Interview by Aditya Anand
Richa Kachhwaha completed her LLB from Campus Law Centre in 1999 and then did her LLM from LSE in 2001. After being an advocate and a senior associate at a law firm, Richa was a senior legal editor at LexisNexis for 3 years and a freelance editor for the same company for 1 year. Richa then worked with Lex Witness, a legal magazine (print) for a year, and then became the managing editor for Live Law in March 2013.
She has recently published a book called “The Art of Legal Writing: Practicing Lawyers to Successful Professionals” (OakBridge Publishing) which can be bought from Amazon here.
This interview is a goldmine for anyone thinking about legal writing, publishing or editing as a career.
Please tell our readers a bit about yourself.
I started my career with SNG & Partners (a specialist banking and finance law firm) in their New Delhi offices. My interest in editing and an urge to write made me shift gears and move to legal publishing.
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I worked with LexisNexis India as a Senior Legal Editor and subsequently as Consulting Editor of Lex Witness (one of the first magazines in India on legal and corporate affairs).
In 2012, I moved to Singapore with my family for a six-year stint during which time I had the opportunity and privilege to be part of the founding journey of Live Law, now a leading legal news portal and App. I continue to write on wide-ranging subjects
for Live Law.
I grew up in Dehradun (then a quiet leafy town) and travelled extensively in Uttarakhand with my father. That perhaps explains my love for nature and small-town life. I picked up reading rather late, in my early teenage years but was instantly drawn to the power of the written word.
There is something sublime about words; they convey powerful ideas, preserve memories, bring about change, and so much more. Over the years I have become a logophile! I would describe myself as a sensitive person, someone who expresses best through writing.
I am driven by simple pleasures: books (and I have a specific taste in books), space to write, reading with my children, tending to my plants, travelling with my husband (my former classmate and friend from law school), are some of them.
Considering law wasn’t a popular choice two decades ago, how did you decide to pursue law?
An interesting question for someone who comes from a family of bureaucrats, teachers and business managers. A career in law was not a natural choice for me. After finishing school, I pursued B Com (Hons.) from Delhi University primarily because I had scored well in Commerce and Economics in ISC (12th) board exams.
Choosing commerce over humanities was a foregone conclusion. But by the end of three years of graduation, I realized that a career in accountancy or management did not inspire me. I was inclined towards reading and writing as opposed to number crunching! Although studying law was not seen as a viable option back then, it held the promise of a professional qualification when compared to a Masters’ degree.
Besides, I was keen on further studies and in no rush to jump into the job market. A three-year degree in law, at that point, appealed to me. Since I had spent three years studying (and living) in North Campus (DU), Faculty of Law was the obvious choice.
How was the experience of pursuing LLM at the prestigious London School of Economics? How was it different than an undergraduate program at DU?
I was clear about pursuing an LLM as early as my first year of LLB I worked towards it by focussing on my grades and writing to the universities in the UK. This was the time when the Internet was not an answer to everything! In the third and final year of LLB, I applied to LSE and University of Cambridge.
I got selected in both and chose LSE for its international outlook and teaching environment. My time in LSE was satisfying and productive on many levels. The faculty was truly global, drawn from various countries, and highly experienced.
Several of the lecturers were either Barristers (practicing at the Bar) or Solicitors (working for the Magic Circle law firms in London). Together they brought the much-desired practical dimension to my chosen subjects, Intellectual Property
Rights, Company laws, International trade law, and Corporate Insolvency. The LLM program I opted for was a “taught program” which meant studying the four core subjects and appearing for assessments in each of them at the end of the year. I was not required to submit a thesis- a requirement only for “research-based programs” in the UK.
However, students were expected to submit a paper on a chosen topic in all four subjects. Before embarking on the paper writing, we were required to meet our designated Tutors and discuss the relevance and the extent of research/study needed for the same. Researching for, writing and presenting papers was a first for me.
In the three-year LLB course we had mechanically focused on reading case materials, listening to lectures, raising queries, and appearing for exams at the end of each semester. That one year practically opened my eyes to the two critical aspects of being a lawyer: undertaking independent, original research by making efficient use of the libraries; and writing.
Another striking aspect of the LLM program which I attended was the way in which it was structured- as an intercollegiate program. I was enrolled as a student in LSE, but my teachers were from LSE as well as other colleges of The University of London.
