In conversation with Siddharth Batra, AOR, on the evolving demands of Advocacy, his time as an Additional Advocate General of Haryana and tips for aspiring litigators

Mr Siddharth Batra is an advocate-on-record at the Supreme Court of India and a Partner at Satram Dass B & Co. In the past, he has been an Additional Advocate General for the State of Haryana and has handled over 2000 cases for the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) with 170 reported judgments to his name on SCC OnLine. In recognition of these achievements, he has been awarded the 2020 Business World Legal World 40 under 40 award. Having practised law at all levels of courts in India, right from District Courts up to the Supreme Court, Mr Batra has invaluable insight into what it takes to make it as an advocate in today’s legal environment.

In this interview, he talks to Karan Ahluwalia (Student Ambassador for EBC-SCC OnLine at Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar) about the lessons he has learnt through his years at the Bar, how advocacy has changed over the past few decades, what qualities make a successful advocate and how law students can equip themselves with the necessary skills to thrive in this field.

 

  1. Sir for the benefit of our readers, could you kindly introduce yourself, the kind of work you do and how you came into this profession?

At present, I am an advocate-on-record at the Supreme Court of India. I moved to the Supreme Court in 2014 before which, I was at the Punjab and Haryana High Court at Chandigarh for 10 years. I essentially started my practice in 2004 at the District Courts Rohtak and later moved to Chandigarh when I got the opportunity to become an Assistant Advocate General in 2005. I left the office of the Advocate General in 2008 to start my own private practise and became retainer to the Haryana Urban Development Authority. In 2011, I became Additional Advocate General, Haryana.

The decision to become a lawyer came naturally to me because I had grown up seeing my father —  who practised as an advocate for 30 years. I believe a father is always looked up to by his children for guidance. I also realised that law is one of the best professions I could have chosen because ultimately, as an independent counsel, it gives me time for myself. My father was a strong force in my decision to shift to Delhi.

  1. Sir you have mentioned that you grew up seeing your father work as an advocate, now you are in the same profession as well. Would you say that in the time that has elapsed between his career and yours, the demands of the profession have changed substantially?

That is a good question. I believe that the importance of a lawyer and the legal field, in general, has increased tremendously over time. With growing businesses and the rising economy, there has been a sea of change in the entire gamut of litigation surrounding everyday transactions, client fees and so on. I am essentially a litigation counsel and I can say that the entire field has changed from the times of my father. For instance, it has become easier to research because earlier there was no internet or any tool like SCC OnLine to search for case laws. So a lawyer had to prepare his/her notes by referring to several books. I remember my father had this register in his office where he used to note down different judgments and their ratios. We have a great advantage in this regard now, as legal research has become much easier.

 

As of last March, many things have changed yet again. E-filing of cases has made the entire process easier, not only for the legal counsel but also for the Registry of the Supreme Court. I think that is the way forward and if you ask me for my office, e-filing is a great ease for us as opposed to the physical filing. I think the same should be promoted at each level. I am also in favour of virtual hearings even though some of my learned lawyer friends might not agree with me. Given that COVID cases are on the rise once again, the Supreme Court has already notified the SOP for hybrid hearings – if I want to appear physically I can while the other party can appear virtually. I believe some of the High Courts are also following this method. In my opinion, virtual hearings should be encouraged, as they save a lot of time, cost and inconvenience.

 

So yes, while I have seen several things change from the time of my father, the legal field has seen drastic changes since COVID. Virtual is the new normal. In India, because of the population, courts are always under a lot of pressure when it comes to people attending hearings, for example, the Supreme Court used to be very busy on Mondays and Fridays and sometimes in some matters one would not even be able to enter the court. So, I insist that the virtual is the future of litigation. I have become aware that it has been notified that all Section 138 cases (NI Act) in Delhi will only be heard virtually and I think that is a very good step forward.

