Changing perspectives in the profession: are young lawyers taking the 'L' out of 'Learning'?

Rajiv K. Luthra talks about how young lawyers are getting attracted towards increasing pay packages and are taking the 'L' out of learning.

  • Rajiv K. Luthra

I look back fondly on my early years in the legal profession. They were difficult but profoundly exciting years, and very possibly the most important of my career. Amongst the professions, there is perhaps no other that so richly rewards in later years a youth well spent. This is equally true of those of us who have chosen to practice on the corporate side. Let there be no misconception that corporate law is just an easy path to quick riches, or the 'soft option' as some of our litigating colleagues would like to believe.

One cannot imagine a better time than now to be a young person entering the profession. The opportunities are limitless. Indian business has gone global after decades of insularity. Corporate lawyering too has grown apace and exciting new legal scenarios challenge us almost every day. In fact, the very nature of legal services has changed fundamentally. Increasingly, we perceive ourselves not so much as advisors but as strategists and integral members of the client community we work with.

This, of course, is all the more reason to start out on the right footing. Indeed, it is true that new associates join us better prepared and more business savvy. But the transition from student to earning professional is swift, and young lawyers' knowledge of law firms is often limited to the pay on offer. Given the strict code that regulates the marketing of law firms in our country, this is only inevitable. In our frequent efforts to reach out to students across the country, it is always our endeavour to bring across a flavour of what it is really like to be working with us. However, young lawyers need to pay greater heed to the many criteria that go into making the right career decision.

Some would say, in fact, that the new generation has quickly dispensed with the old cultural shibboleth about lawyers: the one which said that the law is a jealous mistress and demands a lifetime of perseverance. In my early years, we used to concern ourselves with 'pleading'. In today's world, law graduates would much rather talk about 'leading'! Indeed, when Jerry Maguire said "Show me the money!", it might seem that many young lawyers were paying close attention!

Of course, a good pay package matters to everyone, as indeed it should! In fact, salary hikes in India have been so steep as to have become a mistaken cause for concern in corporate circles. While clients sometimes think that the expenditure on new associates results in an increase in billing rates, the truth is quite the opposite. Any law firm of standing and repute subsidises its first and second year associates. Bearing in mind young lawyers' lack of experience, it is often an ethical decision to bill fewer hours than the actual number of hours worked. Of course, as people gain experience the need for this gradually diminishes.

Now, what is actually critical for any young lawyer is quality work, and lots of it. As a young person, you have to ask yourself if it is really worth your while to spend the early years of one's career doing piecemeal research without exposure to the larger picture. There is no lack of firms that limit associates to work of this sort. Unfortunately, there is no better way to short-change one's own talent.

We've all had a good chuckle over the image of the Harvard graduate posing with an inflatable shark, but ask any good lawyer what he or she is thinking of when they walk into office every morning and they will tell you it is the work and not the billing. There really are no shortcuts and, if one learns to face the law head on, one learns to love it too. Newly qualified lawyers taking career decisions must look for opportunities to penetrate deep into the industry sectors that interest them. This requires an individual-centric firm and a high degree of personal initiative and involvement, but the rewards are well worth the trouble.

Secondly, working effectively is as much a function of one's environment as it is of good intentions. If you find yourself in a workplace that suits you as a person and offers sufficient exposure, learning on the job can be a very enjoyable experience. At our firm, we take great pride in being good friends first and associates later. This kind of collegial approach is invaluable in crisis situations - and believe me, we've seen a few of those - when pulling together is the only way to beat the clock.

Finally, I've found that it really helps to keep in mind the fact that we work in a people-oriented profession. Client satisfaction is more than just a cliche, it is what we do. Several firms may seem to offer a similar level of remuneration, but a lawyer who does not do his homework before deciding between them may find himself sitting in an inaccessible corner of a gargantuan office, with client contact a distant prospect many years down the line!

So, while salaries continue to rise, my advice to the young lawyer would be to start investing in herself rather than worrying about the number of zeroes in the bank balance. The money is bound to come in any case, but if you use your time to develop your skills to the greatest extent, so much the better! What is more, the thrill of taking on greater responsibilities as you progress up the ladder is what keeps you going. The beauty of the profession lies in the fact that you can learn something new every day. Indeed, the older you get, the more invaluable you become. So don't cast away this unique advantage.

RAJIV K. LUTHRA is the Founder and Managing Partner of Luthra & Luthra Law Offices.