In conversation with Surjendu Sankar Das on his experience of working as an AOR, Supreme Court of India

Mr Das is a former Dispute Resolution Partner of Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co., New Delhi. He practises law in Delhi as Advocate-on-Record (AOR) of the Supreme Court of India (SC) and has successfully handled numerous cases before the SC, various High Courts, trial courts and tribunals as well as several complex international, domestic arbitrations and challenge/enforcement proceedings. Mr Das has significant experience as an advocate in complex trials, appellate matters, writ matters, arbitration and enforcement proceedings. He has represented wide range of Indian and foreign clients both in litigation and arbitration.

He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Sankalp Udgata who is currently pursuing law from NUSRL.

 

I. Can you tell us something about your journey from being a law student to a lawyer? Please also share your interests and motivations.

 

The dream of becoming a litigator engrossed my five years of law school life in NUJS. The visualisation of courtroom exchanges always thrilled and stimulated my brain. My active involvement with Legal Aid Society kept me rooted with problem-solution approach. I never excelled in academics in law school, but I believed in systematic, organised and time-bound deliverables. It was an enjoyable five years that I always cherish.

 

I recollect doing 11 internships during my law school tenure and all of them were in litigation. I chose to opt out from corporate internship from the very beginning. Though, a combination of corporate and litigation internship is reasonable. Importantly, I did all my internships seriously. Those were not meant for collecting certificates, but to learn and gain experience. Having friends around in the law school with background in this profession, I knew from the beginning that I would have a tough journey ahead in litigation. But I chose to accept such challenges. My professional interest is civil and commercial litigation, especially the trial. The law of arbitration is the area which attracts me the most. Being an AOR, I do handle criminal and wide variety of cases in the Supreme Court.

 

There were many motivational role models whom I had come across while transforming from a student to an advocate. I will definitely name late Justice S.B. Sinha during my judicial clerkship who had played big role in mentoring. Thereafter, when I joined the profession, I was fortunate to have Mr Ciccu Mukhopadhaya as my first boss. His style of work deeply influenced my work life.

 

II. What were the reasons for shifting to an independent practice from a law firm? What differences did you experience during this career shift?

I was fortunate to rise to partnership in the top law firm of the country. I was a dispute resolution partner and handled litigation across India. I have appeared before more than 10 High Courts in India. I handled arbitrations, both international and domestic. However, I gradually realised the stark differences between the litigation practice in a law firm and the Bar, as an independent counsel. While it is always fascinating to be partner with a big law firm, it imposes certain restrictions which I preferred to avoid. That was completely my personal choice. Besides that, I wanted to establish my AOR practice in the Supreme Court. So, I decided to move on for my independent practice after a long tenure of 11 years in the firm.

 

The immediate difference was the pay cheque. The next was to set up my own system or infrastructure to start the new beginning. I was heading a team of around 8 people in the firm. After joining the independent practice, I had to start building my team, a small but efficient one. Thankfully, I was lucky to have my sincere team of associates within a short span of time.

 

There are always well-wishers around in this profession. The clients and colleagues had trusted my new venture. So, the work gradually started flowing. The initial path of independent practice is tough, but not invincible. Interestingly, I had many partnership proposals from tier- one law firms as well as for General Counsel (GC) roles, which I had politely refused despite the lucrative compensation.

 

III. How does institutional affiliations like those to the CIArb help boost one’s legal practice?

Institutional affiliations help in networking and staying updated with the practice area. But it all depends on your involvement with the institution. Unless one is active with the institutions she or he is affiliated, it is only an addition to the CV but of no help in reality. I am member, Core Member of Young Members Group, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb) and Member of Steering Committee of Young Mumbai Centre of International Arbitration, Mumbai. Both the institutions have continuous involvement with regular events, writings, etc. It is a great opportunity to remain connected with your peers in the profession, especially in today’s virtual world.

 

IV. What roadmap would you suggest a first-generation lawyer interested in litigation? Why?

There is no straight-jacket formula. There are multiple ways or avenues. Each has its own merits and demerits. It all depends on what do you want. If you set your goal first, you can plan the route to reach your destination. Sometimes, it is a combination of different paths, but its achievable. The most important criterion is the conviction and self-confidence.

 

A first-generation lawyer would have her or his challenges irrespective of whether it is a law firm or independent practice. But you have no less information than others with background. You may be less fortunate than a second or third-generation lawyer, but your dedication can make it up to a great extent. But it is important to gather information, follow guidance and mentorship by alumni, seniors.

 

As a first-generation lawyer, I had experienced and keep experiencing hurdles. But, that does not demotivate me to work hard. I had taken it up as a challenge from day one and continue to chase my dream. I have an aspiration for the Bench and it is a tough choice for a first-generation lawyer. But, should I sit behind and stop dreaming? Absolutely, no.

 

The dilemma of settling in metro or a tier-2 city is not uncommon. Metros like Delhi or Mumbai has its own advantages. Delhi has the Supreme Court and Appellate Tribunals. Top legal brains do practice in Delhi. The number of arbitrations is also comparatively high in Delhi or Mumbai compared to any other city. So, the city gives you more opportunity. But if one has to migrate to Delhi or Mumbai from tier 2 or other place, the first consideration is financial compensation. One needs to shell our rent, etc. to survive and you need a handsome package to cope up. So, one has to inevitably look for an office or a law firm for handsome package unless she or he has already been recruited in campus with adequate compensation. Some beginners are fortunate to have initial family support. Also, the culture or food habits may also be different. Staying away from family has its own disadvantages which, as a beginner, you start immediately facing after joining the profession. However, it gradually gets used to. Ultimately, it is always an individualistic choice.

 

V. What is your advice for a young practitioner, to excel in the profession? How does an LLM affect one’s legal practice?

First and the foremost mantra is: do what you love and love what you do. Apply mind – analyse in depth – think ahead – be prepared.  It is a continuous learning process. Appetite of learning and not arrogance, should eat up your brain. The moment you stop learning, you end up being a true lawyer.

 

LLM gives you exposure and helps in networking, but it is preferable after couple of years of experience. LLM abroad is an expensive affair unless one has maximum scholarship. So, it also depends on financial position. I would not suggest to depend on bank loan for an LLM degree abroad. Many would differ, but it is my personal advice.

 

VI. How important is doing proper legal research and how should law students equip themselves with legal research skills?

You should first read the commentaries and then apply electronic search engine. I see most of the law students do it other way round. When you read commentaries, you end up reading other ancillary interpretation and propositions. It gives more clarity of thoughts.

 

Once you have a legal proposition, look into the Bare Acts and try to dissect the relevant provisions and then read commentaries to understand the rational interpretation. Then get into specific case laws through research engine tools, etc. Also, do not research mechanically, but be analytical in your research assignment.

 

VII. How can law students equip themselves with effective conflict management and dispute resolution skills? How does academic writing benefit your legal practice?

As a student, the only milestone you can achieve is knowing the law as application would be reflecting once you are into the pool of practice. To know the law, correct research and analytical skills are the most essential. One way to stay connected and remain updated of the development in any specific field of law is to write – be it a blog, article or case update.

 

VIII. Any other messages that you might want to send out?

There is no alternative to hard work. The process starts when you are in law school. Most of the courses taught in the semester give you theoretical perspective while you gain practical experience during your internship. Be committed and give your 100 per cent what you work and wherever you work. Most significantly, always remain prepared in the case irrespective of the stake involved or the forum.

 

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