Legal Eagles book review: Raising the bar

Published: September 27, 2015 12:07 AM

Legal Eagles, which recounts the stories of seven of the best lawyers in the country, comes as a breath of fresh air

Legal Eagles
Indu Bhan
Random House
Pp 231
Rs 399

FOR A profession accustomed to being at the receiving end of brickbats, Indu Bhan’s Legal Eagles comes as a breath of fresh air. For once, lawyers are not reviled and labelled as unethical mercenaries. Instead, as the author warns in her introductory note, the book analyses the positive qualities of seven ‘winners’, eschewing any attempt at a ‘warts-and-all’ profile of each.
To choose seven names is no easy task. Judges, lawyers, clients and the media all might have very strong views on who ought to qualify. So what meter does one use? Court-craft? Advocacy? Knowledge? Social weal? Or public perception (which we usually know is far from the truth)?

The final seven people—Harish Salve, Rohinton Nariman, Mukul Rohatgi, Abhishek Singhvi, CA Sundaram, Arvind Datar and Prashant Bhushan—that Bhan has chosen are all household names, and the author includes two major caveats for her choice: the prominence they have gained in the post-liberalisation era, and the indelible mark left by them on corporate practice. One caveat, though, that she misses out is the fact that all seven are located in New Delhi, with their practice concentrated in the Supreme Court, not necessarily an exclusive club of great lawyering.
Though Iqbal Chagla and Sudipto Sarkar are also names that belong in any pantheon of contemporary ‘Indian’ legends and their inclusion would have been welcome, the chosen seven names, as far as pure Supreme Court practice is concerned, are arguably at the top of the heap (Justice Nariman, though, is a recent and very rich addition to the bench). Bhushan would balk at the prospect of being dubbed a corporate lawyer, but there is no doubt that it is his relentless advocacy of clean governance that has broken the faux oligarchies in at least two industries—coal and telecom—and made others circumspect. As a counter-point then, his inclusion is refreshing.

Interestingly, each of the seven chapters departs from the chronological narrative to move to and fro over salient features of each lawyer’s career. Quite a few, we learn, strode into the trade accidentally (Salve and Datar), and the other five had fathers or grandfathers who were sterling senior counsel themselves (Nariman, Rohatgi, Singhvi, Sundaram and Bhushan). A few have academic inclinations (Datar and Bhushan), while the polymath Nariman can hold forth on history, opera and religion with equal measure.

As the narrative unfolds, we are told of the role that serendipity played in each of their lives. We are also told about the role of mentors and guides in their journeys without whom many of these individuals’ places in this book would have been taken by others. Salve, Nariman and Datar count the great Nani Palkhivala as their common inspiration, while Bhushan and Rohatgi find theirs closer home.

Bhan’s approach seems consistent in trying to peel away the layers for the reader, many of whom may be law students and practitioners trying to find their feet in the profession. She starts anecdotally and explores the advocate’s background and early years before understanding his daily routine, the turning points of his life and the perception of others. However, being more in the nature of descriptive prose rather than deep analysis, the young reader might have some difficulty in gleaning a lesson from the book. Some of the eponymous ‘eagles’ are gregarious, political and much-travelled, with little scholarly interest, while others are reflective introverts happier being apolitical and academic. The one unyielding fact that emerges from the book is that there are several routes to success, and that it helps to hail from a sphere of power and influence.

Each profile also concludes with a detailed analysis of a commercial case that played a significant role in the subject’s career. While these might be of greater interest to a professional, they help showcase the manifestation of the man’s contribution to the practice.

As a practitioner myself, I would have liked to read about instances of independence and integrity in each of their lives, which could send out an inspirational message as well—not unlike former US president John F Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Also, it would have been good to know some solutions to the bane of Indian litigation the severe backlog in disposal from the most intelligent and competent minds of Supreme Court lawyering.
But Bhan’s work achieves what it set out to do: it provides a factual layout of seven very distinct personalities and presents (often for the first time) many of the twists and turns that culminated in success for them. She very ably sidesteps a hagiography—which was quite possible considering she is a legal reporter herself—and is not averse to asking direct questions about the challenging and difficult times faced by the seven lawyers. Legal Eagles is an important addition to the library of those who want to understand what the legal practice is all about.

Gopal Sankaranarayanan is an advocate with the Supreme Court of India

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