Every young lawyer must start with original side work: Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra (Part I)

Aditya AK January 29 2019

Sidharth Luthra is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India. The son of eminent lawyer, KK Luthra, Sidharth has been at the forefront of many important cases across courts in India, and has also served as Additional Solicitor General.

In the first part of this interview, he talks about the difficulties he faced while trying to escape the shadow cast by his father, a legend at the Bar. He also talks about the importance of starting one’s litigation career at the trial court level and how he turned down judgeship not once, not twice, but four times.

Sidharth Luthra was a journeyman of sorts, having dabbled in virtually everything before eventually choosing law. He obtained a degree in Mathematics, but found the subject “too dry”. He nearly got into the Army, having cleared the NDA exam. However, on account of his sister’s marriage, he couldn’t attend the medical.

In fact, if he got what he really wanted, we wouldn’t be speaking to Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra.

“Perhaps if I had more awareness at the time, I would have chosen architecture. That is one regret I have.”

He finally found himself at Campus Law Centre, where a lot of his time was spent on extracurricular activities.

“I used to write as a freelance journalist, I was an announcer for All India Radio, did some television and some sports commentary as well. I began writing a weekly column with a friend and then wrote independently.”

Luthra went on to do an M.Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University, and was intrigued by the world of academia. He seriously contemplated a career in academia, but it was not to be.

“When I came back, I missed the dates for teaching at Delhi University. I would have been perhaps better cut out as an academic. But here I am.”

On his return from England, Luthra joined Bhasin & Co – one of the two biggest firms in Delhi at the time. He would spend a year there, before doing some work with his father. He then started an independent practice with his wife and eventually took over his father’s criminal practice after his death.

Why didn’t he join his father – who had a thriving practice – at the outset?

“My father was a larger than life figure, he was a legend in his own right. He had an incredible reputation at the Criminal Bar, so I didn’t want to practice under his shadow. That is why I chose the Civil and Commercial practice. Secondly, I wanted to be my own person. And that is the reason I joined Bhasin & Co and did trial court work.”

He recounts an anecdote about how he made a conscious attempt to conceal the fact that he was KK Luthra’s son.

“When I came back from Cambridge, my card had my name in English in front and Hindi at the back. I thought it was important, because a lot of your clients don’t know English. I used to refer to myself as ‘Sidharth’, because I didn’t want to be known as ‘Sidharth Luthra’. In December 1995, I appeared before a District and Sessions Judge, KP Verma. One Sunday, I went to his house to move an anticipatory bail. He asked my name and I said it was ‘Sidharth’. By then, my card had changed because I was enrolled as Sidharth Luthra at the Bar Council. After agreeing to allocate the case on an expeditious basis, he asked me,

‘Why did you say your name was Sidharth?’

I said,

‘My name is Sidharth.’

He replied,

‘No, your name is Sidharth Luthra.’

He then asked me if I had any relatives in the profession. I told him my father was a lawyer. He asked,

‘What’s his name?’

I said,

‘Mr. KK Luthra.’

He then said,

‘Bargad ke ped ke neeche kuch nahi hota.’ [nothing grows under shadow of the Banyan Tree].

He said,

‘You didn’t tell me you were Mr. Luthra’s son.’

I replied that there was no occasion for me to do so, as I had come for a bail application. He laughed and was appreciative of it.

I was very conscious of not letting my identity as the son of an eminent lawyer cloud my professional work. I wanted to be known for what I was doing. That would also mean that I would neither be measured by his standards, nor would I get benefits or leeway for who he was.”

Despite his best efforts to steer clear from his father’s shadow, judges would often still measure him based on his father’s acumen.

“There was a gentleman who resigned as a Sessions Judge, who knew my family well. One day, while hearing an injunction matter, he asked me a question and I fumbled with the answer. His response to this was,

‘How can you do this, Mr. Luthra? Law must have been discussed at your breakfast table.’”

The decision to be independent posed another set of difficulties for Luthra and his wife Ketaki, who was also in the profession. His story is one that most litigating lawyers can associate with.

