The Unconventional Lawyer - Bharat Chugh

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"Somebody once said, you can never act and be another person, you're only acting facets of yourself. I think there is a lot of truth in that"
                                                    - Nathan Fillion

Through this series, we intend to dive deep into various facets of a lawyer's life & their personalities, the colours apart from the profession of the black and the white.


In conversation with Advocate Bharat Chugh.....


Q. I would like to start by mentioning your WordPress Bio which states “on law, justice and life”.  I cannot help but assume that these three facets are intertwined. Is that correct?

Chugh: That's a very interesting observation! From whatever little life that I've lived, the last 32 years, I have learned how closely the two are connected. What good, for instance, is a law that fails to serve justice to the people it was made for. Of course, and I am mindful that ‘justice’ is highly subjective, and we may continue to debate what 'justice' actually is till kingdom come, but we can all agree that there exists a need for strong legal framework based on objective legal principles may help us dispense justice and balance the conflicting interests in society. This, in turn, would make life worth living for those whom the legal system is meant to serve. As social engineers, the endeavour for lawyers and judges should be to close the gap between law and justice as much as we can, so that the two (law and justice) can happily coincide. This is on a larger plane; on a more personal plane, given how all-encompassing and exacting the profession is (and I love it!), I believe life is this, and this is life. This is my very meandering answer to your rather straight question on the wordpress tagline ‘on law, justice, and life’. 

Q. We follow your updates on social media regularly and  though you are an authority on the law, you also seem to be deeply interested in poetry. Usually when one imagines a lawyer, its more about huge serious books and not-so-artsy. What got you into poetry and how does it help you unwind?

Chugh: Law is vast and also vastly complicated. The more you learn of it, the more you are humbled by the extent and depths of your ignorance. I am hardly an authority on the law. The more that you would know of law, the more you realise how little you know of it. That’s law. The endeavour to make sense of it should continue.

Poetry – too – is many things: it is catharsis; it helps me make sense of my own feelings, emotions, dilemmas and challenges. Poetry, as someone rightly said, is the distillation of thought and experiences; it is something so small and brief yet so dense with meaning. It forces us to see things in the light of eternal meanings and principles; it allows us to compress our thoughts and bring them down to their bare essentials. I also like poetry because it teaches us to take a step back, from time to time, and see individual things in the light of the whole.

Having said that, I must clarify that despite the unparalleled joy of reading poetry (and that of reading it aloud, especially), I’m not a huge advocate of mingling legal writing with poetry.

Legal writing ought to be plain, clear, and transparent, like a window-pane, as George Orwell said; it should be clear and unambiguous. Poetry is about abstractions, metaphor and, sometimes, mystery, concealment, and obfuscation. I try to not let the poet in me get in the way of my legal writing - where the endeavour is to try and be as clear as possible.

"I am hardly an authority on law. Poetry, on the other hand, is more personal to me. It is many things: it is catharsis; it helps us make sense of our own feelings and dilemmas. Poetry is the distillation of thought; it is something so small and brief yet so dense with meaning."

Q. Things as we knew it have changed and I like to believe it is mostly for the better. However, many young lawyers are faced with an uncertain future. Where do you see the future of the Indian legal profession and how different you think is it going to be from what we had in the past?

Chugh: Currently, each one of us is grappling with the pandemic. Yet here is a silver lining to things; as saying goes, it all depends on whether you see the glass half full or half empty. Personally, I like to see it as half full. Our circumstances today have provided us with the learning opportunity of working remotely; allowing us to develop more inclusive technological infrastructures. The past few months have been a great opportunity for all of us to hone our skills and brush up on the basics as it has given us time to assess our weakness and strategize accordingly. Today we are better equipped and more efficient at doing the same things. It all depends on our approach– how willing are we to grow, to learn.

