Senior Advocate Vikramjit Banerjee is currently the Additional Solicitor General for India. He graduated from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore in 1997. After which he went to University of Leicester to complete his LLM in 2000. In his initial days of practice, he worked in the chambers of Mr V.R. Reddy, former Additional Solicitor General for India, and Mr Jayanta Mitra, former Advocate General for West Bengal.
1. What was the role of your law school in your life? How did it help you navigate your career path?
Law school was extremely important because it gave me the tools to be a successful legal professional. It also opened my mind to a wide number of eclectic experiences. It equipped me to grasp the law in a better way.
I knew I wanted to do litigation even before I went to law school. Law school was a means of doing whatever I wanted to do. At that time, my law school was very new, so I had this opportunity to study in an upcoming new law school. I had a senior of mine from my school in Calcutta, Mr Nikhil Nayar, who joined the law school in its first batch, and that was an excellent example for me to follow. So that is how I opted to join National Law School.
2. It is a widespread view that litigation throws numerous challenges in the initial stages; so, what were your initial stage challenges, and how did you tackle those?
I think the two biggest challenges I faced were financial constraints and frustration. Financial challenges because, irrespective of what people say, if you want to be independent, even if you come from a wealthy family, you are not earning any money. Everything you have to ask from your parents, which is not good for your own ego and not good for how you view yourself. Now to work things out, you start cutting down on stuff you like. So that was a huge challenge. Not to mention here that law is expensive. You have to buy books, pay for the stationery, and do many other things. This profession requires a large number of both liquid and infrastructural investments; liquid investment, like paying staff, in which you have to have some skeleton staff, then paying for the fuel of your car, and things of those sorts. So, it is challenging for a lawyer starting without a legal background to bear these expenses, and these things made finances an issue for me.
Secondly, it was frustrating. You could not even see the light at the end of the tunnel for a very long period. You never knew what was going to happen the other moment. There it did not seem like you had a future; you were just in it because you were in it and because that is the only thing you need to do. During those times, seeing other people of your age being more successful than you are, brought in a lot of frustration. So, I think these were the two biggest challenges that lasted for 3-4 years in my initial professional life.
3. We all know that you shifted your practice to Delhi after six years of practice in Calcutta. So, sir, what were your considerations before taking this decision. In light of this, what will be your advice for a young advocate planning to do the same?
Ok, so I had two reasons. One, I always wanted to move to Delhi. I started from Delhi. But the situation at my home was such that I had to start from Calcutta eventually. This is life; this is not a video game. You cannot control your life or how it leads you, so you have to consider other things. In this way, I started from Calcutta. I had given up my hopes of ever coming back to Delhi. There are times when what we want does not work out, and we have to reconcile ourselves. But then, subsequently, the issues that tied me down to Calcutta were concluded. In some ways, it is bad; in some ways, it is good. My father passed away, which was why I was there in Calcutta. After that, I was free to do whatever I wanted.
Secondly, I got married to a person who is from Delhi. She was a very successful professional. Before we got married, we had a discussion where I told my wife that I would not be earning any money for the next five years. She had to support me because I was by then not living with my parents, and my wife agreed. It did not require five years for me to be self-sufficient, but it did require three years. During this whole time, she was not only sustaining the family, standing by my erratic lifestyle, but was also paying me pocket money. So, this is something which I, as a part of my advice, will give to young lawyers that, have a conversation with your partner on these issues before getting married.
I always tell my juniors who start in the profession that to succeed in litigation beyond a certain point, one needs to have a very understanding partner because it can be very hard on a partner. After a point in time, partners get used to it, but in the initial years, it is very tough because you are never there for the family. So, that is my journey. I do not think I would have made it if my wife did not understand enough. Marriages are tough, especially between two busy professionals. But that choice has to be made before you start in your profession; in litigation, if you have a wife or a husband, you should sit with them across the table and put all your cards. I insist that whenever juniors of mine get married, I call them together and ask them to put all the cards on the table. So yes, that is my lesson for anyone who wants to move or start afresh in a different city.
Starting in a different city was an experience in itself, as Delhi is different from Calcutta in how the courts function or how cultural variations exist between the two places. To manage these things, you must be flexible enough to adjust to the changes. Still, more importantly, across the board, it requires a lot of understanding from your partner. With your parent, it is not much of a problem because your parents will take you as their son or daughter. But that is not the case with your partner, who is an independent person and is possibly a very successful professional in their own life, so it is difficult for them to have patience. So, these things are essential when starting in a new city.
