Q. You have been working as a counsel in the Chambers of Mr Mahesh Jethmalani in his Delhi office for over three years now. Could you describe your role there and how your experience has been so far.
As a junior counsel my primary role is to assist my senior – whether it is providing research support for the cases, preparing briefing notes or assisting him in the court. Mr Jethmalani practices both on the original as well as the appellate side, so a decent amount of drafting work also comes my way through his chamber. I have had a great learning experience and consider myself extremely fortunate that I landed up at his chamber. He’s really invested in my progress and has been a patient teacher to me all throughout. He has sat with me one on one and corrected my drafts, pushed me to take up independent work and seek opportunities to argue. Because of Mr Jethmalani a lot of quality work comes my way and I got to be a part of some of the most landmark cases in the recent past. I also got to draft the Impleadment Application in my second year at his chamber for our client Harish Iyer in Navtej Singh Johar v UoI as well as the recent complaint on behalf of RBI against PNB officials, so my experience at his chamber has been quite fulfilling.
Q. You have done LL.B from SOAS, London. Why did you decide to read laws in the UK than in India? And then why did you decide to practice in India instead of the UK?
I had just completed BA in political science & archaeology from St. Xavier’s College – Bombay and by that time I was certain about pursuing a career in Law. Back in 2013 there was an upper age limit of 20 years for taking admission to the 5-year integrated law degree and most of the colleges offering a 3+3 LL.B course did not promise a rich academic culture, so I looked up colleges in the UK and got accepted to SOAS and I would say, it was the best decision I made. Needless to say, the course curriculum, exposure and experience of UK law schools is extremely enriching and focus-driven, which is something I was personally attracted to. I was taught law by some of the brightest minds in the field and studied alongside a culturally diverse and intellectually stimulating set of people.
Initially, I did flirt with the idea of working for a Magic Circle law firm in London. I interned one whole summer with DLA Piper in their London office but soon I realised that this was not something I wanted. I was drawn more towards pursuing a career in litigation and personally, I had grown tired of the cold depressing London weather and wanted to come back home. I also felt it was more practical to start a career in India. As it is, litigation, globally, is still an old boys’ school and my gender, ethnicity and nationality wasn’t going to make it any easier for me in London – so I felt if I wanted to pursue a career in litigation it would be sensible to do that in India.
Q. In your experience, are there any systemic hurdles in the Indian legal system that you think should be improved? How would you suggest that they be improved?
Recently, Justice Chandrachud during a book launch spoke about how inaccessible/painful litigation as a career option has become to many law graduates who might have been truly passionate about it but find it impossible to sustain on the meagre litigation remunerations. I’m glad someone in the top echelons of our legal system is raising these issues. Litigation in India largely remains an old boys’ school and highly nepotistic at that. It’s extremely difficult for a first generation lawyer to break in and that difficulty level is multiplied when it is a woman, not having any connections in the legal industry. How can it be improved? – Make it merit based. Give more opportunities to the “outsiders” & pay them adequately. I was an “outsider”, I secured a job with Mr Jethmalani purely on the basis of merit-without any “recommendation” and I am paid adequately. However, I realize most aren’t as fortunate as I was. We need to make a conscious effort to promote meritocracy over nepotism in order to make this a level playing field.
Q. Have you used LegitQuest’s research tool? Do you think legal tech and Artificial Intelligence can provide meaningful assistance in legal research and ultimately improve the pace of justice delivery?
Yes, I have used LegitQuest’s research tools and I found it extremely helpful and time saving. I have used most of the legal research engine tools available in the market and found LegitQuest’s research tools to be far more advanced. Legal research as the process of finding and retrieving information to support legal decision-making is vital for qualified lawyers and law students. Artificial Intelligence speeds up that process of finding & retrieving the most accurate and relevant legal information. So yes, I do believe AI does provide meaningful assistance in legal research and can ultimately improve the pace of justice delivery. I also felt LegitQuest has one of the most comprehensive searchable database of legal information, with cases, statutes, state regulations, pending bills, treatises, and other relevant documents. Since it is an online legal research tool, the information one will find on LegitQuest is more current than print sources. Moreover, the application of AI in its research tools gives users a more quality and time-saving experience.
Q. Since you work in the Chambers of one of the best criminal lawyers in India, what kind of advice would you give to young lawyers who aim to practice in the area of criminal law?
Mr Jethmalani gets briefed on a lot of civil matters also so, when I joined his chamber I worked more on civil matters than criminal. My advice to anyone just starting out in this industry is to practice patience, perseverance and humility- you’re going to need a lot of that here. Patience, because once you graduate and step into the world of litigation- you’ll realize your law school didn’t adequately prepare you for this. Your degree, what college you come from matters no more when you stand before the court. You’ll learn on the job. So grab every opportunity you get to stand before the court- even if it is to ask for an adjournment- because that’s how you’ll get the confidence to argue. Find more opportunities to draft even if you do not know how to do it – take it up and figure it out- that’s how you will learn. Also, find a mentor who’ll guide you through every step of the way, someone who wants to invest in your progress. Do not lose out on opportunities simply because you think/assume you can never do it. Keep persevering. A lot of opportunities are lost simply because – you didn’t ask. So hustle and keep asking for opportunities you believe you deserve. Finally, there’s more than one way to reach your goal. If you don’t land up a job at a top senior counsel’s chamber or the law firm of your choice right after graduation, do not be disheartened. Join a busy chamber or start with a trial court lawyer, that’s where you will learn the most.
Q. How are you dealing with the lockdown. How do you keep busy?
Lockdown has been an unexpected time-off from work and life in general. It’s important to be grateful that at a time when many of our countrymen are struggling to get even one proper meal a day, we have a secure roof over our heads, we don’t have to worry about our meals and we have the financial means to sustain through this lockdown, however, the situation we’re in can take a toll on one’s mental health. One cannot help but worry about the future. I try to stay positive most days – I read, meditate, paint, exercise – go for walks on our terrace in the evenings – so most days are productive and positively spent. I even appeared before the Virtual Courts for two of my matters and I’ll soon be conducting a webinar on International Convention on Social, Cultural & Economic Rights 1966 for Think India– so lately I have been busy preparing for that. However, I do wish to convey to those who are struggling with productivity during the lockdown – that you aren’t alone and it’s OK. I too have had many unproductive days in the last two months. We aren’t on vacation, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s not a productivity competition. We should focus on coming out of this phase with a healthy mind and body, that’s all.
Mugdha Pande is a practicing Advocate in Delhi working on a range of matters pertaining to civil, criminal, labour as well as constitutional law. She is a junior counsel in the Chambers of Sr. Adv Mahesh Jethmalani and has worked on some of the most impactful cases in the recent past including Navtej Singh Johar v UoI and Reserve Bank of India v Punjab National Bank. She completed her LL.B from SOAS, University of London.