“The biggest challenge is improving professionalism among all involved, including lawyers and arbitrators, and developing arbitration institutions to make the system more efficient.” – Harish Narassapa, Senior Advocate at Karnataka High Court & Founder of DAKSH Society India

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

Hello, everyone! We are back again with SuperLawyer. Today we have senior advocate Harish Narasappa, Sir, who has graciously and humbly accepted our invitation to be here and tell us about his life journey, how he chose to become a lawyer and how he has achieved so much in his life. So, Sir, most welcome and thank you again for being here.

I would start with a very simple question and would love to understand how you started on your journey of choosing law as your career to becoming a senior advocate. And if you have faced any challenges, how did you come ahead of those challenges in your initial stages while pursuing law as a profession?

My journey with law actually started as an accident. I didn’t consciously choose law. During my 12th standard, the bundle commission report was implemented by the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Following this, there was significant agitation by various student groups, resulting in a couple of deaths and one student attempting to immolate himself. This deeply impacted me, prompting my interest in societal issues beyond science. Despite being a science student, a botany professor encouraged us to look beyond our textbooks and engage with societal issues.

This triggered an interest in social affairs and the potential impact of law. Coincidentally, the examination for that year was delayed, and I happened to write the entrance exam for the National Law School. The results were announced before those of the engineering and medical college entrance exams.

Instead of waiting at home, my uncle suggested I join for a couple of months. If I didn’t like it by then, I could quit and pursue engineering or medicine, he said. However, I ended up staying even after the other results were announced. In short, I initially joined law for a month, but I have now been in the field for nearly 30 years.

We would love to hear about your insights that you have gained through practicing law in both India and UK. What kind of differences have you seen or encountered in these two legal systems and the kind of jurisprudence that these two states or jurisdictions have nurtured for themselves?

In comparison, there are two or three points of comparison, right? One is the legal system, of course. But also in connection with how the legal profession is organized and because we started, you know, even when we were chatting before the formal interview about how do we train youngsters?

How do we train people who are just starting in the legal profession? How do we sort of help each other? How do we train each other? All these are important questions. And I feel that in India, we have not addressed these questions and if you ask me, the primary difference between the legal profession in England and the legal profession in India is the organized training and organized knowledge sharing that happens in the UK.

Primarily England, because I worked in London and not in other parts of the UK, but I had to go to London. And if you compare that to what happens in India. I mean, in India, there’s no organized system, right? You just pick up as you go on. If you’re lucky, you get seniors or mentors who will teach you the right things.

Otherwise, it’s just hit or miss in terms of which office you join. What you learn in court or whatever, nobody points you in the right direction. And there’s no continuing legal education in a formal fashion. Whereas in England, they’re a very organized set.

So I worked in a law firm for about four and a half years, between 98 and 2002. And the things that I learned there have stood me in great stead over these years. They’ve helped me a lot. For example, drafting. Simplicity in drafting, use of simple language is something that I learned in England.

And it gave me the confidence that you’re as bright as any other lawyer in the world. And with the right amount of training and the right focus on what to read, what not to read you can do much better. And the other thing that I learned in the UK is how do you transform a sort of non-legal idea into a legal document, so drafting a legal document, whether it’s an agreement or a plain or counter objections.

Or anything. How do you make it simple? And how do you get people to read it? So that’s it! The training that the English law firms, the training mechanism of the English law firms in particular and the English legal profession in general. The way they have instituted it, I think that is something amazing, and we have a lot to learn from that.

I think corporate law firms in India now have these mechanisms, but they’re still evolving. Whereas in courts and among litigation lawyers, there’s hardly any formal training. You’re expected to look, learn, and absorb.

That’s the primary difference. It also transforms the legal system itself. That kind of training and knowledge-sharing transforms into the legal system. The UK has a more predictable legal system compared to ours. We have a very dynamic legal system, to be kind to our own.

I feel there’s a lot we can learn from the English legal system in terms of organization and knowledge-sharing. The firm I worked for had almost all documents and opinions issued for 30 to 40 years available on their internal system. If faced with a difficult question and unable to find the answer among colleagues or in a textbook, all you had to do was look into the firm’s history, and you would find the answer.

That is something we don’t have here, partly because law firms are relatively new in India. They’re only about 20 to 25 years old in terms of large law firms. The way knowledge is shared and transferred, it’s hit or miss. If you’re lucky and get a good senior, then you get to learn.

Otherwise, you learn to swim on your own. Even when a couple of friends and I started, we tried to inculcate this in the firm. Even when we were just a four-lawyer firm, we had knowledge-sharing sessions among ourselves.

As we grew, it became non-negotiable. Every week, for about an hour and a half, the entire firm would gather, even now they do. It’s across offices now, of course, through VC and others, it’s easy.

