Mr Talha Abdul Rahman obtained his law degree from the NALSAR University of Law in 2008. Mr. Rahman has been shortlisted for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, in addition to other renowned scholarships, namely, Commonwealth Scholarship, Gates Foundation and Ratan Tata Scholarship. He was awarded Shell Chevening Scholarship through which he pursued Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford University in 2008-09.
He has been interviewed by Taha Bin Tasneem, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from AMU.
1. Please tell the readers a bit about yourself, your journey in the profession and your early years.
Let me assure you that my journey to this point in life has not been immune from usual dilemmas and challenges that everyone faces. I spent my formative years in Faizabad, now renamed as Ayodhya which despite its global fame, remained a small town and did not have great educational opportunities. I had to relocate to Lucknow for intermediate education. Like many, I had great interest in computer science and was hoping to become an engineer. At some point in Class XII, I realised that I really enjoyed “people-centric” work; and I got drawn into law. My brother who himself studying law at Lucknow University also nurtured my interest as once in a while I would meet his friends and read his books as well. My father (and my extended middle class family) was not very excited when I broke the news to them that I wanted to study law. I had really rebelled to study law, and the only condition on which peace was arrived at was that I would not settle for anything but the best law school in India. No one in my family had heard of NALSAR and it was still a bit of a challenge to explain to everyone in the family as to why a bright student had chosen law. God was kind, and I got into NALSAR in 2003.
I graduated from NALSAR in 2008. Same year, I was offered the Shell Chevening Centenary Scholarship to pursue a bachelor of civil laws (BCL) at Oxford University in 2008-2009. I began my professional career with the Dispute Resolution Team of AZB & Partners (Mumbai). Then for a brief period, I relocated my practice to my hometown, Lucknow in 2011 and then relocated again to Delhi in 2013. In 2017, I qualified the Advocate-on-Record examination.
2. How would you describe your law school life? In what ways did it shape you as a person?
My law school life was fulfilling. Above all, I had great friends. Law school opened my eyes to the diversity in India and importance of accommodating everyone. It drove home the point that homogeneity may not be good after all, and that true education means benefitting from diversity. It also opened my eyes to the limits of academic gradation – as some of the best lawyers from my batch are those who paid a lot more attention on many things other just formal legal education. It also made me realise that it is not my role to judge anyone.
While at NALSAR, I was elected as class representative and later became the University’s Student Bar Council’s Vice President. I helped to set up Indian Journal of Intellectual Property Law which is thriving today. I worked with Abhinandan Malik to nurture a student law magazine called The Edict and wrote extensively for it.
I also mooted, participated in cultural events, and travelled widely for presenting papers and even generally.
3. You have been in litigation for about 10 years now. What hurdles did you face starting out and how did you overcome them?
One of the biggest hurdles that youngsters face in litigation is from an impatient Judge. Rarely does one find a Judge who has the patience to put up with a young counsel, and those who are lucky to practise before such a Judge may see a meteoric rise in their advocacy skills. At the end of the day, what any counsel seeks is not an order in his favour but a fair and patient hearing. The hardest battles to fight are those with presumptions. When I started practising in Lucknow Bench, I had a Judge physically shutting his ears to my arguments – and somehow I saved the petition from dismissal that day. The then seniormost Judge almost had an unwritten rule that no one with less than five years of practice should appear before him. This made many juniors very uncomfortable. On the other hand, there were a few Judges that heard you patiently and with them around litigation did not seem such a bad option.
Another hurdle that young lawyers face is the lack of respectable remuneration. Fortunately, I was valued for the work I did and I could manage to live with dignity even in the initial days. After leaving a cushioned position at AZB & Partners, My senior Mr Gaurav Mehrotra not only took care of me financially but also encouraged me to argue by standing beside me and correcting the course of arguments. When I moved to Delhi in the chambers of Mr Gopal Subramanium, similar support continued and in fact, he went out of his way to help me.
I think I have had the benefit of working with the best legal minds – and I owe a great deal to all my gurus – Gopal Subramanium, Zia Mody, Abhijit Joshi, Rajendra Barot, Shuva Mandal, Gaurav Mehrotra, Nadeem Murtaza, Shoeb Alam, and Abhishek Tewari. I have had the benefit of course correction, which they did consciously and as well as unconsciously.
