New Delhi: Being an independent litigator or founder of a firm, in the bubble of the bar, is a pretty big deal. Most who start in litigation, often only on nominal remuneration (if any) doled out by well-paid senior lawyers, dream of the day they can finally set up their own shop.

While it might seem to outsiders like all it may take to become a successful advocate is talent and passion, the skills required lie in the business realm more often than in legal.

“There’s no way to study this rationally as a business. A business consultant would lose his mind trying to study what the independent (law) practice looks like. It makes no sense financially. It is a completely messy, uncertain area; no two people have anything going on which is alike," jokes Satyajit Sarna, a young independent litigator at the Delhi bar. “(A business consultant) will ask, ‘Where’s the cash flow?’, and you’ll say, ‘Cash flow was there yesterday but then my clerk used it all up on photocopying."

Indeed, going independent is often less about business rationale than something more intangible.

“It’s only about passion," says young Delhi advocate Harish Malik. “If you love wearing black and white and if you love appearing in courts, you can start up from anything to go up to any level for appearing in courts. I can’t sit one day at home, I want to go to court every day."

Yet, despite the passion, not every independent litigator stays the course. Malik, a 2010 graduate of Kurukshetra University, for instance, says he joined a law firm after going independent, doubling his income within a year.

Another was dissatisfied with the profile of clients coming to him while one admitted he abandoned a flourishing practice because he felt he was too weak on the admin side.

“In law school there should be more papers (geared towards learning that). If you’re going to be a lawyer you’ll also be an entrepreneur. In the industry when you’re young and you’re trying to sell yourself, you need to be sure that you’ll be able to sell your work, which is a challenge in the beginning," says Animesh Sinha, who graduated from Amity Law School, Delhi, in 2008 and went independent only a year later.

Business studies

The challenge begins in managing expenses and overheads, as in every business.

Sinha, who started disputes firm Accendo Law Partners with two others in 2009, explains that putting in place “an office, a clerk, a receptionist, some office infrastructure, a floor to show" was helpful initially to cover up their lack of years at the bar, and to generate client leads.

Sarna, who has been a sole practitioner since June 2013, says appearances don’t matter a lot, but adds, “The things you should necessarily do (to) provide a certain stability to your office (are): have an office on rent and make sure that someone is able to receive courier, etc, and to have a certain level of infrastructure—photocopying, scanning, file storage."

“It takes a little bit of investment. The way I did it (was with) the absolute bare basics bootstrapped from my own savings," says Sarna, who shares office space and housekeeping help with two other independent litigators.

Getting floor space and hiring a clerk may be one of the biggest barriers to independent law practice, at least in the initial days. Sarna adds that one only sees account debits for the first six months in practice.

“You have to (start) having enough funds because even if you raise bills within the first month, the paying cycle of clients is really long and very uncertain. So what they’ll pay, when they’ll pay, how it’ll come (and) in what format, is all something that’s very uncertain," he says.

“When we started out, we were doping ourselves on a lot of business literature," says Sinha, joking that even terms such as “break-even point" were alien to most lawyers. He stresses the need to have both short-term and long-term financial strategies for up to five years.

Eat what you kill

The next challenge is procuring the kind of work that not only professionally interests a litigator but can also sustain a practice financially.

“When I started going independent, I experienced that as an independent litigator the challenge was that I was unable to reach out to a big corporation or a big company or a bank," says Uddyam Mukherjee, a 2009 graduate from M.S. Ramaiah College of Law in Bengaluru. He has now overcome the barrier to client exposure by joining the litigation team of Verus Advocates.

“As an individual you mostly cater to individuals. You generally have litigations relating to property or some kind of contractual dispute or so on. I realized that I won’t be able to get the major players because these people only trust firms with their work or take their matter only to a particular advocate or a senior counsel," he says.

Sinha adds: “For a lawyer who’s just one year at the bar and completely independent, you can’t really walk up to a corporate client and say that I want to take up all your work. I don’t seem to know any corporates who would be very convinced with an approach like that."

Even so, there’s hope even when starting on a meagre diet.

Sarna is of the view that while big commercial clients financially sustain a practice, the small matters “make sure you’re in court every day, and you’ve got to be in court to have a running practice". The 2008 alumnus of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, says that small matters (cases) really provide opportunities for young litigators to take decisions, argue and appear independently. The big matters usually only leave smaller roles to youngsters.

Market perceptions

The kind of matters that independent litigators end up taking should depend on the kind of practice they are aiming to build.

For many young sole practitioners, the approach is often volume-based.

