In this interview, Justice DVSS Somayajulu talks about his journey to becoming a High Court judge and shares interesting insights on law as a career. Justice DVSS Somayajulu was appointed as the Judge of the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad for the State of Telangana and the State of Andhra Pradesh in 2017. He is also the first Advocate from a Mofussil Bar in Andhra Pradesh who is directly elevated as Judge of a High Court. This interview has been conducted by Mr. Murali Neelakantan, Principal Amicus.
MN: Please tell us about your journey in the law. When did you decide to choose law as a career? Given that you are a fourth generation lawyer, did you really have a choice?
DVSS, J.: I always wanted to pursue law as a career more so after noticing that three generations had made a mark. My father, the Late Sri D.V. Subba Rao, in fact, felt that standards in the profession had deteriorated over time and so he did not recommend the pursuit of law as a career. However, observing my father while growing up influenced me immensely and developed my passion for the field of law. I gave up a seat in engineering to pursue commerce and then law. So it was my own conscious decision and looking back, I have no regrets about the choice I made.
MN: Can you briefly discuss schooling and college life?
DVSS, J.: Well, life in a small city was fun. Visakhapatnam is naturally beautiful with beaches and hills, and a healthy mix of the old and the new culture. So, schooling and college were great fun. Primary schooling was in a Ramakrishna Mission School called “Sarada Bal Vihar” which had an exquisite library. This school taught me the value of good books. Thereafter, I studied in a missionary school called St. Aloysius School, which further improved my English and my public speaking abilities. After finishing Commerce in a popular college, I moved to Andhra University. The Andhra University College of Law was one of the finest institutions on the east coast of India. After Madras Law College, Andhra University was the premier law college. The current Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, former Supreme Court Judge, Justice J. Chelameswar and about 30 High Court Judges are alumni of this famous law college. Professor R. Venkata Rao, the former Vice Chancellor of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Professor B.S. Murthy, Professor Guptheswar and other leading law teachers taught here. I was personally fascinated by contract law, procedural laws and torts.
The emphasis then was more on memorising than learning but we were given practical assignments and we were expected to write articles on our own. This was the beginning of my interest in legal research. Unlike today, we did not have popular websites, search engines, etc. Therefore, we had to hunt down case law through dusty volumes in the libraries. Quinquennial Digest and the Yearly Digests were sources of information. Most of these digests may well have disappeared from contemporary lawyers’ offices. We had to study the footnotes under every section and physically hunt down the volumes and locate the pages using these citations. It was physically taxing to hunt down case law but it taught us the value of hard work, perseverance and also patience. The process of searching also meant that we would come across other interesting matters which automatically broadened our knowledge beyond the specific topics that we were researching. The students and lawyers of this generation are very lucky to have wonderful websites and research engines available at their fingertips.
In addition, in Visakhapatnam we played lots of cricket and other outdoor games that helped me develop as a person also. My formative years were sprinkled generously with enduring friendships that have lasted till date. Overall, Visakhapatnam was an idyllic city to grow up in. I feel blessed that I grew up in such a lovely city.
MN: How did having an illustrious father affect your career decisions? Did you not consider moving to Hyderabad or Delhi?
DVSS, J.: My father has always been my role model. I have endeavoured to follow in his footsteps and live up to the highest standards of the legal profession, which he held dear and sacrosanct. He was clear in his mind that he would live and operate from Visakhapatnam itself, in spite of more lucrative options in the bigger metropolitan cities. I wanted to follow his footsteps and also decided to continue with the family practice, rather than move to a bigger city like Hyderabad or Delhi. Early into practice, I did consider Hyderabad and the High Court there as an option for some time, but finally decided against the move after some introspection. Being the only son, I felt it was my duty to stay near my parents and continue in the family tradition of operating from the same chambers. The costs and time involved in branching out were also factors that I took into consideration. I was married by then and so, after weighing the pros and cons, I decided to stay back in Visakhapatnam.
MN: How did you build your practice in Visakhapatnam? Did you easily inherit his practice? How was your practice similar to or different from your father’s? How was it different from the practice of other lawyers in Visakhapatnam?
