Ramakrishnan Viraraghavan (RKV). Senior Advocate, Supreme Court and bestselling author on GST Laws shares his learning on legal writing, lecturing at National Judicial Academy and pursuing LLM after three decades of practice

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

Congratulations on the success of your book The Law of Goods and Services Tax: A Comprehensive Internet Age Commentary. Tax is primarily an auditor’s topic and a territory of Chartered Accountants. Why did you choose to write a book on GST Laws?

I started my practice in the 1980’s in an age of information scarcity. I had a degree in commerce and then a law degree. I worked under my maternal uncle who was a tax lawyer. I enjoyed the complexity of tax practice and specialized in tax litigation, appearing before various tribunals. My exposure to accounting and accounting principles in my commerce degree was a huge advantage in commercial and tax litigation. In my experience, judges and lawyers without an accounting background feel challenged by accounts and accounting entries. Understanding these is essential for tax litigation . Much of my advocacy in the High Courts and the Supreme Court is to simplify accounting principles and concepts and explain them in a legal language acceptable to the legal mind.  . 

After GST laws were enacted in 2017, I saw tax lawyers and practitioners instructing me struggle with the complexities of GST legislation. Unlike the Income Tax Act, GST Laws did not have any standard commentary. I decided to do something about it and began writing. My book is  a focused and penetrative commentary, an original writing on GST laws . It took me four years to complete my book. 

I wrote a commentary in simple language avoiding legal jargon and overflow of citations. Considering the daily information overload on tax practitioners, I wanted to write a book which tax lawyers and practitioners could read on the way to the court or the tribunal and succeed in their arguments.

It is an internet age commentary which avoids copious extracts from judgments, circulars, and GST notifications to the greatest extent possible. The book refers to a large number of decisions of the courts and rulings of the advanced ruling authorities. However, these references are given only as footnotes to the commentary. The relevant page and para number is given in the footnote. This will make it easier for the reader to locate the relevant para and cite the decision. The book also points out defects and deficiencies in judgments of the courts and advance rulings. It gives possible answers to legal issues (such as betting, racing and online gaming)  which have not been decided by the courts so far. My book is gender neutral. I avoided using ‘he’ or ‘she’ unless absolutely necessary. 

Your involvement at the National Judicial Academy, conducting sessions for newly elevated High Court Judges and Judges from other jurisdictions is unique and commendable. How has this experience influenced your own perspective on the legal profession? 

These experiences have made me deeply sympathetic and understanding of the plight of an average judge. Judges face enormous pressure disposing of matters, sitting in committees and simultaneously handling tons of administrative work. I am no longer irritated when a judge does not read the papers fully or adjourns a matter for want of time. Lawyers must understand that judges are also human beings. Judges also feel hunger, body pain and tiredness. Mental fatigue and irritability set in any judge, any human being after hearing arguments day after day, week after week without time to recover or recoup energy. 

My advocacy has become judge-centric. I now see myself as a senior advocate assisting the court rather than arguing before the court. The best of arguments should be made in a manner helpful for the judge to write the judgment in the client’s favour. Good advocacy should give the judge a quick and easy solution to the dispute. No judge anywhere is interested in long arguments showcasing the lawyers’ erudition.

 You’ve authored publications, conducted sessions on law for judges, and played a role in drafting rules. Could you share the motivations behind your contributions to legal literature, legal education, and rule-making, and how do you believe these efforts contribute to the legal community?

I did not have any specific motivation to do all of these. The legal profession rewards good work with more work. My first book was on the Madras High Court Letters Patent, Appellate and Original Side Rules. The book was successful and resulted in the Chief Justice appointing me on the Court Fees Rationalisation Committee. The committee’s well drafted report was accepted by the government and by the High Court without modifications. 

This led to my appointment on the Madras High Court Arbitration Committee and on the Madras High Court Rule Committee. My contributions here were kindly appreciated and I continue to be on the Rule Committee although I have shifted to the Supreme Court. Similarly, the success of my first book led to publishers inviting me to more books.

 There are two lessons from all of these. Firstly, one must grab every opportunity that presents itself. Secondly, most opportunities lie outside the comfort zone. Therefore, having grabbed the opportunity, one must struggle, overcome discomfort and grow to the level of the opportunity.

How have you seen yourself evolving as a Senior Advocate from a raw young law graduate? What role do you believe mentorship plays in your development as a legal professional?

As a young lawyer, I thought precedents were all important and tried to support every argument with some case law. Now, I realise persuasion is all-important. Arguments with too much case law are like over spicy food. They turn away judges. Arguments must be garnished with minimum case law, just enough to make it attractive and presentable but not beyond. As a young lawyer, I thought I could succeed in my arguments without too much hard work once I became a senior. Now, I realise hard work is a part of the process even as a senior advocate. I had appeared in common-law jurisdictions across three continents. I found hard work was an essential requirement for success at the Bar throughout the world.