In hindsight, sometimes in 2015, Bill Gates had warned us about this and we have failed in our duty to be better prepared against the same. But sometimes we learn the hard way. As long as we are learning from it, that is. It is important for us to learn our lessons and to adapt once over.  From young graduates to those employed already, the uncertainty of employment prospects has been anxiety inducing. Fortunately, and I say this with utmost certainty for the legal fraternity, people continue to show empathy and concern towards each other in these difficult times. Most advocates and law firms have kept their commitment of hiring and providing virtual internships. Many lawyers, and partners at law firms have decided against taking their equity in order to pay the dues and to ensure that their employees get paid.Needless to say, that our reliance on technology has obviously increased which carries its own set of challenges. With the current technological setup such measures might not be feasible in the long run. For instance, cross-examining someone virtually poses significant challenges. Demeanour of a witness is an important element in the appreciation of evidence. Virtual recording of evidence makes it very difficult to calculate factors such as sweaty palm, tapping of feet, etc. Another problem with the virtual cross-examination is the possibility of witnesses sitting in a jurisdiction where they may not be subject to the laws of perjury. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to evolve more effective methods and better technology such as well-defined cameras, more oversight, etc. 

Personally, I am relying mostly on virtual meetings or telephonic conversations and trying to play it very safe. Speaking of work, while courts are functioning on a restricted basis, areas like employment law, and matters of advisory, and to some extent arbitration proceedings continue to thrive. In any event, litigation/legal work will continue till the human species exists. The work form and nature may change but opportunities will always be there. We, lawyers, are a resilient species and are great at adapting and evolving.

A walk down the history lane reveals that the revolution of the powerless still gets an audience but no one pays attention to the revolution of the redundant, as Harari aptly observed. Are lawyers facing irrelevance? What, in other words, is the future of the legal profession. This question is important and is specifically pertinent for us as lawyers to answer because we, as a species, are conditioned and hard-wired to look behind: precedent, analogy, custom, tradition.

This makes many of us change-averse and the status quo-ists.  But, as the adage goes – even if we can’t see the future, the future can still see us. Because of the very nature of our profession, some lawyers find it a bit hard to deal with, and the essential egocentricity of the profession makes it difficult for us to, adopt what Richard Susskind calls –  ‘an outcome-based thinking/approach’: An approach that advocates thinking in terms of solutions. A person having a legal problem is usually not looking so much for a good lawyer as for a good solution.

"Personally, I am relying mostly on virtual meetings or telephonic conversations and trying to play it very safe. ​​​​​​... We, lawyers, are a resilient species and are great at adapting and evolving."

Bharat Chugh
From Chugh's Instagram page

Q. Coming to the diversification in your career. Was it unnerving for you at any point in time to alter your career path? I mean first a judge then a lawyer in a firm and now an independent counsel, what all challenges did you face? Was there a time when you felt that you took the wrong decision or was it always a happy ride?

Chugh: I am passionate about the practice of law and that was what weighed with me when I took up lawyering. My dad was a lawyer; I’ve personally always connected to the idea of being a lawyer more than anything else. That’s who I really am. I’ve always loved arguing & persuasion, and on a balance, I thought  I am more suited to being a lawyer than a judge, at least at this point in my career where the experience at bar is crucial and goes a long way in shaping one’s self. Also, I believed that litigation would give me a wider canvas to work with. I also love writing and grappling with legal issues that one doesn’t have exposure to. This was the thought behind leaving judgeship and there’s never been a moment of regret, ever. I have had the great fortune of working on some of India’s most complicated and biggest cases in the last three and a half years and there’s never been a dull day or a day of regret.

"Being a Lawyer is challenging, fulfilling and extremely rewarding. But, for now, as Shakespeare would say, there is method in my madness!"

Q. How did you choose a law firm life and how different is it really in real time?

Chugh: After three and a half years of a rather fulfilling stint at judgeship, I decided to once again return to the practice of law as somewhere along the line, I realized that I really missed the feel of being a lawyer. Having fulfilled the promise made to my father, I had certain promises to keep with myself and this is but the first step in that direction. Whether I’ll be able to redeem those promises is something only time will tell.

A corporate lawyer’s challenges are somewhat exigent; he is tested at each point: by the court, the client and one’s peers. He is expected to stay ahead of the curve and there’s never a moment when one can rest on what one’s achieved.

                            "A lawyer, as they say, is as good as their last performance." 

When one litigates with a corporate law firm, the matters are extremely complex and the stakes are incredibly high. Similarly, a legal career as a corporate lawyer and in-house comes with its own set of challenges.

For instance, a corporate lawyer/in-house counsel has to advise a corporation on a number of issues strongly connected with business, finance and strategy and this requires a deep understanding of the world of business and finance and provides one an insight into the world of commerce. And, this isn’t easy:

After a roughly 4-year stint at L&L, coming back to independent counsel practice was also very exciting. Over the last year of independent counsel practice, I have had the opportunity of leading in some very interesting matters, and on a wide range of issues, ranging from white collar crime to cryptocurrency/tech law, to international arbitration, to IPR.