While all of my gurus gave me perspectives and skills, many often referred clients to me and allowed me to handle some of their clients independently. I think it would have been very hard for me to survive but for the faith of my seniors who referred clients and paid me for assisting them.
In our profession, many seniors are there to look out for you. All you need to do is be observant and be willing to accept their care. It can be very hard for a junior to ask for work, but equally, juniors can make sure that they signal their availability to work and assist. I have benefitted from the appreciation and kindness of many designated senior advocates in Delhi and I am grateful to them for their unintended and unconscious acts of kindness such as correcting your course of arguments in a matter and even appearing pro bono. I think many juniors at the Bar, especially in the Supreme Court would unequivocally agree that several seniors have supported many young lawyers in their moments of need and even otherwise – who later rose to become great lawyers and judges. COVID-19 is a recent example of how seniors of the Bar stood against tsunami to protect its juniors.
4. In your opinion, what all does it take for a fresh lawyer to overcome the “struggle” phase and survive in litigation?
Mental strength. Above all, a fresh lawyer needs to train his mind for the challenges that are to come. Every individual is unique and it is not fair to compare yourself with others – for you do not know their back story. Along the way, I did not pay sufficient attention to my own self. Many lawyers believe that there is no such thing as work-life balance in the legal profession. However, I now believe in at least aspiring to create such a distinction. It may be hard for young lawyers whose schedule depends on the schedule of their seniors – but wherever possible do fit in a minute or two of meditation and go out for a stroll. One will have to thrust these things upon oneself, otherwise there is no way to fix things once it gets broken.
5. When should one decide to go for a masters? What are the “right motivations” for pursuing an LLM?
First, I do not believe that everyone should pursue an LLM. Only those with an academic bent of mind or those wanting to use litigation to open new opportunities should do it. An LLM, especially abroad, can be financially draining – so it must be planned well. A graduate lawyer’s desire to study further is not limited to an LLM alone. Those having an interest in policy could consider postgraduate courses in public policy or development studies as well. In my view, it may help broaden the horizon as well.
I had an interest in academics, and continue to do so. Even in Oxford, I often found myself amongst the handful students attending certain lectures. My decision to pursue LLM perhaps was taken early, in about 2nd year of the five-year course. Consequently, I had enough time to shape my resume accordingly. Having said that, even if I were not to go for LLM, I may not have done things differently in law school. Being academic and being a workaholic is just part of who I am. I would have still published articles (like I do even today) or would have attended conferences (like I do even today).
6. What are the common mistakes that students make while applying for scholarships to pursue a foreign LLM?
Every scholarship fund intends to create a brand ambassador for their scholarship. Thus, a fund seeks to confer benefit to a candidate on the said or unsaid understanding of contributing to the society or industry – and hence add to the brand of the scholarship fund or the benefactor. A candidate seeking a scholarship should remember that for most funds, a scholarship to a potential candidate is an investment in a stock that would gain a lot of value in the future.
Common mistakes thus include not appreciating the importance of a well-rounded application that includes references to the leadership track record, and institution building. Those having an interest in poetry, music, or arts invariably stand out. It is not enough to be an excellent law student.
7. In your opinion, what is the value of academic research done at the undergraduate level?
A7: It is the foundation of what you will learn ahead and also forms a part of what you will unlearn. Serious research and publications at the undergraduate level show that the candidate has a proven interest in deeper learning, and therefore, is suitable for a postgraduate course. Academic research, apart from projects, is not necessary to graduate as a lawyer. This, therefore, shows that the student is self-motivated and willing to walk the extra mile. In postgraduate study, it is your own motivation that is needed to sustain the gruelling curriculum or to make the best of it.
8. The general trend among fresh law graduates is to go for law firm jobs. In your opinion, what are the changes that would facilitate more people entering litigation?
