India's Grand Advocates: A Legal Elite Flourishing in the Era of Globalization
International Journal of the Legal Profession, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2013)
HLS Program on the Legal Profession Research Paper No. 2013-5
31 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2013 Last revised: 3 Aug 2017
Date Written: November 1, 2013
An observer of the legal scene in contemporary India quickly becomes aware of the presence of a stratum of legal superstars — advocates based at the Supreme Court and some of the High Courts who are very much in demand and widely known. These 'Grand Advocates,' as we call them, are the most visible and renowned legal professionals in present day India. Stories abound of their strategic acumen, their preternatural articulateness (speaking for hours and days without notes), their esoteric quirks and outsized incomes, and their contributions to the 'rule of law.' This elite handful of lawyers is involved in almost every high-profile case in what is one of the most active and powerful higher judiciaries in the world. Their clients include India’s new uber-rich, major multinational corporations, and the country’s political class.
We argue that Grand Advocates (GAs) have not only survived, but flourished in the age of globalization — benefiting from, while resisting absorption by, the rising law firm sector. A series of structural features of litigation and the judiciary in India have played a dominating role in perpetuating this unique set of lawyers, and the culture they inhabit. Litigation in India tends to be less about money (as there are fewer deep pockets, judges rarely grant large monetary compensation, and it is difficult to collect an award), and more about control. Given the backlogged courts, cases may drag on for years and so it is necessary to secure beneficial interim orders as they relate to the ownership of property, command over an organization, or the validity of government regulation. To achieve these ends, Grand Advocates use the extensive human capital they have developed within the court system and their nuanced knowledge of both formal and informal judicial procedure. These assets are in many ways positional goods — particularly their reputational capital before certain judges — that are difficult to share with juniors or partners. They are also assets that can be used in a wide range of cases, thus lessening the pressure to specialize amongst this select group of lawyers, who are still largely generalists.
Keywords: legal profession, senior advocates, India, globalization, supreme court, high courts, lawyers
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