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 the whole posting business and being slightly more active on social media just as a result of having too much time on my hands to be very honest. That basically was the founding, notion which allowed me to post. I just had time so I wanted to know what I can do with that time. And the pandemic suddenly just caught all of us off guard so I had no plans whatsoever. And the courts shut down for the first couple of months. The reason, I started posting the sort of content I posted, apart from the fact that I had time on my hands, was principally because if you look at News media, it could be less so print media but more so what you see on television and increasingly what you see on digital News media as well, although to a lesser extent, is a lot of polarized, binary black and white, very biased propaganda like information.
When I started looking at the news for the pandemic I wanted some raw data, of course, but also wanted some unbiased coverage or factual descriptions that weren’t as readily available as they should be online.
They are readily available online in the sense that all of this is online, it’s catalogued online but the way the internet works in terms of how these websites optimize themselves for search results, the way they use click bait, etc means that most of this information resides in some corner of the internet.
And so that’s a great test case for what has been happening outside of the pandemic as well: related to information retrieval online. So if you’re shaping your opinion, basically what you want is an unbiased distillation of the facts that are before you and you want to know what are the known unknowns and you want to know the known unknowns.
You will always have two points of view, you might have 4, 5, 6 different points of views, depending on what you’re discussing, it just tends to be the case that everything passes through a political lens these days so there are just principally two points of views and then people just sort of land on one or the other side of the fence. The idea of fence sitters is almost a prerogative right now. No matter the opinion you could even have an opinion on the vaccines which could be perceived as fence sitting, it could be anti-vaxer or it could be too-pro government because you are into vaccination.
I was very tired of this sort of discourse that was taking place and the pandemic was a great test case because it allowed me the time to get into it, get into something that I otherwise would avoid and I would just sort of focus on my work and you are all going to lawyers, I’m guessing people who’ll watch this are also going to be lawyers.
But the idea being that it allowed me time to think through these issues, to look at these issues more closely and that time I wanted to spend somewhat constructively so the process was that I would get up, I would do 3, 4 hours of reading everyday that I anyway do if I am free and then it was a process of converting that into what I assume to be digestible bites of information. Now, not everyone on the internet agrees, obviously. Some people just say, “Why don’t you start a newsletter, instead of littering Instagram with text heavy posts” et cetera, but that is what I wanted to do.
So that’s how I came into this whole social media world with COVID related updates. There was a broader principle at place here. It wasn’t just about reporting about the pandemic, that just happened to be temporarily the right thing to do because it was happening in that moment.
But the larger issue that drove me to it, which actually is the second part of your question, is that people are increasingly divided along this false binary that exists. On some situations, you will not have a false binary. It’s not like everything is a grey area, but a lot of it exists in this grey zone. The grey zone shouldn’t be conflated with uncertainty. But in the grey zone, there is a lot of information that is not palatable on the internet. It doesn’t have any sort of currency on the internet. It’s not click-baity and all of those things but it’s relevant information and it allows you to make up your mind about certain issues.
I am just a little sick and tired of the way information is being presented to people, the way certain information is being highlighted on the internet, while we also say that the internet is this amazingly democratized platform where everybody gets to post whatever they want but that’s not how it really works.
I think given that all of us had time during the pandemic, including me, I felt I had an urge to constructively engage with the problem as I saw it.
I think it’s just something in the social media, it’s an agitated state economy. All of us are in an agitated state and it’s best to keep us in that agitate state because then that agitate state translates into attention and loyalty towards whatever point of view is being pushed.
And if you have attention, then you have advertisers, if you have loyalty, then you have politics. And in the middle of all of that, our sense making ability is going for a toss. How do you make sense of things, how do you make sense of things that we don’t understand
So that amazes me and it amazes me that a lot of people who otherwise outside social media are very good to talk to, people that I look up to for various things with respect to certain traits. All of them tend to, including myself tend to be in this agitated state online and we talk about a lot of stuff that frankly is a waste of time but it’s actually beyond that.
