CAN JUSTICE BE PURCHASED ?
Star lawyers get Rs 5 lakh for 5-minute job
NEW DELHI: As far as prayers go, this variety is the most rewarding. India’s superstar lawyers make a mini fortune every time they pray, plead or appeal and the bar has now gone up by several notches thanks to the ongoing legal tussle between the Ambani brothers.
The Ambani vs Ambani battle is just the icing on the cake for the handful of India’s elite lawyers who are probably the country’s highest paid professionals. Harish Salve, Mukul Rohatgi, Ashok Desai, KK Venugopal, and Abhishek Singhvi are the notables in this essentially boys’ club. These star lawyers charge around Rs 3-5 lakh for a five-minute appearance, and can manage up to 10 such appearances per day, said a lawyer who did not wish to be named. For outstation cases, the rate is even higher: from Rs 10-30 lakh, plus expenses. The rates for the Reliance battle could be double that rate, said members of the legal fraternity close to the matter. Not every case comes with a Reliance premium, but they said it’s not unusual for some of India’s top 10-15 advocates to earn over Rs 50 crore a year by way of legal fees.
That stacks up against the Rs 5-10 crore that CEOs of Sensex 30 companies make per year as compensation on an average. For cash-rich clients the race to pocket one from this league has become even more tight as public affairs has already weaned away three other stars — home minister P Chidambaram, HRD minister Kapil Sibal and BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley — leaving the rest in high demand.
Then there are the veterans like formal solicitor general Soli Sorabjee, Shanti Bhushan and Fali Nariman who are said to be in the same income bracket. But they, like former law minister Ram Jethmalani representing the Anil Ambani group in the Reliance case, take cases selectively. “With the opening up of the economy and more foreign companies coming in, the landscape of corporate India has changed,” says Mr Rohatgi who represents Anil Ambani-promoted RNRL in the apex court.
Mr Rohatgi refused to comment on what he charges, while RIL’s face in the Supreme Court, Harish Salve, said disclosing his fees would be in violation to his clients’ right of confidence. “I have no clue as to what RIL is spending per day — nor is it a matter of any interest to me,” Mr Salve replied to an ET e-mail. Emails sent to Mr Desai, Mr Venugopal, Mr Sundaram and Mr Singhvi went unanswered. The black gown-brigade has come a long way since the days of legal luminary MC Setalvad who fixed a standard rate of Rs 1,040 for special leave petitions (SLPs) and Rs 1,680 for final hearings three decades ago. When a senior SC lawyer wanted to charge Rs 7,000 per appearance, he had to retreat in the wake of a fraternity uproar.For outstation cases, the top lawyers are rumoured to charge around Rs 20-30 lakh, plus expenses for each appearance.
Attorney-general Goolam Essaji Vahanvati and Solicitor-General Gopal Subramaniam are reportedly paid a fixed sum when appearing for the government (a measly Rs 5,500, reportedly) but can charge commercial rates for PSU cases. “Litigation has undergone a huge change and it has become more aggressive in nature,” says Mr Bhushan, another former union law minister.
Lawyers say that remuneration often depends on the type and duration of a case. On Mondays and Fridays, admission/miscellaneous matters are normally listed for which the lawyer concerned is not needed to appear for more than 5 minutes! About 50 to 70 matters are listed before all courts for admission/miscellaneous matters, as per industry estimates.
“Not much preparation is required for admission matters so Rs 2-2.5 lakh per appearance is normal,” said a senior advocate who did not wish to be quoted. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are earmarked for matters involving regular hearing for which advocates can charge upto even Rs 5-10 lakh, depending on the case – with the most complex cases attracting exceptional rates.
A case would also require a couple of rounds of conferencing, which are usually included in the total fees, though some lawyers charge hourly rates of around Rs 2 lakh. Says top advocate Dushyant Dave who also charges upwards of Rs 2 lakh per appearance, “Litigation over the years has become more complex and demanding because of the nature of issues and stakes. So strategies are more important now.”
For a top lawyer, business could be beyond the court gates too. Many charge clients for written and oral opinions, besides taking on retainerships, a crucial legal ploy that cuts both ways. A retainer is a fixed amount that a client pays in advance to secure the services of the litigator – and in some cases also to ensure that he or she does not appear for the other side. In nearly all the headline-grabbing cases in India, the names of the lawyers who did not appear are often more intriguing than those who did, says a senior advocate. Mr Sorabjee told ET that he charges a normal fee of Rs 1.5 lakh for admission inclusive of one conference. He said that for regular hearing matters, he charges around Rs 3 lakh per appearance and conference. Mr Sorabjee, Mr Dave and Mr Bhushan said they charge much less if the litigant happens to be a government servant or a school teacher or any person in that category.