Conversation with the living legend of law - Fali Sam Nariman

Fali Nariman

Bar & Bench in conversation with Senior Counsel Fali Sam Nariman. India's most respected and well versed lawyer speaks on issues ranging from legal education, practice of law, ethics, work life balance and several other topics. Read on to this exclusive story of India's greatest legal minds. 

Why did you choose law? Talk us through your college days?

 

FN: Law was the last option for me. My father wanted me to take the Indian Civil Service exam, but I knew he couldn’t afford it. I had secured a second class in my B.A. degree and there was no other choice left other than law, as I had no sense of science or mathematics.

 

In the Government Law College we use to run a Parliament and we ran it almost as well as or as badly as its being run right now. At the college Parliament, the Principal was the King and we followed strictly all the rules by the book. We had a system of election and I belonged to the Democratic Party. I was elected as the Prime Minister for the 1st year, leader of the opposition party in my 2nd year and as a Speaker in my 3rd year.

 

How tough were the initial years of practice?

 

FN: The initial years were tough, although how tough can’t be measured. We were fortunate enough because if we worked hard the Judges were extraordinarily competent and very kind to juniors. The Judges didn’t bother about whether a senior appeared or not. They were very happy if a competent junior appeared, especially after an experience of 5 years or so.

 

Even when you were a raw junior at the Bar, the Judges use to say in a very heavy voice, Notice of Motion to a Senior Counsel, that you are appearing alone? Then the Solicitor would take the hint and we would get the crumbs from a brief -Mr. Nariman also appeared along with the Senior Counsel! I knew nothing at that point of time, but that was very encouraging.

 

With various choices available for law students today, what advice would you give to today’s students and budding lawyers?

 

FN: Today you have tremendous choice, comparatively we knew nothing, probably 10 percent of what the law students know today. For aspiring law students I would like to say in your career, never try to show off. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge to be learnt, there is a tremendous amount of experience to be had in the field of law and no one can say “I’m on top and I know everything”. No, you don’t. The moment you say, you know everything, I’m afraid that’s the beginning of your downfall. It’s a never-ending process of learning and humility is essential because you can never learn the law. At the age of 92 my senior Jamsetjee Kanga used to say “I’m still learning” and he really meant it. If an odd chap walked into his chamber, he would just pick up a case and tell us about it, he was like a wizard. He could spot the most important point in the case, unlike us.

 

I don’t like the system of Moot-Courts these days, in law schools. My grand-daughter participates in these Moot-Courts, but I don’t like the idea of saying, in A vs. B it was said etc. It makes no difference to what was said. According to Halsbury’s, it was said in Queen vs. Latham that it makes no difference what was said in a given case because by and large all of it depends on the facts of the case, except for constitutional matters.

 

You resigned from representing the Gujarat Government after the attacks. How important are personal values in the legal profession?

 

FN: I represented the Gujarat Government on the rehabilitation program on Project Narmada. At that point of time, the Christians were harassed, the Bibles were burnt and even Christian men and women were killed. In protest, I went to the Minister and I was told that this burning of Bibles and Christians won’t happen, but it still happened and I returned the brief and a big chaos was created.

 

Law is a matter of the heart, as well as the head. You have to have compassion; it is one of the greatest qualities. Lord Denning and Justice Krishna Iyer have both said that compassion is extraordinarily important in the law, amongst lawyers and particularly amongst Judges. One must be able to assess whether a person has something genuine to say in a case.

 

Bar Council of India has proposed several changes in the legal education space? What are you comments on the BCI regulating legal education?

 

FN: Anything is better than the Bar Councils, because Bar Councils are elected bodies and they haven’t done too well. Exceptions are there, for instance the Solicitor General of India, (Gopal Subramanium) is a very competent Advocate and is now the Chairman of the Bar Council. Therefore, if his approach is taken likewise, it will be a boon. Some of the initiatives of the Chairman are laudabale such as the Bar exam and other changes that he has proposed.

 

Your mentor?

 

FN: My senior’s, senior Jamsetjee Kanga was my mentor. He was like a father figure to me. He died at 93 and he is the one who, at the age of 92, told me that he was still learning. He had a tremendous memory and so does my son Rohinton. He was an Ordained Priest and so is Rohinton.

 

Appointment of Judges – An area where you have voiced your concerns. How do you think we can improve the appointment process? Do you think the United States system of Senate approval should be adopted here?

 

FN: The collegiums system doesn’t and hasn’t worked at all. The US system won’t work here either. I’m not sure if the National Commission will work. I myself was very enthusiastic about it, but now with years of wisdom, I’m very doubtful of whether it will work at all. I’m not sure of who appoints, but the person who gets appointed should have something in him or her which makes them diversify and grow. I have seen Judges grow from Court to Court. There was Justice J.M. Shelat who started off as a Judge in the City Civil Court and was reasonable, nothing great. When he reached the High Court he was much better and when he came to the Supreme Court he was extremely good. He had shed all his inhibitions, his idiosyncrasies. As you grow you have to shed all your weaknesses.