Bharat Chugh
From Chugh's Instagram page

Q. Since you were a judge and now a lawyer the next question that I would like you to answer is that most of the people who follow you are judicial aspirants or law students, what do you think should be their approach when they decide to have a career in law? For the benefit of our younger audience, please tell us what is the driving force behind your glorious career?

Chugh: You're kind. It is hardly anything remarkable. I have - though - been blessed with great opportunities at a relatively early age. I believe looking up to, and learning and emulating from the legends in the legal fraternity is very important. When you read, you get inspiration, not only in the field of law but also in the other fields. The likes of Leonardo da Vinci to Steve Jobs can be quoted as a great inspiration for they stood for making a dent in the world and were passionate about what they did.

My advice to anyone wanting to start off as a lawyer would be to hone their command over the language and improve their research skills and also remain relentlessly curious.

For practising lawyer’s language is their foremost stock in trade. Law Students should work on their verbal as well as writing abilities. The ability to articulate even the most complex of issues clearly and succinctly is extremely important for a lawyer. The most successful lawyers are often those who know the most and can also present it most articulately. Hence, when in Law School, one should soak up as much as they can. Master your legal concepts. Discuss with your peers, ask questions, and attend talks/lectures/seminars. Mooting is another important learning experience. It gives one a sense of what it means to be in a courtroom. I participated in as many moots/quizzes as I could, and as they say - each drop of sweat in practice saved blood in war. Mooting helps one develop that quality of being able to think on one’s feet. It’s like being in a bouncy, even if you fall you don’t get hurt.  Additionally, academic writing looks good on the CV. It helps you understand the first principles of law better and also helps one hone their drafting skills.

Research, is yet another important question to address. Legal research holds paramount importance in winning the trust of the client and that of a judge. This profession is based on knowledge asymmetry; knowing or understanding something that the opposite side doesn’t, and thriving on that. We don’t sell anything except what we know and how we think, right?

A client comes to you because you because you know something which he does not. You win a case by knowing something that your opposite side does not and by convincing the judge and persuading her.

It’s not enough to only know how to research conventionally, we also need to go a step beyond to be outstanding. It is very important that young lawyers do not start their research on Google directly. Start with the bare act instead – understand the language of the bare act and illustrations, read the standard commentaries based on the subject. One should know the legislative history, evolution of law, the Parliament debates, Constituent Assembly debates and other primary materials to help understand the law in depth. It is also important to refer to credible sources like SCC, Journals and other sources to look for precedents. When you build up a case, go with the research in a particular order and use only credible sources. It should be primary sources more than hearsay or what somebody’s personal opinion is.

Lastly, there is no substitute for hard work in law.

"I’ll quote Justice Joseph Story when he said, “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by lavish homage.” If you are able to do that—there is little else that you’ll need ever again!"

Q. Lastly, I would like to know about your new projects and goals you have in mind since now you have you own independent chamber as “The Chambers of Bharat Chugh”.

Chugh: I only know broadly in terms of what I am going to do but it is not specific. Firstly, I feel guilty about leaving judgeship for personal ambition as I did. Not guilty in the sense that I have any regrets but guilty in the sense that I am unable to give back the way I possibly used to or the ways in which I could.

Although we do pro-bono cases, I don’t feel that I’m giving back enough. So, I provide training to young judges, police officers, in house counsel, defence counsel, prosecutors, legal aid lawyers, at various academies; I also try to work with judicial service aspirants, try to guide and help them traverse their journey from studying to judging – and from judging to justicing.

I get to live vicariously through judges who I’ve had the opportunity to working-with and teaching, at some point or the other. That gives me a lot of satisfaction, having contributed to nation building by helping make good judges. 

Apart from that, I am always keen to work on my cases; it is an exciting time to be a lawyer. My practice of law straddles practice areas as diverse as: White collar crime, International Commercial Arbitration and Tech law, with a bit of advisory thrown into the mix. It makes for an interesting blend, and though it always keeps us on our toes, it is also extremely rewarding to be able to work at such a wide canvas and to contribute to it.

Also, my involvements with legislative discussions, law reforms, law enforcement training’s, etc is a constant source of excitement.