As part of the Justice Leila Seth Fellowship, I was sent for a secondment for two months to the chambers of Advocate Aditya Wadhwa – a leading criminal lawyer who also supports iProbono’s work as a panel advocate in Delhi. It was a unique opportunity which allowed me to work as an advocate at a litigation chamber for the first time. The idea behind such secondment experiences is to expose fellows to industry chambers beyond iProbono’s usual fields of litigation. In this blog, I share some of the highlights and challenges I came across
During this secondment, I was thrust into a thriving criminal law chamber in Delhi. Over my time at iProbono, I had developed an understanding of how trial courts function by assisting our panel lawyers during hearings. But my practical learnings were limited to our role as victim’s counsels, assisting the state to prosecute. At Wadhwa Law Chambers, however, I gained insight into what it is like to be in the position of a defending counsel. Being accused of an offence means the person on trial is exposed to the might and wrath of the state. This makes quality legal representation crucial, particularly at the stage of trial. The chamber dealt in a plethora of subject matters ranging from white collar and blue collar crimes, matrimonial cases, as well as property, company and civil matters.
Work was abundant, as a fairly small number of associates took on a voluminous bulk of matters. Most days were long, ranging from ten to fourteen hours on average, spent at courts, tribunals or the office. This did not include the late nights of working from home for six days every week. Lunches were consumed at our desks, no one would leave before the boss did, and we could be assigned something enormous due the morning after or the same night, even after working hours. The only period of respite was four days of court vacations, when we could use our time as we liked with no urgent deliverables surprising us. We managed to have fun and take breaks at coffee shops close to our office, and during car rides. My colleagues, the five or six associates on the criminal team, made the process very comfortable and enjoyable for me. We sat in a small room at the very end of the long basement office. They helped me learn the smallest nitty-gritties (how to flag a bulky file, format a draft or negotiate with a difficult court master, for example) with kindness, patience and without judgement for my naivete. Long hours at the office buried under bags of files felt much lighter in their company.
A highlight of the secondment for me was all the interesting matters I got to work on. For starters, I followed an old and complicated terror trial involving multiple accused persons represented by renowned criminal lawyers in a special court, regularly over 8 weeks, by myself. A murder case involving recidivating accused persons continues to intrigue me, as does the judge presiding over the matter with his peculiar questions and manner of conducting court. One of the several high-profile matters I attended involved accused university students. On the civil side, I attended an insolvency matter involving many litigants and witnessed stalwart senior lawyers argue before the Company Law Appellate Tribunal. The experience of drafting lengthy civil petitions was also new to me and was a key learning. One day, I attended a legal aid matter which raised a conflict of interest – the victim in this case happened to be one of iProbono’s clients! The judge kept insisting that I must cross examine the witness, while I was not in a position to do that as it would jeopardise my prospects of being able to assist from the other side upon my return to iProbono. These situations pushed me to think on my feet while protecting the interests of both sides and not causing any adversity to the case.
Considering how slow the trial process is in courts, chamber practice on the contrary is fast paced, intense and gruelling; particularly for junior advocates. The pressure of unending work, hard to navigate power dynamics, disturbing subject matter of cases, monetary considerations and moral conflicts – we have to take it all in our stride. Not only are we consumed by the hustle work culture that litigation demands, we are severely overworked, underpaid and struggling to maintain a work-life balance. We often have poor mental health and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Every small relief obtained from the court requires backbreaking hours spent day and night at the chamber. It is to get your hands in the grime and make the system work for you. Every day brings something new, something exciting, something excruciating – an order, a wait, a judge – you never know. To see it up close was an enlightening window into what I want to sign up for. The rigours of litigation are truly harsh, but exhilarating at the same time.