Being self-employed and creating job opportunities for others is very fulfilling and exhilarating at the same time- Abhishek Gupta, Advocate, Supreme Court of India & Delhi High Court

This interview has been published by  Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

Can you share with us the pivotal moments and motivations that led you to pursue a career in law, from your academic achievements to your early experiences in the legal field?

Being born into a lawyer’s family, it was more likely that I would end up being a lawyer. However, apart from occasionally taking dictation from my father for his court matters, my exposure to law and litigation was quite limited. I was more inclined towards mathematics in school, which led me to pursue B.Com (Hons.) from Delhi University. My interest in law only piqued towards the fag end of my graduation when my interest in accountancy slightly waned. That is when I decided to join Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, Delhi University and study law. I truly embraced law only when I joined Luthra & Luthra Law offices after my graduation, where I got an opportunity to work on several high-profile disputes, connect with some of the brightest minds and occasionally enjoy five-star luxuries. Gradually, in the course of my journey, I have realised that a career in law apart from being a very effective vehicle for service to society, is equally remunerative and rewarding, and offers enough space and time to pursue other intellectual hobbies and interests as well. In hindsight, I feel I made the right decision to pursue a career in law as I could have never done a 9 to 5 job, or a regular government job. Being self-employed and creating job opportunities for others is very fulfilling and exhilarating at the same time.

 You started your career at Luthra & Luthra Law Offices and then transitioned to independent practice. What were the key lessons you learned during your initial years in the legal industry, and how did it shape your decision to go independent?

Nearly a year that I worked with Luthra & Luthra was very rewarding and has stood me in good stead during all these years. It was there that I learnt to burn the proverbial midnight oil. On several occasions, after working the whole night, it would only be in the wee hours of the morning that I would come back home. Seeing the hierarchy of lawyers there classified as associates, senior associates etc., I realised that one cannot be in a secure environment for too long and the real challenge in law is to start independent practice. My father being a designated Senior Advocate also played a significant role in this decision. But he made it quite clear to me that your pedigree can only last you as long as you are able to satiate your clients and deliver results. Fortunately, quite early in my legal career, I understood that there are 100 lawyers pursuing 10 clients and that there is going to be stiff competition. And it is only sheer hard work that sets you apart from others. It also taught me to accept both good and bad with equanimity.

 As an independent practitioner, you’ve worked on a wide range of cases, including arbitration, complex contract litigation, and various other areas of law. Can you share one particularly challenging case that tested your skills and knowledge and what you learned from that experience?

While there are many such cases and each case teaches you something new, I have a predilection towards my first case as an independent practitioner where I appeared before the Saket District Court and successfully argued a domestic violence matter filed against my client. I remember how I had gone fully armoured with three sets of case law and written notes of arguments and the other lawyers in the courtroom were quite astonished to see this level of preparation for an admission hearing, but that preparation kept me afloat and served me well. I was also commended by the learned Judge for my arguments who took me for a seasoned counsel. This experience taught me that no amount of preparation is too much and one should be fully conversant with the facts of the case supplemented by knowledge of the latest precedents on the subject. I cannot help but mention one of my first arbitrations in a tender matter for a PSU, which was one of the most fulfilling experiences in terms of the knowledge and skills that I acquired. More importantly, that case instilled a lot of self-belief and confidence in me. Another case close to my heart is one before the Orissa High Court where I resisted a petition for termination of the mandate of an arbitrator. I had to really think on my feet for that matter and pull a rabbit out of my hat. It is also true that every time you read a brief, you see a different angle to it and learn something new. Therefore, it is very important to read and re-read your brief.

Your involvement in the ‘ONGC vs. Afcons Gunanusa JV’ case was significant. Could you elaborate on the key aspects of this case and how it influenced your expertise in arbitration and the interpretation of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996?

