“Don’t resist any new experience or challenge, it is only in the deep end that we really learn how to swim”- Tishampati Sen, Counsel at the Supreme court of India

This Interview has been published by Pragya Chandni and The SuperLawyer Team

Can you share with us how your journey into law began? What inspired you to pursue a career in this field?

My journey with law started only incidentally. As a child finishing high school, all I knew of what I wanted to do – was join the corporate world, and be a corporate honcho – I wanted to walk in my father’s rather large shoes – as I had always seen him as a top corporate executive. But I soon learnt that engineering was not for me. No matter how hard I  tried – I just didn’t grasp the concepts for JEE exams, while for my friends it was a piece of cake. Then someone told me of a few prominent corporate executives who were actually lawyers by training. Since I had always been a debater, the common opinion was that I would do well in law. That is what I wanted to do, complete my LL.B., do some work, pursue an MBA and then proceed with life. But clearly life had other plans. I started enjoying reading law in law school, and started performing well in Moot Court competitions. But even then I had no plans of pursuing law post my LL.B. Then one day in an international arbitration competition held in Delhi, I was awarded the best speaker, and more significantly, a scholarship to National University of Singapore for an LL.M. No one, in their right mind, can let such an opportunity go by and so that is how I went ahead and pursued my LL.M, even with no intention of continuing with law. When I returned to India, I decided to work in a law firm for about a year (or two) before I would go ahead for my MBA – as previously planned – but my tryst with law, started at JSA under Mr. Sumanto Basu, and that is when I fell in love with law, and with being a lawyer. I saw large corporations, value and plan entire business strategies based on the advice given by Mr. Basu, who in turn based his advice on the work done by us! That realisation was empowering and humbling at the same time. After this, there was no looking back.

You graduated from NLU Jodhpur and then pursued your LL.M from the National University of Singapore. How did your academic experiences shape your career in law, especially in international commercial laws?

Both NLUJ and NUS have had significant contributions to my life. These institutions helped create the foundation for the legal acumen, and the understanding of the principles of law and practice. I owe a lot to NLUJ of course, the fundamentals of our legal understanding, the basic concepts of law, jurisprudence, drafting and advocacy was taught to us, and ingrained in us by the alma mater. NLUJ taught us research methodology, how to articulate one’s opinion coherently in articles, and the art of persuasion – through moot court competitions. The plinth on which I have built my practice, was created at NLUJ. But I think even beyond the academic training, NLUJ played a very big role in the development of my personality. I don’t think law school, at the undergrad level especially, should be looked at only as a place to read and learn law. Much more importantly, this is a place where you’re mixed into a melting pot, and you learn a lot about yourself, and your relationship with the world. 

NUS, because I was much older when I went there, and also because the LL.M. is only for a year or so – is where the focus was predominantly on academic rigour. I had the opportunity to sharpen the understanding and application of the laws. In an international LL.M., one is reading foreign law, which may or may not be relevant later. But that is precisely why an LL.M may be important. It trains you to read and comprehend all sorts of legislations – even those which you may not be able to relate to. What was very different in NUS for me, was the way examinations were held. Most of the exams were open – book exams, they didn’t want to assess one’s memory, but one’s understanding of the concepts. This forced me to learn to comprehend and articulate faster, rather than just mug things up. The LL.M. also taught me that there are multiple viewpoints available for the same issue, and that it often varies based on what one’s life journey has been and the culture / society one has been exposed to. This also became relevant and useful when interacting with other lawyers and arbitrators in the international context.

Starting your career at J Sagar Associates, you worked on both the transactional and litigation sides of law. How did this dual experience influence your professional development and perspective as a lawyer?

There is a marked difference in the way transactional lawyers and litigating lawyers deal with clients and with the mandate before them. In both, of course, you keep the client and the client’s interest at the forefront, but there is a difference in the approach. On the transactional side, the focus is on advice and in enabling the client to get a deal done. One is often batting for the client, against another party but, importantly, towards a common goal, i.e., arriving at an agreement, which is mutually beneficial to both the parties involved, and which will govern the relationship of the parties going forward. The understanding of the industry, the Client’s business, its weaknesses and needs, governs your advice and actions. 

Whereas in litigation, it is almost always adversarial, where one has to strive to defeat the other side and their version –  in order to make one’s own client win. Here, the facts of the case, the law, and the specific personality of the court / tribunal, are what reign supreme in the mind of the advocate. Of course, this is overly simplified, and a generalisation, but that there is a difference in the approach is clear. I can happily say that I thoroughly enjoyed both sides of the coin, but it is the litigating and adversarial side of the practice that I love. The fact that I have received invaluable training from prominent people in both these fields in JSA, I feel I have widened my viewpoint and perspective as a lawyer, which has helped me to grasp issues in a matter, and also comprehend the business realities which cause the clients to make certain decisions. Some of the law firms require freshers to be on rotation, and go through various practice areas for the first 6 – months or so. Given my experience, I think it’s wonderful and long may it continue. 