 

I see problems in that approach too in the sense that young lawyers may not get the opportunity to witness the court craft that can only go on inside a physical hearing. However, I believe that there can be other avenues for such lawyers to learn these skills.

 

  1. Sir would you also say that some things have gotten especially hard over the years – such as getting your foot through the door in a litigation career, especially for those lawyers who have no support or “contacts” in this field of work?

I do not think it has become harder over the years. I have appeared before many High Courts all over the country — I started from the Punjab and Haryana High Court and moved to the Supreme Court. I also appear regularly in the Delhi High Court. I believe that in terms of litigation, Delhi is one place where if you work hard, there is a sea of opportunity. Someone who is ready to work hard will get work for sure — sooner or later. You just have to be patient initially. Your first few cases, your first 100 or 200 cases might not fetch you a lot of money, but at the end of the day — it is the experience that counts. Litigation is a continuous process of learning and it never stops, so once that initial setback is over and you are working hard, your name will spread. And by that time, there will be clients that have been happy with your services — who will recommend you to others. Results are not in your hands, but as long as you are working hard and doing what is in the best interest of your clients, they will appreciate your work and recommend you to others. This initial struggle is there in all professions — medicine, architecture, etc. I think young law graduates make a mistake and opt-out of litigation because they compare it to running a business — the two are entirely different things. I still believe that out of all careers at this time, the legal profession is one of the most promising.

 

Seventeen years back it was very difficult for me as well but hard work brings results. I see many of my juniors prospering even after 1 or 2 years of hard work in the profession as they have been able to put their efforts in the right directions. If I look at some of the young lawyers who are just coming out of law school, I think they have a great understanding of the law at the outset and therefore their futures are more promising than before.

 

Initial years are difficult — there are times when getting into a law firm or a corporate practice might appeal to young lawyers as they offer higher returns and job security — which litigation may not offer. However, it is a choice that you have to make — whether you want to take up the challenge or not. People at law firms also do well for themselves but not everybody makes it to the best law firms either. So, while I do understand and recognise the initial difficulties and concerns with regard to supporting one’s family or taking care of one’s own expenses at the least, you have to be ready to face challenges. I think this difficulty in starting out is common to all professions like Chartered Accountancy, Medicine, Architecture — they all have to work hard in the initial few years in order to gain experience that they are subsequently rewarded for. Believe in yourself be honest with yourself about the amount of effort and hard work that you are putting into your work — everything will fall in place.

 

When somebody joins my office, I tell them only one thing — “if I get dependant on you then you will always be in my office”. How can someone help me in my office? Simply by saving time for me. The challenge before me, due to my caseload, is time management. If I tell one of my associates to do some research or drafting, then I do not have to spend much of my time on it — that is the best I can ask for. The more dependant I am on said person, the more precious that person becomes for me and there are very high chances that I will give them a raise, compensate them for their efforts and hard work. Hard work never goes unnoticed and this is the only way to gain confidence and create opportunities and financial benefits.

 

  1. On the topic of advocacy, what according to you are the 3 skills that are essential for any advocate to learn?

I think that for doing well in this profession you have to learn the art of drafting. You may not get the first few drafts correct but at some point, while revising the drafts again and again, you will get it right. I think it is important not to get discouraged or become complacent if your first few drafts do not turn out well – it is important to keep at it and revise them as many times as necessary until you have the perfect draft — that is what our profession is essentially about. Over time you become more skilled, and it becomes lesser of a task to do the same. I remember the first time I drafted a special leave petition; I was 10 years into my career, and it still was not easy. But, you have to keep working on it to make it a habit.

 

For the second skill, I would like to mention here about Mrs Zia Mody who pointed out in an interview that “the most important thing in a case is a list of dates (LOD)”. Put as much effort and information as you can into a LOD, it should be like a map of the case and should be so complete that you do not have to open the file. This is an essential skill in litigation. When arguing in court, you have to be spontaneous and articulate, and this is an indispensable tool to that extent.

