Drawing up any kind of list is fraught with danger, especially a list of the country’s ten top lawyers! We will almost certainly be accused of acts of omissions and commissions. On our part, we’ve tried to be as thorough as possible — asking senior and junior lawyers and retired judges for their opinion; examining the track record of short-listed candidates; comparing their knowledge, acumen and court craft with that of others. How good are they at retrieving seemingly impossible situations? Can they persuade a judge to appreciate a point of view that is diametrically opposite his initial understanding? What role have they played in the seminal cases of our time? How have they shaped the opinion of government, the judiciary, the public? In our final list, we left out those who currently hold positions in government, such as attorney general Goolam Vahanvati and solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam. We also didn’t consider Kapil Sibal and Arun Jaitley, because as HRD minister and leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, respectively, they don’t practise anymore. In the end, we based our judgement primarily on what we saw and heard, first hand, in the courts…
NARIMAN’S POINT, COUNTERPOINT
He is the wise man of the Bar. Nariman’s stature allows him to be blunt in court. He lets his displeasure be known when a judge fails to understand a point — “No, no, that’s not what I mean.”
Nariman, 81, has aged beautifully. His voice has turned metallic over the years, but it still booms in the biggest courtroom of all — the chief justice of India’s , with its 40-feet high ceiling.
Nariman regularly loses his cool with assistants who try and come to his rescue while a judge is in the middle of asking him a question. “Listen to the judge first, I say,” he tells them testily. He can also be impatient, especially with juniors who take too long to source a citation to buttress his arguments — “Quick, quick, what are you doing.”
Nariman started life as a lawyer in 1951, under the legendary Jamsetjee Kanga, and was enriched by his senior’s endless tales of real-life courtroom drama. He also imbibed his senior’s motto: “Work is worship.” (Nariman is proud of the fact that India’s first chief justice Harilal Kania was also a product of Kanga’s chamber.)
The case that got him into the real big league came 30 years into his career, in 1981. This was the Needle Industry Company Case which related to intricate questions in company law. Nariman’s client had lost in the high court to the arguments of the famous H M Seerbhai. Nariman defended him with great technical brilliance before the Supreme Court, which finally ruled in favour of Nariman’s client.
Even as he climbed the “greasy poles of success” , as he puts it, he has often found himself drawn to hopeless cases. Maybe, it’s because he believes in the saying: “The important thing is not winning, but taking part; the important thing in life is not conquering, but fighting.”
He charges Rs 2.5-3 lakh for a five minute argument on admission day, while a day-long hearing could see him earn upwards of Rs 25 lakh. But he does many cases for free, too. As for what he does with his money, his response is blunt: “That’s nobody’s business but mine.” He’s known to give a lot of money to charity (apart from his pro bono work), but won’t disclose details.
Nariman’s formula for success: “75 per cent hard work, 25 per cent court craft”. His advice to younger lawyers? “Be humble before the court and do not suppress a fact even if it’s against you.”
SUPREME SOLI-LOQUIST- SOLI SORABJEE
Sorabjee loves to be referred to as the former attorney general, for it brought him great glory. As AG, he successfully defended India against Pakistan in the Atlantique downing case in an international court. The Atlantique incident involved the Indian Air Force shooting down a Pakistan Navy plane, Breguet Atlantique, carrying 16 people on board, citing violation of airspace. The incident took place in the Rann of Kutch on August 10, 1999, just a month after the Kargil war, creating a tense atmosphere between India and Pakistan. Thanks to Sorabjee, the court exonerated India and the political situation regained a measure of normalcy.
Sorabjee brings with him extraordinary constitutional knowledge and international experience. And he puts to good use his collection of mad ‘bawa’ (Parsi) jokes to lighten a particularly grim proceeding. When he runs out of repartee, you might hear him speaking in typically bawa-accented Hindi — at times, even lapsing into Gujarati if the opposing lawyer is Gujarati. And he’ll recount the story years later before another sheepishly-smiling Bench: “We spoke only in Gujarati and the poor judges understood nothing of our conversation.”
A fierce advocate of free speech and human rights, Sorabjee was aggrieved by the Emergency and its excesses. The Morarji Desai government , which came in the wake of the Emergency, appointed him additional solicitor general in 1977. Sorabjee says his shifting base from Mumbai to Delhi was a crucial turning point in his life.
