“Every hearing teaches something new; every case shapes a better advocate. In the dance of law, advocacy is my rhythm, and justice is my melody.” – Sonali Chopra, Partner at Arimus Law

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

Reflecting back on your college days, could you share your journey from how you thought of doing law to your college days, and how did you navigate the transition from college to the legal profession, especially as a first-generation lawyer? What were the challenges you encountered, and how did you overcome them to establish your career?

I have always been my mother’s “brighter” child. When the time came for me to choose a career path, my mother casually suggested law. Being a first generation lawyer, I had no insights into the profession, its scope or its demands. In fact, I had absolutely no first-hand knowledge about the life of a lawyer, beyond what is depicted in television, movies and John Grisham novels. At that time, after I compared law to the other conventional career choices, being a lawyer excited me the most. As my curiosity drifted towards law, the decision was made. To be honest, when I look back, I think doing law was just a choice I made by chance. But almost 15 years later I can honestly say that it was one of the best choices I have made.

I studied law at Dr. RML National Law University and I am who I am today because of what my time in law school taught me. The five years I spent in law school were very internship centric. After the internships I did in my first year of law school, I realised that they gave me the practical exposure that law school did not. From my second year in law school, I started interning, every chance I got. While not taking away from the importance of academics, I truly feel that internships gave me first-hand knowledge about the profession. They exposed me to the practicalities and realities of a lawyer’s life. 

Owing to my internship experiences, by the end of my third year in law school, I was quite sure that I wanted to start my career as a litigation lawyer. 

My transition from college to the legal profession was smoother than I had anticipated it to be. Before I finished my last semester, I had job offers from two litigations firms. One offer I got was on account of a long internship I did at the firm and the other one was on account of an interview I gave while I was in my last semester. 

In 2013, Lawctopus and Legally India posted several job openings. I remember I applied for the opening of an Associate at Arimus Law. I got an interview call. The interview was assessment based and not just an interaction with the Partner, Mr. Arjun Singh Bawa. A day before the interview I was sent a fact sheet and was told to prepare arguments from both sides. The interview was like a moot court competition. I argued my case and I got the job! It was one of the most exciting interviews I ever gave. In fact, even now, 10 years later, we still follow this assessment interview model while hiring at Arimus Law.

The only difficulty I faced during the transition was the choice I had to make between the two job offers. One was with a very reputed law firm and one was with a comparatively newer law firm. Not having a mentor in the profession to guide me in the right direction, this choice was a tough one to make. I weighed the pros and cons, as I knew them then, and took the decision to join the latter, Arimus Law. My decision was swayed by the fact that Arimus Law had more trial work. 

During this roller coaster ride, the biggest challenge I encountered was not having a professional mentor who I could go to for advice and guidance. 

You’ve worked with various renowned advocates and senior advocates. Can you share a memorable experience or lesson that significantly influenced your approach to legal practice?

I have been very fortunate to have got the chance to work with several renowned advocates and senior advocates. Every interaction with another lawyer has taught me something but the key learnings I have got over the years that I still keep in mind today are:

  1. Put effort into your list of dates and synopsis. It might be the only thing a Judge reads before dealing with your case. 
  2. Pleadings can make or break a case. Draft crisply, there is no need for non-essential verbosity. 
  3. Master your brief. Don’t just read it, think about it, dream about it. Make the brief your story. 
  4. By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. 

You’ve had a diverse and impactful legal career, starting as an Associate at Arimus Law and now being a Partner in the same firm. Can you share a memorable experience or case that has significantly shaped your journey as a lawyer?

While I was still in law school, my mother’s ancestral property in Delhi became the subject matter of litigation. I (and also my mother) strongly believe that this case has played a major role in making me the lawyer I am today. Being a property related dispute, it has a civil law angle, a testamentary law angle and also a criminal law angle. 

When I was in law school my mother used to go and attend the hearings of this case before the Hon’ble Delhi High Court. Before each hearing I would have long conversations with my mother about what the case was listed for, what the lawyer’s strategy was, what could be the possible outcomes of the hearing etc. Whenever I was in Delhi for an internship or a break, I used to accompany my mother for meetings with the lawyer and for the court hearings. 

The fact that I became a litigant before a litigation lawyer changed the way I deal with my Clients today. I make an effort to be more compassionate, empathetic, honest and available to my Clients. 

It is also this case that enabled me to, very early on in my career, familiarise myself with the dynamics of a courtroom. What I have learnt about courtroom dynamics from this case is something that I benefit from, till date. Effective advocacy is so much more than just knowing the law. During the initial years of my career, the exposure I got from this case helped me bridge the gap between the theoretical world of law and the real-world courtroom dynamics.

This case is still pending adjudication and every hearing still teaches me something new. 

You’ve been appointed as a Local Commissioner to record evidence in various Suits by the Ld. Judges of the District Courts of Delhi. Could you share some insights into this role and how it contributes to the legal process?