DVSS, J.: I started from scratch in many ways. There were about 20 juniors/colleagues when I joined my father’s chambers. He was from the “old school”. He told the colleagues and staff: “Just because he is my son, you need not give him special treatment. Let him work his way upwards.” In the first few years we simply had to follow the senior, observe him, watch him examine the witnesses, argue matters, etc. and absorb everything like a sponge. In his absence, I used to follow and watch other senior colleagues. My first chance to argue a small matter came a full 18 months after I joined the Bar – it was an application under Section 34 of the Arbitration Act, 1940. While the drafting, filing, etc., of cases was done by the senior and other colleagues, I was asked to check the progress of the file in the Registry, sit with the court clerks and registry/office staff to iron out the creases, correct the mistakes, etc. These were all great learning experiences. This interaction with court staff is often underestimated by many but this taught me a lot. I met some outstanding court officers and staff with a thorough knowledge of court procedures. I learnt a lot from them too.
Our office represented a large number of companies, institutions, banks, etc. besides private clients. As a city, Visakhapatnam was growing and we were doing work in shipping, commercial and engineering arbitrations, insurance claims, contractual disputes, etc., also apart from regular civil work. A large number of distinguished counsels from all over India used to come to Visakhapatnam. In facing them or while assisting them, I also improved and learnt a lot. I personally remember briefly briefing Sri Harish Salve for RINL, Visakhapatnam. Sri Abhishek Manu Singhvi came to Visakhapatnam and I briefed him in an interesting pre-arbitration injunction matter. Sri S. Venkateswaran, a leading shipping lawyer of India was a regular to Visakhapatnam as was Sri Aravamudan of Chennai. Many seniors including Advocate Generals of Andhra Pradesh used to come to argue. The list of names is very long. I also remember Sri Ciccu Mukhopadhyay coming regularly to Visakhapatnam.
My father was not content with the regular mofussil practice. He realised that arbitration would develop and grow as an area of specialisation by itself. When he got opportunities, he invested in himself and improved the standing of the chambers. I followed in his footsteps and was not content with the regular practice. In some cases, the opposite counsels from the metros were being paid huge sums per appearance but we were content with the knowledge we were gaining. The experience of fighting and sometimes besting a big city counsel was professionally enriching. This was also a high in itself. Travelling all over India helped me broaden my horizons and I could learn a lot of good practices in the field.
My father appeared before a galaxy of legal luminaries like Justice Hidayatullah, Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Justice M. Jagannadha Rao and a host of others. He was in fact an arbitrator himself and sat alongside the legendary, Lord Mustill in a matter. Some QCs also appeared before him. I followed in his footsteps and appeared before many distinguished judges, all over India. I personally was all the more prepared when I appeared before distinguished former Judges of the SC, High Courts etc. since they were used to better presentations, skills etc. I used to put in extra effort to ensure that I could be at least on par with the city based counsels.
Many leading Indian law firms, like Singhania & Co.; King and Partridge, Crawford Bayley, Bose and Mitra, Bhatt & Saldanha, etc., had matters in Visakhapatnam and we had a chance to interact with them. We were travelling from Visakhapatnam and appearing before many distinguished tribunals and arbitrations. The word readily spread that our office had a good reputation in commercial arbitrations, engineering arbitrations, etc. Therefore, we began to be hired by companies from outside Visakhapatnam also. Companies which were working in Visakhapatnam through their officials or branch offices also knew about this and started hiring our services. Just before my elevation, I was travelling frequently to Bangalore to do arbitrations for a construction company from Bombay which was doing projects in Bangalore. Prior to that, for a Hyderabad-based company, I used to frequently go to Delhi for arbitrations. Therefore, as word spread about the work being done, I think the opportunities presented themselves. I also feel that the goodwill earned by us when we were appearing for various companies spread to the others resulting in our constant appearances outside Visakhapatnam also. Word of mouth testimonials essentially helped us. I feel that these are the greatest testimonials. A satisfied client is your greatest asset and greatest advertisement.