Among his celebrated cases, was his appeal — against heavy political odds — on behalf of the dismissed Karnataka chief minister S R Bommai in the Supreme Court. The SC passed a landmark judgment reinstating Bommai and striking at the notion that the Centre could, without a second thought, invoke Article 356 of the Constitution to get rid of state governments belonging to Opposition parties. (By the time the judgment came though, fresh elections had taken place and Bommai could not benefit from the ruling.)
Among the biggies, Sorabjee charges the least — Rs 1.25-2 lakh for appearing on admission day — say juniors who brief lawyers. Like Nariman, he says homework’s what counts most, court craft is really the icing on the cake. His ratio: 70:30.
Sorabjee’s daughter has followed in his footsteps — Zia’s a successful corporate lawyer (one son’s a physician , the other an auto expert).
BIG MAN ON THE BIG STAGE- HARISH SALVE
He is the ‘legal robot’. The huge frame rushing from court to court is a common sight on busy days. But one never finds Harish Salve breathless – effortlessly arguing on cricket and politics, communal pogroms and economics.
As a young lawyer he worked with Nani Palkhivala, something he considers a great learning experience. But the most “telling event” , he says, was arguing before a five-judge constitution Bench in the important Bearer Bonds case in 1981. This completely removed all fear from a young Salve’s mind. “In the Bearer Bonds case, the court held that laws relating to economic activities should be viewed with greater latitude than laws touching civil rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, etc. The court said — reviewing past decisions — that on economic regulation courts must give considerable leeway to the legislature. It is a fundamental rule that the duty of judges is to expound and not legislate. I am proud that I had a creative hand in the landmark judgment.”
Another biggie was his fight for Doordarshan in a case regarding telecast rights. All the leading lawyers were appearing for a private channel and when standing counsel Madan Lokur (now a judge in the Delhi HC) was asked what he would do as all big guns were on the opposite side, he had replied: “I have a small gun. You can come tomorrow and see it firing accurately.” The “small gun” — Salve — did fire well and DD won. He counts the Bilkis Bano case among his major triumphs, setting in motion through the apex court orders a CBI inquiry into an incident that unraveled sinister designs of conspirators in the post-Godhra riots.
His happiest moment? It came when he got a small endorsement from Palkhivala. In a complex tax matter, a client took Salve’s opinion and wanted to test it by asking Palkhivala to examine it. After scrutinizing it, the guru said, “I have nothing more to add to Salve’s opinion.”
Salve went on to become solicitor general during the NDA regime, but after just three years in office he quit in 2002 over differences with the then AG, an incident he terms “one of the saddest moments in my professional career.”
But what does the 57-year-old do with the money he earns? “For the most part, I waste it.” Like other successful lawyers, he values rigorous preparation, but adds, “Spontaneity is what distinguishes a good counsel from a not-so-good one.”
MAN FOR ALL SEASONS- K PARASARAN
He is the grand old man of India’s court royalty. K Parasaran is also a favourite legal consultant with politicians of the UPA government, and is reputed to have the trust of the Congress’ first family.
Parasaran barely speaks outside the courtroom. But when he argues a case, he is one of the most articulate advocates ever. His presentations are punctured with citations. The erudition he displays is not just a verbal exercise. His hands, oscillating constantly as if he is performing aarti, speak as well.
He is known to be an ethically driven lawyer. Once, the formidable Nani A Palkhivala, arguing against him, was moved to leave a note complimenting him. It read: “You are the undisputed leader of the Bar not only as the attorney general, but also in ethical values. I always like to have you as the opponent, because you will state the case as high as it can possibly be put, but, at the same time, you never try to take unfair advantage of the other side. I wish other government counsels would follow your laudable example”.
Parasaran, who became AG in 1984, has perhaps fielded the widest range of cases among India’s legal luminaries. He is at ease with complicated constitutional issues, as well as politically volatile water disputes between states. But, a case that remains fresh in his mind is the Post-Manufacturing Expenses Case. It famously set off Union of India against Bombay Tyres International (1984).
Says Parasaran, “The Union of India had lost the case in 10 high courts and succeeded only in three high courts. In the end, the Supreme Court decided in favour of the Union of India, but there is a tale in it, one with lots of twists. I had the privilege of appearing against several stalwarts of the Bar led by Nani Palkhivala. I remember Mr Justice Bhagawati asking me in a lighter vein, ‘Union of India has lost before 10 high courts and succeeded only before three, but I derive great solace from the fact that Union of India has succeeded before the three high courts of Gujarat, Allahabad and Calcutta.’ Ironically, the case was being heard by a bench of three judges hailing from the Gujarat, Allahabad and Calcutta high courts!”
