In conversation with Arjun Agarwal, Ex-Prez SJA NUJS and Associate at Trilegal

Mr Arjun Agarwal is an Associate at Trilegal and was elected as the President of Student Juridical Association at NUJS, Kolkata for 2016-2018. He has been interviewed by EBC-SCC Online Student Ambassador Masooma Rizvi who is a penultimate year law student at HNLU, Raipur.

1.Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about your inspiration to take up law.

Honestly, it was physics. You know those who are over-ambitious, they opt for PCM but later realise their time and effort is better utilised solving the conflicts over the equations. That was me. I often observed my peers, I saw them trying to learn the formulae while I focussed on understanding the underlying concepts — the hows and whys of everything. This is how I realised that I processed reasoning (or understanding) better than just dead letter information. I also tended to object till I understood any given thing thoroughly. The profession of law appeared to put a premium on a similar skillset. Thus, understanding societal occurrences and their entanglement with the law seemed to be a potential choice for me.

I must thank those who unknowingly mocked me to be a lawyer for being argumentative, but I owe it to my cousin (Ms Nandini Kumar) for having shown me the path to be one. So, honestly — just listen to your friends, there could be a life altering idea hidden in those jokes. Haha.

  1. Please share your experience as an associate at a tier-one law firm.

My stint with Trilegal thus far has been a steep learning curve. I have been with the firm’s disputes practice since my graduation in 2018. I have had the good fortune of working on a mix of interesting regulatory, arbitration and intellectual property (IP) matters — with a focus on electricity regulatory disputes.

At Trilegal, not a day goes without the hustle and the satisfaction of achieving results with effective teamwork. A lot of emphasis is placed on the basics of drafting pleadings and research.

I started out under Mr Sitesh Mukherjee, the founder and former head of Trilegal’s Disputes Practice. As a greenhorn, many a time I have excitedly shown him helpful precedents, only to later realise that he himself successfully argued in those cases. Among many other things, he taught me the importance of understanding one’s client’s business. The most theoretically informed legal advice may not always be commercially prudent for your client. I have also assisted Mr Jafar Alam (Partner) in some cases —who taught me the importance of having an eye for detail. He also instilled in me the ability to say more with less.

Shortly after the lockdown was announced in March 2020, Mr Sitesh Mukherjee decided to move to independent counsel practice. While at the time I foolishly felt nervous about my future, the new Trilegal Disputes Head, Mr Shankh Sengupta and the firm’s Management Committee has not let us feel like anything ever changed — which is nothing short of extraordinary in these unprecedented times.

  1. The importance of proper legal research cannot be overemphasised. There are complaints that law schools do not adequately equip students with the knowledge and practical application of legal research skills, which are necessary for careers in independent litigation and law firms. Do you agree? Also, what are your views on “exhaustion of search”? Tell us about your experience as a law student and now as an associate.

Indian law schools often neglect teaching various aspects of law and policy from a practical perspective, which is as important as coming up with the best legal arguments. The law school curriculum does include some research-oriented assignments, compulsory moot courts and clinical courses, which test the research skills on a basic level. However, it is the actual industry exposure that truly filters the nectar (like any profession). Undoubtedly, Indian law schools must do more to bridge the industry-academia divide.

The sufficiency of efforts in any scenario is primarily determined by the task sought to be achieved by one, the resources (including time) at their disposal, et al. Therefore, it may be difficult to provide a universally applicable definition for “exhaustion of search”. In earlier times, lawyers were required to go through voluminous law journals for research. Digitisation of research has been a total game changer in cutting down the time to reach the point of “exhaustion of search”. Thus, the importance of a modern lawyer’s ability to leverage technology to deliver quality work product cannot be overstated. At NUJS, there was a healthy focus on being adept at online research right from the outset. This ought to be emulated at every law school across the country.

An important test of any practicing lawyer’s research prowess is her ability to approach a legal argument and break it into simpler “first principle” propositions. This is the part where a lawyer’s experience, skill and pre-existing knowledge come in handy.

In real life different types of matters are active simultaneously, with tight deadlines, far-reaching practical consequences, thus exerting a different kind of pressure. One must think on their feet, be alert and ready for the challenges that come her way. This is what really builds one’s skill and capacity. It all comes with time, patience, perseverance and practice. We are all still trying to find our formula for success.

  1. As a two term (2016-2018), former Student Juridical Association (SJA) President, what role can and/or should student bodies have in Indian law schools?

My belief, forged through real life experiences and interactions in NUJS and other NLUs, is that apolitical student bodies can be NLUs’ most reliable accountability mechanism.

