Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What every Pakistani lawyer should know! How to make a living as a lawyer in Pakistan

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

I am a lawyer with six years of experience who is now in a position to make some what of a living from the legal profession. It is in this capacity that I would like to give all lawyers and law students advice.

To begin with if your dad is not a judge or a leading lawyer or extremely well connected in the power circles of Pakistan  and you have decided to pursue a legal career in Pakistan, know that you are a hero, most probably a tragic hero but a hero nonetheless. You don't need to read this article. You are beyond help. If on the other hand you are a budding law student working towards a law degree - you need to read this article to make a more informed career choice.

For some reason lawyers tend to encourage law students to come into the "profession".  I would rather somebody had been upfront about the many many pitfalls this career has to offer when I made the decision of working towards a law degree after having earned a reasonably good degree in Economics from the States. There are many reasons why people come into the "profession".  Let me confess. I decided to become a lawyer after having been inspired by the example of Mr. Jinnah. In retrospect not the smartest reason. It is true that Jinnah was an extraordinary lawyer with a keen intellect and this did play a major part in his success as a politician but what makes Jinnah the man he was is the hard work, honesty, integrity and sincerity of purpose, virtues that can be emulated in any profession.  So if Jinnah (or any other historical figure that you may admire who happened to be a lawyer) is the only reason you are entering the "profession", then I suggest you think again and think long and hard. You may be in it for social justice. Easier said than done. If you want to make a half decent living, it is unlikely that you will be fighting for social justice most of the time- at least not the way you may have planned it out.

There is a growing set of young people who may have decided to become lawyers because of highly glamorised TV shows like Boston Legal or a Good Wife. I suppose that could work but only if you were practising in the United States. There is no real space for mass torts litigation or other torts litigation in Pakistan that we see on TV and there are no juries, orators and the glamour in Pakistan. What passes for discovery, pre-trial and trial is a farce, a travesty of all procedure. No trial is held at a go (at times the Supreme Court orders day to day hearings in certain cases but even then it doesn't really look anything like a trial).  In most trial courts lawyers crowd up the rostrum while the reader shouts out case names. It is entirely chaotic and without any charm. Litigation in Pakistan means delaying till there is a settlement. This means endless adjournments (i.e. continuances) which all judges readily grant. If you have filed a civil suit, it will suck the life out of you. The earliest a lawsuit can be concluded in these circumstances is at least 3 to 4 years if you are lucky. I know of lawsuits and civil litigations that have been going on for more than half a century.  There is nothing sexy or glamorous about it.

Most people, however, join the "profession" because they have nothing else to do. Now that comes with a joy of its own. You have an endless line of "kalay kot wallahs" (black coat and tie) who are briefless and will remain remain briefless. The "profession" is overcrowded but herein lies the rub -  5 percent lawyers control 95 percent of the revenue. 95 percent of the rest take home 5 percent of the revenue.  A lawyer is more likely to starve than a fruit chaat vendor selling hepatitis to his customers outside the main gate of the Lahore High Court.

But - you can still make money. However to do that you have to disabuse yourself of a few notions.

1.  Your degree is going to help you become a lawyer, let alone a great one.

It does not matter if your law degree is local or external or from Harvard. It does not matter if you were called to bar at Lincoln's Inn or passed your law exams at an evening college in Sargodha district, if you are not well connected, you are on the same uneven playing field. So wise up.

2. You are going to work for a law firm, work through the ranks and become a partner

Nonsense. If you think that - and we have all been there- know that you will waste the next few years of your life chasing a mirage which will sap you and put you in your rightful place.  First of all there is no law firm in Pakistan which can be called a law firm in any real sense of the word. Part of this has to do with the economy. Early 2000s Pakistan's economy showed promise, legal work was on the rise and it seemed- for a fleeting moment- that Pakistan might develop a legal culture similar to the West or the Middle East. However the lawyers' movement and the general worsening security conditions have closed that door for the near future.

Very early on in my career I figured out the law firm scam (only to forget about it later). So when I was offered an in-house counsel position with Mobilink, I jumped at it. The best decision I made in retrospect. Three years later, however, comfortable living began to bore me. I was lured by a "boutique firm" whose partners spoke great game. They talked me into giving up my cosy comfortable lifestyle and taking a pay cut. So here are my postulates about Pakistani law firms.

a. There are no law firms in Pakistan. Only chambers. If someone claims to run a law firm (or a boutique law firm), run in the opposite direction and don't look back.

b. Partner is a fancy word for seth without a mask.

c. Seths treat their employees better than "partners" treat lawyers.

d. What passes for a law firm in Pakistan are actually sweatshops where senior lawyers exploit poor dumb-asses and pay them at 1912 rates.

e. If you are joining a chamber (or what you think is a law firm) know that your employment comes with an expiry date. Work with an established name for a year. Work with another one for a year. Then set up your own shop.

3. In-house legal work is not real legal work. I must get back into mainstream practice.  

Even though I have learnt a lot from the lawyers I have worked for since I left Mobilink, I consider leaving an established in-house career - in the balance- a mistake. If you've gotten yourself in to such a position here are a few tips:

a. Burn your boats. Don't think you are going to go back into mainstream lawyering.

b. Excel at what you are doing. Make sure you do your job the best you can. As an in-house counsel - I promise- you will find enough legal propositions to keep you busy. What happens is that in-house departments typically act as post offices for external counsels. Somebody has to change the system. Why don't you start adding value to your legal work.

c. Know that the hard work you do in-house comes with a guaranteed reward plus salary bonuses. You don't have to pay your office expenses, munshi and what not.

So how does one make a living as a lawyer? Well I am not going to tell you because if I did, I wouldn't have learnt anything from the "profession".

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer based in Lahore, so he might just be trying to dissuade brilliant competition such as yourself from entering into an already overcrowded market- you will never know. 

1 comment:

  1. They say that law is the second oldest profession in the world...and after quite some experience in the field I must say that it carries a lot more similarities with the top ranked oldest profession than what meets the eye. But, unfortunately we have to live with it. Like all other professions lawyers too have to be more than friends with the regulating authorities to have any semblance of success. 'Regulating authorities' in our case range from 'thana walas', court clerks, readers and include the robed men who sit on the pinnacle of the justice system. In short, if you want to be a real success story then be as morally, ethically, financially and socially corrupt as you can. In this case, sky is definitely not the limit. Good luck!


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