The #BombaySeniors: In Conversation with Janak Dwarkadas [Part II]

In part II of the interview with Senior Advocate Janak Dwarkadas, he talks about how he made it in the profession, how his style of argument evolved over the years, being designated Senior Counsel at a young age, and more.

Anuj Agrawal: Coming back to your career. There must have been some significant cases and turning points.

Janak Dwarkadas: It would not be right for me to talk about the cases I have handled, although I would like to share how I got my first break. It was the result of my “being around”. It was a legal battle for the takeover of a company called Killick Nixon.

I happened to accompany Mr. Chagla to the City Civil Court, where the first of the many hundreds of cases would be argued. Whilst the arguments were taking place, I noticed that the judge was putting questions to Mr. Chagla and another Senior Advocate Mr. Bhanu Bhai Kapadia on a question of law which the Supreme Court had decided only recently in a case under The Wealth Tax Act.

I rushed back to the High Court library and got the law report in which the case was reported. It was a turning point in the case. My effort did not go unnoticed. The solicitor thanked me profusely and was happy to learn from Mr. Chagla that I was his junior.

Soon thereafter, another senior counsel Mr. Yusuf Muchala was intending to spend his entire vacation drafting a plaint in the same matter. Mr. Muchala asked me if I was willing to assist him and even offered to pay me for it. It was a double bonus for me. Once again, my efforts did not go unrewarded. I got inducted as a junior counsel in this epic takeover battle.

Later, there were proceedings filed in every possible court. There was a day when some 536 petitions were filed on a single day in the High Court. And if there was one person who knew the entire record backwards, it was me. So I kind of became indispensable to the case.

AA: It must have been an exciting time then.

JD: Very, very exciting. A lot of new law was laid down in that case. There are two celebrated and reported judgments by our High Court in that one case alone. It was an exciting case and it also gave me my first trip to the Supreme Court. It was a big break for me.

The very same firm of solicitors rewarded me thereafter with several other major cases.

AA: Two decades later, you were designated. Was it a conscious decision or were you pushed into it?

JD: I think I had not even touched 40 at that time. Or I may have just about crossed the age of 40. It was a rather young age to be requested to get on to the Senior List.

I never expected that I would be called by Justice Saraf and asked to go on the Senior List. When I expressed that I may be too young for this, Justice Saraf told me he knew exactly where I was in the profession and felt strongly that I ought to apply.  It was a crucial juncture in my professional career and a confusing time as well. Of course, if my father had been around, I would have spoken to him immediately.  He was always there when I needed guidance.

Luckily for me, I also had Mr. Chagla, who was like a friend, philosopher and guide. His take was that if a judge asked you, you should have no hesitation in considering it. I reminded him that when he had been asked to go on the senior list, he had joked and said he would soon either be playing golf or become a successful Senior Counsel.

His reasoning was that whereas one may be very successful as a junior, it was not necessary that you may succeed as a senior counsel. And then it would become impossible to turn the clock back. He told me that looking at my progress at the bar, he had no doubt that I would do well even as a Senior Counsel. It was Mr. Chagla who gave me the confidence to apply.

AA: But you were twenty years into the profession. And you were still unsure?

JD: Yes. That is because the role and responsibilities of a Senior Counsel are quite different from that of a junior. As a Senior Counsel, the buck stops with you. You become the leader of a team from being a member of a team. Every decision you take will determine the fate of the client. What appears easy from outside, is not necessarily how it actually is.

Till you don the senior gown, you do not realize it comes with added responsibility to the client, the solicitor and even more to the court. I believe a Senior must conduct himself and be worthy of being a role model, a mentor and a dependable and reliable officer of the court.

AA: So you make it to the senior list. Did you end up playing golf?

JD: (laughs) Thankfully, no. God has been very, very kind. I am thankful to God that I was able to live up to the challenges and find acceptance in my new avatar.

AA: In court, you have a very calm, yet determined way of presenting arguments.

JD: It wasn’t always like that though. Let me tell you, I have had a fair bit of hiccups. I have to confess that I have, at times, done things I regret even today. I have said things in the heat of the moment which I should never have said. And sometimes I have conducted myself in a manner that I would not like to see somebody else do in court.

It has been a learning curve. There were times I considered my opponent as the punching bag and probably did not realize that he/she had as much a job to do as I had. It also took me a while to realize that you cannot win a tricky argument by shouting at, or by browbeating a judge.