4. Lawyers are infamous for complaining about the lack of a work-life balance. What would be your take on this?
I am the wrong person to answer this; I have zero work-life balance. The fact is, I regret it, and there is nothing I can do about it. Take this evening only, before I came here, I told my wife that we would possibly go out to do some shopping together. Meetings were scheduled today, and eventually, the plan got cancelled. She, at times, tells me that “We never have time for ourselves because you are too busy,” but that is how it is. Ideally, there should be, there needs to be, especially if you are married to a successful professional, they will not stand for your nonsense; it is not my father's generation anymore. Today, it is not good enough that you are a successful professional and take care of the house. No, it is not good enough, especially when your partner is earning more than you, and why should they even stand for all this nonsense, I understand that.
But I think the way I dealt with it is by being understanding of the fact that the other person has a genuine reason for their grievance and being grateful for the fact that they have been indulging in your life so much. This softens the impact a lot when you acknowledge it and openly be thankful for it. As far as your children are there, you do not have time for them, and when you do have time for them, then they will not; they do not want you in their lives when you want to come back. When they are too small, you do not have time for them because you are too busy in your profession, and when you do have time for them, they do not have time for you. So, it is tough. Having a work-life balance in a successful litigation career is very difficult.
5. You are a first-generation lawyer and an inspiration for all of us, so what would you suggest to a first-generation lawyer interested in litigation; and what are your expectations from fresh graduates and interns in your chamber?
See, I do not have any expectations. I do not treat this office as an office of employment. I cannot speak for others, but I treat it as a place for training so that you can do whatever you want to do in your life.
As a first-generation lawyer, it is challenging. You see, litigation in India is stacked so that it benefits 2nd and 3rd-generation lawyers. I told you about investment in infrastructure; the minimum investment in infrastructure is key to your success as a lawyer. As a first-generation lawyer, you do not have the money, or the knowledge, to make those investments. You also do not have the connections or, more importantly, the face recognition.
But my way around it has always been, and I advise everyone, that you must work doubly hard. In the end, all the advantages even out. I have seen that myself; that is my experience in life, but I had to work doubly harder than anyone else, and I still have that work ethic. It may not be as much expected out of me today as it was sometime back when I was a fresher. I had to show that I was better than my contemporaries of the 2nd or 3rd generation. It had to come across in court, it had to come across in profession, it had to come across in my friends, and it had to come across in a lot of other places. And it is possible, and I think we all know it is possible.
6. Young lawyers have a lot of apprehensions and concerns in the initial days of their practice. One such is the guilt they encounter when they lose a case in which the client had trusted them a lot. According to you, what should be the appropriate way to tackle this situation or any related issues young practitioners face?
I still have guilt in matters where I lose. Two days back, I had a case where I made a particular argument, which did not work. Here I had guilt that I could have argued the matter better. However, this guilt shows that you are invested in the case, which indicates that you are ready to improve yourselves. As you grow older from a fresher, you start keeping distance from the matters, and that is a process.
It is good that you were invested in the matter. I do not think there is anything wrong with it. I have spoken to some of the most eminent lawyers; in fact, I have asked a prominent lawyer, a generation older than me, this very question, and he told me the same thing. I was surprised that he also felt it, as you would never by his face understand that he also felt like that. He said, “After losing, at times I go over a submission, thinking if I had argued it in this way or that way, the outcome would have been better.” So, that is always going to be there. That is a part of being a lawyer. It is a good thing; I think you should not delete it.
7. Recently, the Supreme Court has announced that it will do live streaming of the proceedings of the Supreme Court of India. So, what is your take on this decision, and how can law students take the best out of this decision?
I think it is a good decision across the board. I believe a transparent and open judicial system is the key to a functional and credible justice system. Therefore, in that way, live streaming is a great idea. Although there are certain concerns, some are within the profession, like how the profession conducts itself, and some about how observations in the court are translated and circulated in public, and I think they need to be addressed. However, I believe people are mature enough and can sort of take out the wheat from the chaff. I also think that maybe we need to give that amount of leeway to the citizens of this country because that is the only process through which they are going to be more mature. Mistakes will be made in this process, but achieving justice is a continuous process.
How young lawyers can benefit is that they can and should train themselves to argue virtually because virtual arguments are here to stay. They require different skills, a different method of advocacy, and different skill sets for presentations. They are not the same as in courts. This is why many lawyers prefer to be in court because they are uncomfortable with virtual advocacy presentation skills. I think both are extremely important, and it is just different. Some people will say one is better than the other. Still, I think both are different; both have different rules of the game, specifically in advocacy. I believe juniors who want to take the benefit of live streaming of proceedings or appearing virtually should get prepared for virtual advocacy. Virtual advocacy is much more organised and precise.
