Litigation as a Career Option: The exciting and the boring parts, pros & cons and the skills required

Interview with Protik Prokash Banerjee, one of the leading lawyers of the Calcutta High Court.

1. Why should anyone go for litigation as a career option? What’s exciting about it?

Litigation is a career option for those who want to be a part of the system through which we can resolve differences without having to descend into chaos, physical assault, civil unrest, agitation or revolution.

It is meant for those who do not want to be employees, by whatever name called, and who can speak well, write well and have a clear mind.

The excitement 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. What sort of ‘tasks’ does a litigating lawyer have to do as a part of his/her daily routine?

1. Reading the latest law reports and making notes. The reports may be online, digital or dead-tree.

2. Preparing for the case the next day or in the immediate future, which means reading the papers, the pleadings (the things you write and file in court), the text of the legislations applicable, reported judgments that are either for or against the point you want to make, and jotting down the order in which you want to argue the case.

3. If you have a drafting brief – which means you have to write something that will be filed or used in Court, then all of what you have to do in (b) above, but followed by the actual work of writing all of it down, or dictating it or typing it.

4. Having conferences with clients and learning about their cases and advising them.

5. If you have your own chambers then interacting with your juniors and interns and trying to teach them something – if you can, and even if they are stupid, lazy or could not care less..

6. I would add another task – reading something new connected with law, and reading something unconnected with law.

3. What are the ‘boring’ tasks one has to do?

Everything that you do can be boring if you do not like it, do not feel like doing it or if you have to do it over and over again.  When you are a junior, and you have come into litigation by choice, everything will seem new.

When you are long in the tooth, everything will look like its been done to death a thousand million times before.  When you do not know why you are doing something it may feel boring.  I personally find that everything becomes boring after a certain time.

At least in litigation you are your own master and you set your own times – which means that if you find something is tremendously boring, you can stop working for a while and do something else to rejuvenate yourself.  If you were working in a law-firm, could you do that?

Could you stop researching the one thousand and fifth case on what ‘rent’ means and decide that you would watch a rerun of the last episode of “The Game of Thrones”, before you went back to work again?

However, there are certain things that are universally boring and will never become exciting, such as holding conferences with clients or solicitors who do not understand what you say, who keep on repeating the same things, who do not want to leave and who keep on speaking without respite.

Researching a proposition of law becomes boring when you find hundreds of precedents either in favour or against and all of them quote from the same source.  Personally, if you consider law to be your profession or even a vocation, you will never find anything that you do to be so boring as to make you hate it.

If you consider law to be a business, trade or employment, almost everything will seem boring.

4. The salary in the early stage of the career is very low. Why’s that? What can a young lawyer do about it?

A lawyer in litigation does not get a salary.  He gets fees.  Those who are employees get salaries.  An associate in a law-firm which specializes in litigation gets salaries, often very high salaries.  In the profession, they are not referred to or considered as lawyers who are in litigation.

The young lawyers – we call them juniors – do not have high fees because they do not command high fees.  They do not command high fees because they have not made a reputation which would allow them to dictate their own terms.  They do not have a reputation because they do not have sufficient work through which to make a reputation.

They do not have sufficient work either because they do not know the right people or because they do not know enough and sometimes because they have neither.  they do not know enough because they have not read enough nor learnt enough.

If you are working with a Senior in his chambers – the best way to learn the practical side of law while getting the protection and exposure that only a Senior can give you – then you get only what he gives you and most seniors pay very little.  In Calcutta, for example, we pay nothing to our juniors.

We believe that we are doing them a favour by allowing them to learn in our chambers and get the exposure necessary to make a living out of law.

Law schools in India are the best way – after watching Boston Legal or Suits – to have an absolutely wrong idea about what litigation is.  Most law-schools do not even equip a graduate to file a case, let alone draft a decent notice of demand of money.

The only thing a young lawyer can do about this is to read as much as he can, watch as much of litigation as he can and go out, as much as he can, with the clerks of the lawyers who actually file cases to learn the procedural work.

If a young lawyer knows the procedural part – how to file a case, what are the steps to go through, who can and  how to get these things done (which includes getting the matter typed with correct margins and sewing the brief and the places where these things are done, where to go for the affirmation of an affidavit, how to mention a matter to have it listed in the docket of a Court and in fact the thousands of things which we take for granted) – and if he is very well up on the latest precedents and judgments reported in the law journals or online, then he will become invaluable to his Senior and also the clients.

In that case he will become an asset whom the Senior or even his clients will be reluctant to lose and in these circumstances the junior will find he is getting quite a lot of money.  However the catch is that you do not start out with a lot of money – only after you have learnt enough and are producing results – do you get it.

5. What are the ‘things’ one should look for before going independent?

What do I have to defray every month for my liabilities, regardless of what I earn?

What are my assets which means:

Do I know enough (law, procedure and how to get things done lawfully but quickly)?

Am I known in the field or forum where I intend to practice law?

Do I have a good reputation in the field or forum where I intend to practice law?

Do I have sufficient clients and work to sustain me if I go independent? If not, do I have contacts who would bring me sufficient work to sustain me?

Do I have the infrastructure – such as chambers or rooms to work from, equipment such as desktops/laptops/ peripherals such as printers, clerks, peons and associates or colleagues who will be able to handle the work if there are several cases in several different places – to practise independently while not neglecting any client or case?

If what I have is sufficient for me to defray the expenses for at least three months’ liabilities then I can go independent.

6. What are the pros and cons of litigation as a career option?

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.

The biggest pros are that you are your own master and do not have to bow to anyone except the Judge and that too only in Court or live by anyone else’s rules and as far as earning is concerned, sky is the limit plus you have job satisfaction.

7. What are the skill-sets needed to be a good litigation lawyer? How should one go about developing them?

A good lawyer must have a command over the language of the Court or forum where he intends to practice.  He should know how to research and find the law, he should know how to draft well, and he must have a reading habit.  If he does not have it, he must develop it.

My advice would be to read as if he was required to complete and understand everything ever written or typed or printed, to learn the legal procedure and watch as many cases as possible to learn court craft.

It would be very helpful if he devilled with a senior in chambers for a year because he would have the benefit of guidance, protection and exposure, if not a start in his career.

He should never put on airs, before a Judge or otherwise, but state his case simply and with conviction.

If he decides to practice as an advocate on record, it is imperative to work with a solicitor/advocate on record whether a sole practitioner or a law firm, for at least an year or two and follow the solicitor’s clerk to the Department and learn the procedures of filing and taking steps first-hand.

I would ask him to analyze all drafts he can get his hands upon to learn the different styles and formats for different proceedings. I would ask him, most importantly, to have patience and not lose faith. Things will work out in the end.

protik daMr. Protik Prokash Banerji, popularly called Protik da by law students is an advocate at the Kolkata HC. Interning at his chambers is an experience of a life time. People who learn drafting and oratory skills from him swear by the excellent teacher he is. He talks about movies and literature as authoritatively as he talks on law and wrote on such subjects for the Economic Times in 1994-1995.

PS- He strongly advises everyone not to smoke.


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