Ms Aishwarya Bhati is the youngest woman advocate to be designated as a Senior Advocate in the history of the Supreme Court of India. She also has the distinction of being one of India’s youngest Additional Solicitor General and being only the 4th woman to occupy this coveted position. Ms Bhati has also passionately fought for women’s rights, children’s rights, rights of persons with disabilities and has also been a crusader advocate for anti-tobacco litigation. She has led from the front, the rights of the women officers of the tri-services for at par consideration for permanent commission and senior ranking positions.
She has been interviewed by Anshita Khandelwal, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from Maharaja Agrasen Institute of Management Studies, Delhi
- Ma’am, although you do not require a formal introduction because of your eminence, however, for the benefit of our readers can you please introduce yourself once again and tell us about your journey so far? Also please share your interests.
I am from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. My father was in the Indian Air Force and I am from a very traditional family of Rajasthan. Strong values and discipline are inculcated in the family at a very early stage. As a student, I was extremely involved in extra-curricular activities. I studied at Kendriya Vidyalaya which is a melting pot of the nation. Students from all over the country, from all religions, all walks of life were there. Though it did not feel so special at that time, when one looks back at the journey, one realises that unity in diversity is something that you grew up in. I joined NCC after that. I enjoyed the adventure activities such as parasailing. I also became a solo glider pilot with NCC. That gave me wings to my dream that I want to become a pilot. I got a sense of discipline and unity from NCC but unfortunately, that did not work out for me. Albeit, I will be forever grateful to NCC for all the opportunities it gave and helped me become the person I am. I have also led a marching contingent at Rajpath as the right marker and was adjudged as the best cadre from Rajasthan in the Republic Day camp. I also won a lot of accolades wherein I even got selected for the Indo-Canada Youth Exchange Program in 1994.
The next chapter of my life unfurled in the field of law. I am practising before the Supreme Court of India for the last 24 years. I am an accidental lawyer. It has been a brilliant journey though; law was not my first love. I wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force but I failed in pilot aptitude exam. I did not know what to do after that. My elder brother, Justice P.S. Bhati, who is now a sitting Judge at the Rajasthan High Court and the first lawyer in the family, persuaded me to take up law and there has not been any looking back after that. I took to the law like how fish takes to water; enjoyed every step of my journey as a student of law.
- Lawyers are infamous for complaining about the lack of a work-life balance. What would be your take on the “work-life balance” complaint?
I was in 2nd year of law when I got married. I was a young mother before I had my first matter. The early profession was very difficult for me. I wanted to give up. I did not think I had the strength to keep going. I used to feel very guilty. For 2 years, I did not go to the Court except for Mondays and Fridays which were miscellaneous days at the Supreme Court. For a very long time, I was sitting at home whereby thinking that I could not do much. My mother persuaded, inspired, and motivated me. She asked me “when Jhansi ki Rani went on war with her child then how can your children be a hindrance for you?” After her encouragement, I kept trying harder and harder to carve a niche for myself. As it is said, where there is a will there is a way. When you are determined about doing something then you make your way.
- Ma’am you have been appointed as the youngest ASG in the last round of appointments by the Union of India. Can you please tell us about your journey so far representing the Union of India?
I was appointed as an Additional Solicitor General after having a private practice for over 20 years. Before becoming the Additional Solicitor General, I was the Additional Advocate General for the State of Uttar Pradesh. I had some idea about State litigation there but becoming an ASG has been a quantum lead. It has been such an incremental jump in the kind of work that I now deal with. The matters that I now have are matters of national importance. I deal with issues that are arising across the country from different fields of environment, taxation, corporate law, arbitration, and many more. I deal with the extremely technical aspect of law now.
Representing the Union of India is a great privilege and a great learning experience for me. When I used to appear for a private client, I always felt that it is the citizen versus the State. Now, different perception has been added to my outlook. Now, it has been around two years representing the Union of India and when you appear for the Union of India, it is the collective citizenry that you are representing. When you are appearing for policy issues, you have to bring to the court’s notice all the other aspects as India is a country in which not all people will look at issues from the same perspective. You have to show the entire prism to the court. This is a huge learning experience. You learn every day. It is like so far you were far a foot soldier representing State and suddenly you are a commander being trained for special operations.
- What roadmap would you suggest for a first-generation lawyer who is interested in litigation as the field is heavily dominated and majorly criticised for nepotism and legacy factors?
There is no doubt that there is an advantage when you are a second-generation lawyer or a third-generation lawyer. You have the advantage of having an office or having books, the tools that it takes, office space, machinery, the computer, library are very expensive things to set up a lawyer’s office. You have work available for you if you want to learn. You have guidance at home. You have the benefit of having a home university, you can learn from your parents or whoever from your family is in law. But that advantage is only the initial advantage. It is like there are two birds – one is taking the flight from ground level and another is taking a flight from the 1st floor. The difference is there. Initially, it would feel that one that takes flight from the 1st floor has gone high but it is a marathon. It is not a flight.
When you choose to practise litigation, you choose a way of life. It is not just a vocation or profession. You choose a way of life; a self-discovery path. You choose to be a student of law for life. The strength or contours of the flight are to be determined from the strength of the wings of the bird and not where he took off from.
- If you are to suggest a law student, what according to you are the 3 skills that are essential for any advocate to learn and develop before getting into the legal profession?
I believe in 3 capital Hs. I feel that those 3 capital Hs are critical not just for a law student but even when you are continuing law. Those are the 3 fundamental features for anyone to be a meaningful lawyer. The first one is hard work. It is not a profession in which you can sprint, take shortcuts or perform half-heartedly. Law is a profession that requires your brain, heart, soul, fingers, toes, fingernails, hair, everything. It requires a huge contribution and dedication from you. If you want to choose a profession that you want to do along with other things then this is not a profession for you. You will have to work wholeheartedly.