For law students, the live proceedings make things much more accessible. They can see the big people in action, even by sitting at their home, they do not have to go to the courts to watch this action. Nonetheless, the flip side is that anything easily accessible becomes common to all of us. It loses an aspirational value like if you see big people arguing in front of you, you start thinking that you can do it yourselves, and that is a mistake. After seeing the live proceedings, many juniors will think, “oh, I can do it myself; I do not need a senior” that is a big mistake. A senior makes that presentation after going through an entire process of learning law, working in people's chamber, then putting so many years of hard work into making that presentation. The presentation may look very shiny, but no one looks at the hard work which goes behind the presentation. So, juniors should not make the mistake of only seeing those five minutes and not thinking about the hard work behind that presentation.
8. In light of the above question, what skills will you suggest law students and young lawyers focus on while watching the live proceedings? Moreover, what skills do you consider essential for any advocate to learn and develop before getting into the legal profession?
Presentation, that is the only thing. See, you will not be able to see the hard work put in because that is not apparent in court. What is apparent in the court is how the cases are presented. I think as law students, it should be compulsory to view great lawyers, like Shanti Bhushan, Late Ram Jethmalani, Mr Fali Nariman, and Mr Harish Salve, arguing; it is a lesson. It is a master class, where I think one can learn more than one learns in an advocacy class. In the live proceedings, one can see how very complex matters are presented very simply. I think that is the great thing.
As far as essential skills are concerned, I think it is people skills, presentation skills, and the skill of finding the relevant law for a specific purpose that needs to be applied in your case. In this profession, your people skill matters, that is, how you interact with the rest of the professionals and people around you. Secondly, as discussed earlier, how you present your case is essential. And thirdly, your skill to find the relevant law, which requires two things: one, an ability to analyse the facts, and two, to find out or research the right law.
If you have a combination of all these things, you will surely be successful. It may take time; for some, it may take two years; for some, it may take ten years, but success is guaranteed. However, the thing here is that in today's generation, it is difficult because everybody today has these financial markers for success like I want this car, I want this house, so on and so forth. But to me, I do not think that is too relevant. What is relevant to me is that in your profession, how other professionals recognise you as a successful professional.
Nonetheless, you must work hard to get it, which is a continuous process. Whether it is your relations with the Bar or the Bench, here, your people skills are extremely important to make you a successful professional. So, if you have all these skills and you work on them, you will be successful.
9. How important is legal research, and how should law students equip themselves with their research skills? In addition, could you please throw some light upon “exhaustion of research” and its importance in law?
The skill of a litigation lawyer is different from the skill of an academician. As in academic research, you have to find out what is the law on a subject comprehensively. However, for a litigating lawyer, you should know the specific law, which you can use to make a point in whichever way you want. For that, legal research is vital. For that, your ability to understand the law and to fundamentally sharpen your legal outcomes is essential. Previously, we had a different method of searching, where we used to go through books, but that is not how people do it today, I can go ahead with big gyan that you should go for books and study them thoroughly, but the thing is nobody does that, nobody has the time. Our research method has changed. Today we use software to do that, and being able to use that software effectively decides who is more effective in court.
Either you do this work, or your juniors do it for you. In the beginning ten years, you do it yourselves, and even today, I love doing it myself, as sometimes my juniors cannot find the correct citation on a point, so I do it myself. But today, I do not have the time because, as a senior advocate, you largely do not have the time when you go higher. So you have to depend on others. It is not nice, sometimes I am not comfortable, as I think this requires a little more research, but that is the balance you strike in your profession when you are handling many matters. You cannot spend so much time researching, and you have to depend on others to research on your behalf. However, being able to do the research, and I still do it, is extremely key to both your presentation and the knowledge of the law you apply, without which you cannot be successful in litigation.
Furthermore, I personally think litigating professionals should distinguish themselves from how a legal academician searches. As in litigation, you are looking for a specific solution to a particular problem, which requires more flexibility in your searches and your mind's capacity to sharpen the searches. Here legal academicians need not be concerned about sharpening the searches and narrowing them down. So, the job of a litigation lawyer is to be more specific. The more specific you are, the better law you get to fish out.
10. Any final words of advice for our readers.
Enjoy yourselves. Leave it if you are not having a good time in the profession.