There are many kinds of legal practice. There are the corporate lawyers who manage the deals and laws within a workspace, and others who work in the area of civil, tax or labour disputes. There are arbitration lawyers, environment lawyers, even electricity board lawyers, who specialize in electricity tribunal disputes. And then there are the criminal lawyers. Cases involving bribery and corruption, violent crimes that range from rapes and murders to terrorism and drugs, all call upon the expertise of criminal lawyers.

Young lawyers specializing in criminal law begin most often at the district courts, moving on, as they gain seniority, to the appellate and high courts and, sometimes, to the Supreme Court, to argue legal principles and points of law. Here, we focus on three lawyers who specialize in criminal law and practise at different levels—the district court, the high court and the Supreme Court.

Sidharth Luthra, 48

Practises primarily in the Supreme Court

“There are people who believe that criminal law involves practices that are not entirely savoury, and that’s not correct," says senior advocate Sidharth Luthra. Having spent time as a lawyer with a private practice, and also as additional solicitor general (ASG), Luthra has appeared for and against powerful people in difficult cases. Some of these involved alleged extremists, a “don" from eastern Uttar Pradesh, and chief ministers.

Getting here: “Being the son of eminent criminal lawyer K.K. Luthra, I was held up to very stringent standards," says Luthra, who had always found the idea of law fascinating. After graduating in law from Delhi University in 1990, he went on to do an MPhil in criminology from Cambridge University, UK, in 1990-91. Luthra started work in 1991 in civil law, hoping to get better training in basic law, learnt drafting and even taught law alongside his practice for a year at Delhi University in 1996-97. “I was five years into the profession when my father passed away suddenly (in 1997)," says Luthra, who realized he could either stay on the sidelines with a middling successful practice or work really hard and make it big. He took over his father’s practice.

It takes a long time to build credibility in litigation, and only a couple of minutes to lose it.

A case he won’t forget: “Defending Tehelka magazine in 2002. It was particularly difficult to cross-examine (the then Union defence minister) George Fernandes in the Tehelka case," says Luthra. There was an enquiry into corruption in defence deals, on the basis of footage taken by the Tehelka magazine of government officials, shown accepting bribes in a fake arms deal. Fernandes had been his father’s close friend and client and had, over the years, seen Luthra grow up. The night before the cross-examination, Luthra sat with his mother and had a long conversation. “You have to do your duty gracefully," she advised him. In court the next day, in the glare of media, Luthra was pitted against seasoned lawyers like Kirit Rawal and Fali Nariman. He says he is proud that he was able to do his job.

To be a successful criminal lawyer: “When I was young I used to practise judo, and my coach once told me, ‘You know talent is one part, but you must do everything with a strategy’. Being able to design a superior strategy for your case is important. Another key for someone in this profession is to build up credibility. It takes a long time to build credibility in litigation, and only a couple of minutes to lose it."

A tough call: “Having no time for yourself. A lot of guys at the top sleep only 4-5 hours a day for years," he says.

Money matters: “Senior advocates can charge anything from a few thousand to lakhs (of rupees) per appearance. With an average of 30 (or more) appearances a week, plus opinions, this could go up to 60-70 appearances a week. You can calculate from there," he says.

Shivam Sharma, 30

Practises at the district courts in Delhi, including those at Tis Hazari, Saket and Rohini, and sometimes appears in the Delhi high court and Supreme Court

Shivam Sharma. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Getting here: Sharma’s paternal grandfather was a lawyer in the Allahabad high court, and his father worked in labour law. While studying law, Sharma would accompany his father to different companies that wanted consultations. After he graduated in 2008 from the Delhi University’s law faculty, Sharma was offered a job by a well-known footwear company to help manage all its cases in labour courts. “It was a good offer, but I found the job boring," says Sharma, who quit in three months. In 2009, he joined New Delhi-based lawyer Trideep Pais, known for his work in human rights, and continues to work in his chambers with him.

You start small in trials.... From there you learn how to do a cross-examination... and make your line of defence.

To be a successful criminal lawyer: “You start small in trials and deal with cases of cheque bouncing, where nobody’s life is hanging in the balance. From there you learn how to do a cross-examination, to understand the scenario and make your line of defence. You have to know the Acts—Evidence Act , Prevention of Corruption Act, narcotics Act, etc.—very well. Also, during the trial you have to keep strategizing and applying yourself. It’s hard work," says Sharma.

A tough call: “It’s difficult living in Delhi. You have to struggle for the first few years. There are lobbies, but no one really cares, as there is enough work for everyone, unlike in a small city where it is hard to get your foot in the door," says Sharma.

Money matters: Can range from 6-12 lakh a year.

Aabad Ponda, 47

Practises primarily in the Bombay high court

“I don’t sit in judgement on my clients," says Aabad Ponda, lawyer to the rich and famous in Mumbai. The well-built lawyer used to be a powerlifter (a form of competitive weightlifting), and even won a national junior championship in 1988. “It was just a hobby; you can’t make a living out of it," he says. So when Ponda hurt his back in 1988, he took it as “a sign from God to stop and do something with my brain". Ponda went on to graduate from the Government Law College in Mumbai in 1992. It helped that Ponda had grown up in a family of practising criminal lawyers. His father Harshad Ponda has, over the years, represented politicians and the common man. His mother, the late Freny Ponda, too worked as a criminal lawyer who also took on cases related to matrimonial disputes. “When I was a teenager I would come back from school and find Dawood Ibrahim waiting in the office," says Ponda, who has found the practice of law interesting and exciting since then.

Having the presence of mind to cross-examine well and being articulate helps.
Aabad Ponda. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

To be a successful criminal lawyer: “Hard work, and know the law by heart," says Ponda. Being able to put theoretical knowledge into action and having the presence of mind to cross-examine well and being articulate helps, he adds.

A tough call: “Keeping your ethics and moral values intact and not giving in to clients who will tell you XYZ can give you ‘guaranteed’ outcomes for a certain sum of money. The guarantee I can give is that I will work hard, and nothing else," says Ponda.

Money matters: “The sky is the limit," he says.

Monalisa contributed to this story.

Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of three executives at different stages in their careers.

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