Review by Dilip Thakore in Education World Online:

Self-absorbed memoir

Legal confidential: Adventures of an Indian Lawyer by Ranjeev C. Dubey, Penguin; Price: Rs.499; Pages: 299

Over three decades ago this reviewer qualified as a barrister and migrated from the UK to practice law in the Bombay high court and fulfil a subsidiary aspiration to enter public service through politics. At that time new entrants into the legal profession were obliged to sit out for up to five years in the chambers of a senior counsel earning loose change, if that, learning court craft and intricacies of the law. Instead, what I learned best was that the Bombay bar was dominated by Gujarati and Parsee sons and nephews of counsel and judges wholly driven by avarice with little interest in justice dispensation or reputation of the judicial system, and its pride of place within India’s democratic framework.

Because I was well-supported by an indulgent father who regarded pupillage as an extension of my education, I stuck it out for four-plus years, during which I was the sole counsel of the Bombay Legal Aid Society which was so impecunious that it couldn’t pay even out of pocket expenses, let alone counsel’s fees.

The cynicism and greed which permeated what I believed at bottom to be a noble profession, was a big turn-off. It prompted me to begin a new career in industry, even though things were looking up for me in the legal profession.

Looking back, it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. What’s the joy of succeeding in a universally despised dung-heap profession which shows no signs of reformation? Neither the Bar Council of India, the higher judiciary, nor the country’s legal eminences seem to have any ideas or intent to clean the country’s patently unjust justice system which is creaking under the weight of 30 million pending cases; levies court fees for civil litigation; has failed to evolve a legal aid mechanism for the poor; incarcerates 280,000 under-trial citizens in jails, and tolerates the lowest judge-population ratio among all democracies (13 per million citizens cf. 105 in the US). Despite this grim scenario the country’s 950 law colleges and universities continue to churn out an estimated 60-70,000 poorly schooled and trained lawyers per year, who crowd the static number of lower courts and openly solicit clients, prohibited conduct practised more in the breach than observance.

However readers of Legal Confidential — Adventures of an Indian Lawyer, an autobiography of Ranjeev C. Dubey described as a practising corporate lawyer, legal correspondent of several business magazines and author of two books on law (Winning Legal Wars (2003) and Bullshit Quotient (2012)), are unlikely to come across any illumining examination of these macro issues which have brought the Indian legal system into universal disgrace.

Instead, it traces the career of the author who entered the legal profession with the noblest motives — “pursuit of liberty and justice” — but lost all innocence to pervasive cynicism in 25 years of practice starting in the “dog-eat-dog world” of Delhi’s Tees Hazari lower courts. “I learnt soon enough that justice didn’t necessarily have a great deal to do with the legal system. I also learnt that justice was not of paramount interest to many service providers of the legal system,” writes Dubey in this racy account of his trajectory to the near-top of the intensely competitive legal profession.

Although educated at an unnamed public (i.e, private, boarding school) and as such eligible to start off as a junior in the chambers of a senior counsel, he preferred not to begin as a basta vakil (bag-carrier) and work for a hotshot Supreme Court senior in the hope that the latter would throw him “sorry crumbs when the mood took him”.

Instead the author started his legal career as a trial lawyer taking on low-cost matrimonial disputes, and later bank loan recovery cases after he was fortuitously empanelled as a lawyer patronised by public sector banks. The chaos, petty corruption and heavy case load of judges in the lower courts is graphically described over four chapters in Part I of the book titled ‘The doghouse years’.

In Part II of this memoir titled ‘Dancing with the Wolves’, Dubey describes his break-out from the petty cases of the trial courts after he is offered a partnership by a successful upper class type named Shanks (perhaps modelled after Vijay Shankerdass, a reclusive Delhi/London- based barrister and counsel to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and several top NRIs), who takes him on as a junior partner. But instead of this proving the big break he was waiting for, Dubey recalls “naively” accepting very unequal terms.

After this point this engaging text becomes a long litany, with the author inveighing against the partners of the firm, the legal system and its practice, where everybody is out to “screw” everybody else. “To choose to be a lawyer is to explore the sewers of human perversity. When you pass daily through a sewer, some of the excreta will become you… If you are an idealistic young man who thinks he’s going out to change the world, I’m afraid I don’t have good news for you,” he writes.

So deep is the cynicism pervading this autobiography that nobody is ever a winner. Case histories of several billion dollar projects initiated by multinational companies are recited, with none ever coming to a satisfactory conclusion. They are felled by archaic legal processes, sub-standard lawyers, prevaricating arbitrators or dim-witted judges after the firm’s senior partners have extracted huge fees (of which the author invariably gets crumbs). Focused on the minutae of cases (which has the opposite effect of clouding the real issues), Dubey doesn’t have a word to say about the implications of such deals going bust on foreign investment and employment in the Indian economy.

Towards the end of the book, after serving the firm (City Lights) for over a decade and only Rs.6 lakh in the bank and the title deeds of his home, the author resolves to start his own law firm together with loyal juniors. But at this point Shanks comes up with another offer: start a branch of City Lights in Gurgaon which would run as an independent firm with the parent firm due a minority share of the profits. The book ends with Dubey mulling this offer, which presumably he has since accepted.

In the final analysis Legal Confidential is a socially beneficial memoir inasmuch as it ruthlessly exposes the slimy underbelly of the country’s collapsing legal system. But unfortunately the self-absorbed author who knows well the infirmities of the system, doesn’t offer any solutions on how to set it right in the public interest. Perhaps in his next oeuvre he will address this vitally important issue.

Dilip Thakore