 

What inspired you to pen down your thoughts finally in ‘Before Memory Fades’? How did you go about writing this book?

 

FN: My publisher actually pestered me to get down to it. I started writing couple of years ago. The thought had occurred, but I never put pen to paper. It is difficult to write an autobiography and try not to project too much of yourself. 

 

The legal area which interests you the most and why?

 

FN: In my view, I’m most fascinated by constitutional law. How to work the constitution is far more important than how to write it. It is much easier to write the constitution. I recall when the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh came to visit me, (to draft the Bangladesh Constitution). I was the Additional Solicitor General then. We gave them ideas and drafts were exchanged, but it didn’t last for more than a couple of years. Writing a constitution is simpler; borrowing ideas from everywhere is nothing great. How to work the constitution is a grave challenge and it’s fascinating. 

 

Books you read

 

FN: This is a stock question and I cannot rattle off the names of all the books I read – I generally keep upto date with recent academic writings in law and literature; and to keep myself upto date I also subscribe to and browse through the New York Review of Books – a bi-weekly feature which gives all the current publications around the world – as well as the London Review of Books.

 

Work-life balance

 

FN: I don’t take on much work now. I’m 82 and most people retire, but lawyers never do, they only drop dead. It’s very difficult to say “I’m going to retire”, although in England, judges and lawyers do. In any case if you don’t, you have to leave off at some point of time. I return more cases than I accept and it’s been so, for a long while now. The younger people are outstanding, both in our Bar as well as on the Bench. We have young Judges who are extraordinarily good.

 

Embarassing moment

 

FN: In a long life of ups and downs perhaps the most embarrassing has been when I was part of a team representing Bombay University against a visiting team from England of Oxford and Cambridge University: this was during my college days in Bombay in 1949.  I was quite a debater and took pains over my speech and learnt it over by rote. In the debate I had 15 minutes and I performed excellently in the first 12 where I remembered all that I had mugged-up, and then memory failed!  Before an audience of about 300 in the Convocation Hall of the Bombay University it was the most embarrassing moment of my life.  For several years thereafter, I used to have nightmares about this memory lapse!  Since then I have always taken care to have a transcript of what I would be saying so that when that unreliable ally “memory” failed, the script could take over!

 

Do you have any regrets?

 

FN: One gets the usual regrets from time to time. When you lose a case you regret it. One very important thing that young lawyers must know is that when one argues a case and later in the evening you ponder over it and say, that’s what I should have said (but you never said it), that’s the only regret. It could have been the winning point or something you wish you had not said, which is even worse. If you get angry at that point in the courtroom, losing your temper can be a disaster. You can’t afford it because your client suffers and nobody likes you for it. It all comes with age and practice.

 

Also read: Lawyers who matter - Fali Sam Nariman

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Comments

(23)

GJ

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

He is the greatest lawyer i have seen. Amazing to read his interview. I have personally met you sir when you visited the High Court in 1999.

(23)

Dr.J.R.Banik

August 21, 2010 - 2:25pm

Judicial system.law enforcing authorities are lacking in honesty.compassion like qll other braches of our society.Supreme court judges should not be allowed to practice any form of law after they retire of their own will like USA.They should be nominated by President of India & confirmed by both houses of Parliament.High Court judges should be completely free from stae Govt control.There should be clear demarcation of Civil,Criminal.Company Law.There must be time bar to a case\'s judgement.Half the prisoner should not be in the prison only to have preserve prison authotity\'s fund allotment.Human right commission is only an eye wash.Lunatics should receive tretment.Wefare of UT prisoners should be judge\'s responsibility-but they never enquire about them.Court rooms are horrible place - mostly dirty & dingy. JRB

(23)

Siddharth

August 23, 2010 - 9:07am

Sir, You are too humble and down to earth. We all look upto you.

(23)

Harish S.

August 23, 2010 - 9:43am

[edited]

(23)

CHANDRA KANT ...

August 24, 2010 - 1:09am

Mr Nariman is one of the best lawyers respected by everyone all over the world. You are also a great speaker and it is always pleasure listening Mr Nariman and one goes on enjoying his speech always with some humour. Mr Nariman is also one of the best in the field of arbitration and brings great credit to India. India needs lots of Narimans. I wish him all the best and may we have the best in him for the country.

(23)

CHANDRA KANT ...

August 24, 2010 - 1:09am

Mr Nariman is one of the best lawyers respected by everyone all over the world. You are also a great speaker and it is always pleasure listening Mr Nariman and one goes on enjoying his speech always with some humour. Mr Nariman is also one of the best in the field of arbitration and brings great credit to India. India needs lots of Narimans. I wish him all the best and may we have the best in him for the country.

(23)

CHANDRA KANT ...

August 24, 2010 - 1:10am

Mr Nariman is one of the best lawyers respected by everyone all over the world. You are also a great speaker and it is always pleasure listening Mr Nariman and one goes on enjoying his speech always with some humour. Mr Nariman is also one of the best in the field of arbitration and brings great credit to India. India needs lots of Narimans. I wish him all the best and may we have the best in him for the country.