The ‘ONGC vs. Afcons Gunanusa JV’ case was the consequence of looming uncertainty and opacity about the fixation of arbitration fees in ad hoc arbitrations in India. Though the Supreme Court in ‘NHAI vs. Gayatri Jhansi’ had upheld the agreement between the parties on arbitration fees as binding, no party dared to cross Lakshman Rekha of suggesting an appropriate fee to the Arbitrators. The Supreme Court finally laid rest to the fee conundrum in ONGC Afcons case and passed necessary directions on determination of arbitration fees; It particularly held that the Arbitral Tribunal does not have power to fix its own fees unilaterally and that the fees must be fixed at the inception of the proceedings to avoid unnecessary litigation and conflicts at later stage. This was truly a watershed case for me in many ways. The learning and lessons from assisting the then Attorney General for India, Mr. K.K. Venugopal, are for a lifetime; the opportunity of appearing before a Bench headed by the present Chief Justice of India and consisting of two future Chief Justices of India so early in my career; the satisfaction from intensive study, research and drafting and the sheer delight of participating in a landmark case is quite overwhelming. It taught me the single most important lesson- that a lawyer never ceases to be a student and it is essential to keep educating and updating oneself. More than the expertise in arbitration, it showed me how to develop command and competence in any branch of law. 

You mentioned your academic background in commerce, which provides you with the ability to decipher complex financial statements and transactions. How has this background been beneficial in your legal career, especially in cases involving financial matters?

I honestly believe that background in commerce is helpful particularly when you are handling heavy stake arbitration matters. In any commercial dispute, there are two important aspects to the case: firstly, the party who is in breach and secondly, the measure of damages. It is the latter aspect, when you go into the proof and quantification of damages, i.e. financial claims, interest on capital, vouchers, ledger accounts, balance sheets, auditor’s report running into thousands of pages, that the knowledge of commerce comes in handy. I know quite a few brilliant lawyers who are not able to decipher basic P&L Account statements. I therefore recommend everyone to take a crash course in commerce, even if one has not pursued it at graduation level.

You’ve authored articles on a wide range of legal subjects. Could you share one article that you are particularly proud of and explain why it’s relevant in the legal landscape today?

Honestly, at the school level or college level, I never had any occasion or inclination to write any article. In fact, it was a very dear friend of my father-a retired bureaucrat, who motivated me to write even before I became a lawyer. He was editing a magazine in the early 2010s and gave me a platform to publish my articles. But out of the 25-30 articles that I have authored so far, it is very difficult to pinpoint one, yet I will pick my article ‘Suo motu cognizance: A panacea or a predicament?’ that was published in ‘Bar and Bench’ during the first wave of Covid. I honestly believe that this article continues to be relevant even today and ought to kindle more debate and discourse. I had received a great deal of appreciation for that piece of writing from many retired judges, senior counsels and colleagues.

 Your experience involves working with various PSUs and handling different areas of law. How do you balance the diverse needs and legal challenges posed by your clients in the public sector, and what strategies do you employ to provide tailored solutions?

Dealing with PSU clients, as a matter of fact, is much more challenging than dealing with a private client and there are several reasons for this. In a PSU, there are various departments, namely marketing, finance, contract & procurement, HR etc. headed by a particular officer. At times, they are working at cross purposes unknown to them. If a dispute erupts against a contractor, all departments are interacting with the contractor speaking in different voices and tones; The process of harmonisation becomes a challenge. There is a vigilance angle in every case; you have to be doubly cautious while drafting pleadings for them. Unlike a private company, RTI applies to PSUs, any suppression or misstatement can land you in a soup. Remuneration is also meagre compared to private clients, but yet it is a delight to appear for PSUs because by and large the officers are upright, sincere and very well-educated and committed as well, although public perception is somewhat different.

Finally, what advice would you give to fresh law graduates who are just starting their careers in law? What skills and approaches do you believe are crucial for success in the legal profession, particularly in the context of your areas of expertise?

All that I would wish to say is that there is no substitute for hard work. I also maintain that a brilliant person may fail, but a hard working one can never fail. Proficiency in written and spoken English cannot be overemphasized. Of course, honesty and integrity are an absolute must, particularly when dealing with PSU clients. In a way, the legal profession requires no different skills than you would need in any other profession. It is hard work and honesty, coupled with a little bit of luck and maintaining level headedness and an affable demeanour throughout that will succeed.

Get in touch with Abhishek Gupta-

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