In conversation with Adv Firdouse Qutb Wani, AoR (Supreme Court), on life as a female litigator in India

In conversation with Adv Firdouse Qutb Wani, AoR (Supreme Court), on life as a female litigator in India

   

Ms Firdouse Qutb Wani, a law graduate from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi is a first-generation practicing lawyer, having standing at the Bar for more than a decade and half, with rich and diverse experience in the field of law. Ms Wani is an Advocate-on-Record of the Supreme Court of India. She was made the Additional Standing Counsel of Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC) at a relatively young age and which position she continues to hold till date.

She has been interviewed by Syed Mohd Haroon, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from Jamia Milia Islamia.

1. Could you brief our readers a little bit about yourself, and what made you choose law as a career? How was your journey in the initial years?

I belong to Kashmir, the crown of this country and call myself destiny's child. My family moved to several cities and States because of my father's work, hence I grew up in different places and it exposed me to the diversity of our lovely country. I do not really think I choose law as a career, in fact it is vice versa, this career chose me. My father Prof. M. Afzal Wani, being an academician and that too in the field of law, played an important role in my liking of this field. I still remember how my father's library at our home, used to fascinate me, even at the young age of about 8 or 9 years. I have memories from those times of the environment of our home, especially the drawing room, where my father, and his students, his lawyer or Judge friends, and law enforcement people, used to have detailed discussions on nuances of the law. I got my first exposure to law, through such an environment and the same had a very positive impact on me. Constitution or you call it civics, in school, used to be my favourite subject. The thought that one can have an opinion and same can be put across, without fear by a person, was the major temptation for me to get attracted to the legal profession. I started having an opinion on “law”, my initial impression of “law” or “laws” was that of an “enabler”.

To be very frank, the initial journey was full of hurdles but yes also full of opportunities. Many are not aware that when I was in final year of my law school, I had received admission offer from Kings College, London, to pursue LLM. In fact initially I thought of taking it up and pursue higher education and maybe dabble in academics. I had interned during my college years with Mr K.K.Venugopal, Mr K.T.S. Tulsi and several law firms and organisations like National Commission for Women and somehow these internships had made me more confident to join the litigation and I just wanted to join the profession at the earliest.

Once I got the offer, it made me think and my mother told me to do what my gut tells me. Now I do not remember, everything but I do remember that I just joined the profession and here I am today. To be very frank it worked for me and it is not necessary that it would work for others also. I actually toiled a lot. I was rejected by several law firms when I applied for internships and I also felt many times that many known lawyers and law firms used to opt for national law students therefore in my office, I never look at the college name when someone applies for a job or an internship. Trust me the passion for the profession, is the must-have ingredient to be a good lawyer and not anything else. I always believed in myself and yes I did feel dejected at times but kept myself intact. I remember when I interned with Mr Vijay Nair (Advocate), he paid stipend to other intern and not to me. I asked him why this disparity and he told me, we are letting the other intern go and extending your internship period as you are an asset to us. I was thrilled beyond words. I was offered first job by him only and later on I went on to join chambers of Mr Cherukuri Mukund, quite a known name in the corridors of High Court of Delhi.

I did not only face hurdles for not coming from a National Law School but also being a female lawyer. Now the times have changed a lot. I remember once when my senior gave me a brief to work on a case for a client, I got quite a cold shoulder from the client and he asked my senior how would a female defend him. He made sure that I should not work on his case. With time, I also learned to deal with such situations and ultimately the bottom line is when you work very hard, it paves way for you. I remember a senior lawyer telling me in a litigation where we were representing adversarial interests, that his client told him that he argued well but “Ms Wani” was better. He told me that he did not need to tell me this but as women lawyers are mostly discouraged to carry on in this profession, hence I thought to tell you about this compliment which an opposite party has showered on a woman counsel and it will make me more strong. This did touch my heart and I am sharing this only to keep the spirits of all other female lawyers high. My mantra is simple, when you believe that you can do it, nobody can stop you. When I became a mother, I knew, I have to be an inspiration for my daughter. I am happy that I put on blinkers the day I held her in my hands and just focused on what would help me to keep on going as a professional and a mother at the same time, without worrying about judging eyes and mouths. I think it is very important that we should be clear in our minds about what matters to us and not what others expect us to do. Every milestone is full of hardships and nothing comes easily to you. We should always respect others for what they have achieved because most people just tend to see your success and not the hard work and sacrifice that have gone behind it. Every being is different, so there is no set formula for fighting challenges and achieving success, but one thing is constant and that is self-belief.

2. Belonging to Kashmir, you are aware of the innumerable hurdles to access to consistent and quality education in the area, how has it impacted you (or countless other talented children in the valley), according to you what should be done to overcome this?

