Litigation as a Career Option: All That You Need to Know

By Tanuj Kalia [1]

Litigation, according to some, is the ‘pure’ practice of law. Two ‘advocates’, each representing a client, fight it out in a court of law, before a judge. It is the representation of the practice of law, as you see it in the movies. Here is the reality of litigation as a career option.

Pros and Cons

The Pros

The excitement [about litigation] lies in the fact that you can actually see the result of what you do – when you are an associate in a law firm, copying and pasting standard formats written by someone else, a long time back, and changing names and particulars, ultimately you do not get to see the result – you cannot point at a merger between two business giants and say ‘there, I did that’.

Yet in litigation, when your client walks home with a decree for damages against a multinational, or an order directing that Central Bureau of Investigation investigates a crime committed against your near and dear, you can justly pat yourself on the back and say, “there, I did that”.  You get your name in the Judgment as the arguing counsel, which will be there for eternity – or at least as long as the medium of printing/writing/preservation of records exists [2].

The Cons 

For a newbie, carving out space for him/herself as a litigating lawyer can be pretty tough. This is largely due to the fact that for beginners, litigation pays peanuts -if you are lucky, that is.

In the Madras High Court, the average salary you get under a senior is Rupees 8,000-15,000 per month. In the Delhi High Court, it is Rupees 12,000-25,000 per month. Surviving on such a meager salary in a big city means living a dog’s life.

No surprises, then, that many successful litigators are from a ‘family’ of lawyers. The ‘family’ ensures clients, a ready infrastructure (office space, books, and journals, all of which cost a lot), a pre-existing network and whatnot.

It is believed that litigation tends to pay (in the monetary terms) in the long run. However, a recent survey conducted by Bar and Bench, a leading online legal publication, presented a slightly different picture. According to the Bar and Bench survey, taken by 435 first generation lawyers, the following are the incomes generated by them:

litigation salary, litigation as a career, litigation in indiaHowever, if you are good and can tough it out, litigation can be a rewarding career, a calling of sorts.

The biggest cons are the uncertainty – whether you will make it, whether you will have enough work to make it, whether you will have sufficient good results for you to have enough work, whether the money will be sufficient – the lack of a safety net such as provident funds or gratuity or a fixed income at the end of the month, the crazy hours and having to be on call 365 x 24 and the usual lack of social life for a successful lawyer before he is too old for social life to matter except as a tool for networking.[3]

litigation career, litigation as a career
Image from here.

How to Start With a Career in Litigation?

For those who are financially well off and can expect financial support from parents for the first 4-5 years, it makes sense to start under a trial court lawyer for a couple of years, learn the ropes, then move on to a senior who practices in the appellate courts (the High Courts and the Supreme Court) before going independent.

For someone who is not financially well-off, you can start with the litigation department of a law firm to first earn and save some money.

Let us first see how working in the litigation team of a law firm is different from working under a senior lawyer, and then look at the ways a law firm stint can help you in the long run.

Working in the Litigation Team of a Law Firm versus Working Under a Senior Lawyer

The job profile of someone working in the litigation team of a law firm is different from that of someone working at a lawyer’s chamber.

Firstly, a litigator has to take on 3-4 different matters/cases in a day and there is a lot of juggling around. The same is not true for an individual in a law firm, who has less running around to do.

Secondly, the advice meted out by a law firm is conservative and ‘protected’ with a lot of caveats. A law firm’s legal advice might go like: “Based on the documents received and perused by us…” A law firm does this to protect any liability that might ensue from its advice. A litigator, on the other hand, is more hands-on with his/her advice.

Why is a Law Firm Experience Helpful fora Would-be Litigator?

The quality of work in a good law firm is high.  When you are working with the best clients, you will always be on your toes to give the best possible advice. Furthermore, the top-notch quality of your peers at a law firm promotes healthy competition.

The level of training imparted in a law firm, too, is excellent. Your work is reviewed at many levels and this gives your drafts the much-needed advice and inputs. Under an individual litigating lawyer, it is a one-man army, and such a tiered review process is rarely possible.