In fact, my classes were also held at various colleges. While I attended IPR lessons in LSE campus, international trade law classes were held in Kings College London, Company Law lectures were delivered at University College London (UCL), and Corporate Insolvency lessons were taught at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies- all within walking distance in Central
London! It gave me an unparalleled simultaneous exposure to all the top colleges of the University of London.
The most enriching part of my time in LSE was its sheer diversity. Close to eighty percent of students in LSE are from across the globe.
Experiencing diversity of such magnitude as a student was an invaluable experience. I formed enduring friendships with students from Germany to South Africa. And not just with fellow students from law, but from diverse backgrounds like health policy, anthropology, human rights, to name a few.
When did you decide to leave advocacy? What were the reasons behind this decision?
After my enrollment with the Bar Council of Delhi, I assisted a senior lawyer who was practicing in the Supreme Court. That one year was a learning as well as a daunting experience. On my very first day, I was handed a thick file to draft a writ petition, I had never seen one before!
On another occasion, I was instructed to mention a matter in the CJI court, since my senior was on “his legs” in another courtroom; an intimidating task for a newbie fresh off the boat!
With time and a few knocks, I got my bearings. I learnt drafting skills on the job and after some trial and error.
My senior (who later went on to become Additional Solicitor General in the Supreme Court) would often say, “Richa, this is where the action is”.
In retrospect, I completely agree with him. There is a buzz in litigation practice, which is missing in corporate practice.
As luck would have it, the end of that one year as a black-robed junior lawyer coincided with my admission to LSE for an LLM in Corporate Laws.
I did not “leave” advocacy, rather I embarked on a new journey which I had been planning for a long time. Post the completion of LLM and qualifying the QLTT (now known as QLTS) to enrol as a Solicitor in England and Wales, I returned home. Gaining a foothold in a corporate law firm was the next logical step.
How did the idea of getting into writing full time come to you?
Most people would scoff at the idea of leaving a reputed law firm and moving to a legal editing role. Especially if you are getting opportunities to do quality work, beyond the mundane tasks of vetting documentation, and carrying out due diligence etc. But personally speaking, I was not entirely convinced about continuing with the work that I was doing.
I was beginning to realize that temperamentally I was more inclined towards writing than structuring transactions/deals. Being able to pursue my calling while maintaining work-life balance, was also a strong pull.
Of course, such a switch comes with its own adjustments, especially on the compensation front. It was a bold and unconventional decision, but one which my husband fully supported.
Full-time writing did not happen overnight. It has been a meandering and long journey involving full-time stints in a legal publishing house and a legal magazine, followed by freelance and long-distance stints in the online legal space.
Keeping a career in mind, what is the difference between regular writing and legal writing? How pivotal is a law degree for legal writing?
For writers, the thrill of writing lies in seeing their ideas spread and impact their readers. Quite obviously, writers are expected to have a good grasp over the language and an ability to communicate. To make a career out of writing, one must be disciplined and prepared to commit time. One of the myths associated with writing is that it is mutually exclusive with monetary gain.
This is not true, at least not anymore. Writing informs and persuades, and in that sense legal writing is no different. Broadly speaking, legal writing refers to the analysis of facts and presentation of arguments.
Lawyers deploy legal writing skills in a wide range of documents. In litigation, legal briefs which present written arguments to the courts, are prime examples of legal writing. In non-litigation or transactional practice, researching a legal question and analyzing the relevant legal precedents to present the outcome to clients, is another form of legal writing.
A deep understanding of the subject can only come with knowledge about the law, along with superior research skills. I would say a degree in law is necessary to master the craft.
What are the other avenues one can explore with the synergy of law and writing?
We live in a digital era in which legal blogs and websites abound. For contributing to and managing these platforms, legal writing skills are vital. In the last few years, legal journalism (both print and online) has emerged as a viable and competitive avenue where the synergy of law and writing is best seen.
There are opportunities in mainstream journalism as well, for example, legal analysts who write for newspapers/magazines. Similarly, in legal publishing, editors are expected to possess well-developed legal writing skills.
In the world of academia, whether it is writing for academic/scholarly publications or teaching law students, writing skills are critical.
