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'Legal Confidential': An Exposé Of The Faustian World Of Commercial Law Practice

11/03/2016 1:40 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A book on how law firms operate is rare, particularly because of the inherent confidentiality obligation that binds lawyers. Yet, Ranjeev Dubey has taken the risk of writing a somewhat hyperbolic tell-all titled Legal Confidential: Adventures of an Indian Lawyer, largely narrating the story of how commercial law is practised (although he does risk confidentiality in the process).

The commercial practice of law is glamorous. In India, the law degree is the new MBA, and much sought-after for its perceived sexiness. Television serials like Suits and Boston Legal underline the stereotype. Yet, as with any glamorous picture, the warts and smells are just a veneer away.

If you can build a reasonable tolerance for hyperbolic prose, mixed metaphors and dramatic allegories, Dubey's book can tell you a good story.

This potential for ugliness is what Ranjeev C Dubey seeks to bring to the fore in Legal Confidential. If you can build a reasonable tolerance for hyperbolic prose, mixed metaphors and dramatic allegories, Dubey's book can tell you a good story. A story of the unseemly underbelly of a profession you may not be well acquainted with.

Sample some nuggets:

Description of a case handled: "Bentel wanted to have its cake, eat it too, have Altel pay for it, and then compensate Bentel because Bentel got diabetes."

View on the growing popularity of law education: "Law colleges are proliferating like maggots on ripped flesh."

An intense revelation: "You can't buy a bike and then worry about rain all the time. A hammer doesn't run your arithmetical calculations for you; a computer does not fix a nail on a wall for you. The court is what it is; you have to deal with what is on your plate. Once I understood this, I started to get seriously good at running legal cases. The results came almost immediately, of which the proof was to follow within months."

This book is for the non-lawyer. Every lawyer would have seen more than what Dubey takes courage to talk about in cold print. Dubey masks client names and situations to tell his story, but he seems conscious that an interested reader could unmask them with simple internet searches. The inherent obligation of lawyers to keep client confidence, and to treat privileged information as secret, makes it tough for society to get a close look at how the profession is practised. Writing a book on how legal strategy was thought through in real cases (some of which he says are pending in appellate courts) is tricky. Much like an intelligence officer writing on his work, it might attract endorsement and admonition in equal measure.

This book is for the non-lawyer. Every lawyer would have seen more than what Dubey takes courage to talk about in cold print.

It is not the clients' stories that make Dubey's book interesting, though. The compelling bits are his rendition of how lawyers think about building a practice, the murky manipulation of aspirations, the endless games people play, the constant love-hate roller-coaster that talented resources can be put through, the feeling of being captive to founder partners and then learning to love them on being left with no other choice. Dubey's own story in the book is testament to how helpless a lawyer can feel underneath the bluster and the bravado.

Dubey describes well the tough path that young litigating lawyers have to navigate when starting out. He does just as well when he narrates the workings of his partners' minds (nicknamed the 'Dragons'). Playing one lawyer against another, one practice against another, creating intricate and complex problems only to demonstrate the capacity to solve them, are all par for the course. A story very well told is that of a spoilt-rich-kid lawyer's deeply-embedded sense of entitlement and self-preservation--an ubiquitous presence in the legal profession.

Yet, Dubey's own actions, regardless of the extremely positive self-assessment of his professional prowess, tell an even more emphatic story of lawyers' fears, insecurities and the craving for comforts. For all the professional arrogance and aggression that lawyers can deploy for clients, in their own commercial dealings (even with recovery of fees from clients) they can really suck.

Dubey's own story in the book is testament to how helpless a lawyer can feel underneath the bluster and the bravado.

His description of the burden of independently setting up shop:

"It was true that we had a client list, but clients, unlike diamonds, aren't forever. Like lactating cows, they yield milk for a period of time and then dry up. Marketing a law firm is the same as animal husbandry: you artificially inseminate and then, after a while, the milk flows! (...) To inseminate, you need a lot of equipment and technology. In terms of a law firm, that meant a swanky office in a smart central location and a lot of cash to finance marketing. I didn't have either. Hell, I didn't even have a sperm bank!"

After a 200-plus-page narration of awful stories about the 'Dragons', he winds up with the story of a structured capitulation, justified thus:

"I had been on the receiving end of a scam for eight long years. These guys had sold me a chocolate-brownie fairy-tale story in the past and locked me into a meat grinder: I wasn't going to buy another bullshit dream only so I could discover that they had in their closet another far more sophisticated meat grinder. Still the fact remained that the Dragons were ready to fund my office, put clients on the table and share profits with me. They were ready to play fair and be equal and the opportunity was there for the taking....There was a Faustian deal to be made with the devil. What was there not to like about this deal?"

That could well be the story of many professional services companies--not just an Indian law firm--anywhere in the world.

A version of this review first appeared in Hindu Businessline Ink .

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