Acknowledgement of talent and appreciation goes a long way in ensuring that younger people join litigation. There are bound to be differences in money that one makes in a law firm compared to that in litigation. Law firms usually are engaged by corporates who pay rather well and the money thus trickles down. That may not be the case with individuals who are litigating. For facilitating the entry of youngsters in the Bar, the Judges need to encourage young talent and nurture them rather than being dismissive on account of their youth. The same would be true for senior lawyers. Rarely does one find a mentor – which is very important in our profession. Equally, the juniors have to be receptive to the culture and ethics of the Bar. The Bar still works on its traditions.
9. What are the pros and cons of shifting one’s practice from one place to another?
When I wanted to move from Lucknow to Delhi, I was told to consider whether I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. While this question would continue to be relevant but this question cannot be answered in such binaries of pros or cons. In litigation it is important to sustain when little or no payment comes in the initial days. Being with family and having a place you can call home in those times helps a great deal.
Being at a place that has family and friends around frees up a lot of brain space and time. Whatever time is made available to you when you are not worrying about domestic chores or caregiving, can then be spent in reading up the law. In my view, pros could include better work ethics and quality of work, and learning from peer. Pros could also include being with family, having access to fresh air and nature. It is a very subjective question, and at the end, one should only strive for happiness. For some happiness lies in minting money; for some lies in being helpful or spending time in the lap of nature.
10. How and when did you start preparing for the Advocate-on-Record (AOR) examination? What do you think is crucial for someone who wishes to take the AOR exam?
A10: I started preparing for the AOR examination after giving my certificate of commencement – about a year before the examination, but the real preparation started in the last 45 days. Those who have practised before the Supreme Court would already be familiar with a large part of the syllabus and then it is only about connecting the practice to the rules and case laws. One thing that I found most useful was practising writing with hand. The last examination that I took before the AOR examination in 2016 was the BCL examination in 2009. In the 7-year gap, I had never written for 3 hours at a stretch. In order to be able to write what I had memorised or learnt, I needed my hands and fingers to cooperate – and I think many of my younger colleagues falter there and end up not being able to finish. It helps to practise writing in long form.
11. How could the students be better prepared for the legal profession?
Students should focus on developing their communication skills. The essence of legal profession is communication. We communicate all the time. While the content of such communication evolves and changes, depending upon the context, but the fact remains that most lawyers spend substantial time either communicating or preparing to communicate. Unfortunately, I find many law students lacking there. Rarely would I find an intern who is able to draft an acceptable e-mail or an acceptable note and when I do find such a person, I personally try to help them as much as I can. In other words, nothing impresses me more than good written and oral communication skills, and the ability to present a visually pleasing document.
Once a student knows how to write well and communicate effectively, more than half the preparation for a career in litigation is done. Most lawyers would happily correct their junior’s legal mistakes or guide them to the correct legal point, but no one would want to correct simple language errors.
Apart from, or in fact, a step towards communication – is trying to leverage technology. The world is evolving, and law students should definitely spend time training in Microsoft Word or equivalent word processor on the cloud. One should constantly try and figure out ways to automate repetitive chores so that the balance time could be utilised for reading.
I have course on EBC Webstore titled “Essential Skills for the Legal Profession”, which introduces young lawyers to some of the survival skills.
12. What parting piece(s) of advice would you give law students and fresh lawyers who wish to enter litigation?
Well, I have a lot to say. Let us just begin by saying that the important lesson for any person starting in law is to understand that they are a “pale blue dot” in this universe of law. Treat everyone with humility, and learn from everyone. Appreciating the distinction between confidence and condescension goes a long way. When I started, and even today – I still often paginate petitions, correct typos, be corrected by junior and senior colleagues at the Bar, and take criticism with humility.
I would caution young lawyers and law students from relying on what I call the practice of: “asking the law”. I have seen many lawyers asking others about precedents or case laws on an issue rather than looking up the books and digest on their own. This must be avoided at all costs. It is always good to be the one who is being asked rather than the one who is asking.
My goal is to learn at least one new thing everyday. It could be a new point of view, new legal provision, new judgments, new perspective – and often it would also be a lesson outside the law. My friend Ashish Jaiswal has authored this wonderful book (that I would also recommend you to read) called Fluid: The Approach Applied by Geniuses Over Centuries and the central argument in the book is that true intellect lies at the cusp of several fields of knowledge. So while you are training to be a lawyer, diversify into other things as well and explore other areas as well.