Pursue your calling – and the rest will follow




Nishith Desai

If you delve into the history of the legal profession, you will find fascinating indications of our profession’s roots in altruistic, intellectual service for the benefit of society. The first lawyers, it is largely considered, were the orators of ancient Rome. According to a law enacted in 204 BC, Roman advocates were evidently barred from taking fees. It is another matter that ignoble instincts took over and the law was much ignored. Later, Emperor Claudius, who legalized advocacy as a profession, removed the ban on fees – but he too imposed a ceiling of 10,000 sesterces.

Again, there is a gem of theory on the barrister’s robe. The gown has an intriguing piece of triangular cloth attached to the left shoulder. It is said, this was once a money sack for brief fees. It is surmised, that since barristers were not openly paid for their work, clients placed ex-gratia payment into the counsels’ pocket, actually behind their back. If barristers could not see how much they were being paid, the quality of their advocacy in court could not be compromised!

Clearly, the tussle to uphold the pristine and principled ‘higher ground’ of the legal profession, and the clashing but enticing tendency to reap and maximize commercial gains, is an old one. Curbing the imbalances of excessive reward augured the integrity of the profession. Throughout our history, we have battled to protect our ‘moral’ identity as a noble pivot of justice, social order and values, even as we grew into a materially viable and lucrative profession.

In today’s world, though, it seems almost expedient to ignore this ideological voice. We take it for granted as a minor theoretical chapter of our legal education – not really giving it a meaningful and active place in our daily work-lives. Our lexicon now gives prominence to the ‘business of law’. No doubt, with good reason. We have cultivated great discipline, advancement and sophistication in running our legal practices and firms effectively, profitably and efficiently. So, there is little room for the relatively abstract and inconvenient questions of whether we are in real pursuit of our ‘calling’.

Yet, I think ‘the calling’ is actually the most important sensibility that every lawyer must persevere to preserve throughout his or her life. Like one’s ‘conscience’ or ‘subconscious’ that drives every thought and act to do the right thing, the right way. A dictionary version of ‘calling’ defines it as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.” The study and ‘call’ of law is not just a rigorous pedagogy. It is a lifetime of learning and application bound by powerful intellectual and ethical processes and boundaries.

Practice of law is not just another occupation or a career with a ladder of titles. Just like a doctor, a teacher or a priest commits and dedicates his or her entire lifetime to the cause and service of humanity, through the relentless quest for excellence and perfection of work and vocation, a lawyer too is in an exalted, hallowed space. Is it not then our responsibility to be fit inheritors of such a mantle?

In my view, what differentiates a ‘great’ journey as a legal professional from a ‘good’ one, is “respect with prosperity.” If you reach heights of prosperity, but do not earn and sustain true ‘respect’ of the vast world you touch, you will never be truly realized.

One of our firm’s much-posited beliefs is, we are first “in the ‘profession’ - and not in the ‘business’ – of law”. This means we should be reflecting on some tough questions. Do we live daily with a sense of compelling responsibility and drive as we navigate our clients to the best solutions? Are we truly and obsessively fired with noble purpose and meaning as we conduct our life’s work?

My point is simple: if we conduct ourselves as true ‘professionals’ and pursue law as a ‘calling’, finance and the rest will surely follow. Thus, instead of obsessing with billable hours, I suggest we focus on mastery of our field and service, being consummate ‘trustworthy’ advisors to our clients and stakeholders, and in living the highest ethical standards.

I am certainly not running down the importance of managing the law firm as a well-run business. However, we should steer away from the lure of excessive commercialization. We should not be defined and consumed by the same hunger and aggression for growth targets, profitability, productivity and other commercial goals as any other for-profit corporation. That path will get you short term gains – but may leave you unfulfilled as professionals. Chase instead the path to be the ‘best’ in your field. My way would be to let business outcomes be consequence of being true to our profession’s calling.

Nishith Desai Associates (NDA) has been an avid proponent and initiator of business and management concepts. Most often, much before and contrarian to the norm. We have done this with much strategic deliberation and method. From our bi-annual strategic planning to innovative business modeling, balanced scorecard metrics to a flurry of best-practice management tools to enhance growth, client experience, productivity, practice development, intellectual capital, knowledge management and so on, we have run our firm quite like a business organization. But these should just be means to enable, or be outcome of, our primary purpose and driver - to be authentic, competent and principled lawyers first. The hunger for ‘professional’ greatness alone must rule and drive us.

Ultimately, I wish to point us to a vital principle that NDA espouses: “Our limit to growth is where our happiness ends”. As a firm, we have chosen ‘happiness’ as our goal. We want both growth and happiness, but if growth comes in the way of happiness, we shall rein back ‘unhappy’ growth. Be clear then on what makes us individually and collectively ‘happy’? Surely, it is to be the best professional we can be, and an exemplary organization where every member delivers that consistently. Make it an ‘institutional calling’, and business shall never fail to follow.

(This is Part 1 of ‘The Professional Journey’ series) 


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