“If you understand that you follow the reporting protocols and are clear about when you need to accelerate a matter to a more senior person or when to take a matter off the table of a senior person and put it into junior hands, you help yourself a lot”- Roma Bhagat, Founder, Roma Bhagat Associates

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

Can you share with us your journey into the field of law? What inspired you to pursue a career in this domain, particularly focusing on such diverse areas as civil and criminal law, intellectual property, disability rights, and more?

As a child, I visited a lot of courtrooms with my father and it seemed like a natural progression to find my way there as a qualified Lawyer. My journey, thereafter, in the legal field was just an accident. As I grew older one thing I realized was that law is a profession that didn’t offer me only diversity but also Independence, and I liked it. I joined an Intellectual Property Law Firm in order to gain experience in the field that my father did not practice in. After a point when I realized that it would take me very long to become independent in this field of law, I shifted to Civil Law practice. Along the way, I became associated with an office that was dealing in matters relating to customs, excise, para, and the like. I think I have a very low threshold of boredom and enjoy diversity. So I have done almost any and every matter that has come my way. I recognized as a very junior lawyer that law is nothing but knowing where to find what you need and the old-added seek and ye shall find actually works.  

I was essentially a civil lawyer till one of my clients got arrested in a customs matter. For some reason, he declared that he would stay in jail rather than be represented by anyone else even though I didn’t practice criminal law. This weight of responsibility made me dive into criminal Law and after that, I didn’t look back. Falling into sports law was also an accident. I had a client who was very passionate about sports and was suffering greatly. I took some matters to Court for him. Before I knew it, I was handling a lot of sports matters. I think my journey in sports law was also helped by the fact that I was a trustee in the Special Olympics for 7 years and as a litigation lawyer I had a distinct advantage in knowing both sides of the system.

You’ve been deeply involved in advocating for persons with disabilities, working on legal aid, policy advocacy, and training programs. What initially drew you to this cause, and what are some key challenges you’ve encountered in this area of practice?

Disability is very close to my heart. I have severely impaired vision myself. And I understand disability up close in person, as they say. I think the twin challenges of disability are attitude and awareness. When I was in 9th standard and opted for humanities, my school wanted to know why I wasn’t taking science because I was “a good student”. When my parents informed them that my eyesight precluded me from taking science subjects because I wouldn’t be able to do the required experiments, my school started talking about careers in basket weaving and pottery. In my case, I consider myself lucky that their attitude didn’t influence me or my parents. But in my interactions with disabled persons and the mainstream world, I find this attitude is a two-way street that diminishes the person with a disability and impacts their ability to negotiate their environment.  

I believe that only concentrating on macro-level cases in disability is problematic. Class action writs, or individual writs for that matter, are necessary to access rights. Stopping short at that is discriminating, in itself. I believe that a disabled person cannot be identified only by their disability. They therefore should have proper representation for cases relating to mainstream law such as property, inheritance, contract, criminal justice, and family. Hence, the legal aid. 

The importance of training is something that I cannot emphasize enough. And it was for that reason that I will always try and make time for them. One small but telling incident comes to mind. An autistic boy was being questioned by the police and it was a frustrating experience for both. I observed that the police officer would start his questioning by saying “I am going to ask you one to two questions”. The autistic boy would respond to two questions and then wonder. I explained to the police officer that when this “one or two questions” is stated to a non-autistic person, the understanding would be that it would translate to a “few questions”. However, the autistic person would take it as a specific number

and after two questions will think that the questioning was over. By simply modifying the statement to say that I have some questions to ask, we managed to get the necessary information. This incident, though funny, is also revealing of the fact that if we are able to modify the environment keeping in mind the requirement of a disabled person, things move a lot more smoothly.  

As someone who has worked with a range of clients from domestic to international corporate houses, what do you believe are the essential qualities or skills that make a lawyer successful in navigating such diverse legal landscapes?