The situation in Kashmir is quite fragile and it is no secret, that the biggest sufferers are the children of the valley. I remember during my school days, we used to go to school twice or thrice a week as the rest of the days, there used to be a curfew or some kind of protest, resulting in the closure of the schools. The situation there is not only affecting the quality of education but is also impacting the mental health of the children.

We have quite good schools in the valley, and we can see that very intelligent and smart children are coming out of the valley. Schools have now become quite aware of the impact of the situation in the valley, hence they do help students by counselling them, to keep them at bay and help them to cope with the overall unrest in the valley. This is the least that schools can do. Parents are also getting involved with the children but when the situation gets too tough, I have seen parents sending their wards to boarding schools, away from the valley, so that they can have stress-free education.

I believe we should focus on our children and youth so that they can be provided with a qualitative and peaceful environment to make their futures bright. There is no dearth of talent in the valley, we only need a platform to nurture the same without any fear and threat.

3. Since you have done multiple matters concerning commercial laws, including commercial arbitration and appearing before the original commercial side of the Delhi High Court, what do you think should be the approach adopted while handling the same?

I think any kind of legal matter, requires precision, no matter what genre we are talking about. When we have a case to handle, first we should go through each document, we have in hand and read between the lines. We need to investigate each and every aspect, like the maintainability, basic laws involved, judgments and rulings on the issue. Initially, we should see if the dispute can be resolved amicably and try to mitigate the losses. In case litigation is what is required, then we should make a strategy to go about the case and keep on reviewing the tactics and strategy, from time to time, as the case develops. We should be aware of both sets of documents, the one which is damaging to the case and also the one which is in favour of the case. We should be always prepared with the strategy to defend our case if some damaging document is put forth by the other side. At the same time, we should be aware of documents, which we may not be in the possession of but are aware that such documents can benefit our case. We should pray for the disclosure of such documents. In case such documents are not produced by the other side, at least it can draw a negative inference against them and that can also do good for your case. Evidence, and witness statements including expert witness statements, plays important role in a case, hence same requires to be looked into meticulously.

One more thing, which is very important is that once you are entrusted with a case by a client, you should advise your client to run every kind of communication to be issued in relation to such a case through you, as it is very important that no damaging document is created by your client, affecting your overall strategy of handling the case.

4. How much weight would you give to proper legal research and the tools used for doing it? How should law students equip themselves with legal research skills?

When we are handling any legal issue, it is very important that we should be aware of legal precedents available in respect to such an issue and for that proper legal research is very important. If one is good at legal research, such a skill can help a lawyer to craft a winning argument. I have seen many a times, even in a weak case, sometimes good legal research, turns the table in your favour.

Legal research does not only provide one with a support for a legal issue but also enables you to provide good legal advice to the client. Nowadays with technology uprise, we have so many tools to do good research. Some of the tools available also have artificial intelligence and that not only helps in good research but also comprehensive one. Research tools are also helping us to save immense valuable time.

Students and young budding lawyers should accoutre themselves with research skills, as even in presence of research tools if one is not aware of what to search for, the tools are not going to help. One should have the skill to identify the relevant legal issue/problem and also the relief that is being sought. A student/young lawyer should break down a case and examine each fact involved, no matter how irrelevant a fact is, as sometimes an irrelevant fact turns out to be very important at a later stage. When a student/young lawyer would look into the facts meticulously, he/she would be able to identify the legal issue involved.

Once the legal issue is identified, student/young lawyer should look into the statutes/regulations/laws involved with respect to the legal problem at hand. One can also read articles, and law journals, discussing the law involved as the authors of such articles have already done good enough work and that saves your time. Thereafter we can go on to case laws and my advice is not to rely on case headnotes solely, although they are very helpful but not enough to decide that the said case law is going to support your case, hence read the whole judgment, and then decide if it is of some help to you. Sometimes a case law turns out to be less supportive and more damaging, therefore before relying on the same, one should go through it thoroughly.

A good researcher always looks for “good law”, that is one which has not been struck down or invalidated by the court. Here the technology helps a lot, as the tools available now, easily help us to know if a certain case law has been invalidated or reversed. In fact, the tools also help us to know more about the case where such a case law has been cited and what has been the observation of the Judges in respect to the same.

Law keeps on evolving and changing, it is very important that one should remain updated with the development, hence it is very important to enhance our research skills and use the available tools in the best manner possible.

5. In your experience as counsel, do you think the oral advocacy skills vary with the sectors and the forums in front of which you present oral arguments? If yes, what is your opinion on the differences that one needs to bear in mind when arguing?

Yes, oral advocacy varies with sectors and the forums. In fact, it varies from one courtroom to another.

