A recent visit to the Madras high court, to address young lawyers enrolling in the Bar Council, left me completely amazed. In the distant past, when I enrolled as an advocate to practise in the Madras high court, perhaps 50 to 75 young lawyers enrolled along with me. My enrolment was moved by K.K. Venugopal, a senior advocate and one of India's most eminent jurists and legal minds. His professional ethics as well as those of V.P. Raman, in whose chamber I began working as a junior lawyer, and K. Parasaran who was then a senior lawyer in high court, served as a shining example for all young lawyers who joined the Bar on how to uphold the highest standards of integrity in the noble profession of law. One of the first things my senior told me was how lawyers were really officers of court and thus had to maintain very rigorous standards of professional integrity. In fact, senior advocates were not even suppose to interact directly with clients — they only talked to clients through junior advocate on the record. Senior advocates did not charge fees but had a little pouch behind their black robes into which clients were suppose to deposit whatever fees they wished to give.
The days and years that followed were an incredible learning experience. I worked in the company and under the guidance of great legal minds and absorbed the unique experience of analysing law, drafting litigation based upon the specific needs of a particular party, applying the law to it with logic and precision, finding precedents of other such cases and arguing the case before judges who were informed, sharp and well-versed with law. We observed rules of procedure and professional etiquette, including following quaint British customs such as the robes and dress code. They are still followed but are completely unsuited to our climate. Cases were won and lost, lawyers were paid and they grew rich, but through all those years what stood out was the astounding intellectual calibre and the unimpeachable integrity and moral standards of the leaders of the Bar.
Today, one hears stories about senior advocates resorting to case-fixing, corruption among the judiciary, professional misconduct of some advocates and above all, my own personal experiences of the astronomical fees charged by senior and junior lawyers today. When a dispute reaches court, litigants stake so much on the outcome that for some unscrupulous lawyers the sky is the limit in charging professional fees.
Some say that law is a noble profession. However, when I went to the Madras high court last week to speak to the newly-enrolled lawyers, I rediscovered that being an advocate is one of the most promising vocations in our democracy. The 50 or 75 lawyers who enrolled during my time have given way to 1,500 young lawyers enrolling on that day alone. Also, at least 40 per cent of them were young girls. When I interacted with them after the function, I found they were sharply focused and very committed. Many had come with their families to be enrolled. Some had the entire village accompanying them to see the first lawyer of the village join the Bar. The atmosphere was positively festive.
I spoke to them about the demands and rigours of the profession. Of how there were four stages in a lawyer's life. Stage one: where there was no work and no money. Stage two: where there was some work and no money. Stage three: where there was some work and some money. And stage four, for a very lucky few, who had no work but lots of money. I spoke to the young lawyers about our democracy and how it would be utterly meaningless if citizens did not know about or could not exercise their rights. I told them how thrilling it would be for a lawyer to fight for his client's rights and win a case. I explained to them how lawyers were uniquely placed to study law and bring law and presumably justice to the service of their fellow citizens. Nothing could possibly be more noble a cause or vocation, except perhaps medicine.
I told them how many of our country's most illustrious sons and daughters had been lawyers, starting from the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi. How law was an incredible magical force that could carry them into every part of our democracy and economy, but above all, how it could arm them to bring justice and rights to ordinary citizens. I explained how, it was therefore important for them to use this power wisely and with great responsibility and how important it was to always maintain high integrity.
I shared with them the plight of a litigant who had probably spent his life's savings to save his house or ancestral property. He would have waited 10 or 20 years going through appeal after appeal, and if the court dismissed his petition, as often happens, in about five minutes he would stand in the Supreme Court and watch his life savings go down the drain. I requested them to remain conscious of the fact that the property, sometimes the future of their clients depends on them and this is an onerous responsibility.
While I spoke, I could see that young lawyers were full of hope and confidence and they listened in rapt attention. I explained to them that apart from the nobility of the profession, law is also a profession where there could never be a recession or downturn as the only people who make money during recession are lawyers. Also, in any case legal disputes are bound to exist as long as human society endures. They all smiled in agreement.
In conclusion, I requested them to always attempt to help a client to settle cases out of court and save them and the system unnecessary litigation. I deliberately refrained from mentioning the more shady side of law practice — the corruption in some place, the strikes by lawyers or the seamy tales of deal-making. I felt there was no need to sully a solemn occasion as they will soon find out for themselves. When I left, I was confident that those and the thousands of new lawyers who come into the system every year will uphold the integrity of the profession and will never allow it to be destroyed.
Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.
The views expressed in this column are her own.