Either someone is talking on a topic or they share what’s happening on different transactions in terms of knowledge, what’s happening in court. We share various things. I think that is a critical aspect. I know now that a few other firms also do it, but we need to go beyond that.

We need bar associations and bar councils to organize these sessions. Every month there should be some session for lawyers to attend, to learn. Simple things like how to dress in court, for example. I see a lot of young lawyers wearing unpolished shoes, mismatched socks, trousers of different colors, shirts of different colors, messy hair, and so on.

I mean, you can express yourself differently, but nobody has taught them. Nobody in law colleges tells them how to appear in court on day one. Now there are a lot of videos from different courts where judges are shouting at young lawyers, like, you don’t know how to address a court.

You’re not dressed properly. You know, what is this? I think these things can be avoided. Bar associations and bar councils can take the lead. But they don’t do it, unfortunately. Then also organized training on where to research, how to research, these are things that are easily possible but are not done. And I think that’s the biggest difference between the English legal professional and the Indian legal professional.

Based on what you’ve shared, I can grasp what likely motivated you to establish Samvad Partners and Daksh, the legal research organization you’ve passionately promoted and dedicated your efforts to for so long. I’m curious about the inspiration behind your book, “Rule of Law in India: A Quest for Reason.” Was it driven by the same reasons, or did you discover a distinct understanding of the disparity between legal ideals and their practical implementations in India? What ignited this realization? Your insights are poised to profoundly impact students, to be candid. They stand to gain valuable perspective from your experiences and reflections.

The challenges the Indian legal system faces are evident all around us. An example I often give is our disregard for basic legal norms, such as stopping at red signals. We seem to lack discipline in adhering to these norms.

Anyone who has traveled to different parts of the world knows that we are unique in this aspect. While some other countries may also witness similar behavior in traffic, such as jumping signals or driving on footpaths, it ultimately affects everyone negatively. If everyone were to follow traffic rules, we would all reach our destinations much faster, but unfortunately, chaos reigns on our roads.

This chaos symbolizes the disorder present in other aspects of the law. Our weak implementation mechanism is evident in our courts, where despite the high number of cases, there is minimal resolution on a daily basis. Chaos and confusion seem to be the norm, rather than organized proceedings.

Despite having comprehensive laws in place, as reflected in our legal texts and statutes, the contrast between what is written and what is practiced is stark. While the intent to establish a rule of law society has been present since 1947, practical challenges persist.

This disconnect between theory and reality led me to explore the lack of respect for the rule of law in India. Whether from individuals, government, political parties, or even the police and certain parts of the judiciary, there seems to be a general disregard for the law.

This exploration forms the basis of my book. It evaluates the dichotomy between legal theory and practice, delving into what the rule of law means in India and the type of rule of law envisaged by the Indian Constitution. After pondering these issues for some time, I decided to document my thoughts in writing, resulting in the creation of my book.

Sir, during this period, you pursued your master’s degree at Oxford University. What differences did you observe between your postgraduate experience there and the systems followed at NLSIU in India? How did this experience impact your approach to understanding law and academia simultaneously?

I think, to be completely honest, Oxford was an accident. Many of my friends were applying to study masters, and I also applied. Thankfully, I got a scholarship at Oxford, which is why I chose it over other universities.

Coming from a modest financial background, I am the first generation lawyer in my family. A full scholarship was available at Oxford, which influenced my decision. However, I’ve always felt that I gained more from National Law School than from Oxford. I’ve expressed this sentiment in other forums as well. Perhaps it’s because I joined National Law School in its early stages, with a dedicated faculty and inspirational leadership.

The learning experience at National Law School, both inside and outside the classroom, was invaluable. We were like a family in the initial years, all striving to prove the success of this new experiment in legal education.

In contrast, the depth of reading expected at Oxford was much greater. While the master’s course at Oxford focused on knowledge rather than creating lawyers, National Law School had a more practical approach. For instance, in my jurisprudence class at Oxford, the expectation was to read the entire reading list, including works by renowned legal philosophers like Raz and Dworkin, not just excerpts.

Overall, the teaching approach was similar, but Oxford’s tutorial system sets it apart from other universities.

Even now, small groups of three to four students sit with professors, engaging in in-depth discussions on every problem and topic, which is a unique system. In hindsight, I feel that perhaps I should have spent more time at Oxford; I only pursued a one-year master’s course. I likely would have benefited more from a two-year stint at Oxford. However, attending a venerable institution like Oxford, which boasts a legacy of 500 to 600 years, was a stark contrast to NLS, which was only five years old when I joined. It was a lesson in institution building and maintaining excellence over centuries, which has stayed with me alongside the legal knowledge I acquired.