Working Under a Trial Court Lawyer:

As said earlier, if you can set aside money-related concerns for the first 4-5 years, starting off under a Trial Court lawyer will be the right strategy. Gaining the trial court experience is critical because of the following reasons:

1. The things you learn at a trial court cannot be learned anywhere else. These things include the very basic nuts and bolts of the practice of law in India.

2. Even when handling cases at the High Court or the Supreme Court level, a lawyer will do well to have the knowledge and the skills to know what went wrong at the trial level.

3. A trial court lawyer is always in the thick of things. You argue law and you argue facts, you deal with clients, photocopiers, and registrars. It is a ‘live action’, always. As a junior, observing your seniors do all this makes for an excellent learning experience.

4. It’s easy to shift from a trial court practice to an appellate court practice. The opposite is not true.

Making Up Your Mind for Trial Courts

Lack of money and a lack of finesse, in work, work culture, and infrastructure, are the major reasons young lawyers stay away from a trial court practice. Here’s some advice for the greenhorns who are interested in practicing in trial courts:

1. Think of the first two years of practice in a trial court as an extension of college life. Just like some of your friends are doing an LLM or an MBA degree, you are practicing in a trial court.

Both in terms of lifestyle (frugal) and family support (money from parents) treat the first two years as if they are a continuation of college life.

2. District courts are improving their infrastructures. While they might not be as good as the high-end offices of big corporate firms, newly opened trial court complexes in cities like Delhi are definitely not unsavory.

Advice for Future Litigators

1. It is a myth that being eloquent and well-spoken are important qualities of a good litigator. While those can be useful secondary traits, the most important quality to becoming a successful litigator is being diligent about your files. For a litigator, a meticulous reading of the ‘files’ is a must. You should know what exactly is there on what page.

2. Train long enough under a senior. Have patience. Build a ‘close association’ with him/her. The desire to be independent should be delayed to get ‘quality training’.

3. Listen to the seniors arguing in courts. Understand how they go about their arguments.

4. Point number 3 will add great value and experience and this will come handy when you have to ‘think on your feet’. Thinking on your feet doesn’t come with a swish of a wand. It comes from listening to the legends for long hours.

5. While arguing, develop a neat structure for your points. Know what your ‘best points’ are.

6. This will take time to develop, but get a 360-degree view on things. Cases are not won and lost just on the laws, facts, logic, and arguments. Knowing how the judge is reacting that day, for example, can be critical. One needs to develop such a holistic awareness on the go to be a successful lawyer.[4]

7. Never put on airs, before a judge or otherwise, but state your case simply and with conviction.[5]

Advice on Billing and Logistics in Litigation

8. ‘Bill’ on the side of caution. When you are starting out, work is more important than money.

9. On issues like ‘billing’, take the advice of your seniors. There is a reason why lawyers charge for some of the things they do and not charge for others. There’s no need for you to reinvent this wheel.

10. Maintaining a record of the files is best done early (and must be done early) and as per a system (not on an ad hoc basis). Similarly, one needs to keep a record of the invoices, pending payments, etc. All this is best learned in the chambers of a senior.

Advice on Work, Life, and Professional Relationships

11. Learn the art of switching on and switching off. Work should not engulf your life.

12. Your law clerk, your photocopier, and other support staff keep your practice running. Developing relationships that go beyond the call of duty can save you during times when work needs some urgent intervention on their part.

End Notes

[1] Rebecca John, Protik Prokash Banerjee (via email), Shwetasree Majumder, Shri Singh and Adit Pujari were interviewed for this chapter.

[2] The italicized text has been reproduced from an email reply received from Protik Prokash Banerji.

[3] The italicized text has been reproduced verbatim from an email reply received from Protik Prokash Banerji.

[4] Here’s a quote that is telling of what a 360-degree view can mean. I listened very, very carefully to the world around me to pick up the signals of when trouble was coming. Not that I could stop it. But it made me observant. That was helpful when I became a lawyer because I knew how to read people’s signals.- Sonia Sotomayor (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States).

[5] The italicized text has been reproduced verbatim from an email received from Protik Prokash Banerji.

This is a chapter from my book ‘Law as a Career’ (published by LexisNexis). You can buy the book on Amazon here.


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Editor’s note: The post was first published on 26th June 2018.

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