There is nothing productive being added. It’s actively destructive because there is a huge opportunity cost that is associated with it and it’s actively destroying the fabric of sense making.
It’s there for everyone to see. I mean, I teach students as well sometimes and I have taught for an entire year and you can sort of see it even in the opinion, the political opinions that people share, how sure they are about stuff. There is a general melees that all of us including myself are being sort of infected by which is that, we want to be sure of what we’re seeing and we don’t want it any other way.
And everything is presented as a challenge, everything is taken as a challenge and everything is polemical. My advice to lawyers is, not just lawyers, everyone needs to read, everyone needs to inform themselves, everyone needs to collect knowledge, but before all of that, everybody needs to take a long, hard look at the lens that they are looking through while collecting that information. And sometimes that information itself, over a period of time is distorting how we pick that lens. So it’s important to revisit all of that and it’s important of course, for lawyers, it’s most important, especially if you’re a litigator because the more informed you are, the better you are at conversation and at lawyering.
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?
That’s a very good way of framing the question. If that’s what it’s happening then it’s scary because lawyers do need to read a lot. And if the benchmark of acquiring information and assimilating it into your own opinion and then spouting that opinion is a 30-second video or a collection of 30 second videos, which is basically a superficial – an inch deep and a mile wide. So, I hope that that is not the impact that these 30 second videos have on these lawyers and all law students, I hope they are able to compartmentalize their profession and what it requires in a more practical way.
But 30-seconds of video in and off themselves are not the problem. The problem lies in the consumption pattern. Some of the stuff is more apparent as to why that exists but it’s just that if you’re going to rely only on 30-second videos to get your information, if you’re only going to rely on populist channels which have good animation. I am just seeing that there are a lot of people look at Instagram as a one-stop-shop. Even the stuff that I was doing. That’s not the end of the conversation. And usually the posts that I make I try to do 2 hour Lives, 3 hour Lives and those Lives are meant to be conversation, they’re meant to be experimental, they’re not meant to teach anyone anything, to be very honest. And I usually say that in all my Lives.
For example, the Bhaghjan Oil leak, people won’t have known about it if it wasn’t for these 30-second videos. It would not have entered our consumption schedule because who’s going to reach it? Usually it’s going to be in the third page of the Hindu, depending on the editorial decisions that has been taken by the legacy media. So firstly we have gone away from legacy media, to begin with, not a lot of people were invested in legacy media and now, a lot more people are invested in the short format. So it allows them to pick from on bits and pieces of information that otherwise they would have skipped over.
If you and I know about the Baghjan oil spill, are we going to read up on it further? Or are we instantaneously going to re-share it and then the minute we re-share it, somebody will comment on our video and then they will say, “oh, you just don’t like the powers that be and that’s why you’re sharing this”, “What were you doing ten years ago when the government was…” something like that. An absolute shifting of the goal post. And we all get dragged into it. And the way to not get dragged in it is to stop replying to the comment. But the problem is that if you don’t reply to the comments your engagement suffers. Some of the blame lies at the feet of these social media companies which have created algorithms wittingly or unwittingly which prioritizes engagement. Obviously, engagement is going to be higher where people are going to disagree than when they agree. If they agree, they’re just going to like the comment and move on. But that’s not what happens.
So, it’s the whole ecosystem that is built around that 30-second video. It’s a very intangible ecosystem. So every time we refer to social media, your question was, “What about these 30 –second videos?” But that’s not it. 30-second videos are fine in and off themselves.
What happens on Youtube? There are times when I cannot take my eyes off Youtube. I’ll start watching one cat video and like, 4 hours later at 4 in the morning I find myself landed on some hippopotamus doing some sort of dance. Why is that happening?
