I believe the important lesson for any fresh graduate “is to be humble”-Talha Abdul Rahman, Advocate on Record, Supreme Court of India

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

Sir, could you please share with us how you decided to pursue law as a career and what inspired you to take this path?

To begin my professional story, I must start in Faizabad, where I grew up. Faizabad did not have many great educational opportunities, which led me to relocate to Lucknow. As a teenager, computer science, and technology generally, engrossed me and was all set to study computer science engineering. However, towards the end of Class XII, I had begun to take great interest in work that involved a more people-centric approach and leadership positions. I became increasingly interested in works that could affect people in a very personal way. Naturally, I veered toward the law. Of course, my family was surprised by my decision and  I did face resistance. Here was a bright student who could have potentially entered a great engineering college and secured his life or, at least, this is how my family saw it back then. My family did not consider law to be a profession of choice.

Was it a rebellious decision to study law? I would say, yes. You see, the law was not as popular a course as it is today. And my mini-rebellion had to be tempered by studying law at the best place one could find in India. NALSAR fulfilled this criterion and with my family’s blessings, I got into NALSAR in 2003 and really enjoyed the next 5 years. I enjoyed law and legal studies and was almost smitten by it.  I am glad that I followed my heart and pursued law.

Right after my graduation, I was offered the Shell Chevening Centenary Scholarship to study for a bachelor of civil laws (BCL) at Oxford University in 2008-2009. My time in Oxford grounded me in the law – overall it was a very humbling experience.  Until now, my most significant revelation has been the recognition of the vastness of the law as a discipline and  the extent of my ignorance. 

The seminar system employed at Oxford acquainted me with distinct fields of study and acquainted me with fundamental concepts and ideas. These subjects were subsequently explored in greater detail during tutorials. Such a process necessitated diligent reading, and assimilation of cross-jurisdictional legal thoughts.

Thereafter, I came to India and began work in the dispute resolution team at AZB & Partners (Mumbai), where I had the occasion of working with the very best litigators that a lawfirm in India had to offer. 

I passed the Advocate on Record (AoR) Examination in 2017.

You have a broad range of experience in different legal domains. Can you share with us how you gained exposure to such diverse areas of law?

I have never tried to confine myself to any particular subject within the broad field of law. Obviously, there are areas within this broad field that I find more relevant or more interesting, but each area has its own charm—whether it be taxation law, dispute resolution, constitutional law, environmental law, commercial law, or criminal law, etc. The law is quite fluid. Indeed, as lawyers, we deploy disparate sources and subjects to put forth a particular interpretation of the law. It requires being insightful about a subject, but also to have a broadside view of the entire field. You should be able to see where your argument fits in the grand scheme of things – especially when law itself is fluid. In other words, one should not miss the forest for the trees. 

My stint at AZB & Partners in Mumbai helped me familiarize myself with the various facets of dispute resolution and developing a solution oriented approach to working. Back in Lucknow, litigation work was varied, which involved everything from labour law to pure commercial law.   While at AZB, I was still guided by seniors; but at Lucknow with a different set of clients I had greater creative freedom. 

Similarly, working in the chambers of former Solicitor General of India, Mr. Gopal Subramanium, exposed me to practical work in commercial, constitutional, criminal, and arbitration matters. I think, largely because of Mr Subramanium himself appeared in all kinds of matters, I began to assist him in variety of matters and eventually developed a practice that is diverse. 

Could you talk to us about a case that you handled that was particularly challenging and how you managed to navigate through it successfully?

Most cases in the Supreme Court come with their own set of challenges. One case that I particularly remember was the case concerning a town planning scheme in Raipur.  It was one of my earliest cases before the Supreme Court. After the first hearing, Mr. Subramanium who along with Mr Huzefa Ahmadi was leading us, advised us to get a complete record of the case running into several hundred pages and to make sure to have examined every page for legal points.  We managed to navigate through the case because we were very thorough with facts; and consequently managed to get the Supreme Court to decide the law also in our favour. It’s a different matter that the Government brought an ordinance to dilute the impact of the judgment. 

 As young lawyers, and perhaps even otherwise, we cannot neglect the facts and going through every page in the file is a necessity.

As someone who has represented clients before both the Supreme Court of India and other courts, what are some of the differences in the approach that you take when representing clients in different courts?

There is a marked difference in approach. This is primarily down to the nature of the jurisdiction of each court. Every step in a case is crucial and the approach differs in terms of the nature of arguments presented. First, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and it is the final court of appeal. This necessitates a different approach than what you would normally take before a high court or a tribunal. This different approach entails finding out the error committed by the court below and identifying which point to place first. The window of presenting your argument is very short; and any delay or error in identifying the correct points worthy of Supreme Court’s interference is fatal. Even when questions of law are wrongly decided by the High Court, the Supreme Court may not want to interfere given the facts of a case.