When I was growing in the profession, somewhere along the line, I felt that I was trying to prove myself too hard. I am glad I have overcome this. And if you say that I don’t push too hard, then I am glad to hear it.

AA: Oh you definitely do push hard, but the way you do it is not very aggressive.

JD: This has not happened overnight. I had before me a role model like Mr. Chagla, whose advocacy and ability to put across an argument without having to raise his voice, or browbeat the opponent I greatly admire. Yet, at one point I did become aggressive in my advocacy for some time.  Thankfully, I realized this and worked hard on myself to change.

AA: What about joining the bench?

JD: I was asked by Chief Justice MB Shah, who later went on to the Supreme Court bench. I told him that I would have to decline for two reasons. Firstly, I had just lost my father. I was the only earning member of my family. I had two dependent children who were studying and I wanted to educate them in the best manner possible.

Secondly, I had just gone on the list of Senior Counsel. I wanted to see whether I did well as a senior or not.

AA:  But two decades into the profession, how could you have self-doubt?

JD: Why not? You should never go by appearances or by perception. Perceptions are never the truth. As I said earlier, donning the senior gown comes with its own set of challenges.

When one sees Sachin Tendulkar playing cricket, they always make the game look easy. Likewise, when you see someone argue in court, what you see is only the final product. What you do not see is the number of hours of preparation, the grind, the planning, the selection of strategy to be adopted, the anticipation of how a judge would react to a particular argument or what one could expect would come from the other side.

These are things you will never see. That’s why the system of a junior and senior working together on the original side is so precious. The reason everybody wants to be in the chambers of a successful counsel is because the experience of strategizing, researching, learning to prepare, deciding how and what to argue or not to argue, why certain arguments are discarded even though they may sound excellent, you will never ever get to see.

All that you see is the final performance in the court. And obviously that is going to look well-orchestrated, well considered, well thought out and as smooth as it can be.

But it doesn’t go like that. At every stage in his career, a good counsel should be concerned about his level of preparation and it is very important not to take any matter for granted.

AA: Just on the designation bit, why are so few women advocates designated in Bombay?

JD: I don’t know. I think they are very deserving. They are equally capable, if not more. I have had several lady juniors, I have found each one of them to be as competent as my male juniors. Sometimes, it is the conflict that arises out of juggling multiple responsibilities and you can end up being torn between these. Unfortunately, the practice of law makes an uncompromising demand of your time.

AA: You had signed a letter a while back seeking action against hate speech.

JD: I am basically a “live and let live” person. I believe that if people followed this simple principle, a lot of the problems of the world would be solved. Unfortunately, we are too meddlesome as human beings, too intolerant by nature. We expect that the other person must accept us or our thoughts regardless of our own faults, flaws and drawbacks.  However, we are not as forgiving or accommodating in accepting the other point of view.

If you live and let live, it does not matter. You keep your opinion to yourself and respect somebody else’s opinion. That’s what at least the profession has taught us – there are always two points of view.

AA: Those considering joining the legal profession – it is not an easy life.

JD: Not at all. But to me, the intellectual stimulation that the legal profession – and particularly counsel practice – gives you is probably unparalleled. There are no two cases which are alike. Every case that we do has some facet or nuance which is completely different from another case.

Our profession also requires that we study and understand our client’s business and profession. Unless one gets under the skin of the case, it is not easy to convince the judge of your client’s point of view.

We don’t have a specialist Bar. We are, as it’s called, “sab bandar ka vyapari”. In a given day, we could be doing five different branches of the law. And there are so many nuances, so many facets. One life is not even enough to consider yourself a master of the law. You will always remain a student of the law.

You always keep practicing. That is why I suppose it is called the practice of law. You never become perfect.  It is always better to start by saying that I am here to learn and not to preach. You will learn far more.

AA: Moving away from the law, I know that you have quite the fascination for cars. You drive a two-door Mercedes SLK.

JD: I have always been a car lover all my life and I am fortunate that the profession has enabled me to fulfill many of my dreams.  At the end, I would only like to say that all material possessions and the success and fame that the profession can get you are by-products of a very demanding, yet fulfilling profession. The focus should remain only on hard work and discipline throughout your career. The rest will follow.

You can read Part 1 of this interview here.