 

Thirdly, when you start arguing — do not worry if you falter — everybody has good days and bad. You do not need to be the best everytime — just convey the point. Most Judges are very patient with junior lawyers. Rehearse your case as much as you need to and convey it to the court in your own words as simply as you can — that’s it. But you should be master of the law applicable and the facts of the case.

 

If you have drafted well, your half job is done. You will have a LOD to assist you and a rehearse the case to convey to the court as clearly as you can. You will learn the court craft — do not be disheartened if your hearing does not go according to plan — tomorrow will be a new day. Every lawyer loses some and wins some — as long as you can answer your conscience that you worked hard. It is ok if you lost because the decision is the Judge’s prerogative — maybe your case had no merit to begin with! There will be another opportunity tomorrow.

  1. Sir many of our readers are already aware that you have been awarded the BW Legal World 40 under 40 award, we would like to congratulate you on this tremendous achievement. Could you tell us what it felt like when you got to know that you won?

When I filled my nomination for this award, I found the application process to be very comprehensive and one of my juniors had to work with me because it was like working on a case as we had to prepare slides, answer questionnaires and so on. I realised in the beginning itself that this was a very serious process. On top of that, the jury was composed of illustrious persons such as Mr P.S. Narasimha, Mrs Pinky Anand, Mr Shardul Shroff, Mr Raian Karanjawala, Mr Singhania, Mr Luthra amongst many other luminaries that I see at court regularly. I remember that I had just come out of a virtual hearing with a Consumer Forum in Shimla and I had a lot many meetings lined up that day. When I logged into the interaction with the jury, I did not realise that the panel would be so big and that there would be 22 members. So, you can imagine my surprise when the screen opened up and all 22 of them were there looking at me! I felt that I was extremely underprepared for this situation but it worked out.

 

The first question was “Why should we chose you?” I told them that I have practised in all courts from the District Court right up to the Supreme Court and have conducted approximately 2000 cases for HUDA and I have 170 reported judgments on SCC OnLine – both of these things struck them. It was frankly a great experience and I can tell you that even if I had not won, simply being in front of them was a great learning experience for me.

 

Then came the expectation of whether or not I will get it. The e-mail telling me that I had won came to me very late in the night — I was working on a case and it came to me at 1.30 a.m. and it was a great feeling — I felt elated due to this great recognition.

  1. Sir they say hindsight is 20/20 — knowing what you do now, are there things that you would have done differently if you had to go back and be a law student once again?

Right off the bat, I would do moot courts every single day. I would not miss any opportunity to moot — be it in college or outside, I would be willing to travel anywhere to take part in such events. That according to me is the closest experience a student can have of arguing in a court of law. Today, I judge students at moot court competitions and it makes me feel that it is one of the things that I should have done more of as a student.

 

The second thing I would do would be internships. In my time, internships were not considered that important, whereas now you do internships every semester break. For me, my first internship was after 3 years in Delhi with Mr Sumant Batra, one of the leading insolvency lawyers in the country. While I would never recommend that students skip classes to attend internships, they should also not miss any opportunity to intern in the days specifically designated for the same by their universities. I would make sure that I intern at the best of offices because ultimately it is an internship that can add to one’s experience of courtcraft and practical advocacy.

 

I also believe that it is important to enjoy one’s college life and make the most of it. I was the captain of the university lawn tennis team for all 5 years of law school and one must make the best of these years.

 

The third thing I believe students should do is take their classes more seriously. There may be some acts and laws that you never read again after coming into practice and specialising so law school is your first and last chance to get an overview of all the laws. It is imperative to take subjects seriously as you never know what information will come in handy at what time.

 

My father always told me — “a good lawyer is not one who knows the law, rather one who knows where the law is”. You are not expected to know every provision of every law, all you need to know is where the answer to your question can be found.