Mentorship is essential for improving the quality of the justice delivery system. I have seen retired judges mentoring sitting judges at the National Judicial Academy. Similarly, advocates must mentor junior advocates. Mentoring must be professional and must meet the needs of the mentee. Mentoring does not mean placating the mentor’s ego by listening to the mentor’s war stories. Real-life examples from the mentor’s past offer valuable guidance but must be fine-tuned towards the mentee’s requirements.

Sir, could you please share a bit about your background and journey that led you to become a Barrister at Law, practicing in both India and London? What inspired you to pursue a career in law?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in commerce. Then, I had the option of pursuing management, accounting or law. I applied for an MBA and was offered admission by two prestigious colleges in Mumbai. My father felt I was temperamentally suited for a profession rather than a corporate job. He suggested I could become a chartered accountant or a lawyer. My paternal great-grandfather, my maternal and paternal grandfathers and my uncle were lawyers. Law seemed to be a more attractive choice. I felt I would be bored with accounting. I studied law and became a lawyer. 

I became a barrister at law by accident. An English barrister met me for legal advice on Indian law. She was impressed by my legal skills and suggested I should become an English barrister. By then, I had put in 25 years as a lawyer in India. I felt becoming a barrister did not add any value to my practice in India. 

A couple of years later, she convinced me to sign the application papers. Amidst hectic professional life, I studied English law like a maniac and passed the difficult test. I was called to the Bar by the Honourable Society of Inner Temple where Mahatma Gandhi was also called to the Bar. I wanted to return to India after becoming a barrister. However, the Sub-Treasurer of Inner Temple insisted that I should complete my pupillage in England and obtain rights of audience before the English courts. I stayed on, pupilled in barristers’ chambers in London and obtained my practising certificate as well.

Your educational background is quite diverse, including degrees from the University of Edinburgh, NALSAR University, and the University of Bangalore. How did these experiences shape your approach to law, especially in the areas of international arbitration and commercial litigation?

LLM from the University of Edinburgh was a game changer for three reasons. Firstly, since I joined LLM after 25 years as a lawyer, I could understand and implement in my practice many legal concepts taught in the course. This would not be possible had I joined LLM immediately after my LLB. 

Secondly, my writing skills improved enormously. I needed to write concisely and with precision. I could not simply fill up the pages and expect to pass. Almost everything I wrote in my dissertation needed to be supported by citations. The high quality of writing I learnt from LLM helped me write three books on law. 

Thirdly, a degree from one of the top universities in the world gave me entry to many places. 

One of the courses in LLM was on international commercial arbitration. The course was taught by a reputed international arbitrator. Learning the nuances of international commercial arbitration helped me become a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, teach arbitration as an accredited tutor, argue international arbitration matters in Indian courts and finally sit as an international commercial arbitrator abroad.

Exposure to foreign legal systems such as English law, Scottish law and continental jurisprudence in Europe helped me to think out-of-the-box in identifying new lines of arguments in Indian commercial and tax litigation.

You’ve been involved in significant matters under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and commercial litigation. Could you share some insights into the challenges and complexities you’ve faced in these areas, especially when dealing with issues such as avoidance applications, corporate liquidation, and company petitions for oppression and mismanagement?

I have only one insight. The task of an advocate in any complex litigation is to break the complexity into simplicity. Judges hate complexity and love simplicity. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” It requires enormous hard-work to reach this simplicity.

As a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, you’ve been involved in numerous domestic and international arbitrations. Can you discuss some of the key aspects of your experience in arbitration, including any notable cases or challenges you’ve encountered?

The glaring contrast between domestic and international arbitration is the professionalism in international arbitration. Timelines for pleadings, witness examination and arguments are scrupulously followed by the lawyers in international arbitration. The arbitral tribunal is also well prepared, having studied the pleadings and the evidence well ahead of the hearing. International arbitrators do not have a sense of loyalty to the party appointing them. Domestic arbitration has to travel a long way to catch up with international arbitration. Sitting as an international arbitrator, I see Indian lawyers and Indian law firms rise up to international standards. However, this is absent in domestic arbitrations.

Lastly, considering your wealth of experience, what advice would you offer to law graduates who are just entering the profession? Are there any key lessons or principles that you wish someone had shared with you at the beginning of your career?

First, take care of your health. Eat correctly and exercise regularly. Aim to live active and to ripe old age. 

Secondly, set one small goal, reach the goal. Then set another small goal and so on. Do this consistently. Small goals always trump large goals. 

Thirdly, remember the journey never ends. Thirty-eight years at the Bar, I am still learning law and improving my skills, daily.

Fourthly, be kind to yourself (but not indulgent).

Get in touch with Ramakrishnan Viraraghavan-

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