With a relentless demeanour and the stamina to remain in the game for longer than an Indian test opener, Lalit Bhasin discusses the finer nuances of life, law and legacy with Gautam Kagalwala

He is one of the best-known names in India’s corporate legal world. With a practice that began back in 1962, Lalit Bhasin recently reached two more career milestones – completing 60 years in the legal profession; and being elected as national president of yet another powerful influential group, the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC).

The latter is one of a string of executive appointments over the years, which in many ways goes to the fibre of Lalit Bhasin – lawyer, steadfast legal campaigner, champion for those with the legal will but not the way, past defender of the status quo and present fomenter of change.

To understand the man more completely, it helps to view the past. A fourth-generation lawyer, Bhasin recounts proudly how his family served the nation by working as freedom fighters against the British Raj.

“My father was a great lawyer, always fighting for the rebels, even after independence, and he was one of the most distinguished lawyers,” he says, adding that this left him with a large legacy to make justice an integral part of the public experience.

The partition drew a bloody line between the two countries, and gave rise to waves of population movement in both directions.” Bhasin talks about his great grandfather hailing from Rawalpindi. “My great grandfather was also a lawyer in Rawalpindi, which of course is now in Pakistan – he was a freedom fighter, a great Congress leader of Punjab.”

From humble beginnings all those decades ago to the present, and there is a distinct difference between the humble shingle of Bhasin & Co when compared with larger law firms like Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, AZB and Khaitan & Co.

(From left): Numen Law Offices managing partner Arush Khanna, Kochhar & Co managing partner Rohit Kochhar, Lalit Bhasin’s wife Nina Bhasin, Rohit Kochhar’s wife Sonali Kochhar and advocate Priya Khanna

Unlike the country’s largest law firms, some of which have grown to almost 1,000 lawyers in strength, Bhasin’s focus was not on the size of his legal practice. He was looking elsewhere.

“At that time, of course, we didn’t have law firms – except three or four firms in New Delhi and about five or six in Mumbai and Kolkata, and Madras,” he recalls. “But essentially, it was litigation lawyers, you see, who were there. So, right from the beginning, my idea was to do something for the profession, particularly the young lawyers, the disadvantaged lawyers, the disabled and indigent lawyers.”

When he was 33, Bhasin became the youngest person to be elected chairman of the Bar Council of Delhi. His goal was to enable lawyers in the country to come up to the level of their international counterparts, a vision that engendered his vehement opposition in the 1990S to the entry of foreign law firms into India.

“I wanted the Indian law firms to grow, so that they could meet the challenge, which will be there from the foreign law firms.”

Time to change

Bhasin’s fervent and well documented views on keeping out foreign lawyers have softened, he says, with the development of the capabilities and growth of Indian firms across the country. “These law firms are second to none as compared to foreign law firms, both in terms of quality and speed, that is, expeditious disposal of opinions, or matters or transactions, and also in terms of resources.”

In 2014, Bhasin suggested to the Ministry of Commerce that foreign law firms could come to India in a staggered manner, as was contrived in Singapore. “Now we are in a position to face a good challenge and good competition from our counterparts across the globe,” he says.

“So, from 2014 until now, we have been open about foreign lawyers coming to India, and I’m speaking on behalf of not only the Society of Indian Law Firms, but also on behalf of the Bar Association of India, as the immediate past president of that association.”

Leveraging for foreigners

Against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations for an Indo–UK trade deal, and such a deal’s implications for opening up India’s legal sector, Bhasin says he has been meeting senior figures in the UK government in this regard.

Former attorney general Soli Sorabjee and senior advocate Harish Salve.

He believes that to bring about change, it is necessary to overcome judicial precedent and amend the Advocates Act. But the initiative has to come from the government of India and the parliament of India because, in keeping with a Supreme Court judgment delivered in 2018, only Indian citizens can practise law in India. And that means any type of law whether it be Indian law, foreign law, transactional law or litigation.

Bhasin says that despite agreements under the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which provided liberalisation of the legal profession, such declarations have remained only on paper, and nothing has happened in the past 15-20 years.

With Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani.

It is not just the legal sector that suffers but the speedy delivery of justice, too. Bhasin is positive on one thing, though – he believes strongly that this is the “most opportune time for the legal services sector in India to be opened up”. In his latest role, as president of the IACC, Bhasin wants to focus on relations between India and the US, and the role of the legal profession. “My priorities are five or six focal areas where India and the US, and for that matter India and most of the developed world, are interested,” he says.

“One is infrastructure, that is the development of infrastructure, then investment in India, by the US and other developed countries, and investment by Indian corporates into the US and Europe.” Bhasin believes there is much to learn from the US in terms of healthcare, education and entertainment built on a relationship of reciprocity. In this capacity, he will be focusing on the development of better economic relations for services sector areas like legal services, accountancy services and consultancy services.

With wife Nina Bhasin and Karanjawala & Company managing partner Raian Karanjawala

“Whether it is the Indo-American Chamber, or as the president of the Society of Indian Law Firms [SILF], we are business lawyers,” he says. “So, it is our obligation and duty to provide legal support not only to the corporates but also to the respective governments in order to have them enter into bilateral agreements, joint ventures, protocols and conventions.”

