In conversation with Manu Chaturvedi on creating legal content, practice areas and future of legal profession in light of the pandemic

Mr Manu Chaturvedi who has completed his graduation from NUJS Kolkata and has done his LLM in International Legal Studies from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. We also know him from his informational and witty Instagram posts. Currently, he is an independent legal practitioner skilled in legal writing and litigation.

He has been interviewed by Masooma Rizvi, penultimate year student at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.

 

 

 

1. We got a lot of information about the Covid-19 pandemic from your Instagram posts which objectively reported the number of cases and cases recovered coupled with a detailed analysis. In that context: what impact do you think it makes when lawyers and law students are updated with the news generally and more specifically legal news?

I started to post because I had too much time on my hands, and that was the basic drive to start posting. The pandemic caught all of us off guard and the courts had shut down for the initial months. Having said that, the main platform for news is more of digital media and less of print media these days, and that, in my opinion, is very biased propaganda of information. The pandemic was heavily politicised. And the initial stages of the pandemic made everyone very curious about what is happening around them. People wanted some raw and unbiased data or factual information which was not readily available otherwise, to say, the internet or search engine algorithms made these valuable data to be hidden in some corners. And for my forming of opinions, I needed to understand the unknown data.

 

I was so tired of this discourse that was taking place, so with the time in my hand, I looked at those issues more constructively and posted these digestible bites of information on the internet.

 

There was a broader principle at play here, the larger issue that drew me to it, and to answer the second part of your question, is to address how people are being divided into this false binary that exists. It is not the case always, but a lot of it is. But in this grey zone, there is a lot of information that is not alluring over the internet but allows you to form opinions. Hence false perception can often rise. And here I am just a little sick and tired about the way some information is being presented and highlighted to the people on the internet while saying that the internet is this democratised platform where everybody gets to post whatever they want.

 

So, in this pandemic, I felt not responsibility but a certain kind of urge to constructively approach the problem as I saw it and the impact of the problem is for everyone to see. Attention brings in advertisers and loyalty, politics. And due to all this, our sense of things has changed its direction. As a result, nothing productive is being added and hence, there is a huge opportunity cost and actively destructive behaviour.

 

Not just lawyers but everyone needs to read and collect knowledge, but only after monitoring the long hard lens through which they are looking at the information. It is also important to reflect on the information that has been already dealt with as to whether it has been picked up with the correct lens.

 

2. Since on social media everyone is just interested in the 30sec bit of information, and not eager to go through the entire article to form an opinion on these platforms, do you think, that causes the problem in the long run-in lawyers as they do not inculcate the habit of reading more from the beginning as compared to people in other professions?

Okay yeah, that is a beautiful way of framing the question as I have not thought it this way. So yes, if that is what it is happening, it is scary because lawyers do need to read a lot. And if the benchmark of acquiring information and assimilating it in your own opinion is a 30-second video then that is very superficial. So, I hope these trends do have much impact on the lawyers.

 

But 30 seconds of video in itself is not the problem. The problem lies in the consumption pattern. So, if you just consider forming your opinion of the popular pages or channels which have colourful animations, meaning, considering a social media platform like Instagram to be a one-stop-shop cannot be it. I make live videos on Instagram. Having said that, these 30- second videos also tend to capture data most truly, like look that the Baghjan oil leak video, had it not been for those 30-second videos, it would not have surfaced that way it did.

 

The point is to see the utilitarian value to it. So, let us say, we find the Baghjan oil leak video, and immediately share it for someone to comment below.  So, it is like shifting from the old post and undoubtedly, we all get dragged into it. And the way to not get dragged in it is to stop enhancing with the comment. But these social media have built up their algorithm in such a way that if you do not reply to the comments, your engagement in the platform suffers. And the more people disagree with my opinion, the more engaging my post becomes. So, all in all there is an intangible ecosystem that is built to get to that 30-second video. And they have made us an accomplice to this system even after being aware of the system. So, the onus of us is to digitally detoxify ourselves and move on to read more.