Second H is for honesty. When I say so, it is not the honesty that we understand in common parlance. This honesty is professional honesty. Honesty to the cause of the client that you have taken up; the effort it is going to take to represent the cause before the court of law requires honesty; honesty to the court, honesty to your counterpart, and above all honesty to your conscience. Honesty is unimpeachable in this profession. There are lots of jokes which go around “lawyers are liars” or “you need to be a good liar if you want to be a lawyer” but these are jokes made on the lighter side. Lawyers who do not have unimpeachable integrity will never be able to sustain a peaceful and prolonged practice because then clients will not come back to you if you know that there is a price on which you sell and on which your integrity shakes. On the other hand, if you have unimpeachable integrity, even people who would have tried to approach you to walk on the wrong side for them will also come back to you if they see that you are unshaken. Unimpeachable integrity and honesty are non-negotiable skills required in law.
Third H is for humility. Nobody comes to a lawyer in happiness or joy. People come to lawyers in grief and despair and when they face dejection and disappointment from all other places. Courts are the places of last resort. No one is happy coming to courts apart from judges and lawyers. We have the opportunity to become the harbinger for our clients to access justice. I have done very substantial pro bono work. In earlier years, it used to feel that I am helping people and it is me who is gaining something – morally and experience-wise. But I think it is important to bear in mind that even if you are helping somebody it is the blessings of God and it is the karma that you have done that has somewhere put you in this situation that you are the help giver and not help taker. Wherever you have reached it is not your hard work alone – hard work is imperative but there is a lot more for any person to succeed in life. Humility in the larger force of the providence and the strength of blessings and prayers that we should always believe in.
- Young lawyers aiming to start the practice of law have a lot of apprehensions and concerns. How did you deal with those concerns and what is your advice for the aspiring law practitioners?
It is a different feeling altogether where you have just finished your education and you are trying to get into the next phase of life. When we get our education, apprehensions are bound to be there. I do not think anybody needs to be fearful in any way. Anxiety can prevail, but apprehension cannot because this is not a profession that you can practice with apprehension. There is nothing for you to worry about. It is just an extension. The constitutional courts are the best of the Ivy League colleges in our country. And so the education continues. The level of lawyering and the discussion is so robust that you have amazing learning that goes on in every courtroom. Determine a line in which you want to spend the rest of your life and then jump into it. Even after jumping into it if you feel that this is not what you want to do in your life, then move on to find something else. I am a strong believer in what Steve Jobs used to say “keep on moving till you find doing what you love and till then keep moving”. I think each one of us must be in that area that we love. Sometimes love happens at first sight and sometimes love develops with time. If you feel love for the profession then growth and success are bound to come. This is not a profession that gives rewards early. No matter who starts early, it is going to take time. Be ready for it.
- What according to you are the biggest challenges or hurdles to having a successful litigation practice?
There is only one – lack of compassion. I think compassion makes life meaningful and it is not just as a lawyer. If we do not have compassion, we do not end up becoming good human beings. I think compassion helps us in having a meaningful journey in our life. Destiny is something that karma, providence, or God is going to decide. The end of life is only death that is not what we are looking at. We are looking to have a meaningful journey in life. Compassion is what makes our journey worth its while.
- Ma’am, you have led the fight for women officers in India’s defence services and their rightful permanent commission in the services. Could you please share your experience while dealing with that case?
It was a very instrumental journey in itself. I was privileged. I was the one who had the honour of representing those women. Litigation is like role play wherein we become like actors when we are arguing and presenting our case. When we step into the shoes of our clients, that is, the only way we know where the shoe is biting. If you do not step into the shoes, you will not be able to understand the pain or the pinch they feel. You can never submit before the court objectively and dispassionately. When you get to role play, you do not have the option to say no.
Professional ethics bind us to take every matter. As lawyers, you get many matters that you believe in and there are a lot of matters in which you do not believe especially when you are representing people who are accused in criminal cases. You can never believe in rape and murder but you still represent your clients and do your best to give them the remedies provided under due process of law. As lawyers, you must see that they have a constructive day at court, and rule of law prevails. But occasionally, you get matters with strong issues which are so close to your heart.
As a woman lawyer, I joined a profession that is male bastioned. I had a whole set of experiential learning that I saw in my journey. Then I come across these women officers who are also in the male bastioned profession. You see, I figured out the similarity between their journey and my experience. There are a lot of similarities. Lawyers who get matters where they believe in the causes that is a great opportunity. I am blessed to have got that. I feel equally elated and thrilled we got such a phenomenal judgment from the Supreme Court of India.
- How important is it to do proper legal research and how should law students equip themselves with legal researching skills. What are your views on it?
Legal research is extremely critical because everything that has been held by the Supreme Court of India is law of the land under Article 141 of the Constitution. As students of law, we have to see how the matter has been dealt with, the issues which have been discussed, and how the principles involved have been dealt with. Sometimes you get judgments that support your cause and sometimes you get judgments that are in direct contravention to your cause but then also you have to try and see if there is a distinction which you can draw. So legal research as time passes is becoming more and more critical. Sometimes there are areas in which Indian courts have not looked into and then we have to refer to foreign judgments. But what is important is the case which you have at hand with its distinct facts, which is critical to arguing a matter and that is what legal research teaches you. Sometimes you have to research basic, basic parlance has to be researched. Research is a very important component of preparing a brief and one must research with all diligence and to the best of their capacity.
- What advice would you like to give to young lawyers interested in this field and looking forward to practising in this field?
It is a journey of self-discovery. It is a beautiful profession. If we have our focus that this noble profession enables and empowers us to make a difference in people’s lives, to society, and the nation, then you are going to love the journey.