I think the most important ingredient is inspiring confidence in your client that you will do the job to the best of your ability and it will be a “good best”, that is because you will do your homework. Law is such a vast field that no one person can know it all. It’s good to be aware of this fact and be clear with your client that while you will not have the answer, you have the capability to find it and the acumen to know where to look for it. One of my best clients was the person whose first case I lost. Then when he appeared with another matter, I asked why have you come back to me when I lost your case, and then he replied that I followed you in every step of the case. If anyone would have won it, you would have. It was a bad case but it didn’t stop you from fighting. One thing I’ll add is that clients are clients, national or international, rich or poor, the differences between them are personality-based and cross-cutting. Some clients simply unload their troubles on you and others want to micro-manage and that has nothing to do with what they are paying you. As far as corporate clients are concerned, it is necessary to remember that every company has a certain hierarchy and a way of functioning. If you understand that you follow the reporting protocols and are clear about when you need to accelerate a matter to a more senior person or when to take a matter off the table of a senior person and put it into junior hands, you help yourself a lot.

Your involvement with organizations like the National Human Rights Commission and the National Trust reflects a commitment to broader social issues beyond legal practice. How do you balance your legal career with your advocacy work and community engagement?

I believe if you learn to balance your priorities, you can always find time for things you really want to do. Effective time management and assistance of able juniors has always helped me sail through these commitments.  

You’ve been part of various committees and expert groups focusing on legal reforms and housing policies. Could you shed some light on the role of legal professionals in shaping legislative frameworks and policy decisions, particularly in areas like land reforms and housing?

When it comes to drafting Bills that eventually translate into Acts, or Policies for that matter, Lawyers have a mind that is already trained to read legal statutes and decode them. Furthermore, people come to the Lawyers with their problems, looking for solutions/effective remedies that would “solve” their problem[s]. Over time, a Lawyer’s mind is trained to analyze a set of facts so as to conceptualize the actual problem, look for the root cause and then offer an effective and efficient solution. This analytical bent of mind, coupled with domain specific expertise, goes a long way in assisting in formulating or shaping Legislative Reforms/frameworks (to cure any mischief) and policy decisions. Furthermore, Lawyers, particularly those who practice in diverse fields, have the capability to assess and understand domain-specific facts in so far as they are material to the matter in hand and be able to use it in that fashion. In my case, my past experience in the domains such as Disability Law and Social Housing and related Land Reforms etc came to my assistance and we were able to bring in targeted reforms.  

Given your experience in arbitration proceedings, both as an arbitrator and counsel, could you discuss the unique challenges and advantages of alternative dispute resolution methods, especially in international work contracts?

If conducted properly, arbitration is an extremely efficient way of dealing with dispute resolution. I think the key for me has been due process. If due process is followed then arbitrations move on a fast track. It saves time, stress, and in the long run, opportunity cost. Another advantage of the Arbitration process is having Domain/technical experts as Arbitrators, specifically in the cases of competitive and technical work contracts. I can particularly think of quite many instances where the Arbitrators, being qualified domain experts, understood the

technicalities of the matter immediately and the proceedings were concluded in record time, with most effective resolutions to the disputes. In the matters relating to International Work Contract[s] sometimes u have conflicting jurisdictions, and in such circumstances, accessing the Domestic Courts and obtaining an Executable Decree can be a challenge. Arbitration overcomes that hurdle. 

Some of the challenges of Arbitration Proceedings relate to the question of Interim Relief[s] and the enforceability of Awards. I have personally never encountered a situation where an award wasn’t honored, but should that be the case I would imagine there could be issues arising out of the complex nature of the interactions between different sets of, perhaps clashing, domestic Laws .

Finally, what advice would you offer to law graduates who aspire to build a successful and impactful career in the legal field, considering your wealth of experience and expertise?

The first piece of advice I have to offer is to recognize and grab every opportunity. The second is to do your homework and be prepared. Thirdly, be organized. You have one shot at the Arguments, be prepared. Fourthly, mistakes will happen. A good lawyer looks for a way to rectify those mistakes, so damage limitation is very important. If you are a civil lawyer then cultivating the ability to think laterally is extremely important, because in civil law there are no straightforward answers. There could be multiple solutions to the same problem. Lastly, seek and ye shall find. Keep working hard and smart. 

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