Interestingly, big law firms are now creating editorial/writing positions to oversee in-house publications and also to write for external journals. The landscape for legal writing is slowly but surely changing.
What are the skills a person needs to hone to make it in legal writing? How can one go about improving these skills?
First and foremost, focus on research; failure to do it undermines the writer’s credibility. Avoid shortcuts; don’t leave out facts, and never fail to reference a source. While every information need not be cross-referenced, don’t make the mistake of relying solely on one source, especially a web source. Use current, primary sources wherever possible.
Also, remember to check your facts. The information which your writing communicates must be accurate. If your source makes a reference to another study or report, find the original and interpret it yourself. Bear in mind that some websites might quote incomplete or even incorrect information. When using web sources, it is better to rely on official sites.
In legal writing, understanding the audience is the key. Once you are mindful of who your readers are, you can focus on how to structure and present it. For example, if you are writing to your clients ensure clarity, brevity and the right tone.
To communicate effectively with different types of audiences, you will have to adopt a flexible style of writing. As simple as it sounds, pay attention to grammar; it can make or break the quality of any writing, including legal writing. Don’t skip editing and proofreading, including your emails!
A good way to do it is by reading your writing to yourself. As you read, check for spelling, punctuation, and typographical errors. Also, check if the sentences convey the sense. You cannot become a good writer unless you are a keen reader. Look out for varied writing materials. More importantly, diversify your reading by choosing new genres and styles.
Cultivate a habit to read and see your writing style elevate. This applies to both creative and technical writing. Writing also needs practice. Set aside some time to sit with your notebook or a new document on your laptop, or a basic notepad app on your phone–and write something. If you experience a block, start again the next day. The best of the writers don’t manage to get it right the first time.
Like any other craft, writing has rules and recognized levels of proficiency. An important skill which legal writers need to hone is the ability to think logically: to be able to show to the readers how they arrived at that conclusion.
A good way to hone legal writing skills is to revisit your old writing and re-work on it. Depending on the quality of the work, you can make edits or even rewrite. As you re-work, make a mental note of the changes.
Ask yourself some relevant questions: have you altered the tone? are you changing the structure? are you adding or introducing content? When you get back to your current work, be conscious of the errors and try not to repeat them.
Tell us about your time as a legal editor at LexisNexis? What did a day in your life look like? What were the biggest pros and cons of that work?
Fortunately, I joined LexisNexis Butterworths India team at a time when the Editorial function was a critical arm of their print business.
We had a large team comprising of legal editors, senior legal editors, and commissioning editors who worked in tandem. As a legal editor and later as a senior legal editor I worked on every aspect of book publishing.
From communicating with authors regarding the manuscript, raising queries, giving feedback to interacting with designers.
Some of the landmark titles in law which I worked on included the Mulla series which required extensive work in terms of checking the authorities, particularly the apex court judgments.
For other titles like the student series and the handbooks, I was also expected to discuss the structure of the proposed book with the authors.
Editing a manuscript involved making necessary changes in language, checking the legal propositions cited and suggesting relevant content-related changes. Applying the in-house style to the manuscript to ensure uniformity and ease of reading was also a part of my work.
It was extremely gratifying to see a manuscript take the shape of a book and I thoroughly enjoyed my work. I was hired by the then General Manager of LexisNexis Butterworths (India), Mr. Stephen Dunn, who had a strong vision for its print business in India.
As I mentioned earlier, the downside of legal publishing at the time was the monetary compensation for an editorial role.
It was certainly not a match for what an average lawyer could earn in a law firm! Ultimately it all depends on what your priorities are. If its a big paycheck (which often comes with long working hours, tough schedules and travels), then legal publishing may not be the best choice for you.
With more players entering the market, the situation is changing. Today, a lot depends on how you showcase and utilize your skillset. It is also true that over the last few years some legal publishing houses have downsized their editorial teams in a bid to cut costs. This does not augur well for the quality of law books and for the future of legal publishing business in India. But I believe that this phase will pass and better sense will eventually prevail.
Tell us about your time as the managing editor of Live Law? What did a day in your life here look like? What were the biggest pros and cons of this work?
Live Law materialized while I was based overseas. My colleagues Mr. MA Rashid and Mr. Raghul Sudheesh got in touch with me and discussed their idea of starting a legal website/portal featuring news, views, and columns to cater to the legal fraternity.