Regarding the difference between the two institutions, the ability to delve deep into a problem is something Oxford instills in its students. NLS, on the other hand, imparted great fundamental principles of law. I often advise law firms and lawyers that the focus of law school should be on teaching fundamental principles rather than specialized courses, especially at the undergraduate level. While specialized courses have merit at the master’s level, a strong grounding in fundamental principles is essential during the undergraduate years.

Oxford, with its diverse student body, provided insights into various legal systems, planting the seeds for evaluating the Indian legal system and inspiring my book. Interacting with international students from countries like Germany, France, the US, and the UK allowed for comparisons between legal systems, leading to a deeper understanding of the Indian legal framework.

Sir, I would like to now ask you about when you became a designated senior advocate the kind of advice which you would like to give to our aspiring lawyers who are trying, or I would say who are looking to make an impact in the legal field as you have made, or maybe they can try, what would be your advice?

There’s no clear path to success. You need to follow your own interests and there’s no substitute for hard work. Everybody keeps telling that, and I fully agree. You have to work hard. There’s no shortcut unfortunately. Yes, you need to develop more skills because the profession is competitive. Clients can easily find out about your reputation and your peers who also have a reputation in the same area you’re working in.

Getting clients and legal work is challenging. It’s not easy. Unless you’re part of an establishment that supports you. Then you have time, but if you’re an individual lawyer with a solo practice, then you have to follow your interests, do things that interest you, develop an interest outside the law as well.

For example, if you have an interest in the environment, or AI as we talked about earlier, or computer science, learn that. And then, you don’t have to give up the law, but marry the two, try and marry the two. So you don’t treat your legal profession as something only sitting in the office and reading case laws or judgments.

Law is a profession rooted in society. So you have to see what’s happening around you in society. And try to interact with people in other professions, people in civil society. You may have cousins who are computer engineers, software engineers; talk to them, understand different things.

Expand your horizons. Hard work, expanding your horizons, reading, and following your heart. Follow your passion. And there’s no one road to success. You’ll get there eventually, but do what you like. Not because of what other people are doing, but because of what you like.

You have already worked as a partner in law firms, and as an independent practitioner also, what kind of differences have you observed in the kind of work culture these two roles had, and particularly when you became a senior advocate, there must have been different kind of responsibilities and kind of domains must have come where you had to find new ways to take care of those responsibilities also. So how have you adapted those changes in your life professionally, mostly, and what kind of journey you have had through all this going through more than two decades now?

As a partner in a law firm, teamwork is essential. It’s about building an organization, not just about individual efforts. You have your fellow partners and junior colleagues, and collectively, you ensure the firm’s operations run smoothly.

In a law firm, there’s a dual aspect – it’s both a profession and a business. Managing a team, including juniors and colleagues, is crucial for the firm’s success. Ensuring profitability is key, and this requires effective organization not only in executing tasks but also in areas like HR, accounts, and business development.

Transitioning to an independent senior advocate has its differences. The focus shifts from impressing clients to earning respect from fellow lawyers who brief you. What I miss most about the law firm environment is the camaraderie among colleagues.

Now, with a smaller team in my office, interactions with other legal professionals are broader but lack the close-knit atmosphere of a firm. Informal learning through spontaneous discussions and consultations is something I miss as an independent practitioner. Furthermore, the absence of backup when one falls ill poses challenges in solo practice. Unlike in a law firm where others can step in, an independent practitioner bears the sole responsibility.

However, being a senior advocate offers unique opportunities. Dealing with complex legal matters and high-stakes cases provides a sense of fulfillment. Though client pressures are still present, the focus shifts to a more profound engagement with legal questions and expertise.

While I miss the collegial environment of a law firm, the focus on pure legal matters in my current role is intellectually stimulating and rewarding. It presents new challenges and opportunities for growth at this stage of my career.

Thank you for sharing so candidly about how you feel being a senior advocate from being a partner to an independent solo practitioner. You have made your name in commercial arbitration, I would say that’s your niche and you have found that space for yourself by working for so long and so diligently. What kind of misconceptions have you seen that people have related to arbitration and how do you address them when it comes in front of you or maybe someone is apprehensive about those understandings? Would you like to suggest some pointers or maybe your own experience?

I won’t say misconceptions. If you’re dealing with large commercial organizations and they’re handling arbitration, everyone pretty much knows what arbitration is about. Clients understand what arbitration entails.

The challenge with arbitration in India currently, as noted by Justice Raveendran, one of the best arbitrators in the country, is the lack of professionalism. I couldn’t agree more with him. What does this mean? He didn’t elaborate. This is my view; he pointed it out in a different context. For example, arbitrations need to be held on time, adhering to the prescribed time limits.

If you’re appointed as an arbitrator or conciliator in arbitration, we forget it’s not just a private form of dispute resolution, but a serious one. In India, we’re still struggling with situations where arbitrators don’t arrive on time.