Parasaran believes the Bar is no longer as ethical as it once was. He is sad that the image of the higher judiciary has been tarnished with so many allegations of corruption. “What can I do, but offer my prayers.”
CRIMES ARE HIS PASSION- RAM JETHMALANI
He generally walks into a courtroom relaxed, wearing a smile on his face. But when it comes to arguing , Jethmalani can leave the most elegant and formidable of adversaries stammering and stuttering. He uses his baritone to showcase his phenomenal knowledge of both criminal and constitutional law.
Jethmalani’s special weapon is his rapier-sharp wit. Nothing brought that in play as much as the Hawala scam case, where Jethmalani argued for the BJP leader L K Advani, challenging the chargesheet and the proceedings initiated on its basis. The judge, reflecting the public perception about tainted politicians, made a pre-emptive observation, “Mr Jethmalani, all these politicians appear to be corrupt. Do not expect any relief from me.”
Jethmalani replied without a pause: “My Lord is absolutely right. These politicians deserve no mercy. But the law is different . Consider this: if My Lord dismisses my case and I go back home and write My Lord’s initials on my diary with a sum of Rs 10 lakh written against it, would My Lord be chargesheeted for it?”
The judge sat back, listened to Jethmalani in rapt attention and, ultimately, quashed the case against Advani. Such flourishes of court craft aside, Jethmalani describes the famous Commander Nanavati murder case — resulting from the killing of the wife’s lover — as the “most important milestone of my professional career” . “My role in the trial court as well as in the high Court was of protecting the interests of the family of the deceased. I was, therefore, confined to helping the public prosecutor in the trial court (C M Trivedi) and the government pleader in the high court (Y V Chandrachud).
“But for some reason, everybody seems to think that I was responsible for both Nanavati’s conviction as well as his presidential pardon that overturned the Supreme Court’s award of life imprisonment !” Another case Jethmalani considers particularly memorable is the one where he secured the acquittal of Balbir Singh, who was convicted of conspiracy to kill Indira Gandhi.
Then, there was the unlikely civil case in which the SC accepted that Hindutva and the Hindu religion were different, and that Hindutva was in conformity with the Constitution and its central tenet of secularism.
“Unfortunately my view of Hindutva which the Supreme Court accepted has not been consistently followed by those who consider Hindutva their invention and exclusive brand of politics,” says Jethmalani , taking a dig at right-wing parties.
As the most famous practitioner of criminal law today, it’s hardly surprising that he is the highest paid. And he makes no bones about it. “I do earn money which some people may consider a lot. But I also have many responsibilities to discharge. I have often lived beyond my means, and I am not a miser.” Does success go to his head? “I do not allow myself to be rattled by failure or intoxicated by success,” he says. When he set out, Jethmalani was anything but a success. “A very sad moment in my life was when I was compelled to leave my place of birth in Pakistan, become a refugee in India and start a miserable life in a refugee camp in Bombay,” he recalls. “Hard work and industrious application” was his way out of that life.
BUDDHA OF THE BAR- ABHISHEK MANU SINGHVI
He is a much-recognised lawyer in the corridors of the Supreme Court, thanks to his regular appearance as spokesperson for the Congress party. It is possible that his constant proximity to the wiliest of politicians has helped him hone his skills. But the truth is that his legal brilliance has never been in question. Which explains why Singhvi became the youngest additional solicitor general in India when he was just 37.
Singhvi is relatively calm in reasoning out his case. That is saying a lot in a field where the protagonists are given to hawing and humming.
His restraint seems principled. He actually finds an exchange of hot words between Bench and Bar painful. It is a sentiment he shares with his late father L M Singhvi, a well-known lawyer in his own right.
This correspondent recalls an incident involving the father. L M Singhvi was appearing in a case before a Bench headed by Justice Arijit Pasayat, who never lost an opportunity to raise his voice. On one occasion, LMS was at the receiving end. But, instead of losing his cool, Singhvi waited out the judge’s ire, and said, ” I am not used to shouting and countering it with vociferous arguments. I am always for a polite conversation between Bench and Bar. Much can be achieved if the decibels are kept low.”
