Philosophy of a profession


Gandhi’s experiments with the law offer compelling lessons about service, determination and legal practice with a conscience, writes Charles DiSalvo

It doesn’t matter what kind of law you practise. It doesn’t matter what the setting is in which you practise. And it doesn’t matter how little or how much money you make from practise. Every lawyer asks this question: “Is my life in the law meaningful?”

Charles di Salvo
Charles di Salvo

That is the same question Mohandas K Gandhi undoubtedly asked himself many times over during the 23 years he studied and practised law. As many India Business Law Journal readers will know, Gandhi studied law at the Inns of Court in London from 1888 until being called to the bar there in 1891. He practised law until 1911. Except for two brief periods when he attempted to establish himself in India, Gandhi practised in British colonies in South Africa. He practised there for the better part of two decades before returning home in 1915 to take up a leading role in the Independence movement.

What does Gandhi’s time in the law teach us lawyers about the meaningfulness of our lives?

When he arrived in South Africa, Gandhi found that tens of thousands of indentured servants from his homeland had preceded him, all brought to South Africa to work for European colonists who were operating sugar and tea plantations along the African coast. Indian merchants followed them. As these merchants began to acquire economic and political power, the Europeans were quick to clamp down on their civil and economic liberties. The merchants reached out to the only Indian lawyer in all of South Africa for help. Gandhi made them an offer: Give me your legal business and I will look after your civil and economic rights.

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Charles DiSalvo is a professor of law at West Virginia University and the author of The Man Before The Mahatma: MK Gandhi, Attorney At Law.