And again, it’s not to say that only these social media companies are to be blamed. It’s just this eco-system that’s built around this and I think they have through trial and error managed to make us an accomplice to that system where while we might have subconsciously or unconsciously surrendered our free will or right sensibilities to these companies but at some point, I think we are also responsible, especially when we become aware of these things. We need to take a step back and take a break from all of this. I go back to reading. At least, that’s what I try to do. So every time I am absent for maybe a month or two months what I am trying to do is detoxify, although I don’t like the terminology. Why the assumption that you need to ‘de-tox’? The digital space is not in and of itself toxic. It’s just the amount of time you are spending on it and the opportunity cost again, of that time that you could be spending elsewhere.
So do watch these 30 second videos but I guess people should make a habit of reading a little more. 30 second videos are like abstract to the article. So if your entire project in law school is going to be based on an abstract or a series of abstract then those are the marks that you’ll get. So that’s our responsibility.
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 this is not something that I want to localize for lawyers although lawyers and actors tend to be very narcissistic people, just as rule of thumb. But I would say that firstly, don’t play into the notion of, “I need to develop a following and therefore I will choose what I have to say as the subject and what you have to say on that subject on that basis”. That is a very generic advice. That does not mean that you should go and find the most sterile prosaic and remote issues that have no relevance and you make it your point. You could make a podcast out of that, just talking about really, really far out stuff, but don’t go off to stuff like that because I have come to the conclusion that that for all of us, me included, there is sort of pull that social media have on us to acquire more followers. Thus, a lot of our content is oriented in that manner.
So I would say stay away from that. And you have such people, especially the lawyers, have a great reason. They have an alternate career. They can be lawyers and earn their money from that and do this sort of thing on a more pro-bono basis, and pro-bono doesn’t just mean financially but even when it comes to the attention economy. They can excel as lawyers and maybe the whole craft of manipulating the masses and manipulating people can take place in a courtroom and what they want to put out should be more like an objective analysis.
So that would be great. And I hope to see that more. In terms of law students and lawyers, I think there is nothing else. In the sense that I myself, don’t consider myself to be very well informed and again, this is not mock modesty. This is just the truth. There are people who I have worked with and have found them to be smarter than me in terms of being prepared for that particular matter. Or, I have even found instances where I think I have a better work ethic or moral ethic than the people I have worked it. Similarly, I have found people who I look up to, who excel way more than I do in all of these things. And I have liked some of them and I have not liked some of them.
So I really don’t want to be presumptuous enough to say that “I am sitting on top of some sort of wisdom mountain and I am spouting” but yeah, people are doing that. Its trial and error and I would advise them to keep doing what they’re doing and see what comes out of it. But just try to be as objective as possible and where you can’t be objective, try to engage in a meta analysis of your own biases and cognitive dissents etc.
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?
I have a done bunch of environmental law cases some of which are continuing even now. I don’t lecture on environmental law. Some aspects of Constitutional law typically overlap with matters concerning the exploitation of national security or just the exploitation of 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 strategies and legal drafting at law schools and I’ve given some lectures on Constitutional law here and there. In terms of the age of hyper-specialization, that age has always been there. I have seen people from my law school itself pursuing very specialized sections of the law, and now they are at good places, both financially and emotionally. However, I haven’t approached law in that manner. In fact if I am being honest with you, I did not want to be a lawyer up till maybe the 3rd or 4th, even 5th year of my Law School. In fact, I wanted to be a lawyer when I got into the Law School and progressively lost interest. And I take accountability for that.
However, when I did get out of law school, I was a little scattershot as to what I wanted to do next. I ended up taking a law researchers position with 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’s 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 decided to never get back to by cubical. I was okay with standing in a non air-conditioned alley in the Supreme Court getting my photocopies but I’m never going back to my desk job. So I didn’t want to do a desk job. Although a lot of litigation is desk job, maybe 90% of it. But that 10% makes up for it.
Coming as a first-generation lawyer, once I decided to litigate, I was anxious about the fact that my peers were specializing in particular areas of cases, like just handling electricity litigation. So that’s how I went on to work with some seniors where I got to learn a lot. And I just struck through.
