Phiroza Anklesaria is right: The plight of junior advocates in India is terrible; and it affects you too

In a recent interview of Phiroza Anklesaria, she narrates how she narrowly missed out on becoming a High Court Judge. At the height of her career, Anklesaria wrote a scathing article criticising the terrible plight of junior advocates in the profession that sank her prospects. What surprised me was how little had changed in the years since then.

Supreme Court of India. Image from PTI

Supreme Court of India. Image from PTI

There are roughly four categories of juniors at the bar: Connected and Meritorious; Connected and Unmeritorious; Unconnected and Meritorious, and lastly, Unconnected and Unmeritorious. Others fall between these categories. (I must bashfully admit that I am somewhere in between the first two, but precariously in danger of teetering more towards the second.) The gestation period in the profession is a long one and law has a steep learning curve, taking about five to seven years to get a basic grip on, and a lifetime to learn. It helps to have the guidance of a senior: To paraphrase Sith teachings, a Master and Apprentice: One to embody the power of the law; the other to crave it.

Those who belong to Category No 1 and 2 (fortuitously, sometimes No 3) usually end up joining the chambers of a senior advocate to learn the ropes. Even so, this senior is seldom required to pay his apprentice anything. No law, or even unwritten professional courtesy or duty, even requires him to do so (quite unusual, for a profession so steeped in tradition).

The junior, meanwhile, is supposed to feel obliged towards his senior for having been given the honour and opportunity to carry his briefs or his umbrella with him, and of course, in passing, the opportunity to learn. Meanwhile, the excesses, temper tantrums, tirades, and in some cases, even sexual harassment of the senior are to be quietly tolerated. Having no connections, it is usually No 3 who bears the brunt of this trauma.

For all of his or her deference, years of toil, and free research, the junior may be ‘rewarded’ with a princely first salary of Rs. 10,000 a month, or later, a small brief. For someone to have spent three to five years in a law college, expecting to be well-equipped enough to earn a livelihood, this is a sorry state of affairs.

Category No 1 has the best of everything. The raw talent and legal acumen required to build a successful practice, along with the right connections (the relative of a senior advocate or better still, a judge) to keep up a steady inflow of work. Category No 2 is the more interesting proposition, because he lacks the aforesaid merit to truly become great. Nevertheless, thanks to the connections, there will be no shortage of work for him, and he can always engage a counsel (with various fee scales ranging from modest to astronomical) on behalf of his client who is more competent than he.

What matters is the inflow of work - and the cut that can be taken.

Those from Categories 3 and 4 usually wind up in law firms, which follow a similarly tragic pattern, with the only difference being that what is described above now comes with an infusion of characteristically exploitative corporate culture fed down the hierarchy from partner to junior associate. Reports suggested that a stipend for juniors was in the pipeline, but that seems to have fallen through.

By now you might be thinking this is an internal problem – the province of the Bar Council alone to handle – but unfortunately, as is often the case, it is you, the ordinary citizen and litigant, who suffers. It is your access – and just as importantly, your Government’s access – to a better class of lawyer, and by extension, a better class of judge, and ultimately justice, which is thwarted.

Meanwhile, bright men and women are kept out of bounds by impervious glass ceilings, while the mediocre move ahead.

Samarth Moray practices in Bombay High Court

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Updated Date: May 29, 2016 13:59:22 IST

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