It was an exciting new venture in legal journalism and within a few weeks of that initial discussion on Skype, I was on board. Despite long-distance working, things fell into place and soon we were on our way to creating the initial content and designing the site.
The immediate task was to decide on the segments/sections which would be useful for lawyers and law students. Besides the three of us, a few editors were taken on board to cover legal news, with a focus on covering important Supreme Court and high court judgments.
The editors would write the story, which was then sent to me for vetting and approval, after which it was uploaded on the site. For the interviews section, we reached out to partners in different law firms and general counsels of companies with a customized set of questions on e-mails and followed it up with phone conversations.
For columns, we spread the word and sought the contribution of articles from lawyers on their area of expertise and preferably on a current topic/development. I believe we brought in the novel concept of engaging law students in various law schools (on a part-time/freelance basis) to report on the developments within the student community.
A Managing Editor’s role is to ensure a smooth workflow within the team and also keep up with external communications. As the volume of work increased, so did the team of editors/writers and reporters. The challenging part of this experience for me was long-distance working, that too from a different time zone.
While working remotely is the new normal and prevalent, it can be difficult to sustain. A regular personal interface/interaction is equally important. I, however, exited from this role for family reasons since I took a maternity break. After a hiatus, I got back to writing for Live Law.
How did the idea of the book ‘The Art of Legal Writing’ come about?
Every editor aspires to be a published author! Writing a book has been on my wish list for some years now. I returned to India in July last year and once the chaos of the move settled down, I was restless to start something new. With no full- time work commitment, it seemed like the right time.
The subject of legal writing has been on my mind ever since I moved to legal publishing. It was and continues to be a sore point that I learnt practically nothing about how to write in my three years as a student of law. That a lawyer must have a writer’s mind was an alien concept for me.
Having learnt the craft on the job and over a period, I can now say that skills like writing, researching and analysing must be taught on a consistent basis in our law schools.
Although students now have considerable practical exposure through internships, mooting and legal clinics etc., their writing skills (and to a great extent researching skills) remain neglected.
The course(s) on legal drafting (and conveyancing) do not devote time on how to write. Consequently, from a writing perspective, lawyers can be incoherent, and their writing frequently comes across as a bag of random advice(s).
Some years ago, I had chanced upon a book “Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing” written by American academicians Stephen Armstrong and Timothy Terrell.
The subject resonated with me. It made me wonder why we still don’t have similar resources in India. Books that can help lawyers and law students to think like writers, add depth to their writing, and make an impact with it.
There are many books in the market on contract drafting, conveyancing and pleadings, but not on the art of legal writing and it is an art!
The idea of a handbook which would be an easy read for busy lawyers and inexperienced law students came to me almost instantly. During the initial stages of deciding on the subject, I instinctively contacted one of the oldest and well-known law bookstores in New Delhi to enquire about available books on legal writing.
The response took considerable time; clearly the subject of “legal writing” was not popular amongst their readers. I was informed by the bookstore that an old book on a similar subject by Dr. Tripathi was available. That one interaction pretty much sealed the idea of legal writing in my head.
Tell us about how did you go about writing the book? Discussions with the publishers, research and writing, editing; what challenges does each process entail?
Once my mind was made up about writing on the subject, I reached out to a friend and former colleague and discussed the format of a book proposal with him. I then got down to writing my proposal covering the book’s subject, proposed name, and length, publishing rationale, USP, the summary along with tentative chaptalization, competition, market etc. Predictably, my foremost concern was to find a publisher who would be interested in a relatively untouched subject.
I had been following Oakbridge Publishing on social media for a while and although I didn’t know it’s Founder, Vikesh Dhyani, personally, I knew that he too had worked with LexisNexis India (our working years in LN did not, however, overlap).
Oakbridge has published innovative and contemporary titles in the last few years and has acquired a solid reputation in the legal publishing space. I was hopeful that a young organization like theirs would respond to my proposal positively.
I e-mailed my book proposal to Vikesh and sought a meeting with him. He was prompt, professional and courteous in his response. The Commissioning Editor of Oakridge, Priyanka Srivastava, studied my proposal and invited me for a meeting and suggested sharing a broad framework of the proposed book.