I’d like to start by quoting from the judgment of the Hon’ble Delhi High Court passed in Pushpa Devi Vs. Bimla Devi & Ors. (AIR 2000 DELHI 141)  – 

“…However sad as it may seem the reality today is that Suits do not reach hearing for a large number of years…Delay therefore defeats justice”

This judgement was passed over 2 decades ago but the situation unfortunately is still the same. 

In my active practice before the trial courts in Delhi and on the original side in the Delhi High Court I have witnessed cases languishing for years at the stage of evidence. This is solely because of the sheer burden there is on the Courts these days coupled with the lack of infrastructure. I truly believe that the process of appointing local commissioners to record evidence in suits has considerably cut short the time a suit takes to become ripe for arguments. 

You transitioned from an independent practice to becoming a Partner at Arimus Law. What factors influenced your decision to join the firm, and how has this shift impacted your approach to legal work and professional growth?

I started as an Associate in Arimus Law in 2013 and I worked there for almost 3 years. 

During my time at Arimus Law, I got the chance to research, draft, participate in client meetings and appear before multiple courts in a day. Within the first 6 months at Arimus Law, Mr. Bawa gave me the opportunity to argue a matter that I had drafted and got filed before the Hon’ble Delhi High Court. One evening before the matter was listed, Mr. Bawa made me practice my arguments before him and the next date he sat next to me and told me to take the lead. Every day after I came back from Court, I had so many questions, about the law, about the procedure or about an argument I heard another lawyer make in Court. Every evening somewhere between 7 PM to 8 PM, Mr. Arjun Singh Bawa, my then boss (and now Partner) used to wrap up his client meetings and take a coffee/snack break. It was during this time that I used to go into his cabin and bombard him with all my questions and doubts. I still remember how he used to patiently answer all my questions and clear all my doubts. Soon this became a ritual. My time as an Associate at Arimus Law was enriching and very rewarding. 

After about 3 years, I started feeling complacent at work and that is when I decided to quit Arimus Law and look for other opportunities. Over the next 3 years I worked at various other chambers and gained more experience. 

In 2018, when I had a few clients and enough money in my account to make rent for six months, I decided to take the plunge and set up my independent practice. To be honest, it was very daunting at the beginning. There were many unsettling moments of self-doubt, unsureness and fear. But with God’s grace, luck and a lot of hard work, I think I was able to establish a successful independent practice. I never gave myself enough credit but when I survived the COVID 19 pandemic without having to give up my office space, I realised I had done something right. 

After I started working independently, I collaborated with Arimus Law for a few matters. In the end of 2022, when we had come out of the pandemic, I began wondering, “what next?”. To my surprise, serendipitously, in the beginning of 2023, Mr. Arjun Singh Bawa offered me partnership in the firm. 

The 2 primary factors that influenced my decision to take up this offer were the experience I had working as Mr. Bawa’s associate in Arimus Law and the collaborative work environment that a firm set up can offer more easily as opposed to independent practice.

The shift from being an independent (first generation) counsel to a Partner in a law firm has definitely made me more equipped. With the assistance of the exceptional team that we have built at Arimus Law, I am able to do more work without compromising on quality. 

Could you share some insights into the challenges you faced in both roles? What were the unique challenges of working independently, and how have they evolved or changed since becoming a partner in a firm? How do you navigate these challenges while maintaining the high standards of legal practice?

The biggest challenge I faced as an independent practitioner was to acquire new clients. When I started my independent practice in 2018 I had a handful of clients. I remember the time when I had court hearings only 2-3 times a week. This was a tough adjustment after being an associate in chambers where I’d get to appear in multiple Courts in a single day. However, I used that extra time I got out of Court to work more extensively on my briefs and find ways to get my Clients favourable results. Eventually, over the years I was able to do some good work for my initial clients who then graciously recommended me to their friends and family. 

At Arimus Law I work with 3 other Partners. Mr. Arjun Singh Bawa who primarily handles commercial and contractual disputes, Mr. Arjun Dewan who primarily handles criminal and medical negligence disputes and Mr. Arjun Mukherjee who primarily handles IPR and criminal disputes. Over the last 6 months, we have built a team of young, dynamic and very talented lawyers. I must say that it has been my absolute pleasure to have a chance to work with all the members of our team. 

Learning to balance responsibility, not only as a lawyer but in other roles is a challenge I have faced in my current role as a Partner but I am enthusiastically learning how to be a good lawyer, a mentor, a leader, and a good team player, all at the same time. 

You’ve revised the 16th edition of the Pollock & Mulla – Specific Relief Act, 1963. What motivated you to take on this task, and how do you believe this contributes to the legal community and practitioners?

I believe that the legal profession and academia are interlaced. I took up this task knowing that it will complement and enrich my legal practice by providing me with a platform to learn and grow.