For good oral advocacy, my mantra is “know the Judge”. One should actually observe the Judge beforehand and see, how the particular Judge interacts with the counsels? Whether he is asking many questions and if yes then what kind of questions? Whether the Judge is well versed with the particular field of law? We should be also aware of the background of a Judge i.e. if a particular Judge is a non-judicial members or a judicial member?

Precisely a lawyer should be able to adapt his/her arguments to suit the Judge. In case it is felt that a Judge does not seem familiar with particular legal principles involved in a case, then one should spend more time in explaining the same and in case it is felt from the previous orders of said Judge, that he/she is aware of the field of law, then one should try to impress on spending more time on the strong points of the case.

One should not only focus on the arguments being put forth but also try to involve the Judge in the whole process. If a lawyer feels that Judge is not following the arguments, try to go slow, pause and let the argument sink in. Make sure that the argument is not vague and put forth your point clearly, that you want Judge to take note of. If a question is being asked, make sure that you address the question immediately and if you feel the question asked is not relevant, try to put forth the submission in a most humble manner, and explain why such a question is irrelevant to your case. If you feel that you require some more research to address a specific query, put forth by a Judge, try to seek time to look into it, so that you can put forth your best foot forward, to assist the court.

Overall, as the cases vary, the attitude and approach of Judges also varies, hence one should be able to put forth the case in a manner best suited to the taste of that particular Judge. A good lawyer does not only research about the case but also the Judge.

6. As an Advocate-on-Record of the Supreme Court, kindly tell our readers about your experience briefing Senior Advocates, the requisite preparation required, and the challenges/fruits of being an AOR at the highest judicial authority in the country?

As an AOR, I have always felt, that it is very important that one should know the art of making an exhaustive brief note of the case. A good note helps to bring the important points within the knowledge of the Senior Advocate with ease and that reflects in the arguments of the senior as well. Senior while getting briefed does not have much time in hand, hence you should be thorough with the facts, relevant law and case laws, so that you are able to answer the queries put forth by the senior, during the briefing, in order to prepare for the case. Like Judges, seniors also vary in their approach, hence a senior should be briefed keeping in mind the same.

Being an AOR, Supreme Court of India, involves immense hard work as you are the one who is responsible for the case at the highest judicial authority. I have felt many a times that being an AOR, somehow makes a client trust in you more, as he/she feels that you are recognised by the Supreme Court as the one to practise before the Supreme Court.

An AOR needs to stay updated with the process of filing, formats, and varied guidelines apart from other aspects of the practice. Keeping in view Supreme Court is the last resort court and AOR is one's representative, hence same puts immense pressure on you and to remain calm and focused is very important. It is very important that an AOR, looks into all the records of the particular case and make sure not to miss anything very important to a case. An AOR requires to be very organised and thorough with the records. It not only helps in good drafting of the petitions but also comes in handy while briefing Senior Advocates if the need arises. Many a time an AOR only puts its signature on a petition, without even knowing about the case, that is a very unethical and wrong practice. When we take an oath as an AOR, we should understand our responsibilities and take our position seriously. We should be aware of the facts of the case, even if we may not be arguing the matter. We should keep the persons involved, updated about the status of the case and give them the best possible advice in the different circumstances of the case, as we should always remember that the Supreme Court is the last refuge, for a person and we are their representatives at this final harbour.

7. You and your achievements, including your inspirational speeches at various conferences, seminars, and forums, have impacted and motivated a lot of young women lawyers, who intend to make their career in litigation. What is your advice to them?

It fills me with happiness, when young girls come to me and say that they have opted for the profession after getting inspired by me. I would simply say that everything in this universe comes in a pair. Therefore, if there are hurdles, then trust me there have to be solutions for these hurdles. You need to stand firm on the ground and if I have been able to come so far, you can also. I am full of gratitude, and I have many to thank, for the support and encouragement they provided me at different times, which kept me intact on the ground.

Litigation consumes a good part of your life. It involves immense hard work and dedication. It is like an heirloom, the older it gets, the more valuable it becomes. The more you learn the more you earn. Once somebody had told me that litigation is something where the more you would use your brain, the more you would earn. My understanding is that we should focus more on learning in the initial years of the practice and look for opportunities, where you can argue a matter and not just seek a passover for your senior. You should always come to the court prepared with the case, as in the field of litigation, the sky is the limit, you just need to grab that one opportunity which helps you to establish yourself in this profession. There is no straitjacket formula for succeeding in this profession but the more you would learn and explore, the better you tend to get and that helps you to stay determined for the longer run.

Women lawyers face huge issues, in this profession but gradually things are getting better, but we are still far from creating the best conditions for females in this profession. There is a need for sensitisation in respect to young mothers or expecting mothers. Very recently creche facilities were started in Delhi High Court, which is a welcome change and I hope it is followed in other courts also. Many times, a very good female lawyer is compelled to leave the profession due to a lack of support from the system as we tend to forget that a woman can be a good professional and a mother at the same time, if we show some faith in her and provide her with some facilities, to discharge both the duties in a balanced manner.