At NUJS, we inherited a rich legacy of student activism. In our time, among other things, we successfully pushed for the long-overdue University Review Commission (URC). When we first met the URC, its Chairperson (Prof Mohan Gopal) remarked that never before had he witnessed a student body ensuring the constitution of a review commission. In their Report, URC’s esteemed members generously acknowledge that their “interaction with the SJA confirmed that one of the great achievements of NUJS has been the building up of a student culture of active engagement with community issues — a rarity today even in globally ranked institutions”. They were saddened to read students’ statement that continuous fights for basic survival and a right to decent education may leave the students too drained and disillusioned to be of any use to the society. In this regard, they note that “the students are right. This is a wake-up call to each of us involved with legal education”. There are many similar anecdotes from my time at NUJS, which repeatedly reaffirmed my belief that the student body can contribute positively.

I would even go a step further to say that only an alert and unified student body can affect substantive and sustainable positive changes in its law school. Students must push for representation and participation in all governing bodies of their universities, more so when student fees is used to fund more than 100% of the annual operating expenses of (at least some) NLUs.

Thus, I am of the firm belief that students should take an active interest in various aspects of their law school’s administration, especially when the powers that be tirelessly drone on that everything is done in the best interests of students. The students should affirm: nothing about us, without us.

  1. You have powerfully advocated for transparency and openness in how NUJS is administered and governed. Kindly tell us more about your experience of filing RTIs to effect change.

I think we all see the systemic flaws, but we know that the system has immense innate inertia that will resist changes in the status quo. That does not mean that we should stop trying. There are quite a few instances where RTI helped me bring about some positive changes. The first relates to the systematic attempts by the erstwhile NUJS administration to delay the constitution of the URC and to thereafter bury the URC’s Report. Our right to truth moment propelled a full-scale administrative rinse. The second was after my graduation, when persistent efforts by the then SJA office-bearers and my RTI resulted in the release of 19 years of minutes and agenda notes of administrative bodies’ meetings. These minutes in turn provided useful evidence for various administrative misgivings. In both instances, the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) assisted students in enforcing basic standards of transparency at NUJS.

I am happy that my RTIs to RGNUL, Patiala aided its students’ efforts for a transparent administration. I hope they will continue the good fight, notwithstanding the premature exits of the erstwhile Administrative Officer and Vice Chancellor.

RTIs are a powerful tool to uncloak the rule of opacity in NLUs. But I would also say that NLU administrators typically leave no stone unturned to frustrate RTIs, thus making the battle for transparency at various NLUs an uphill task for the students. At a minimum, the students must demand and gain access to historical and prospective minutes and agenda notes of all NLUs’ governing bodies’ minutes. These should have been proactively disclosed by all NLUs, under Section 4 of the RTI Act anyway.

  1. Did your experience as the SJA President contribute to your growth as a lawyer?

Addressing grievances of my peers made me more sensitive towards various issues faced by them as students, and as individuals. I believe empathy and the knack of taking initiative are both vital skills for lawyers. This experience also gave me a peek into how things actually operate in the real world.

Pertinently, I had the good fortune of verbally representing my peers before the University’s Executive Council (EC), which was graced by sitting and retired Supreme Court and Calcutta High Court Judges, the West Bengal Law Minister, the Advocate General, senior bureaucrats from the Law, Finance and Education Departments as also reputed academics. I also had the opportunity to have numerous personal interactions with these dignitaries. Due to the looming administrative opacity, we usually found out relevant details of an EC/URC meeting only a day or two in advance. Thus, detailed written submissions had to be drafted and verbal presentation prepared overnight. In hindsight, this part was a lot like acting for a client in a real court case and it greatly improved my ability to draft, research and present under pressure. I also developed a tendency to attack difficult targets, rather than yielding to them.

Here, I must thank my partner in crime, Samarth Sharma (former VP, SJA); our amazing SJA team members; and the entire student body at the time, for reposing their constant faith in me and providing me this unparalleled opportunity.

  1. What are your views on the “national” character of NLUs in light of the debates and litigation surrounding domicile reservation?

It is said that NLUs were sought to be modelled on IITs and IIMs. However, all NLUs are created by State legislations and thus respective State Governments have significant representation and say in the governance of these NLUs. Successive Central Governments have not shown any interest in “nationalising” NLUs as they did with regional engineering colleges or State universities deemed to be of national importance [predominantly science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) institutions].

States have increasingly indulged in a game of quotas because legislating a domicile quota (DQ) is seen as a low cost, low risk populist measure with quick political returns. There are no studies, which conclusively prove that DQs (have) achieve(d) their stated “social justice” objectives. Yet, both State Governments and NLU administrators have shown no interest in evaluating the (f)utility of DQ or considering alternate holistic measures that would make NLU admissions more diverse and inclusive. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will show a better way while dealing with NLSIU’s DQ case.

  1. Any parting message for our readers?

Law is a challenging profession. To add to it, the pandemic has thrown unexpected professional and personal challenges at all of us. For one, the unforeseen isolation has caused some of us to confront our inner demons like never before. For this, a dear friend of mine recently introduced me to “mindfulness”. Simply put, mindfulness is living in the present moment. It has helped me greatly and I would recommend it to any readers who have any issues in confronting their past (or present).

Lastly,  stay safe and stay hydrated.

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