Associates, In-House Counsels & Advocates

Sannoy Das, Advocate, Calcutta High Court, on LL.M from Harvard and career experience in independent litigation

Sannoy Das graduated from NLU Jodhpur in 2011 with a B.Sc.LL.B (Hons.) in Business Laws. His achievements during law school include winning the North India Rounds of the Phillip C. Jessup Memorial International Moot Court Competition in 2010. He was also a student volunteer at IDIA. After graduation, he was placed at Majumdar & Co., Mumbai, where he worked for a short period before switching to practising as an Advocate at Calcutta High Court. After three years of practice, he successfully applied to Harvard Law School, where he is currently a student. In this interview he talks about:

  • Mooting experience at Jessup
  • Shifting from a law firm job to litigation
  • Law school experience at Harvard Law School

 

Please introduce yourself to our readers. How did you decide to take up law?

At different times, I’ve called Mysore and Kolkata home; for a tiny bit, even Delhi. I started going to school in Mysore, and finished most of it in Kolkata, at M.P. Birla. As for law, it might have been accidental, but it’s been a while ago, so I’m a little foggy. A good friend of mine was preparing to take the exams (many back then), and I went along with her. If I hadn’t studied law, I’d have probably taken up political science.

 

You graduated from NLU Jodhpur in 2011 with a B.Sc.LL.B(Hons) in Business Laws. How was your law school experience?

It’s impossible to have a coherent strain of thought running through five years of law school. I’m sure I did a lot of things wrong, but I’m sure I left more happy than sad. I wish I had digested a few more books at the library, but one is always wiser in hindsight. Of course, as far as lessons in life go, five years at a residential law school are about as good as you will get. I also met my wife at law school. And they gave me the VC’s gold medal to go with it! So pretty good overall!

 

You had Honours in Business Laws. Tell us about the Honours program at NLU-J. What other co- curricular and extra-curricular activities were you involved in, in law school?

I think the Honours programs at NLU are pretty well designed. I think the idea of concentrations in different areas of law is a good one, and to say the least, the courses at NLU-J are well conceived. I could crib that at times, the courses weren’t well facilitated, but that seems to be a common complaint across our law schools. I think it’s also somewhat unfortunate that the overwhelming majority chose the business law concentration. I’m certainly guilty of having followed a crowd in that. Again, hindsight! I think for the Honours programs to make a good impact on a student, foundational courses have to be well-taught, and well imbibed. I think there’s a chance that at times, we slip on that count.

As for other activities, I think I spent much more time on those than I’d consider prudent. Moot courts took up a lot of time. Even now, I don’t think I have had enough of them. I spent a few years on the moot court committee, finally as its joint convenor. I also took to debating (the parliamentary style) in college. Also, I played some badminton.

 

You and your team won the North India Rounds of the Philip C. Jessup Memorial International Moot Court Competition in 2010. What are the important skills and knowledge one must possess in order to be a good mooter?

Winning the North Rounds felt like a big deal. It was. We had to get over a very formidable NUJS team which had my good friend Deepak on it. We lost at the octa-final stage at the world rounds to Columbia. Till date, I’m sore about it. I think the months that I indulged in Jessup were the best months I spent at the University and I cannot stop gushing about it. Only recently, my team mate Manu Sanan said that Jessup now is a warm fuzzy memory. It really is; replete with an insane number of terribly lousy internal jokes. I only have good things to say about that experience. The team became great friends and still are. Not to forget our amazing coaches Giriraj and Yakshay.

In mooting, as in everything, I suppose practice makes (somewhat) perfect. I had to go at it round over round. Of course, the love for research is very important. It’s more than just skill. Everyone on our team had a zealous drive to read one more article, one more book and one more case. As for speaking, I imagined I wasn’t too bad it, but it took many rounds of grilling to deliver some decent performances at the competition. I quite enjoyed picking up the best speaker awards at the India rounds. Even the world rank wasn’t too bad!