The other day, an arbitration scheduled for 10:30 AM had all participants logged in, but the arbitrator didn’t join until 10:45 AM due to illness, without prior notice. This poses professional challenges for lawyers, as we need to manage client expectations.

It’s not just arbitrators; sometimes even lawyers don’t show up on time, causing delays. Awards are not passed on time either. These are challenges we face in arbitration.

Many lawyers think arbitration is a diluted form of arguing disputes in court. They forget that regular provisions like the CPC and the Evidence Act need not apply. We can follow a procedure as long as natural justice is met. Some people cite lengthy provisions from the CPC and the Evidence Act, prolonging cross-examination.

The misconception that arbitration is a substitute for trial is something the Indian arbitration system needs to address. The biggest challenge is improving professionalism among all involved, including lawyers and arbitrators, and developing arbitration institutions to make the system more efficient.

See, because there are two challenges, Divya, in terms of the moment cases get taken out of the court system and they’re arbitrated. We are losing the jurisprudence, right? Arbitral awards are not available in public. They’re not published in ACC or AIR or whatever. And that is what’s happening in most commercial disputes. Commercial jurisprudence is not becoming available to all the general lawyers. Only the small set of lawyers who are arguing arbitration cases are aware of that.

So when we’re doing that, we’re taking away from the courts an enormous opportunity to develop commercial jurisprudence. Then we need to do it properly. We can’t mess it up. Currently, because there are no, except one or two, significant arbitration institutions in this country.

Mostly we have ad hoc arbitrations, and they have become unfortunately very expensive, very long, and extremely unprofessional. This is a combination of all three things. Yes, things are changing now. There are a lot of people making a lot of effort to improve things, to follow professional organizations from other parts of the world, etc.

But as I said, the examples in other countries have been around, like I was talking about the legal profession earlier, that has been there for a long time. Other countries have organized their professions much better. But we have not been able to do it. Those are challenges that we have not been able to overcome.

And that, I am afraid, and I hope it doesn’t happen, is plaguing, and probably will continue to plague our arbitration system. So, well, there are no misconceptions, but people come rosy-eyed, with rose-tinted glasses to arbitration thinking they’ll get an award in six months. Sometimes it drags on for three years, four years.

And that’s frustrating. So that is a challenge that we are facing in arbitration. But I’m hopeful because there are a lot of developments in the arbitration world in India. Hopefully, things will improve.

How do you take care of your personal hobbies and interests? And balance your personal life with the kind of busy professional life that you have outside the law. How do you do all these things? Keep yourself calm and learn and understand how world works. Please tell us that as well, Sir.

That’s what all of humanity has been searching for, right? I mean, we’ve been searching for peace. From the times of the Buddha. We’re all searching for peace. Apart from all that, I think you raised an important question.

And I think Indian lawyers, in my view, work way too hard. For example, judges also, while we complain about the delays and all, I think Indian judges work extremely hard and so do Indian lawyers. There’s no respect for their own time.

And it’s something when we started Samvad we were very conscious of, and Samvad has a reputation even today that it’s a firm that balances work and life. And we were able to do that in that organization, but that comes with challenges, you know, young people want to make money, because their peers and other law firms are making money, more money.

So how do you deal with that? And it’s a difficult conundrum. In terms of whether you want to make money when you’re young and save all the money for later. And you don’t know whether you will be able to enjoy or do you want to do it now? I mean, these are questions that are difficult to answer. I have been lucky in the sense that I’ve been able to manage a reasonably good work-life balance.

So two things are important. One, you need to enjoy what you’re doing. Okay. And I know you asked me the question about Daksh earlier. The fact that I started Daksh at the same time as I started my law firm, and I continued to be involved in Daksh sort of encouraged me to spend more time in the profession also.

So you should do what you’re interested in. The fact that I was doing things beyond the pure practice of law and into policy research made me focus more on the profession also. Because I knew what I was doing, what I’m able to do. So all that is important. And at the same time, along with policy work or legal professional work, having time for your family or kids.

And what you like otherwise is also important. So in a long way, I’m coming, answering the question you asked. I’m lucky to have a few things that I enjoy. I like running. I run regularly. I like climbing mountains, I do a fair amount of trekking.

My daughter started playing tennis, so I began learning the sport to join her. Simple activities, when focused on, can yield significant benefits. My grandfather, now deceased, was a farmer who shared insights on various crops and fruits he cultivated.

Showing interest in the world around you is essential. Sometimes, we become engrossed in our tasks, but paying attention can naturally develop hobbies. These experiences have prompted me to realign my focus on work.

Regarding learning from others, observing their actions is crucial. For instance, I recall reading about Soni Saurabh ji, who was renowned in jazz music circles. Lawyers engage in diverse professions; recently, I visited an organic restaurant in Bangalore owned by a lawyer. Exploring different interests can enhance focus and efficiency in one’s profession.

Get in touch with Harish Narasappa-

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