MN: Your father was a legend in many diverse fields and an incredible man. There is perhaps no other advocate from a town like Visakhapatnam with a global reputation as an Arbitrator, Chairman of the Bar Council of India, Manager of the Indian cricket team on an overseas tour, a respected and loved cricket administrator and a Mayor who is credited for the modern city that Visakhapatnam now is. You have also followed in his footsteps. How did this happen?
DVSS, J.: Yes you are right. He was multifaceted. We were both huge cricket fans. One of the best memories of my childhood was the Pongal/Sankranti test match in Chennai. Both of us used to go every January to witness this match – it was a sort of an annual pilgrimage for me personally where I got to spend quality time and bond with my father over a game of cricket. I watched and learned from him. When the opportunities came, I followed suit as I also inherited some, if not all, of his traits. I followed him as a cricket administrator, became the President of the Andhra Cricket Association and was at the BCCI also. In one year when I was the President of Andhra Cricket Association, I headed the team that hosted ODIs ; T-20s; IPL and the first test match in Visakhapatnam. It was a dream fulfilled to be able to host matches in all formats of the game.
MN: Like your illustrious father, you have a track record of being a social and community leader, being involved with the bar association, cricket, social and cultural clubs, etc. Is this unique to non-metro towns where lawyers are respected as community leaders?
DVSS, J.: Yes, your question is bang on target. Small cities and towns have certain advantages. One of them is the respect that a good professional gets. Word spreads and the respect from the community is tangible and real. This is an answer I give many times – If I had moved to a big city and was successful, I may have had more money in my bank account but I would never have got the quality of life I had in the small city or the respect from the citizens. The respect for a good professional in smaller cities is something that has to be cherished. The work-life balance is easily maintained in smaller towns/cities. Besides practising law, I could find time to do various other things and be associated with bodies like the public library, the local colleges, District and State Cricket Association, etc. Since the non-metros are smaller, word spreads faster.
MN: Being the first advocate from the Mofussil Bar to be elevated to a HC is indeed a unique accomplishment. How did this happen? Is this an indication to young lawyers that it is not necessary to practise in the HC or in chambers of famous lawyers to be recognised? How does such a lawyer get noticed by the HC Judges for elevation to the High Court?
DVSS, J.: It was a combination of factors. There was a Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court who was keen to encourage and recognise mofussil lawyers. To my good fortune, a few senior judges also supported the idea. I believe that in a couple of informal meetings, my name surfaced. It is said that two judges who worked as District Judges in Visakhapatnam before their elevation to the High Court also gave good testimonials when they were asked. The cases from Visakhapatnam where I had appeared which were reported in the High Court journals, Supreme Court journals were also noted. I had also appeared and argued some matters in the High Court before my name was recommended. Thus, it was a combination of factors. I would say that a combination of trial court and High Court appearances are needed for a mofussil lawyer to be recognised. It is difficult for the High Court to gather good first-hand information about the District Court lawyers. Assessment will be better if there are regular appearances before the High Court. Since inter-city travel is easier now, my suggestion would be for the trial court lawyers to regularly appear before the High Court, if they are interested in elevation to the Bench. I would strongly suggest that youngsters should actively practise in the superior courts while building their practice in the District Court. In fact, it would be easier for someone who has done all the hard work in the trial court to be able to argue the appeal in the High Court.
MN: How is the Mofussil Bar different from the Bar in the High Courts? What are their relative strengths and weaknesses? Is there a difference between the City Civil Court Bar in Hyderabad and the District Bar in Visakhapatnam for example?
DVSS, J.: The emphasis on detail is greater in the districts. Good offices teach the juniors that the devil is always in the details. Their mastery of facts is much higher. Their interaction with clients teaches them the importance of the human element in the case being fought. An appellate lawyer is, for the most of the time, dealing with a judgment or an order and their interaction is mostly with a counsel. They do not have the “human element” in front of their eyes. In my humble opinion, the empathy for a cause and a client is higher amongst District Court lawyers as that is the nascent stage of litigation with interactive client meetings and conversations.
A good trial court lawyer is also a better strategist. He has to plan his pleadings, evidence, etc., from the inception. A good trial court lawyer visualises things better and strategizes accordingly.