Jessup continued to be a love affair thereafter. I’ve coached a few teams with varying degrees of success (but mostly disappointment). In my fifth, I enlisted as advisor to the NUJS team that year. They did a fantastic job at the international rounds.

 

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What internships did you do as a law student? What were your reasons for doing each of them and how was your experience?

I was quite conservative about picking internships. I wouldn’t advise that any longer. I suppose an internship each at AMSS and AZB improved the chances of landing a job at a law firm, but I no longer find that an attractive idea. I have very little to talk about those internships, although I did decent work during most of them. I think I got lucky getting assigned to good partners each time. If I had to give a word of advice about picking internships, I’d strongly recommend getting a variety of experiences, at different courts and different sorts of firms.

 

Upon graduating, you started working at Majmudar & Co., Mumbai as an Associate. How did you secure your appointment? Please describe the interview and induction procedure for a fresher?

I was recruited to Majmudar on the first day of our recruitment process. Majmudar, back then, had the best recruitment procedure, which involved a three stage gruelling process – quite like big firms in other countries. The fact that their process was so thorough made me want to take the job. Also, the fact that it was a mid-sized firm meant that I was likely to shoulder more responsibility than a typical first year associate. That again, was an important factor in accepting their offer. I can’t say what it is to be inducted there now, it’s been a while since I left; but it’s certainly a good place to go if a fresher is willing to be at the business end of things in a short span of time. One tends to get baptized by fire there.

 

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You worked at Majmudar & Co. for six months. What did your work and responsibilities consist of? What were your reasons for leaving within such a short span of time?

I have no complaints about the work I got at Majmudar. I had plenty of it, and that kept me happy. And I had enough time to savour Mumbai; all the good food and drink (in generous measure). So, maintaining the balance certainly wasn’t my problem. I advised on some corporate issues but most of my work was concentrated around huge sets of cases that we were handling across courts in India, and at the Bombay High Court in particular. I really cherish the exposure I had to high end litigation work in the earliest days of my career.

Why did I leave? I had some reasons to go back to Calcutta. Also, the litigation bug bit me pretty strong while at Majmudar. Being at the Bombay High Court gave me a push to the ‘other’ side. So I packed my bag and imagined making forceful arguments every day at the Calcutta High Court.

 

After leaving, you started practicing in Calcutta as an Advocate. Did you work under a senior lawyer or start your own practice? What were your reasons for moving from a corporate setting to litigation?

Calcutta maintains the traditional solicitor-barrister/counsel divide. I cast my lot on the side of counsels, joined the bar library club and attached myself to the chamber of Mr. Samit Talukdar, one of the most prominent senior advocates of the court. In about three months, I had a few briefs trickling in. Then I had quite a few. As I said, the sheer attraction of arguing from the bar had drawn me to litigation. I lived some bit of it in the three years at the High Court. I had moved from wearing a tie to wearing a gown, but I was essentially practising a lot of company and commercial law. Even so, the sort of research that goes into preparing to write a brief or argue a case was infinitely more challenging than anything I had done before. It was like doing Jessup every day, at high speed. It was thrilling to be in the midst of volumes of case reports, treatises and piles of petitions. Very soon, my room at home, which I doubled up as an office, looked like a godown. Doing good litigation delivers great satisfaction, but mostly it’s a humbling experience, as I realized every day how much more there was to learn. I worked on a few matters with the top counsels of the court (and indeed of the country), and the challenge of being a worthwhile junior on a matter was quite great. I think I didn’t do too badly. Every once in a while, I heard a word of appreciation that made me dizzy with delight.

 

After three years of practice, you decided to study further. What were your reasons for doing so, especially when the general notion is that for a career in litigation one requires practical experience more than an LL.M?

