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A decent burial

Shortly after I joined the Bar after getting my sanad to practice, I had the privilege of being the junior colleague (1985–89) of a senior lawyer who, apart from having a good private practice, was a senior assistant government pleader in the writ cell on the appellate side of the Bombay High Court.

Justice Michael F. Saldanha later on distinguished himself on the Bench of the Bombay High Court (1990–94) and the Karnataka High Court (1994–2004).

Being with him for those four years (fifty months to be precise) was an invaluable learning experience for me full of great fun. Justice Saldanha is a raconteur par excellence. It was not just about reading briefs and judgments or going to courts. It was an all-round education in the vicissitudes of law and life.

A most essential skill for lawyers is dealing with clients. In our profession, for a direct-practitioner litigator, to get and retain a client is of vital importance. It is a most desirable skill to possess. Law practice is built mainly on word-of-mouth. A happy client is not just the provider of bread-and-butter but also a lawyer’s best advertisement. It is the only advertising permissible to us.

The real learning for new entrants in the profession happens not just from law-books or in law-schools, but while devilling in the chambers of inspirational seniors. At least that is what I believe.

Let me cite an example from my junior days. Once, a potential client had left a file in our chambers for my senior to study his case and give an opinion. The client was asked to come for a conference after a few days.

I was assigned the job of going through the entire file and summarising the case for my senior, including pros and cons and the case law for and against our prospective client. I could add my own observations too.

Having tried desperately to find some silver lining to the heavily clouded case of our prospective client, I drew a blank. I dutifully set out all the aspects and cases against us and concluded that in my opinion it was truly a “hopeless case” to take on and file. One could say that for me it was the equivalent of an ‘inoperable case’ in medical terms.

My senior carefully read my note but did not comment. He just smiled as usual. It was a very pleasant, endearing smile with a characteristically mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He simply told me not to say anything at the conference but just to sit quietly and let him do all the talking.

When the conference finally took place, my senior declaimed very confidently about the facts of the case, the law, the pros and cons for the benefit of the client. The client was very impressed that the senior was already so well-prepared.

Then my senior gave a wonderful pep talk to the client and said that though one can never be sure of results in a court of law or in an operation theatre for that matter, we would certainly try our best for him. He then looked at me as if for confirmation. I unhesitatingly nodded.

The client departed a happy man… and equally importantly, not before he had placed a handsome advance on my senior’s table.

After he had left I asked my senior: “Sir, taking on this case and filing it is like taking a dead body to an operating table. There is nothing we can do with it just as we cannot revive a dead person.”

My senior then uttered the words which are still etched in my memory more than 35 years later: “You are mistaken, Raju. There is something one can do  with even a dead body.”

I asked him in consternation: “What can we do, sir?

He replied: “Remember this. However bad a case may be, never stop believing in miracles. If, despite all our efforts we do not succeed, we can still have the satisfaction of having given what you call a ‘dead case’, a decent burial!

In all my years of practice thereafter, I realised how true this was. I have seen innumerable instances of cases considered hopeless by lawyers resulting in favourable Orders and cases considered as excellent by the Bar resulting in massive heart attacks when placed before the Bench.

The moral of the story is that a lawyer must never judge. Isn’t there someone else appointed to do that?