So far as drawbacks of a mofussil practice go, their patent weakness is the power of expression in English particularly for those who studied in their native language. This fear of expression lingers on for long. Once this is conquered, they are on par with most good lawyers from the metros. One other factor they sometimes lack is the finesse and style that a big city lawyer has and exhibits. This inhibits the District Court lawyers but as I and my father – and a lot of others have learnt – these can be cultivated, imbibed and need not be an impediment to professional growth.
In my opinion, the City Civil Court Hyderabad Bar is equal to the District Bar in Visakhapatnam. Visakhapatnam Bar was the second largest Bar in the combined State of A.P. after the High Court. It has some great traditions too.
Visakhapatnam Bar has about approximately 5000 members and has a great tradition. It has lot of history also. The seminal work on the Law of Wills is by Mantha Ramamurthy while practising in Visakhapatnam. As many of the previous generation lawyers were from the Madras Law College, some of the better traditions of that Bar percolated down to Visakhapatnam. My father’s seniors have mostly people who apprenticed and studied in Madras so therefore, some of their good traditions were inherited by us. We were also told to be extremely respectful to our seniors and to never interrupt their arguments and submissions. Greatest courtesies were extended to the Judges, staff and to the colleagues. Harshness in speech was discouraged as were extravaganza and pomp. Thoroughness of preparation was also encouraged. These were all inculcated from our seniors.
MN: What is the opportunity for young lawyers to practise in non-metro cities? What niches can they develop (IPR, arbitration, for example where most District Courts have original jurisdiction). Or even non-metro High Courts which are often referred to as the “smaller High Courts” ?
DVSS, J.: It is a wide open world now. Tier 2 cities are now developing industrially due to government policies and impetus. Because of the port, a number of shipping companies opened branches in Visakhapatnam. Huge public sector undertakings like RINL (Steel Plant), etc., Dredging Corporation of India; HPCL, IOC, etc., are based at Visakhapatnam. So numerous opportunities are available. Practise in IPR, arbitration, environmental laws, shipping law, commercial laws, etc. are all happening in Tier two cities and the smaller High Court towns too. So if they use this opportunity well, they can learn and specialise in the emerging areas. Hindustan Steelworks Construction Ltd. v. Tarapore and Co. was a case from Visakhapatnam. Two original petitions were filed in 1988 for an injunction against invocation of bank guarantee. In 1988-1989, I got the chance to assist my senior in what was by then an emerging area. This is a concrete example of grabbing an opportunity and learning a lot. Shakti Bhog Foods Ltd. v. Kola Shipping Ltd. was argued initially in 2005 in the trial court. The issue was whether a charter party needed to be signed by both parties and about detention order against a ship in Kakinada. Cases like M.V. Elisabeth v. Harwan Investment and Trading (P) Ltd., etc., were cited and we succeeded in the lower Court in Kakinada. I am giving two examples of cases in new areas for a District Bar where I had to learn and argue against more accomplished counsels. Now the field is much more open.
I personally feel that practise of three years at least in a trial court is absolutely essential for growth in the higher courts as a civil lawyer or a criminal lawyer. Except for those who concentrate only on writs, for the majority who deal with civil, criminal matters in the High Courts, a few years of good training in the trial court will be a great foundation for the future. This would be a great experience even for those lawyers who wish to do chamber or corporate work. Knowing how to evaluate risks, building a case and knowing how facts will be proved, will help them advise the client correctly and also draft better documents that will stand up to scrutiny by courts.
MN: There is a perception that the quality of the Bar in the mofussil areas is not on par with the metros. This may be one of the reasons that young law graduates hesitate to start a practice there. Another reason is the perception that it is necessary to have contacts in the profession. Can you please elaborate on how the Mofussil Bar has a high level of professionalism and quality and also encourages young lawyers?
DVSS, J.: It is a fact that quality may not always be visible but it is there, beneath the surface. As I said earlier the finesse or polish of a city-based lawyer may be missing but they are all learning, improving and rising to the occasion. With the advent of better connectivity and easier travel, more and more exposure is there. I am sure very soon you will see many more young professionals emerge from non-metros. The distinction between other cities (not the mega metros) and tier 2 towns will slowly fade away. Young graduates will succeed even if they start in tier 2 cities. In Visakhapatnam and other towns I did notice a number of lawyers who are comparable to the good lawyers from the metros.