It’s a somewhat correct notion that an LL.M. isn’t the best idea right in the middle of growing practice. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t advised against it, and that came from quarters whose wisdom I have no reason to doubt. My seniors at the bar quite correctly advised me to be circumspect about making the decision. And I was. I don’t think I really made up my mind till pretty late. If I am to be really pragmatic, I doubt this LL.M. can have anything to do with setting up a better practice; at least not in Calcutta. If anything, having lost a year at a time when my practice was picking up, means having lost momentum. Fortunately, I did not make the decision of doing this LL.M. pragmatically. I did it because I simply felt some sort of an intellectual thirst, if you will. Not to suggest that working on cases can’t quench it, but I was craving to be theoretical, and was interested in taking liberties that I couldn’t have done while remaining committed to a client!

 

Please tell us about your decision to pursue an LL.M at Harvard Law School. Please share some advice on acing the application requirements and procedure for Harvard.

I’ve always gushed at the name Harvard. I’ve been here a while, and I still do. Not because it’s a reasonable thing to do, but I don’t espouse being reasonable all the time. As I said, I hadn’t decided about actually taking the year off to study when I applied. But when the admission letter came along, I think it was quite hard to look away. It also coincided happily with my wife’s career plans, and she was quite sure about taking her place up at the Chicago Law School. I think I’ve made a few decisions that don’t sit well with rationality. I wouldn’t advise following suit, as a matter of reasonableness. But I would advise it as a matter of principle, because I think it’s quite silly for us to be tied to decisions that we make when we’re all quite young. Not marriage of course. That one is forever!

Applying to an LL.M., whether at HLS or elsewhere, requires some amount of dedication in crafting the materials. The key is just to start early in the admission cycle – get the referees to send in their letters and the universities in India to send in the transcripts etc. After that, it’s about writing a solid essay. I think the essay requires some good imagination more than anything else. I wrote my application on issues of private international law, because at that time I was quite committed to thinking about rules that govern conflict between jurisdictions. I think the essay requires the demonstration of both a clear understanding of a particular legal issue and a reasonable framework for thinking about solutions.

 

It’s a dream for many law students to get through to Harvard Law School. What would be one thing they should necessarily do as a law student?

They should necessarily study hard. It’s sine qua non to be reasonably well grounded in the laws of the jurisdiction one hails from. I can’t imagine what the factors are, that determine the selection process; I’m just lucky to be here. But if I were to hazard a guess, I think the admissions people at the top law schools are able to discover if the candidate has some real intellectual thirst.

 

What were the subjects you were specialising in at Harvard? How has your experience been? Did you indulge in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities there?

I came in imagining that I’d study a set of subjects that are useful in cross-border litigation. Instead, I’ve spent the year studying international and comparative law, international trade and legal theory. The LL.M. dissertation is focussed on an issue in international trade law (which for selfish reasons, I shall keep to myself). For the most part, I’ve been excited taking classes at HLS. I think the distinguishing feature of the experience for me has been the compulsion that I have felt to think critically, not only about existing regulation, but also about the existing normative views.

HLS is abuzz with opportunities outside the classroom framework, and I’ve delighted myself attending a host of talks, conferences and symposia. Unfortunately, an LL.M. lasts only a year, and one can’t have everything. I’d have liked to do a lot of things in this one year – be a research assistant, work at the library, join a journal. I’ve managed none of that. Except Jessup. I enlisted as a coach to the team from HLS. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it past the semi-finals at the Northeast Regionals. Till now, one of the highlights of the HLS year has been a fellowship with the Salzburg Cutler Program, which is an awesome conference on all things about international law. It was my first taste of what it is like to defend a paper at a really serious academic workshop.

 

Tell us about the faculty and facilities at Harvard. Please share with us a memorable incident from Harvard.

One can’t have enough of being in awe of the faculty at Harvard. Everyone I’ve encountered is brilliant. I have special regard for my supervisor, Professor Mark Wu. But generally, it’s an environment where the intellectual stimulation is beyond anything I’ve experienced before.