Surely, the father must have held many a great lesson for the son. Abhishek has proved his mettle in many dramatic cases. But the one that holds lasting charm for him in terms of its mass appeal is the National Flag Case.
In this, he represented the industrialist-politician Naveen Jindal and got him, along with over a billion Indians, the right to fly the national flag atop their houses, which was earlier restricted to government buildings.
His wife, Anita is an acclaimed ghazal and sufi singer. Anita too has a law degree, but has preferred a career in music. His family apparently keeps him on his toes: “I married an expensive wife long ago and have fairly free-spending children, all of which maintains the input-output ratio,” Singhvi says, tongue in cheek.
Apart from an “expensive wife” to whom he is happily married, Abhishek has three jealous and demanding mistresses – advocacy, the Congress party spokesmanship and parliamentary politics. The 51-year-old seems pretty adept at spreading himself thin among the three.
LEAD VOCALIST- MUKUL ROHTAGI
He can argue a case even if briefed for two minutes before being called in for hearing. That is Mukul Rohatgi for you — a man who does not depend much on case law but has an uncanny ability to recount a public sham, quite akin to the case in hand, to persuade a judge to see his point of view.
Inside court, Rohatgi quite often shouts down an opponent, whatever be the latter’s stature. And when the advocate protests, he quickly puts in a rejoinder: “This is the normal way I argue. It was never meant to offend you.” His volume is as big as his stature.
Outside court, he is less belligerent . Unlike a lot of lawyers who upbraid the media for ‘biased’ reporting, Rohatgi smiles and says, “Boss, why are you after me?”
The undisputed king among advocates in the Delhi HC, Rohatgi was appointed additional solicitor general by the Vajpayee government in 1999, an appointment that saw him shift base to the SC.
Strangely, his happiest moment was 30 years ago when he got an opportunity to argue a complex property suit against the famous Y K Sabharwal. He lost the case, but the memory of the tenacious fight he put up was inspirational.
Of course, he also loves to recall cases he has won. One of them relates to the constitutional issue of a floor test in the Jharkhand Assembly, which the then governor Syed Sibte Raji was reluctant to order . Rohatgi’s efforts fructified with the SC asking for a floor test.
An ongoing saga that has Rohtagi engrossed is the one that pitched the two Ambani brothers into battle over gas supply issues in the Bombay High Court. Rohatgi, who appears for Anil Ambani, has just concluded arguments in the Supreme Court in an appeal filed by Mukesh Ambani against the Bombay HC’s judgment.
Rohatgi loves to travel. “I spend my money on travelling and staying in good hotels across the world,” he says. “I also love cars and have a good collection of them.”
CONSTITUTIONAL CROREPATI- KK VENUGOPAL
For Constitutional law students, Venugopal is the man. In the world of gray-haired legal luminaries, he is, suspiciously, the lone black head. Though the colour of the hair is a bit of a mystery, there is nothing remotely mystical about his defence strategies. Few lawyers nuance their arguments with so much learning. Which explains why the Supreme Court enlists his services every time important Constitutional issues come before it for interpretation.
Immediately after the Emergency, when the Janata government chose him as additional solicitor general, Venugopal shifted base from Chennai to Delhi, 25 years after joining the Bar in Madras.
Venugopal, 79, recalls the case relating to the V P Singh government’s decision in 1990 to implement the Mandal Commission’s reservation recommendations as a defining moment in his career.
“The only way to stop the spiralling (student) violence was by approaching the Supreme Court and obtaining a stay. The court did, in fact, stay the Office Memorandum and the violence came to an automatic end. I believe this must have saved dozens of lives.”
Another memorable case dates back to the Emergency. He was associated with two writ petitions that the Karunanidhi government filed following its dismissal in 1976. These accused the Union government of mala fide for invoking Article 356, on the grounds that the Congress which was in power at the Centre could never otherwise have hoped to govern Tamil Nadu. “The writ petition in the Madras high court was admitted for final disposal, but the bench dismissed it on a technicality. Now, a second writ petition filed by Shri Karunanidhi himself in the Delhi high court faced a hearing by a full bench of three judges. The judges heard out the petition day after day without actually being prepared to issue notice. The situation was delicate. Nobody wanted to commit. Finally, the petitioner decided that the atmosphere prevailing was taking a toll on the judiciary and, so, I made a request to adjourn the matter sine die, and, right away I could see the relief on the faces of the judges,” Venugopal says.
