By Protik Da

If you have decided to start and end your professional career as an associate in a law firm, you may resume surfing the net for jobs or titillation.

On the mischance that you decide to go into independent practice or start a firm on your own, especially in Kolkata, you may find this installment to be of interest.

You are not into the profession just for charity or to be Clarence Darrow. You want to become independent, perhaps pay off an educational loan or look after your parents or at least augment their income; more frequently there is someone to whom your word is ‘trothed and you must therefore marry her before the year is out: yet man (or for that matter woman) cannot live on hot air, sex and romance.

You all need money. That has to come from the profession that you have chosen.

In Kolkata, being an honest young lawyer, or a junior advocate as we call it, is not the best of things. First, as I have written in the past, you do not get cases until you have made a name for yourself and you cannot, obviously, make a name for yourself unless you have got cases.

A typical Catch 22 situation when you see a class-mate, not particularly brilliant, putting on his gown and then breezing into a court room with his first brief, coming back in the evening with loads of backsheets and papers for drafts to be done.

The fact that his father is a sitting Judge has nothing to do with it. I am sure all the solicitors suddenly found out that this fresh law graduate with a pathetic grade point average is actually the next Soli Sorabjee or Fali Nariman—at the same time.

It rankles for those who are first generation lawyers, I am sure. I wouldn’t know. I have had a privileged background. Yet I can guess.

Well then, you have managed to impress one of the friends of your father and got a case or someone from the locality has seen your shingle and after having lost or been overcharged everywhere else has come to you with his life’s worth: a case that will make or break him; perhaps a mortgage on his house and office, perhaps a disciplinary proceeding at work. Something that is really important to him, and thus to you, since it is your first case.

You put in long-man-hours, you research like crazy, the online free law-sites and law libraries now reek of your unwashed and regular presence, the legal notepads beside you look like first drafts of Nobel-winning theories.

You have read thousands of pages of correspondence, show causes, contracts, statutes, rules, regulations, directives, circulars, policy notes and perhaps even the Law Commission Reports and the 5 Year plans apart from the Constitution of India, the Code of Civil Procedure, the Indian Contract Act, the Indian Evidence Act…whew, I have become tired enumerating the stuff you have had to actually read.

You have had at least ten conferences with the client (more correctly consultations, since conference refers to what you, an advocate, have with quondam counsel and not the client) and finally you are ready to draft your magnum opus; perhaps your opus primus.

It is at this stage that the ugly head of practicality rears its head. The last two weeks you have ignored even basic hygiene to prepare yourself to be able to do the work.

You are going to draft what you have to do, file it in court or represent your client before a forum, domestic or public, and if necessary you are going to argue his case for him.

So all this work that you did and all that you would do and the money you have already spent as expenses (including library fees, taxi fares, photocopying and taking printouts): who is going to pay for it and when?

Of course the simplest, boldest and most honest approach would be to ask your client for cost plus, or some money on account after giving him a ball-park estimate.

Yet we have already established that you are not the sort of a person to whom clients actually throng: you are really afraid that if you do importune the client for fees, perhaps he will take his custom elsewhere in a huff, alongwith all the work that you have done, WITHOUT PAYING FOR IT.

Even if you have established yourself, unless you ensure that your fees and expenses are paid up front, at least as advance or on-account, you can never be sure that the work that you do on credit will be compensated for or the expenses would be reimbursed.

The client may defer payment and delay meeting you for the purpose for so long that when you meet him next you will be hard put to recognize him. The client may ultimately not pay at all; he may try to settle your bill at a fraction of what you have charged him.

All this happens to junior advocates in Kolkata. In the meanwhile, your bills have to be paid and the commitments you made, to the clerk, to the guy who runs the photocopy shop, to your staff, have to be fulfilled. You have to reimburse yourself for the court fees stamp that you purchased.

As a start-up you need to know what the market will bear and how much you can charge. Over the years, the erosion and escape of capital from West Bengal the scope of high ticket litigation has decreased. It is now very much of too few cases being chased by too many lawyers.

The laws of demand and supply apply. The lawyers often compete with each other in lowering their fees to get clients. This is the ground reality. In the category of cases I have enumerated, there is always a side with a lot more bargaining power and the other side, which is a pygmy by comparison. Guess who gets to represent the pygmy?

Whether you get Croesus or Tyrion Lannister, the result is that your client knows how much is usually charged by lawyers of different categories for the work in question.