Watching six feet of snow accumulate over a week is pretty memorable. Otherwise, having studied under (the quite legendary) Duncan Kennedy, now in his year before retirement, is something worth writing in a diary.

 

Going forward, how do you see your LL.M qualification would add to your career? Do you think of working abroad ever? Will you return to litigation?

This is a question I’m not fully equipped to answer. I can make absolutely no prediction of how my career will be affected by this LL.M. I’m certainly not looking to work in a law-firm here. I can’t say further about litigation because I’m yet to sit down and make some hard choices. I am hoping to do some international trade related work.

 

Please share with us your experience in litigation. What is one thing that gives premier law school students an edge over others in litigation?

I’ve already spoken as to what my experience was as a counsel at the High Court. I enjoyed the work that I did at the High Court, and the challenges that came with doing that work. I think the second bit of this question is ill-conceived. I eschew the premier law school tag, and I think it’s an undeserving badge. Many of my contemporaries at the Calcutta High Court didn’t attend these so called ‘premier’ institutions, but were more competent than I could pretend to be. I suppose rigorous academic training makes a difference, but that’s certainly more up to the student than the institution. If on a general review, we could say that some law schools train students better than some others, then there’d be some advantage starting off; but, it gets quickly eroded in practice. I don’t think law schools train students to be practitioners, and I don’t think it’s their job to so. I think the real advantage rests with those who can learn the law as it gets applied in courts, quickly, along with court-craft and litigation strategy.

 

Does the Calcutta High Court environment get stressful? What would be your suggestion to a fresher who is graduating this year and would join Calcutta High Court?

I don’t know of any workplace where the environment causes absolutely no stress. Sure, there’s a fight for space and recognition, but it isn’t a place that a reasonably robust individual cannot survive. I was certainly privileged in the sense that I got to join a really good chamber and my senior was invested in my career. Also, I had plenty of financial muscle from my family to hold me up. Therefore, I don’t think my experience can be representative of the struggle that some others might have to go through, and I don’t intend to paint a picture that is rosier than reality. Having offered that as a caveat, I do think that the High Court is a good place to start (and continue) a great career in litigation. Of course, the court isn’t as active in the commercial space as the courts in Delhi and Mumbai, but there’s still enough work to be done. I think it’s important to have spent some time at the court before making the decision, and a graduating student would at least need to know who the best (and the most indulgent) seniors are.

 

How much politics would you say is involved on the Calcutta High Court premises? How do you say one can possibly keep oneself away from this?

If you are talking about factions in the profession, then my answer would be – yes, there are some and people get invariably implicated. Also, depending on the affiliation that a lawyer has (bar association/bar library club/incorporated law society), a degree of factionalism is almost impossible to avoid. I suppose a generally conscientious person can manage the fine line between good association and vile politicking. Also, I think the affiliations make for good cricket tournaments and the like!

If you are talking of a political atmosphere, then I think it’s only fair that legal professionals have political views and are engaged in lawyering to achieve political ends. I think lawyering is a way of expressing ourselves as political beings and I certainly wouldn’t be shy in doing that.

 

Who are your mentors and/or guides you look forward to for advice?

I feel quite blessed because of the number of people who have advised me well during various stages from law school to the profession. I often turn to Justice N.N. Mathur, our former Vice Chancellor whenever I need to talk about career ideas, as also some of the senior advocates I worked with – my chamber senior Mr. Talukdar, Mr. S.N. Mookerji and Mr. Jishnu Saha. And my professors here at HLS – particularly, Mark Wu. However, I think the list is much longer and I must repeat myself in saying that I am indebted to more than a few people for having been mentors and guides.

 

Lastly, what advice would you like to give our readers?

I’m not going to pretend to have seen enough to dole out any meaningful advice. But to law students, I’d stress on the importance of being grounded in studying law at law school, and then making career decisions after seeing a wide spectrum of possibilities. I think there is considerable pressure exerted in law school to pick certain career paths, and while those are often excellent choices, they don’t work out so well for everyone.

 

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