 

3. You have created a niche for yourself with the kind of legal content you create on your social media. What advice would you give to law students looking to follow a similar trend?

 

The first piece of advice I want to give them is on the first principles. And secondly, do not play into the notion to increase a huge number of followers and therefore I will choose what I have to say as a subject and what you have to say on that subject. But this being a piece of generic advice, do not choose a very sterile subject on remote issues. But lawyers can variably do it after office hours. Like they can keep the craft of manipulation for the courtrooms and come out more objectively in their own spaces.

 

4. You have a varied independent practice ranging from civil and commercial laws extending to environmental law as well. You are also the standing counsel for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in addition to giving lectures on constitutional law and international law.

In this era of hyper-specialisation, can you explain to our readers how this works?

 

Just a point of order, I have a bunch of environmental law cases some of which are continuing even now. Some aspects of constitutional law topically overlap with matters concerning the exploitation of national security or human rights under the garb of national security.

 

And on the other hand, I represent the Government. And I enjoy this liberty to an extent. I have taught litigation and legal drafting at law schools and I have given some lectures on constitutional law here and there. In terms of the age of hyper-specialisation, that age has always been there. I have seen people from my law school itself pursuing very specialised sections of the law, and now they are at good places. However, I have not approached law in that manner. I was not even interested in being a lawyer when I was in law school. I wanted to be one when I entered law school, but progressively lost interest. And I take account of that.

 

However, when I did get out of law school, I was a little dicey as to what to take up. I took a law researcher’s position under a High Court Judge and that was the first time that I could sit in a courtroom for an extended period and watch it as a fly on the wall. And that is where my interest grew. I found myself in, in equal part, a bureaucratic enterprise and a very dynamic profession. I liked imagining myself waiting for the matters, arguing my first case before the Judge. And that gave me butterflies in my stomach. That suited my personality. That is how I got with the law.

 

So, then I worked with a couple of firms where I would stand next to a printing machine or a fax machine and decide to never get back to my cubical. I was okay with standing in a non-condition alley in the Supreme Court getting my photocopies but never go back to my desk job. Coming as a first-generation lawyer, once I decided to litigate, I was anxious about the fact that my peers were specialising in particular areas of cases, like just handling electricity matters. So that is how I went on to work with some seniors where I had learnt a lot. And I just struck through.

 

Since I did not have enough opportunities (as none of my family members is from a law background) it was like “wherever the road takes us”. So, during that time, I started taking a lot of litigation on service matters, environmental law, right to information with different organisations, etc. And one thing led to another, news spread, and so I expanded outwards. This was how I made my way up through the Council’s positions, unions, standing counsel for MCD. But it does not end there. Big matters fall in your lap which is tough and some luck involved. And obviously, hard work does pay off.

 

So yeah, all in all, you do not have to be a generalist, it comes with its struggles for sure. There are 100s of models of litigations, and people can come through any of those, I do not know which one is better than which, but it helps to commit for a while.

 

5. May we please know which areas you are most gravitated towards and why?

Yeah, so strangely enough I have been very keen on competition law over the last couple of years. I tried my hand in some cases. I had very little idea about it eight years ago, but through studies, I grew my interest.  So now I am excited, especially when I have ordered some commentaries on it. I think that is a good yardstick to saying if I am interested in something.

 

6. Research is required at every stage – be it content creation or academic writing. In this context, what does exhaustion of research mean to you?

 

That is an interesting question. Ideally, never. It depends on various factors. Let us understand through an example. Let us take the Sino-Indian border dispute, as there was a neat parameterised bunch of information. So, when I started doing the research on that to cover the history I was reading it to construct a story in my mind. So, you start there and read extensively on it and what I realised to do is to draw an artificial boundary for myself when presenting it as a video. Now that is not a luxury that you can afford for many things. But on most things, you can. The trick is to utilise the time constraints. Like if you ask me to research something in 10 hours versus in 1 hour, the idea of exhaustion of research would be different. But you need to read and understand how large is the unknown area that I have not explored and once I have gained an idea on that, maybe I want to approach with my narrative of modest and make it explicit as to how much information I am sure of.