Sarna says that sole practice tends to be a mix of “remunerative work and work you do for people you know personally who need help", while other sole litigators he knows “might also do some work for media attention or political gain".

One litigator, who declined to be named, commented: “Somebody would say that they would do one case and charge 1 lakh for it. I would just say that I would charge 10,000 for a matter and I don’t mind doing 10 matters because I don’t mind working 18 hours a day—not a problem.

“See, what I think is first you have to raise your bar and then you shall raise your bill."

For Sinha and Mukherjee, the client profile is key.

Sinha says: “When you’re trying to build a firm, you’re not only trying to build work for yourself, but you’re trying to build work for others also. So it depends on what kind of lawyer you want to be. You cannot be a free-for-all. You cannot call yourself a firm which does every work. Some kind of niche needs to be developed."

But Malik says his focus on consciously building a practice profile has not given him any control over the kind of matters coming his way. He says it is only “performances in court" that decide what kind of matters come to a litigator. Certain areas, such as property disputes, reap more in terms of the referrals they bring with a good performance.

Hunting grounds

More volume can mean more opportunities to brush up one’s professional skills, such as advocacy and legal knowledge. A more skilful lawyer will, in turn, not only generate greater volume but also be able to expand into the niche they desire.

Sarna says that he initially tended to take every matter coming his way, even for fees that were “frankly shameful", owing to “insecurity about letting work go" and the motivation to “get your hands in as many pies as possible". Having come from India’s largest law firm, Amarchand and Mangaldas and Suresh A. Shroff and Co., he had rarely been exposed to criminal trials, or matrimonial and property disputes, he says

“You start seeing a lot of what are called ‘regular people’ problems," he notes.

Malik’s strategy was trial-courts focused. He saw a gap in the market, between demand and supply of good trial-level lawyers in Delhi because, he says, national law school graduates, as well as all senior lawyers, mostly keep away from that turf.

One litigator explains that focusing on a narrow zone of matters was what worked for him. “See, if there are 10 rabbits in the room and someone asks you to catch one, you’d be able to catch it. If you chase all 10 you’ll be, you know, doing nothing."

“The reason why within (a few years) I could start (my practice) and I could wrap up was because I was focusing on only (one area of tribunal work)," he says. “I did not go to the high court or the Supreme Court. In (the forum I practice in), there are hardly 30-40 frequent practitioners, out of which there are hardly seven who are youngsters, and out of those seven there are hardly five who are really good.

“There it really doesn’t take a ton to make a mark."

Taking off

A sole concern is a successful business if it pays for itself and for its proprietor’s lifestyle, but first-generation litigators rarely have that when they start a fresh practice.

Malik wouldn’t advise “going independent in Delhi without connections", though others are a little more gung-ho.

Sinha says, “One thing I was told early on in my career is ‘don’t get comfortable in a law firm’. Go out, take up a file for 5,000 and see what it takes. When you do that you start realizing what your work is as a lawyer and what you are supposed to deliver to the client."

Ashish Dixit, who started an independent practice in Delhi earlier this year, agrees. “You need to take that leap of coming out of the comfort zone. If you’re working with a senior or someone else, if you want to go independent, you need to get out (within three or four years). After that, you tend to get in a comfort zone."

Sarna adds: “I am a first-generation lawyer. So for guys like me, the thing is, when you jump you never have enough to jump with. Even if you have one (or two) clients and you go independent, you’ll never actually have enough to jump. It’s a leap of faith. So you take that leap of faith and then you hope that something will catch you. And thankfully, I think for most people it works out. Work shows up from somewhere."

Measuring success

Malik and Mukherjee agree that a comfortable litigation practice in Delhi would require billing approximately 2 lakh in monthly retainer fees and around 30,000-40,000 per appearance.

Sinha says: “As a law firm which is not in the initial stages but which has been around for a couple of years and has a developed practice, I think you should have enough in your bank to run you for three years. If you don’t have that, then you’re working towards that and you’re not consolidating your practice."

“I think a good rule of thumb would be to look at your court diary and see if on every court day you have multiple matters keeping you in court, assuming that they’re paying matters. If you have paying matters above a certain size on a daily basis then you’re doing well," says Sarna, adding that how much a client pays often depends on the size, connections and desperation levels of the client.

Corporate clients generally pay twice what individuals might, while panel work for a government department or company has the benefit of a fixed daily volume even if for lower fees per matter.

Notwithstanding the best-laid plans, “litigation involves lots of hard work", says Dixit.

Yet it’s clear that despite all the sweat and the tears, he and others currently or formerly out on their own, clearly wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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