all or at least, most of them, even if we cannot claim to hold sway over all of them.
At what point did you decide to pursue your Masters at the University of Exeter? What was your motivation?
It was after spending some time in legal practice that I had a lingering feeling that I still had some academics left in me. A few publications, especially a couple of them in a law journal published by the reputed and respected Common Law House publishers in Kolkata, further fuelled my thoughts in this regard. Aniket Mukherjee, one of our family friends and also a senior at J.C.C. Law College, who had himself completed his masters from the U.K., inspired me to go for an LL.M. One thing led to another and I landed up at the University of Exeter pursuing my Legum Magister.
How was your experience at Exeter University?
The experience at Exeter was vastly different from anything that I had come across in India during my graduation days. To begin with, there were no written exams for the subjects (referred to as modules therein) and hence no concept of buying the last ten years question papers and memorizing the answers . However, the absence of written exams did not mean unlimited free time since we were required to submit research essays in all the subjects we had chosen. Legal education over there depends much more on research work and analysis than over here. So, in a way, there weren’t too many shortcuts or last night studies. The path to success lay in the library, if I may say so.
The library was absolutely fantastic with law journals from all major legal jurisdictions and systems, including those from India. Students over there are also given access to the best online journals available over the internet. I literally had almost the whole legal world at my fingertips while studying as a student at the University.
A multi-national teaching staff, including among their ranks, a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Secretary General and also a Refugee Status Determination Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and a similarly diverse student group, further enhanced the knowledge exchange process. That is something that is available at only very few law universities in India.
Why have you chosen International Human Rights as your specialization for LL.M?
Most of whom I know to have done their LL.M., have pursued International Business Laws or International Commercial Laws. Perhaps it is more lucrative in terms of job prospects. But somehow, interest in this particular branch of law continues to elude me till date. International Human Rights Law was thus, pretty much an obvious choice since international law and human rights had been as close to my heart as criminal law.
How difficult was studying abroad in terms of finding accommodation, finances and settling in?
I shall begin with the last issue put forth in this question. Settling in was never a problem in the U.K. since they have a multi-cultural society with people from various countries and cultures residing therein for a long period of time. Racism is down to a near zero. All my concerns regarding whether I would be able to integrate into the society over there or not, were laid to rest pretty soon after my arrival at the University.
Finding an accommodation hadn’t been a problem since I had put up at accommodation provided by the University.. However, when I decided to move out, it proved to be a tough task since as per the agreement with the University, one has to get someone who, at that point of time wasn’t staying at any of the University provided accommodation, to take your place or to continue to pay the entire fees for the University accommodation for the whole year. Fortunately, I did not have to wait for long to get such a replacement. However, my suggestion to anyone reading this and contemplating to pursue his/her LL.M. abroad, would be to decide beforehand as to whether one would like to stay at University provided accommodation or at an independent accommodation because once you ink the accommodation agreement with the University, the way out of the same could be very tough and not everyone could get as lucky as I did in getting a replacement who matches the terms of the agreement.
Lastly, it is a known fact that studying in the western countries is a much costlier proposition than studying anywhere in India. Hence, prospective students would be better advised to look for scholarships, if the same is on offer. Over and above the same, perhaps putting up at a shared accommodation and not spending too much on travelling, a natural attraction for anyone going abroad for studies, should do the trick as far as the finances are concerned.
You were as one of the 50 professionals from around the world to attend a Certificate Course on International Humanitarian Law organised by the Istituto Internazionale di Diritto Umanitario in San Remo, Italy and also in Geneva. How was the overall experience? What was this course all about?
I had been fortunate enough to be sent, along with 15 others from my University to attend the 82nd session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the 54th session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women at the United Nations Office at Geneva in February, 2013. It is over there that I came to know about the Istituto Internazionale di Diritto Umanitario in San Remo, Italy. The Institute primarily deals with the military personnel from around the world, training them in the rules of engagement in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. In order to achieve their aims in this regard, they work in close collaboration with the likes of the International Committee of the Red Cross and has operational relations with the likes of the European Union and the N.A.T.O. They also organise a handful of courses for civilian personnel and I was fortunate enough to be selected to one such certificate course on International Humanitarian Law.
The experience of being able to come into contact and converse with military personnel, diplomats, professors, personnel from the UN and other international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Caritas etc. and lawyers drawn from a pool of countries spanning over all the continents on earth is something that perhaps cannot be expressed in words. Understandably, it was a very enriching experience.
The course was on Humanitarian Law wherein the functioning of the same was explained to us by various military personnel and jurists, including Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Secretary General and Judges of international courts, at times, through exercises resembling real life decision making inside the battle command centres. Also, the relation that Humanitarian Law shares with Human Rights Law, International Criminal Law and as well as International Refugee Law was explained at length, over the course of two weeks.
You currently practice at the Appellate side of Calcutta High Court. How is the work atmosphere at the High Court presently?
As time progresses, our society is faced with newer challenges that are to be overcome. And in an attempt to do that, new laws are enacted by our legislatures or amendments are made to the existing ones. More the number of laws more would be the number of litigations though there may be certain exceptions. Hence the scope for private practice at the High Court is better than ever before and I am of the firm belief that the best days are yet to come. So, under no circumstances would I say that it has become more difficult for a fresher to be successful.
As far as the atmosphere is concerned, having practiced at other lower courts in the past, I have found the High Court at Calcutta to be much friendlier to new comers than most other places. Most seniors are more than willing to help out the juniors when the juniors find themselves on a sticky wicket. And it is not as if they do so with an expectation of getting briefed by the junior concerned. I, for example, have been fortunate to have had worked with a senior who not only allowed me to brief other senior advocates, if the clients so wished, but also to appear against him in matters where, by a stroke of fate, we ended up representing opposite parties in the same case.