(23)

Kumar

August 30, 2010 - 3:57pm

Wonder whether Mr Nariman returned the briefs of the Cong govt in protest against the anti-sikh riots and the Mumbai riots. Are non-Congress govts. convenient for earning a few brownie points?

(23)

Bankim

September 26, 2010 - 7:03am

This is a great site,came to know closely such an eminent Legal Eagle.

(23)

Bankim

September 26, 2010 - 7:03am

This is a great site,came to know closely such an eminent Legal Eagle.

(23)

anil sharma bhatra

October 4, 2010 - 1:23am

there was a time when the guru decides who are fit to be his student but now it is the student think which guru suits him. emphasis was not on teaching rather on learning. though i meet you only once so far but you made me so much comfortable in few hours of conversation that everytime there is any confusion or delima, your inspiring and encouraging words are enough to channelise my conviction.you are a rare breed of lawyers with both confidence, conviction, clarity with a touch of legal creativity.

(23)

Guest

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

Great piece! He\'s such a humble guy!

(23)

Sourabh

September 15, 2011 - 2:14pm

He is indeed one of the best India has ever produced. I would suggest everyone to read his autobiography. It gives you a closet look of this great soul.

(23)

Ashish

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

Great insight into the life of a real living legend. Great work Bar & Bench team...

(23)

Vicky

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

Mr Nariman is wealthy and successful yet friendly and down-to-earth. There are also others in his position who are like him. Unfortunately, in India many lawyers with 1/100th their talent are arrogant a***h****. This is especially true for the banias who run law firms.

(23)

Solicitor

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

Is this biography available for sale? If anyone has read it can you please tell us what Mr. Nariman says about the settlement reached between his clients Union Carbide and Government of India in Bhopal? I beleive the settlement meetings (as opoposed to a hearing) took place in the office of then CJI. What was the background of negotiations and how much did the Gorvernemtn originally asked for?

(23)

Vikas

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

Sir, a big fan of yours. Have seen you on and off court, and I have to say that you have set the bar so so high for the new lawyers that we all will strive and may never reach where you are. Such a great personality, yet so humble. I only wish many of us could spend time with you and learn how you do it all.Bar and bench - Congrats on your one year. I think you are far ahead of other legal news websites. Best wishes and keep us all informed. You are the first website I log on everyday when I get to work.

(23)

Ravi Kant

August 19, 2010 - 7:48am

I FAIL TO UNDERSTAND WHY LEADING SENIOR ADVOCATES (SOME OF THEM LEADING CONSTITUTIONAL EXPERTS)WHILE REPRESENTING THE RICH AND THE POWERFUL TAKE STAND WHICH ARE ANTI PEOPLE WHICH IS AGAINST THE POOR AND THE DOWNTRODDEN. THEY DO SO KNOWINGLY AND COME UP WITH WHIMSICAL ARGUMENTS AND WITH THEIR NAME AND EXPERTISE ARE ABLE TO CONVINCE THE JUDGES. IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO EARN MONEY AND WIN A CASE FOR THE CLIENT EVEN WHEN YOU KNOW THE CLIENT IS GOING TO EXPLOIT THE POOR.MY SUGGESTIONS FOR THE EXPERT SENIORS ARE THAT AFTER SOMETIME WHEN YOU HAVE ALREADY MADE YOUR NAME AND EARNED MONEY YOU NEED TO TAKE UP CASES OF PUBLIC CAUSES AND BRING SMILE TO THE COMMON MAN

(23)

Varma

August 19, 2010 - 7:49am

Mr. Nariman you are truly inspirational and many young aspiring lawyers are in awe of you. I am in complete agreement with the views expressed by you. The process of learning in the legal profession is an unending journey which truly enriches you. However, I may add that the nobility in the profession seems to have disappeared. A famous quote reads \"He is no lawyer who cannot take two sides\" and a vast majority of the distinguished senior lawyers these days end up on the side where they are paid more which is ironical. I would also add that the younger breed of lawyers deserve a more congenial environment viz. better Court infrastructure, supportive judges, more opportunities and higher remuneration.

(23)

Fan

August 20, 2010 - 11:12pm

Sir, hope you live a hundred years and more. You are the crown jewel of Indian legal system.

(23)

Sakshi

January 10, 2014 - 12:58pm

Thank you for providing us with such an inspiring interview...Sir you are very humble and your words speak the same. This is the best site related to law I have ever come across ! Thanks for this amazing and inspiring interview and also congratulations for the completion of 1 year...
Thanks again :)

Your Name: 
Sakshi

(23)

Satish

January 10, 2014 - 4:29pm

I've read this to the last page. Really a strong foundation for budding lawyers.

Your Name: 
Satish

(23)

ABHA CHAWLA MOHANTY

January 12, 2014 - 4:48pm

MR FALI SAM NARIMAN...,DESPITE AGE, AND, FAME IS STILL" GRACIOUS ",.MANY .MORE YEARS TO ZESTFUL LIFE !!!

Your Name: 
ABHA CHAWLA MOHANTY

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