You’ve had the opportunity to work under prominent figures like Mr. Vipin Nair and Mr. Gopal Subramanium. How did these experiences and mentors impact your approach to practicing law and handling significant cases?

My seniors have not merely had an impact on my approach to practicing law, they have all shaped me into the lawyer and the person I am today. My practice, and how I present myself in court and to other advocates / clients, is entirely a reflection of all my mentors and seniors. I have had a number of mentors in my life, but significantly, I must mention Mr. Sumanto Basu – who took me under his wing when I was an absolute fresher and who then taught me not just how to practice law, but even how to conduct myself. Mr. Amar Gupta – who was instrumental in my transition to litigation and who planted in me the love for litigation and court craft. Mr. Vipin Nair and Mr. P.B. Suresh taught me the tips and tricks of independent practice, advocacy, effective drafting and most importantly demonstrated how important it is to build a rapport with the Bench, other members of the bar and the court staff. From Mr Gopal Subramanium, of course, as a very senior and eminent senior counsel, I learnt how a person of his stature prepares for matters, deals with the pressure, the adulation and the criticism, and keeps the dignity of the Court and the need of the matter at the forefront. 

Your practice covers a wide range of areas including corporate litigation, arbitration, and consumer law. How do you manage such a diverse portfolio, and what challenges have you faced in balancing these different specializations?

It isn’t about managing a diverse portfolio, I have a practice that covers a wide range of areas, purely because I enjoy a wide range of subjects and each area comes with its own style of pleading, practice, and its own jurisprudence. It is a lot more enjoyable (at least for me), and the issues and the clientele that I interact with are also dynamic and different. As far as I am concerned, it keeps the hunger and the attraction for the law and litigation going. Having said that, I must clarify that having a wide practice area is not unusual, there are several other counsels as well, who practice in several fora and we regularly meet each other in different courts. Those predominantly practice in one type of practice area, do so probably because they have attained true expertise in that field of law and therefore are now required to devote most of their time assisting the courts, and advising clients, in that area of legal practice.

You have been involved in several landmark cases, such as the class action matter involving data privacy and the whistleblower suit. Could you tell us more about these cases and what they mean for the legal landscape in India?

Both of these matters that have been mentioned, are sub – judice, and so I don’t want to get into them in detail. But in short, the data privacy matter is an interesting one, where medical data entrusted with a cloud storage service provider went missing. The service provider took the defence that no liability can be attributed to it, since it provided a back – up only in the more expensive version of its service. The complainant therein was aggrieved by this position since the complainant felt that such a defence cannot be taken when data (and sensitive data such as this) has been admittedly lost based on the negligence and internal glitch of the service provider. Recognizing that this will be an issue for all those who have not taken the more expensive version of the service, a consumer complaint, with an application to treat the same in the interest of the class of consumers was filed. The National Commission passed certain significant orders in the matter (although the matter is pending adjudication), the issue is now before the Supreme Court. 

Clearly this is an important issue because this not only deals with the sensitivity with which data must be dealt with, but also as to whether a class action proceeding can be maintained for an issue such as this. With data becoming the currency in the new world, matters such as this, would certainly become relevant for the law to develop appropriately. 

The whistleblower matter is another interesting matter, where a person brought to the attention of the internal management of a large MNC that unethical practices were rampant within the organisation. Pursuant to an internal investigation, the admitted whistleblower was terminated from the employment on the ground that he too had been involved in the said unethical conduct. The whistleblower filed a civil suit challenging the said termination claiming that this is an attempt to penalise the person for blowing the whistle internally. He has also filed a Writ Petition bringing to the attention of the Court the fact that the law in India is woefully inadequate as far as according protection to whistleblowers is concerned while several countries have robust laws to protect whistleblowers and to prevent retaliatory conduct. A Judgment of the court in this regard, will certainly have a major impact and may actually cause the law and businesses to provide realistic mechanisms to prevent unethical conduct and to protect those who wish to speak out against such conduct. 

As someone who has achieved considerable success in the legal field, what advice would you give to fresh law graduates who are just starting their careers?

Its very nice of you to say so, I don’t know if I can be said to have achieved considerable success – as yet, but if I had to share a couple of my learnings with fresh law graduates, it would be this:

Know your subject and the law very well. Please read the law. This includes being updated with the recent judgments and reading the bare acts. I have come to learn that knowing the law really well puts you at an advantage on any side of the practice. There is simply no substitute for it and those who really become prominent, almost always, have a strong command on their subject and are armed with a profound knowledge of the law.

Not many really know what is good for them, and what they are meant to be, especially so, when you’re a fresh law graduate, and your only understanding of the legal world is through limited internships and maybe SUITS! Therefore take on all experiences wholeheartedly. Don’t resist any new experience or challenge, it is only in the deep end that we really learn how to swim. Plus, it is the ability to see a problem or a legal issue, from various viewpoints and perspectives, that sets one apart from the rest and that ability is honed especially by having a varied bouquet of life experiences. So don’t sweat the small stuff and dive – in deep.  

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