He knows for example that a demand notice under the SARFAESI Act, 2002 is usually written in bulk by the bank’s retained lawyers at five hundred bucks a shot, if that much, and the reply is written by junior advocates at fees between three hundred and forty rupees to five hundred and ten rupees (for some inexplicable reason, in Kolkata we still bill by the archaic system of Gold Mohurrs—called GMs—which are valued at Rs.17).

So if you, on opening up a law-firm, quote Rs.25,000/- to your corporate client for a reply to such a notice or for drafting a winding up notice, the chances are that it would be the last time you would hear from the client, though the client will have a lot to say about you, usually over lunch or cocktails at the club.

He knows that an average nationalized Bank gives the retained lawyer a maximum of Rs.6,500/- for the entire duration of an original application made before the Learned Debts Recovery Tribunal under the Recovery of Debts due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 and unless you can generate counsel fees by engaging highly paid counsel for most of the dates, that is all you get.

What arrangement you enter with the learned counsel is always sub rosa. So if you, a young lawyer, impress a highly placed executive in the bank’s law cell or recovery department, and then ask for Rs.50,000/- as initial deposit for handling an Original Application you are not likely to get the Bank’s retainer-ship or work.

There must be an answer: some way where a young lawyer manages to get paid for the work he does, whether as the owner of a law-firm or an independent practitioner.

There are some ways which have worked over the years, some which are as yet untried. I would love to relate them all but this has become very unwieldy as it is.

Why don’t I come back next week after the Pujas, and see what you law students have been able come up with and then add my quack remedies to it? Feel free to comment.

Protik Prokash Banerjee, fondly called Protik Da is a Kolkata based lawyer.

Image from here.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Problem in our country is that around 90% of mid level and Senior Lawyers, both, would never encourage/motivate a student or a young lawyer to proceed with the profession with a zeal or enthusiasm, instead, they discourage, by making them counting just about the hardships and struggles. And good to know that, this article also is doing the same…If someone is on this page, that definitely means, he knows the problems but is looking for a solution and unfortunately, this article is confirming his doubts. Problem is every where, whichever profession you go into. All you need is faith and confidence on yourself. only 4 things are required to establish your practice:
    1. Confidence on yourself (Without which, even hard work doesnt pays)
    2. Faith on God
    3. Hard Work
    4. Smart work (Also includes ‘Proper Planning’)
    And I am sure, these 4 things can land any professional to heights of success.

    With Regards
    Dheeraj Kumar

  2. Hi, I wish young lawyers would step out of the little comfort zones they find in law firms or with some senior. Well, I am a lawyer myself and a person who runs an IP Protection/Enforcement and market intelligence company, wherein we regularly need lawyers when it comes to filing of suits for Design or Trademark infringement or work in the TM offices- filing, oppositions, renewals or revocations, else we majorly carry out criminal enforcement actions pan India. I am always on the look out for young lawyers who know the subject matter and have that fire but sadly sadly I am yet to come across such young lawyers in Delhi and elsewhere who we would be glad to taken on assignments from us. There is no dearth of work. In the absence of young lawyers, by necessity we route our civil work to law firms and senior established lawyers which I honestly hate doing because I was also once a young lawyer and I know how it works. If there are some young lawyers as mentioned above, they may reach us at [email protected]
    To my young friends, always remember an old hindi saying which I shall translate to my best ability ” The grass never grows/flourishes under a big Banyan tree”

  3. Dear protik,

    what have you to say to a lady who having put in 30 years of service in the government insurance sector and doling out the measly sum mentioned by you to several empanelled lawyers, now goes solo at age 62. height of optimism or sheer foolishness.
    puja days are over so waiting for your next write up.
    Oh I forgot to mention I am Mumbai Based.

  4. All in all its a good write up. I have worked (as a client), with counsel’s & senior counsel’s, with Jr lawyers in Civil, Magistrate, High, & I have appeared pro se in the SC. I can assure you most of the stuff written by Protik da are true & correct. I am in the 4th year of law.