It would be advisable for a fresh graduate to not expect a huge amount of money in his bank account at the end of every month, at least for the first few years of his practice career. Advocacy surely isn’t the place where one can rake in the money right from the word go. One would do better to do away with any vanity or air of superiority and get his head down into becoming a good clerk to begin with. In the words of my senior at the Asansol Court, ‘One has to first become a good clerk if one is to become a successful advocate later on.’ Basically, one would have to know the procedure of the Court inside out before concentrating on the laws since knowing the procedures himself/herself would make him/her less dependent on others in basic matters such as those relating to the filing of a case, for example. Next comes the knowledge of law and the finesse of arguing a matter in the court, both of which one learns over a span of a life time. There are barely any last minute quick fixes or short cuts to success in this profession.
Many law students prefer corporate jobs over a career in litigation. What is your take on this? Is it better to work in the corporate sector for a few years before starting litigation?
A High Court Justice had once famously quipped that he is proud that his college produces eminent lawyers and jurists instead of producing ‘corporate slaves’. An ex-Supreme Court Justice, while in conversation with a representative team from our college had stated that he felt that the corporate lawyers contribute nothing to the legal field in terms of legal jurisprudence and interpretation of the laws.
Such views, though, are generally restricted to our previous generations. Being someone from a generation, a good chunk of whose members have gone into the corporate sector or into law firms, I don’t possess such a traditional view in this regard. In fact, I do understand that in the initial days, a corporate job does seem to be much more lucrative. We are also in an age when most of our friends who go into other streams, especially engineering, get corporate jobs immediately after graduation and their lifestyle and economic stability does appeal to students of the legal field too.
Also, some students may actually need the economic support in the form of salary that one would get on joining a corporate job or a firm after passing LL.B. That is something that advocacy, by and large, would fail to provide you with during the initial days. Also, some may not want the daily hassles and the schedule less life that comes along with a career in litigation. Hence, corporate jobs for those in the legal field is also a necessity in today’s age, as it provides an additional career option, and a pretty good one at that, to the law graduates.
I do not have any previous experience of either interning or working in the corporate sector and hence I may not be the best person to be speaking to in this regard. However, to the best of my belief, I do not think that working for a few years in the corporate sector before starting a career in litigation would make much of a difference, especially since the nature of the work that one does at the corporate sector is vastly different from the work that one would be required to do in litigation. One’s experience in the corporate sector is useful for a career in litigation or not, would perhaps depend on how much exposure one gets to the proceedings of the courts during one’s work as a corporate lawyer. However, the experience relating to the drafting of legal documents that one would be required to undertake in the corporate sector is surely going to come in handy even in litigation.
How did you get to connect with your clients? How many years of practice do you think would be required to build a firm clientele?
I believe that working at the lower courts at Asansol, Durgapur and Burdwan went a long way in increasing contacts among the advocates practicing over there. And once I shifted to the High Court, advocates from these places found someone they knew and had worked with, to send their cases to, if and when they needed to send some matter up to the High Court. I also make it a point to visit the lower courts in and around Kolkata on a periodic basis, if and when an opportunity to do so presents itself before me. Such visits however, are never at the cost of my work at the High Court since that is my primary place of work.
As far as direct interaction with the clients is concerned, one has to remember that most of them come to us only when they are in distress and hence, they may seem to be a bit repetitive with their questions at times and at other times, they may seem not to be able to understand your point of view due to a multitude of reasons including their general lack of legal knowledge. One would do better to keep one’s calm under such circumstances. Ultimately, no matter what one says, even the clients understand that you may lose a matter after all. What matters is that they should be able to see in you the intent to give it your best. Good behaviour with clients is a must because our very profession, after all, is in existence to help them out with their legal problems.
As far as the number of years it would take someone to build a firm clientele is something that would vary from advocate to advocate and there is no straitjacket answer in this regard.
How is your experience so far? What is your workday like? Are there new challenges every day or did work fall into a predictable pattern?
My experience at the High Court has been exciting, complete with its share of ups and downs.
I tend to reach court a little early, i.e. within 9:30 to 10:00, a habit that was inculcated in me by my senior, Mr. Debasish Roy, when I had joined the High Court. After completing Court in the evening I tend to be able to come back home if there are no conferences and dive headlong into studying for the cases scheduled to come up for hearing on the next day or draft documents that are to be filed in the days to come. If however, I am required to meet some senior for any conference then the time by which I am able to return home completely depends on the timing of such a conference.
Once in this profession, one has to be ready to attend conferences that are held at the convenience of the seniors, whether they are held at midnight or before sunrise in the morning. Life, effectively becomes schedule less. But then, that is part and parcel of advocacy.
My grandfather used to say that every day is a battle for an advocate. Quite obviously, when you are engaged in a battle on a daily basis, things would not tend to be predictable at all. Two cases may be similar but no two cases are ever the same and hence predictability is not something that one can come across in this profession since each case requires individual care due to its uniqueness, thereby throwing a new challenge at the advocate handling the same. The only thing predictable about a day in an advocate’s life is perhaps that it would be unpredictable.
What would be your parting message to law students who want to litigate just after graduation?
Hard, though intelligent work, an indomitable appetite for legal and as well as other related knowledge, loads of patience and humility can and is bound to lead to a success story after a certain point of time. Those coming into litigation must keep in mind that it is not for nothing that we are referred to as ‘Learned’ advocates from day one. We have to behave and act as learned people if we are to do justice to our profession.
Having said that, I would like to wish all the best to all the law students wishing to become legal practitioners after graduation.
Last, but not the least, I would also like to say, in the words of my mentor Mr. Protik Prokash Banerjee, ‘Welcome to the Glorious Uncertainty’.