I don’t know about others, but even today, in the age of the internet, search engines and legal research tools, whenever I come across a provision of law with which I am not completely familiar, I look up a commentary to find the starting point of my research. I sincerely hope the revised edition of the Pollock & Mulla – Specific Relief Act, 1963 helps members of the legal community familiarize themselves with the Specific Relief (Amendment) Act, 2018. 

Apart from your legal pursuits, you’ve trained in Bharatanatyam and performed several Bharatanatyam Recitals under the guidance of Padma Shree Geeta Chandran. Many individuals find it challenging to sustain their passion for the arts as they become busier with their professions or during higher studies. We’re curious to know about your journey with Bharatanatyam—how did your interest in this classical dance form grow alongside your legal career?

I was blessed to have a structured upbringing with academics, dance, sports etc. I started to learn Bharatanatyam at the age of 6. At Natya Vriksha under the tutelage of Geeta Akka, dance was just one of the multitude things I learnt. Geeta Akka filled my young mind with art, music, culture, history, mythology as well as social values of justice, equity an inclusion. Natya Vriksha was my second home. I danced regularly from the age of 6 till I turned 18, when I left to study law at Dr. RML National Law University, Lucknow. 

Over the years I developed a passion for Bharatanatyam and all its nuances. During and even after law school I tried very hard to multitask and continue my journey in Bharatnatyam while practicing law. But both Bharatantayam and practising law are hard task masters. The practise of law leaves little time for anything else. Amidst the demands of my career in law, I could not give Bharatanatyam the time and effort it required. 

At the age of 24, I made the very tough decision of giving up my dream of becoming a Bharatanatyam dancer. However, thanks to my Guru, Padma Shri Geeta Chandran and the Natya Vriksha Dance Company, Bharatanatyam is still a part of my life. Both my Guru and her dance company perform regularly and I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to witness these magical performances. 

There have been days where I feel that the law took away Bharatanatyam from me, but then, in all fairness, the law has given me back so much more!

As a panel member in various debates aired on Times Now and Mirror Now, how do you see the role of legal professionals in shaping public discourse on legal issues?

In today’s world, the media is playing an undeniably important role in creating and shaping public opinion. There are several instances where the general public is unaware of the correct position of law in respect of certain issues. It is in such situations that legal professionals should be made part of a public discourse in order to enable them to highlight the correct position of law. This in turn gives the public the complete information that they should have to make an opinion. 

Internships play a crucial role in a law student’s journey. Can you share insights into the kind of internships you pursued during your college days and how those experiences influenced your career choices? Additionally, what advice would you give to law students when it comes to selecting internships, especially considering the trend where many aspire to intern at tier 1 law firms?

My recollection of my journey and transition from law school to the legal profession is a first-hand example of the importance of internships in a law student’s journey. Being a first generation lawyer I had no insight into the realities of the legal profession. Like I said earlier, my exposure was restricted to only what was depicted in television, movies and books. 

When I started law school, I was hopelessly home sick. To begin with, internships were an excuse to go back home to Delhi. In my first year I interned with two NGOs. I bagged these internships through family acquaintances. 

In my second year I interned with Mr. Vikas Dhawan (who is now a designated senior). He was then an advocate practicing primarily on the Original Side in the Delhi High Court. He was our lawyer in my mother’s property matter so it was again an easy internship to get. It was my time in his office that got me really excited about litigation. However, I still wanted to intern in different fields of law before deciding which one I was most interested in. 

The next few internships were hard to get. I did not know many people in the profession and all my e-mail applications (sent months in advance) remained unanswered. But I did not lose hope! 

I remember, in 2011, I printed several copies of my then 1 page CV and roamed the streets of Defence Colony (the hub of lawyers’ offices in Delhi). I walked into so many offices and handed over my CV to anyone who would take it. I bagged my next few internships like this. This exercise got me the opportunity to intern with Mr. P.K. Dubey ( now a designated Senior), Zeus Law, Mr. A.S Chandhiok (Senior Advocate), Sikri & Company etc.  

I also briefly interned in the Corporate Division of O.P. Khaitan & Co. After my previous internships in the field of litigation, my short stint here was enough for me to know that I was not meant to be a corporate lawyer. The stifling hustle-bustle inside and outside the courtrooms  excited me the most. 

I personally did not intern in any tier 1 law firm. This was only because I never got the opportunity. During my law school years I did fret a lot about not having any tier 1 law firm names on my CV but then, there was honestly not much more I could do about it. 

I chose to not give up or lose heart. I took up every opportunity I could lay my hands on. I made connections as I went. And, I worked hard, very hard. 

Being a first generation lawyer I can be very blunt and say, the journey can be challenging. My only advice to law students and young lawyers is to be brave, be curious, chase experience and continue learning. Take up every opportunity you can lay your hands on, be it big or small. There is no better teacher than experience!

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