  5. @protik da
    The best way I think is to find a senior lawyer to work under, who would be “willing” to take one in as his chamber junior. I stress on willing and will take it up later. That way one can learn the basics of litigating as well as small tips and tricks of the trade, get himself acquainted with a lot of people who may matter in one’s career in the long run and there by at least get his face known around the court. And maybe if one is lucky, one can also get a few cases from the senior if he himself is overburdened. This bit is just a maybe because I have no reference to back it up!
    Now coming to the most important and difficult bit for a first generation novice like myself: the stress on the “willing”ness of the senior to employ an unknown junior. When one has no one in the legal business and no references or even contacts as such, how does one go about finding a senior for oneself? Can one just expect to turn up at some known and respectable lawyer’s door or if not carried to that extreme, just pop up through an email in his mailbox, and be recruited as a junior? Can that even happen? Would an accomplished or even a struggling lawyer( who is at least busy in the struggle) spare any time to meet a stranger law graduate with no references? Don’t they just take in juniors who a friend or family or another or a friend of a friend has recommended to them and set up meetings with? Then how do I go about the whole process of finding a senior who would be willing to employ me? I am in urgent need of a solution to this problem and am at my wit’s end in trying to figure it out. Protik da, I know you are not God, so hoping this question is mortal enough for an advocate of your stature to answer and guide a clueless beginner who hopes to do as well in the future. On a more humble note, please help!

  6. From my perspective i.e. a Final year law student from Mumbai+ several years in a non law field.

    The key thing to getting and retaining clients is ‘inspiring confidence’ that you can do the job.

    I think its important to understand this from the perspective of people who are looking for advocates to whom they can entrust their matters. I have come across quite a few people who do several rounds of lawyers before settling on one (unless it’s by reference)

    Just as young advocates have concerns of not being paid, people are equally concerned that if they pay up front, the advocate isn’t going to pay much attention to their case.

    So coming back to inspiring confidence bit, my few borrowed bits:

    1. Reasonable fees. Staying in the know about the ‘going rates’ and staying close to it. Not too high but not too low. By the time the client has got to you, he would have spoken to 6 other advocates and has a fairly good idea of the rates.
    2. Not appearing too eager (or desperate) for work
    3. Being as transparent as you can be about what they can expect ahead. And being firm about what your charges are stage wise. If you give a little, clients would love to take the whole ten yards. The stage wise fees would perhaps ensure that even if the client disappears mid way, you have at least covered what you have worked for.
    4. Being accessible and easy to deal with. This is one I have heard friends and family gripe about the most in their dealings with advocates.
    5. The X factor — which could be all of the above added up and the fact that a client just feels ‘comfortable’ with you.

  7. I guess I can hazard a guess at the answer. Im a final year law student, and want to enter the litigation space, though whether I practically can as a 1st Gen lawyer is the question.

    In my mind, the problem has two parts:

    1. Getting clients (hard)
    2. Getting the client to pay you (also hard, but less so than 1).

    For 1:

    There is no solution really, except to join a senior lawyer, or a lit law firm. Best is to join a senior who will allow one to take ones own cases in spare time. Law firms probably will not do this, but will pay more, and you can still learn procedure while making a living. Also, some amount of contacts are bound to come your way even in a firm. Promotion of your brand can be made through friends, family, family friends, and anyone else. I guess moementum can be built up in a few years, maybe 2 or 3. But working at a firms Lit department is probably best for those who cannot sustain themselves during the waiting period.

    For 2:

    In the beginning, I guess one just has to figure out the market rate that is applicable to services provided by junior counsel, and bump them upwards a little bit (not much). In a mature market like Delhi, where I, and a lot of other counsel intend to set up their practices, money is not always a consideration. People will be willing to pay a basic rate.

    Using the above two points, I think that if one joined a dedicated litigation firm, one would receive a grounding in the law, and 60K per month, even if one would never get to argue. Procedure is something that one would pick up. But valuable face time in court would not happen right away.

    If one joined counsel, then pretty much I guess one can expect no more than 10K per month retainership, but more realtime experience in arguments. Also, Im told seniors often pass on work to juniors, so this would be a valuable relationship to foster.

    Net-net, if youve got some family support, Id say option two would probably work out better, because youd be getting real cases of your own, which you can really learn something on.

  8. Harish, I don’t talk in third person all the time. Usually I use the second person. Here, I am using the first person. I have always thought using the first person too much is very egotistical. If we have to, then let us try using ‘One’.
    For example, instead of saying I have always loved playing hooky, try ‘One has always been fond of playing hooky’. Part of the archaic, quaint educational system that made us, I guess!
    Pax.

  9. Pratap, bro, if I knew all the answers to all those questions, I would be God. I can assure you, I don’t and can’t walk on water, though I am thinking of going to Puri these Pujas when my family and juniors would certainly like to see me try.

    I know a few solutions. However, before I give them out I want you guys to think for yourself. Otherwise it will be me writing AT you, talking AT you, and we will not be having this virtual conversation. Capisce?

  10. Would have been a better article if it had done what it promised in the title, and told us how to make a living as a junior counsel.

    So far, it has only outlined the problem, and that, Im pretty sure all of us are already all too familiar with.

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