The virtual mode of hearings has been a boon for many young mothers, as this has helped them to attend to their matters and cater to the needs of their small children. I think for the said reason, virtual mode should not be discontinued ever.

We women can do best in the worst conditions, hence I advise all the young budding female lawyers, not to stop being in this profession, for the only reason of being a woman. Your existence as a woman cannot dictate that you cannot opt for litigation as a career. Women are more sincere and dedicated when it comes to litigation. There is a need of self-belief. I would again say when female lawyers have done it before and when I have been able to do it, even you can. Keep the negativity at bay. Many times you will see male colleagues mansplaining you, there is a need to point out the same immediately and defend yourself. At times we do not know something, it is fine and we should not look down upon ourselves as we cannot be knowing everything at every point in time. We learn with time, nobody can be knowing everything always. We can succeed in life only when we respect ourselves and have complete faith in whatever we have opted for. Once my husband, Advocate Zaryab Jamal Rizvi, told me that even entering into this profession is the battle won by the females, so they should not think of quitting it. I would also like to say that if we cannot stand determined on ground for ourselves, how can we defend rights of others, hence lets stay put and keep on achieving our goals.

8. As an Additional Standing Counsel for DSIIDC, could you please share some advantages and disadvantages of being empanelled in government bodies? How has the experience shaped your career?

It is a dream come true for any advocate to be on panel of lawyers of a government body. Apart from DSIIDC, I am also on Panel of Delhi Government and Delhi Waqf Board. With government bodies, there is a huge issue in respect of response to different actions to be taken as even a small decision is taken after it passes through a hierarchy of people. There is a need of being focused and careful when you are working for a government body. If an official is not responding, you have to keep on following and make sure that the work is done. One should be very careful in making statements in the courtroom and nothing should be stated without instructions from the body you are representing.

Talking about DSIIDC, I started as a panel lawyer with the Revenue Division of the Corporation and I just forgot about the barrier between day and a night, while providing legal support to the same. I toiled very hard to streamline the records of the Corporation and the officials cooperated and worked along with me. In no time, we started getting favourable orders from the courts and I started getting cases of other divisions as well. Gradually appreciation from the higher officials started coming and with pace of time, I was made Additional Standing Counsel for DSIIDC. I think hard work of my whole team, blessings of all the loved ones, especially my parents Prof. M. Afzal Wani and Mrs Mubeena, support of my better half Advocate Md. Zaryab Jamal Rizvi and younger brother Mr Hilal Qutb Wani, really helped me to reach at the position that I am today. Once when I met one of the higher officials, he asked me several times if I was Firdouse Wani, as he told me that the contents of the drafts and the opinions and the telephonic discussions we have had till then, appeared to be given by some senior old lawyer and he was not able to believe that a young woman can draft and talk like a pro at a younger age. It did make me a bit happy but at the same time, it reminded me of the times, when a client just looking at the age, refused to engage me and did not go for the expertise and the knowledge I had in respect of the field. I accept that the more experience you have the better you get but sometimes a younger mind can do what an experienced mind would not have thought of. I think people should stop thinking on these lines. I sometimes get blown away by the knowledge of young budding lawyers and interns, around me and I actually get to learn from them.

9. Apart from litigation, you have spent considerable time fighting pro bono cases concerning the rights of women and children. You have also been helping economically weak students pursue their dreams. Could you shed some light on that experience as well, especially since there is no financial remuneration?

I have always believed that money should not be a reason, for not fighting for justice and remaining uneducated. If a person has accepted injustice as his/her fate or a child is unschooled due to lack of money, then it is shame for humanity, at least for me in person it is.

While I was studying law, I worked as a volunteer with many organisations, dealing with cases of abuse against women and children and the condition of each and every victim impacted me in an inexplicable way. I promised myself to help those who keep on bearing injustice due to their financial situation and after I joined profession, I started taking some matters pro bono. We have Legal Services Authority and they are doing an amazing job. I think we need to have more of campaign programs to make people aware of the facilities provided by the authority and try that the same reaches to the masses.

I am fond of children and believe that the future of any civilisation should not be deprived of reading and dreaming big, hence I collaborated with several schools and through my law firm, I have been sponsoring the education of several students, for more than a decade. I remember when I was in college, I paid for a school kid's uniform using my own college fees and lying to my parents of losing money in the college. I should not have lied to my parents but I always have a smile on my face, whenever I remember that incident. Now when the Almighty has put me in a position where I can do a bit for the society, I think I am just full of gratitude and I am actually healing my own inner spirit and making my inner soul happy and full of peace when I do something for a child.

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