I created one, chalking out the total number and headings of the chapters together with a synopsis of each of those chapters. This exercise took time and required serious work. I had to gather my thoughts on the precise topics to include in the book after doing preliminary research on the materials available online as well as similar books on the subject.
In the meeting, we discussed the framework, the relevance of the topics proposed to be included, and some useful suggestions about related areas. I was also given a broad timeline for submission of the manuscript. That one discussion led to firming up of the book.
A major challenge while writing a book is navigating ambiguity. Seeking advice from your trusted advisors can help you get through that phase.
I must mention here the invaluable tips which my guide and friend Late Prof. Shamnad Basheer gave me when I was not certain about some aspects of the book. In a few conversations, he practically changed the course of my work in progress. “If you can give an Indian perspective, wherever possible, it will be a big help for law students in India”, he advised me once. For a subject which is still neglected in our law schools, it was a pertinent suggestion, to say the least.
Research is the most important part of the writing process, especially in legal writing. Your research must be thorough, but getting mired in research you will never use, is a wasted exercise. It is a process, and not looking for a needle in a haystack!
Looking on the Internet can be a good “first step” in legal research. Invariably, searching the Internet leads to relevant web sites that turn out to be useful. But don’t confine your research to the Internet. Look out for definitive guide(s)/books on the subject. For me, the challenge was the lack of literature in India on the subject, and extensive/wide-ranging work on the subject in other English- speaking jurisdictions.
I had to decide which of these foreign resources to refer to, keeping in mind what would be relevant in the Indian context. Further, examples/illustrations were meant to be an important component of the book to demonstrate the practical application of the rules of writing/editing. But since legal writing is a vast area, to cover all possible examples relevant to all forms of legal writing was not feasible in a 250 pages handbook. I had to be selective about examples.
I didn’t aim for perfection as I wrote the first draft of each chapter; the first draft is supposed to be rough. After researching on a topic, I made outlines of one chapter at a time. There are no short-cuts for writing a perfect chapter. Similarly, not all days were productive.
There were occasions when setting targets for a day or even a week didn’t help. Nonetheless, I set targets, albeit realistically. For example, I set a target of a certain number of words per day. Even if it seemed little, it built up to a sizeable number per week.
Editing and proofreading are the final stages of writing. I edited just as I wrote: chapter wise. It is easy to be over-enthusiastic about editing when writing the first book, and it was not different with me. I had to resist the urge to edit excessively.
In addition to self-editing, every writer needs a good editor. I was fortunate to get editorial assistance from a former colleague, Ms. Apoorva Mandhani. Despite joining midway in my writing journey, her edits, insights, and suggestions helped improve the quality of the manuscript.
My work on the fluid idea of a book on legal writing began in early October 2018. By the end of May 2019, I had submitted the manuscript “The Art of Legal Writing” to the publisher. Looking back, it was an exercise in perseverance and discipline.
What would your advice for future legal authors be?
If you have a flair for writing and are ready to invest the time it takes to research and write, then, by all means, pursue it. Legal writing requires not just discipline, but also an interest in studying the subject. There will be days when you will reach a saturation point. Don’t let that demotivate you, start again the next day.
If you experience self-doubt, reach out to your peer/guide/friend/colleague- someone who can be your sounding board. All authors (including legal authors) need inspiration from external sources at some point. You can follow law-related blogs and there are plenty.
Pay attention to their writing style, use of language, and research undertaken. But while the innumerable legal blogs can be useful, even inspirational, the amount of information can also be overwhelming. Learn to sift the relevant from the
Legal writing is perceived as tedious, and yet for most, it is not writing that is tedious, it is starting. Chalk out a writing schedule, gather your researched material, and get started.
Writing tends to be an isolating experience, not everyone around you will understand your need for space and time to think and write. This is called the “writing zone” and for a good reason! When you find your zone, create an environment for yourself which is conducive to write.
Parting message to our readers
Legal writing experts tell us that there is no such thing as “good writing”. What is considered “good writing” is effectively communicating a clear message to a particular audience. In short, don’t try to be a good writer, instead, try to be an effective writer.
Strive to be clear, strive to connect. In the age of the Internet and social media, when everyone has something to say/write, there is a greater need to be effective. Take your time to hone your skill, craft that message and write with excellence.