Second, in High Courts, the facts matter a little more; and on account of the obligation to give reasons – the hearing is also a bit elaborate.  Thus, the different approach is more down to the role of each court.

I must point out that a counsel must be fully prepared no matter where the case is listed, because the basics remain the same.  When it comes to time, I feel that courts follow a pyramidical structure where the most amount of time is taken before the trial court and High Court.  In some cases, this is upset as well – which results in error which the Supreme Court then needs to correct. When this case goes before different courts, one needs to be mindful of the rules and legal principles that govern the jurisdiction and powers of the said court.  

Can you share with us your experience working as a Junior Standing Counsel for the Income Tax Department and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence?

I was appointed as Junior Standing Counsel for Income Tax Department before the Allahabad High Court at the age of 26. In 2017, I was also appointed by the Government of India as Junior Standing Counsel of Directorate of Revenue Intelligence before the Delhi High Court.

As a Junior Standing Counsel for the Income Tax Department and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, I was responsible for representing the Government of India in various legal proceedings, including litigation in the High Courts and the Supreme Court. I also provided legal advice to the Government on a variety of tax and revenue matters.

My work as a Junior Standing Counsel was challenging and rewarding.  One thing that stands out is that while working with Income Tax Department as well as DRI, the officers are up to date with facts and sharp with law. They instructed me and for that matter all counsel generally pretty well. I enjoyed the professional approach that officers had while briefing their counsel.

I had the opportunity to work on a variety of complex and high-profile cases, and I learned a great deal. I also had the opportunity to work with some of the best lawyers in the country. More importantly, I gained considerable experience by understanding the perspective of the state when it litigates before courts.

What do you think are some of the essential skills that a lawyer must possess to be successful, and how have you developed these skills throughout your career?

A lawyer is an amalgam of knowledge and communication skills. If you lack either, you are not a complete lawyer. Building a repository of knowledge requires a lot of sustained reading, and reading not just the law but various other subjects as well; and above all, listening. Writing comes next. Therefore, reading good texts and even well-written novels will help improve your vocabulary and the way you frame sentences – keeping in mind the audience.   Skills of critical thinking and analysis, are subsumed in the skill of acquiring knowledge.

The other skill is communication, which comes in various shapes and sizes. From writing emails, to letters, to applications, to pleadings – we, lawyers write many documents, and in addition engage in serious oral advocacy – which again is a form of communication.  Lawyers need to be able to communicate effectively with judges, lawyers, clients, and even the general public. This includes being able to write clearly and concisely, and to speak persuasively. I developed these skills through my education, both at NALSAR and Oxford, through watching my seniors and peers, and inculcating the values of professionalism and hard work in my own work as an advocate. Having said that, I continue to work on it.

Could you talk to us about any particular legal issue that you are particularly passionate about and why?

I recently worked on the legal issues surrounding citizenship. I am fascinated by its legal conception and how the idea of citizenship has evolved over the years and its link to other rights. Hannah Arendt called citizenship “the right to have rights.” Arendt was skeptical about the concept of human rights—which, in theory, belong to every person but we are not sure how these rights are to be guaranteed. What role does the law play in securing rights to people is what fascinates me. The taking away of citizenship renders people stateless, a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law. Statelessness often has a severe and lifelong impact on those it affects. They have little access to basic needs of life. I have written about the power of the state to render a person stateless, to strip them of citizenship and its attendant rights. In my paper titled, “Identifying the ‘Outsider’” in The Statelessness & Citizenship Review, I analyzed the law and the manner in which different courts addressed the issue of statelessness. The paper concluded that the framework of adjudication by Foreigner’s Tribunals does not constitute effective adjudication under the Constitution of India.

Finally, what advice would you like to give to fresh graduates who are starting their career in law?

I believe the important lesson for any fresh graduate is to be humble. This means treating everyone with utmost respect and humility, and to learn from everyone you come across. I have learned that you can gain valuable insight in the most non-traditional situations and from people you probably would not classify as “well-read”. When I started, and even today – I still often paginate petitions, correct typos, be corrected by junior and senior colleagues at the Bar, and take criticism with humility. 

Shining on account of your work, wisdom and merit – continues to be one of the best ways to get work as a lawyer – despite what LinkedIn may suggest. It is important to be visible but the boundaries of ethics must never be breached. Where possible, attend various events for the sake of knowledge and reach out to lawyers in your area of interest. Building a relationship is important. 

One also must learn to be patient, both with others and yourself. It takes time to build a successful career as a lawyer. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t find success right away. But you must put in the hard work and develop skills a lawyer must possess to succeed.

Lastly, be passionate about the law. If you’re not passionate about the law, it will be difficult to succeed in the legal profession. Make sure you’re committed to the law before you pursue a career in it. One must have an attitude that if one lives a hundred years, one will learn a hundred years. Each day must be filled with some new judgment, principle, proposition, law, book, or an article that enhances your understanding of the law – or generally learn something new every day.

Get in touch with Talha Abdul Rahman-

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