MN: How has the profession changed over the last 5 decades that you have seen it?
DVSS, J.: Patience has gone down and the emphasis on earning a quick buck is increasing. The juniors are cutting too many corners to get ahead in double quick time. They do not watch a senior conduct a case and learn the nuances of the profession as we did. Court-craft as an art form is losing its significance with the youngsters who are entering the profession.
The respect for the seniors and the Bench has also gone down. Loud, angry arguments are becoming the order of the day. We were told that Judges are to be given the highest respect. This was ingrained into every cell of our being. We were also told not to be servile and when an issue cropped up, we were told to express our difference of opinion in a measured tone. Today is a different scenario with brashness making up for lack of competence and skill. The old world dignity and charm are slowly eroding from the fabric of legal professionals.
MN: What are the skills that lawyers retain from the past and what do they need to learn for the present and the future? What are the skills that your father had that your son does not need and what are the skills that your father had that your son needs?
DVSS, J.: The youngsters need to realise that there is no shortcut to success. Enduring success, in contradistinction to ephemeral fame, will only come with sustained hard work, professional integrity and good behaviour – both inside and outside the courtroom. This is a constant.
With the passage of time, new skills have to be learnt. Today there is shortage of time. Long-drawn arguments spread over days are not possible. My father and his peers had to virtually read through the entire case in the court – this required loads of patience, stamina and good humour – arguing a bland civil case on a hot summer afternoon in a non-AC court was not easy. Today the emphasis is on brief, succinct submissions. The millennials have to know that the attention span of Judges is also less. Judges are also facing the double trouble of huge backlogs and time constraints. So a brief to the point submission with the relevant facts and applicable law or a brief examination or cross-examination is the order of the day. This is possible with knowledge of the applicable law and a very good understanding of the brief, in combination with clarity of thought and expression.
Of course the need to be tech-savvy is also ever-increasing. Computers, search engines, video conferencing, etc. are now essential “tools of the trade”.
MN: Your views on the future of legal education and professional training? The NLS model is 30 years old and yet it is being blindly replicated by every State. Isn’t it time for it to be reimagined? What is the future of academia?
DVSS, J.: We do not have much to brag about in the last 50 years. Legal education has to become more “practice oriented”. Young law graduates are not really equipped for a life at the Bar. The NLS model has produced some outstanding graduates on par with the best in the world but the blind replication of the same is not correct. The number of the national law schools should be limited. More qualified staff with practical experience in courts should be recruited in all the law schools.
The interaction between the Bar and the universities/law schools should be increased much more. Unlike in the past, most law schools do not invite the leaders of the Bar to teach. The average student does not hear a successful practitioner at all till he starts active practice. There are hundreds of good lawyers who can teach a thing or two to the youngsters both in terms of law, practice and the pitfalls too.
Court observation during college has become a farce. This should be made a continuing affair and not merely limited to a few visits. Academics should get out of their ivory towers and engage more with society. Too many armchair critics and too few with real world experience, too much of theory and too little of practicality is rampant these days and should be discouraged in my opinion.
MN: What are the unique features, advantages and challenges of being a Judge of the newest High Court in India?
DVSS, J.: The nature of work is challenging and interesting but I am enjoying it. There is a quantum leap in my knowledge. Fascinating cases, fascinating issues are coming up and in the process, I am learning every day.
Initially here were a few issues about the infrastructure in our High Court due to the handing over of the new building but I must put on record my admiration for the judges, advocates of A.P. and the staff of the High Court. They rose to the occasion. Despite many initial hiccups, they ensured that cases were heard and quickly disposed. Many of the good traditions of the combined High Court are being followed. The High Court at Amravati is a new and small High Court, so some new standards, and some good old practices can be easily implemented. The judges and lawyers adapted very easily to video conferencing during the COVID 19 pandemic. So, all in all, it has been an enriching experience so far.