 

So, if you ask me when do I stop my research, it probably would not end if the substance is interesting enough, I will keep on reading. So, it is important to understand how will I platform the collected information, like if I want to make it an Instagram post, or make a pleading in the court or write an article on it. The approaches would be different in all the instances. So, the best thing to do is (if you are not in court) to review the narrative that you are putting out with a degree of modesty and acknowledging that you do not know certain things.

 

7. What is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the legal profession?

Do you think virtual hearings are the inevitable future?

 

I hope they are the inevitable future. I believe there are two aspects to it. It is no secret that a lot of Bar Associations have been opposing the idea of virtual hearings for the simple reason that the lawyers who have already cornered the markets for whatever reason in litigation will foray into other markets. So, if a great senior counsel is sitting in some different country, he will still be attending every hearing barring other lawyer to stand a chance. Having said that the profession is not as simple as pulling oneself by the bootstraps and just go with it because that is not how life works. You need to have a degree of responsibility of course, but we also need to acknowledge that there are blind spots and inefficiency, and deliberate designs in the system that perpetuate the cornering of the market.

 

Hence, there needs to be some sort of organic regulations which is something that we see with physical hearings because one counsel who is good or cornered something cannot possibly be presented in four different jurisdictions, or even in two different courts of the same jurisdiction, so there is more pie for everyone to have. But online hearings save too much time. As being a lawyer is a social profession, one of my pet peeves has always been the long travel and waiting hours for just one hearing maybe, then coming back to the office to get work done. So, this not only ruins the work-life balance for oneself but everyone surrounding them.

 

The benefits that accrue in our ecosystem are usually trickled down so all the benefits are taken by the people in a great position to the so-called have-nots. But the burdens are mostly taken in the other way round. So, if somebody has to sit at two in the morning and do the drafting, it will be the junior-most lawyer there who is paid the least. I principally, do not agree with that at all. I hate that system. But the system cannot be changed too easily. But what can be done is the introduction of a variable of change in that system that allows everyone to have time, and that happens when hearings are virtual. Recently I went to the court for a very small matter, and since there was no traffic around, I could commute in very little time. So, the hybrid system seems smooth, other virtual hearings are desirable. Arguing in courts with the comfort of your house looks great provided it is done in respectful ways. But admitting that it comes with its fair share of issues. Like the issue of assessing the hearing, especially for older lawyers, and as highlighted before, the cornering of markets, the debates around what are the modalities and how to maintain decorum online, etc. But we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. So, we must use this opportunity to the fullest.

 

And to answer your first question, firstly, we need to know how long this pandemic will go on to get a sense in the longer run. Now the courts have again begun to shut down and you have started to see its impact already. Young lawyers who were already on a certain trajectory or wanted to be in a different one have suffered in these 1.5 years. Work is drying up for a lot of lawyers which is a big problem. Apart from that we hope to use this virtual system as an opportunity, and iron out the difference and move ahead with the system.

 

Apart from these economic issues, I think there will be a lot of litigation matters on bankruptcy and a lot of other contractual issues. I do not want to put these issues out so lightly, as there are lawyers out there finding difficulty to rent their offices or keep their subscriptions going, and others might have had to let go of their juniors. This way junior lawyers are massively affected. So, it is a test of the fraternity. We speak big words on assisting each other and let us see what happens with that now. I have kept my bargain by not trying to decrease or negotiate anyone’s salaries, or maybe I do not pay them much to start with, you never know (laughs). So yeah, we all have to reflect at these times to carry on and where we were before, and we all have to decide who has the more pie to share at this point. That is why we cannot be intuitive with this profession. Let us hope the better angels of our nature, or whatever it is called come through.

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