“I started at Bhasin & Co with a princely sum of 1000 rupees, and at that time, my petrol expenditure used to be 1700-1800 rupees. My father used to subsidize my existence. When Ketaki and I got married, I was earning around 2500 rupees and she was earning 4000-5000. We used to eat at home and share a car. We struggled a lot.

Around the time my father passed away [in 1997], we had a fledgling practice and Ketaki was getting around 7500 rupees. When we bought our first car two years later in 1999, Ketaki and I owned only one tire! One was owned by a friend, another by my mother, and another by my brother-in-law. I would often have to borrow from a dear friend of mine, who would tease me saying,

‘If you become successful, I’ll borrow more from you.’

There were constraints on taking holidays. By 1998, we had two little children and their education needed to be met. We lived a simple lifestyle, and we try to spend as less as possible, because we just didn’t have it.

There were times when I have borrowed money from juniors and paid them back. Sometimes, I couldn’t pay their salaries, so I would have to borrow from a friend.”

Around the time he took over his father’s criminal practice, things slowly started changing for the better. Asked if there was any one particular case that set his career on an upward trajectory, he says,

“The Tehelka case. It gave me national recognition; I was on TV almost every day. When you are young, your blood runs hot, you’re fiery, or at least you think you are (laughs). Now I’m a much calmer person.”

Despite having appeared in many cases of national importance, including the likes of the 2G Scam case, and the Nirbhaya case (as Special Public Prosecutor), Luthra still considers himself to be a trial lawyer at his core.

In fact, he is of the opinion that every litigating lawyer must start out at the trial court level.

“I think it is important for every young lawyer to start doing original side work, whether it is Civil, Criminal, or Taxation. This business of catapulting yourself straight into appellate practice is, according to me, not right, because it leaves you as an incomplete lawyer. Unless you have appeared before a Magistrate or a Civil Judge’s court and know how exactly the CPC and the CrPC work, you will not be a complete professional.”

He reveals his policy of not hiring raw juniors.

“For a litigating lawyer, the working of the law at the trial court level is most crucial.  Therefore, I encourage all my juniors to work for three years in trial courts and high courts and then come to me. I don’t like to keep raw juniors; I believe that is not the way to start.”

Speaking from personal experience, he attributes the experience of appearing in trial courts to the lawyer he is today.

“The fact that I began at the trial courts and not with my father held me in some stead in the later years. I lost my father very soon, in 1997, by which time I had started doing some work with him. Had I not understood how the law works at the lowest level; had I started with a law firm and then gone straight to him, I don’t think I would have survived.

I learnt what the law was at its basic level, so it was easier for me to sustain myself and get work. While I had an understanding of what top-notch work was, I also understood the other end of the spectrum. I was more geared for survival, and I think those years taught me greater adaptability, and that has held me in good stead.”

Soon enough, Senior designation beckoned for Luthra. He realised this when judges told him he was “too old” for passovers.

“By the year 2004, judges refused to give me passovers; Justices Dalveer Bhandari and SK Aggarwal told me in the Delhi High Court that I was too old for passovers. From then, it was only a question of time. One of the judges who is now in the Supreme Court met me at a wedding. He told me that I was to become a Senior Counsel. I took some time and was a little unsure, but eventually became a Senior in July 2007.”

If things had taken a different course, we would be speaking to Justice Sidharth Luthra. However, he refused the call to the Bench a staggering four times. The reason?

“I don’t know whether I should speak about this, but I was offered judgeship four times – in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. I don’t know if I was so deserving, but it was very kind of them to offer me judgeship so many times.

Initially, I was open to becoming a judge, but then I realised that the norm was that members of your family cannot practice in that particular court. My sister was a Senior Counsel and my wife was in active practice. My nephew and niece were just joining the profession. By that time, Ketaki and I had about fifty juniors who were doing fairly well in Delhi.

Being a judge outside Delhi was impossible, because my mother – who is 93 years old today – was ill. That was not going to work out, so I declined the offer. The decision was revisited three more times after that. The last time, a gentleman who is a judge of the Supreme Court and a friend of my father’s called me and said,

‘I’m telling, not asking you. You can’t say no again.’

But he appreciated and respected my decision.”

Stay tuned for Part II.

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