  1. When it comes to advocacy a lot of people have this notion that it is one thing to be academically competent and an entirely another thing to be well versed with the practical aspects of law and courtcraft. Would you say that one holds more importance over the other if one is looking to become a successful advocate?

I believe that that we must cross each bridge as we get to it. I do not advise law students to start learning the practical aspects of law and courtcraft in the preliminary years of law school and certainly not at the cost of missing academic classes and opportunities. Your academics lay the foundation of your knowledge. Sometimes what happens is that by going too much to court as young law students, they tend to get psyched out by what appears to be the sheer complexity of advocacy — this leads many students to second-guess their choices and may drive them away from litigation. To reiterate what I said previously, I think students should try to make the most of law school — academically and beyond. The practical aspects of law and courtcraft can be learnt in the first few years of practice under the guidance of a mentor. So, to answer your question — I think academics must take centre stage while in law school.  You must take it as it comes — that is the simplest way to put it.

  1. Sir now that you have been in this profession for so many years — Do you remember any particular instance, case or conversation that impressed upon you how important your job is as regards your clients?

The truth is that every case is important to me. You win some and you lose some but ultimately it all evens out. I derive satisfaction from being able to assist the court effectively and from being able to present my clients’ cases so as to safeguard their rights. The fee does not determine the amount of effort we put into preparing and presenting a case. Every case must be treated with the same focus and importance. If you want to win — you must have the habit of giving your 100% irrespective of who your client is. Ultimately, if you have done the case properly and have assisted the court well — you will impress Judges and they will remember you when you appear before them next time. If you are able to put your case forward in the manner you want — it is the most satisfying thing at the end of the day. I also believe that every case brings you cases.

 

  1. How important according to you, is doing exhaustive legal research and how can students develop these skills?

Initially, fresh law graduates may take more time to do the same research that an experienced lawyer can do in a fraction of the time. However, time is by you — legal research is extremely important and has to cover all aspects of the case without leaving anything to chance. Ultimately, how research has to be done is something you learn with time. But when you start, you must be satisfied that you know everything there is to know about the case — that if a Judge asks you a question — you should be able to reply to it. You must start research from the weak points of your case — that you expect to be asked in the court.

You may think that you have a great case on merits but the court may refuse to hear it due to the lack of maintainability due to jurisdictional, court fee or limitation issues. Therefore, it is important for you to anticipate the questions from the Judges. That is why research should be done with a bird’s eye view of the case. It sometimes helps to just close the file and think about what the case is really about. You should master the facts to do effective research — if you go wrong on facts, your research can never be in the correct direction. And that is why I come back to my discussion on the importance of a list of dates (LOD).

  1. In a similar vein, what do you make of the term “exhaustion of research”, when can research be said to have been exhausted according to you, if at all?

I do not think that we can set any parameters to define the progress of research. That is the beauty of our profession — you may surprise the other side with a point of law that you dig up, and vice versa. Once you start doing detailed research — you try to find the earliest judicial precedent and thereafter start referring to other cases to see how the law has developed on the point and to see whether the old precedent still holds value or not. If it does, you use the most recent case where that precedent has been approved and that makes your argument very compelling.

 

I will give you an example — I was posed with a very difficult question by a Division Bench of the Supreme Court where I was asked whether the protection of Article 19 of the Constitution of India was available to companies? If you read the article, you will see that unlike Articles 14 and 21 which are available to “persons”, Article 19 is only available to “citizens”. The court directly asked me how it was that a company was coming to it under Article 19? I took out a judgment from 1983 which clearly said that a company is backed by shareholders, who are persons, who can be citizens who have rights as well — so for protection of their rights, a company can sue.

 

Coming back to your question, as far as “exhaustion of research” is concerned, I think that it can never be done — research is never exhausted. The law may be settled on a particular point of law but you may be in a position where no previous precedent squarely applies to your case. There must be something different in your case because of which research would still be required. Therefore, research cannot be exhausted.

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