In-house recognition

As the founder and president of SILF, now in its 23rd year, Bhasin is currently championing the cause of in-house counsel, who he believes should be recognised as lawyers and given the right to appear in the courts.

He believes that it is unbecoming of the current legal system to deprive general counsel and in-house counsel from appearing in courts of law by virtue of their status as “employees” of companies, which limits their functions to advising, drafting and conveyancing.

“It is bizarre that, while general counsel play a critical role in policy formulation and implementation, they are yet to be recognised as lawyers,” says Bhasin. “Routing everything through advocates is quite unnecessary given that it only increases the cost, doubles the burden and promotes wastage of time, which could be put to better use.”

Mediation: A new mission

Another cause close to Bhasin’s heart is the promotion of mediation. Noting that jurisdictions such as Singapore and Dubai have wholeheartedly embraced the practice, he laments that with an increasing number of cases in India, there is only one arbitration institution, the Mumbai International Arbitration Centre.

“I’m trying to promote mediation, that is my mission in life now,” he enthuses, “because I have seen litigation has completely gone astray.” Giving his own example when it comes to client involvement he says, “Whenever I appear, first I try to impress upon my clients whether there is any possibility of the matter being resolved amicably without the assistance of the courts.”

He says mediation is a strong alternative that must be promoted over litigation and even arbitration. “Dialogue is the most important way to resolve disputes,” he says adding that young law students need to be specifically trained in negotiation skills critical to a speedier delivery of justice.

Looking back

Six decades is a lifetime of experience and learning, but what are the achievements that Bhasin is particularly proud of?

He mentions the Air India Narcotics case in 1986, where an airline crew was jailed on charges of narcotics smuggling in Nigeria. As the lawyer for Air India, Bhasin travelled to Lagos and secured the acquittal of the aircrew at the country’s high court.

With former attorney general KK Venugopal

However, a military tribunal overruled that decision and political pressure was the only available recourse. Bhasin says that it was thanks to the government’s influential that the crew returned home safely, or they may still be languishing in jail under false pretences.

Another proud moment came in 1997, when Bhasin, in his role as Secretary general for Asia for the International Bar Association, organised what was then the country’s largest-ever conference on business law. Bhasin says he was especially pleased that the well-attended event provided extensive exposure to the Indian legal profession and helped increase its prestige.

Other fond memories include collaborating with veteran actor Raj Kapoor to raise INR500,000 (USD6,000) to build a library for indigent lawyers – “young, passionate and unable to pay for expensive law books” – at Tis Hazari court in New Delhi, which was inaugurated by the then president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

Bhasin masterminded the project by showcasing Kapoor’s latest release, Bobby (1973) at the famous Regal Theatre in New Delhi. The film’s cast was present at the screening and the library still stands today.

With Bar Council of India chairman Manan Kumar Mishra (centre) and senior advocate Apurba Sharma

In another accomplishment championing the disadvantaged, in Bhasin’s position as chairman of the Delhi Bar Council from 1973 to 1977, he introduced the disabled and indigent lawyer scheme. Bhasin says the scheme continues to help needy colleagues in the profession even today. “If they meet some accident and they’re disabled, under that scheme they get some financial assistance.”

Moving forward

So what about the next 10 years, what’s ahead? Bhasin waves away this question and says that it’s for young lawyers to answer, given the rapid pace of technological change.

However, he ventures that while technology is advancing rapidly, there is an imminent danger of it being overused within the scope of law. He says the law must be run on a synergy of conventional and unconventional methods, and he worries that older lawyers in their 60s and 70s will be relegated to the background, becoming obsolete.

With senior counsel Fali Nariman

But there may be bad news for young lawyers too, whom he fears may be relegated to the job of examining what a computer delivers as a judgment.

While Bhasin applauds efforts made to raise standards with virtual assistance, his caveat is that self-regulation must be key. “There must be a rationalising of laws and in the struggle to keep the law relevant it is even more important that the legislature and executive work within their designed spheres of operation and not exceed it, leading to further adversities.”

And he strongly believes that a lakshman rekha (boundary) must be drawn between what technology can assist with and what stays conventional.

One area where Bhasin believes technology should be embraced is for law firm websites, which are currently heavily restricted by Bar Council regulations that pre-date the invention of the internet. Bhasin has called for the liberalisation of these rules, which he says are limiting opportunities for Indian lawyers.

Retiring not an option

Drawing inspiration from the nonagenarian Fali Nariman, who once told his friend that retirement was not on the cards because lawyers in India don’t retire, they just drop dead, Bhasin says there is a lot of value in this otherwise light-hearted statement.

He feels lawyers and judges must both be given the liberty to define the quantum of work and the age at which they should retire because they have so much more to share with the world.

“I’m 84, soon going to be 85, but I don’t think that I will retire,” he says. “If I become inactive, then I think I’m inviting my last day of life much earlier. But if I keep working, and try to give back to society the way I am, I think I can lead an active life.”

Given the number of prominent organisations that Bhasin still heads, no one could accuse him of any degree of inactivity. But what gives him the energy and motivation to keep going?

“If I can do something creative,” he says, “if I can do something which is good for society and also good for the citizens of our country, and good globally also. I try to do that.”