Since I didn’t 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, because anyone can do environmental litigation. You don’t need a client for it. I did some right to information with different organizations, etc. And one thing led to another, news spread, and so I expanded outwards. The environmental litigation part as I was, principally a function of, ‘you don’t need a client’, or anybody would become your client if you do it for free. And then slowly one thing led to another and then I got a couple of clients which pay well, which pay on time and I made my way up through the council’s positions, unions, MCE, standing counsel for MCD. But it doesn’t end there. Big matters fall in your lap which is tough and some luck is involved. And obviously, hard work does pay off.
But there are other paths. So it’s not like you have to be a generalist, it comes with its own struggles. But that’s the path I chose and it seems to be sort of working along just about fine but people have other modes of doing it, like so many of my peers. There are 100s of models of litigations, and people can come through any of those, I don’t know which one is better than which, but it helps to commit for at least for a period of time
5. May we please know which areas you are most gravitated towards and why?
Strangely enough I’ve been very much interested in 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, I didn’t know that there was a distinction between Anti-Trust and Competition Law. But I did my LLM and I took audited a couple of classes in competition law, some of them were part of my comparative jurisprudence and I really enjoyed it. It’s a new area of law, it’s an emerging area of law- it’s not new because anti-trust goes a long way back, but it’s affected by the digitization of businesses and generally the ecosystem, generally speaking. So I found it interesting. I am excited enough that I have ordered a lot of commentaries and I do read them. That’s a good yard stick for interest measurement.
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’s an interesting question. Ideally, never. It depends on various factors. Let’s understand through an example. Let’s take the Sino-Indian border dispute, as there was a neat parameterized bunch of information. So, when I started doing that, I wanted to cover the history of the Indo-China border dispute, going all the way to hundreds of years. I was reading it to construct a story in my mind. So, you start there and read extensively on it and what I realized that there were aspects. What I tend to do is to draw an artificial boundary by myself when presenting it as a video. Now that’s not a luxury that you can afford for many things. You cannot do that in Philosophy, for instance. You can, if you are more of a subscriber model, engagement with Philosophy.
The trick is to utilize the time constraints there is. 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 haven’t explored and once I’ve gained an idea on that, maybe I want to approach with my narrative that I’m going to put out with a degree of modesty and make it explicit as to how much information I’m sure of.
So, if you ask me when do I stop my research, it probably wouldn’t end if the substance of interesting enough, I’ll 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, unless you’re in court, try to imbue the narrative that you are putting out with a degree of modesty and humility and acknowledging that you don’t know certain things. In court, unfortunately, that’s not the best strategy. In which case you can take enough time out to research properly for the propositions that you have.
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 make the 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’s 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 inefficiencies and even deliberate designs in the system that perpetuates the cornering of the markets.
Hence, there needs to be some sort of organic regulations which is something that we see with physical hearings because one senior counsel, or for that matter not a senior counsel, a junior counsel who is good or cornered something cannot possibly be present in four different jurisdictions, or even in the same jurisdiction, two different courts on the same day. So there’s more of the pie for everyone to have, just as a function of people not having enough time to be at two places in one time.
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, and it trickles down to the so-called have-nots. But the burdens are usually taken mostly the other way around. 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 or change in that system that allows everyone to have time, and that happens when hearings are virtual.
Recently I went on 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 issues of access for lawyers in remote places, and as highlighted before, the cornering of markets, the debate around what are the modalities and how to maintain decorum online, etc. But we can’t 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 of 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 I hope that we’re going to use this opportunity to virtual system 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 don’t 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’s a test of the fraternity. We speak big words on assisting each other but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. So let’s see what happens with that now. I have kept my bargain by not trying to decrease or negotiate anyone’s salaries, or maybe I don’t pay them much to start with. We all have to reflect at these times to carry on as we were before, and we all have to decide who has the more pie to share at this point.