Venugopal is a collector when he is not a lawyer. “I collect antiquarian books, carpets, sculptures and art.” Among his prized possessions is the Sword of Emperor Aurangzeb. And he loves travelling. “I have snorkelled in the Caribbean, trekked to Mansarovar and the forests of the Silent Valley.”
His fees are among the highest —Rs 2-3 lakh for a five-minute appearance on admission day — but he’s also known for his charity, be it for higher education or medical facilities for tribal children.
COMPANY BAHADUR- RF NARIMAN
If you happen to spot a round-faced, bald, slightly pot-bellied senior advocate tearing down the corridors of the Supreme Court on a busy Monday or a Friday, shouting “move, give way”, then it is R F Nariman.
Nariman literally hops from court to court and argues in his baritone voice, probably an asset he inherited from his father Fali Nariman. He does not like to be in the shadow of anyone, not even his father , and perhaps that’s why he has carved out a niche for himself in corporate litigation.
Nariman’s talent was noticed by the Supreme Court, which usually confers the designation of senior advocate, through a cumbersome process, on a lawyer who is 45- years-old or more and one who has practised for more than 20 years at the Bar. But it made an exception in the case of Nariman and designated him as senior advocate when he was just 36 years old.
He learnt how to “lose gracefully” early in his career while arguing before “geniuses like Justices O Chinappa Reddy and A P Sen” who would listen patiently to a young advocate, encourage him by putting meaty questions politely and appreciate him openly. But, “I lost almost all the cases I argued before them,” he confesses. And yet, it left him feeling good. Why? Because of what he could take away from the sessions, and the realisation that “the best in the trade would have lost those cases anyway thanks to the ‘bent of mind’ of those judges.”
Assisting Palkhivala for a month in presenting arguments in the famous Minerva Mills case of 1980 was an education for Rohinton. The judgment on the case extending the “Basic Structure Doctrine” — relating to the unchangeable core of the Constitution , especially the Fundamental Rights — which was framed for the first time in the Keshavananda Bharati judgment, continues to be a case study for law students and lawyers till date.
His cheerful looks belie a seasoned legal brain. But that doesn’t prevent him from seeing the humour in a situation. His rotund features, for example , afford him a source of wry enjoyment. “Ah, the amazement and surprise of seeing my own face in my first born, the first time I set my eyes on her!” he exclaims in mock concern.
Rohinton has set up a Supreme Court Lawyers Welfare Trust, which was a long-felt need in the legal world. Besides the Trust, which takes up quite a bit of his energy and time, Rohinton enjoys his country homes where he finds the environment conducive to listening to western classical music and reading books. Music and books, he says, are his “life and blood.”
SOFT-SPOKEN CANNON- ASHOK DESAI
He is the most soft-spoken of the lot. Perhaps the thinnest too. But being a former attorney general, he enjoys the confidence of the Bench — not merely because he was an AG but because he has the ability to draw the Bench into believing gross injustice would result if they don’t entertain his petition and issue notice to the other side.
Being AG, though, isn’t what he sees as the turning point of his life. It was, he says, arguing the case of theatre artist Vijay Tendulkar and the controversy-marred play Sakharam Binder.
“A milestone has to be reckoned in terms of how a decision promotes public interest,” he says, recalling how Tendulkar was hounded by the Censor Board, establishment and police for using a few naughty words in the play. The police tried to outsmart the playwright by slapping a ban on the play a day before it was being staged, but Ashok Desai and his team worked through the night to present a petition the next day. They managed to get a stay on the ban.
The 68-year-old may be reclusive when it comes to his life, but he opens up on the cases he has argued. “One of the great moments of my professional life was Antulay’s case where we had to fight a litigation on behalf of Mrinal Gore and her brave colleagues to expose the bags of cement, already in short supply , being given against donations to the Indira Gandhi Pratisthan,” he says. His work, aided by a vigilant press, paid off. “Justice (Bakhtavar) Lentin held that the petitioners could prove the misbehaviour of the government almost mathematically”.
Fighting to ensure humane conditions for detenues during the Emergency is another period Desai remembers. “Alas, the Supreme Court, in its own modest contribution to the Emergency, declared that such detentions were legal,” Desai says with a tinge of pain.
In the top league, Desai charges anything upwards of Rs 2 lakh for a five-minute argument for admission of a petition. Dismissing the money he earns, he says, “I, for one, try to maintain that you have to give back to society a part of the income that you earn, preferably anonymously