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I feel that any country that doesn’t allow contingency lawyering has a sign outside that says that justice in this country is only for the rich who can afford to hire lawyers. – Navneet Chugh
Navneet S. Chugh is the Managing Partner and founder of Chugh, LLP. Mr. Chugh has extensive experience in a wide variety of Corporate, Tax, Immigration, Litigation and Mergers & Acquisition matters. He is an attorney (1992) and a Certified Public Accountant (1990). Recently Mayank Shekhar, CEO, Legal Bites got an opportunity to interview him at the ITC Maurya.
He was the first president of the North American South Asian Bar Association (2003), a co-founder of The Indus Entrepreneurs Southern California (1997), Founder President of the South Asian Bar Association of Southern California (1995), the Indian Professionals Toastmasters Club (1986), the International Indian Bar Association and Chairman of the Board of Premier Media, Inc., a publishing company based in Los Angeles, California. Mr. Chugh is also on the board of Asia Society of Southern California, Habib American Bank, Ignify – an IT Consulting Firm, Pratham Southern California, and American India Foundation (AIF).
Here are the excerpts of the conversation.
Legal Bites: Sir, you started your career with immigration services in California and now you have about 20 offices globally and thousands of clients from across the world. Chugh, LLP has also celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Did you at the beginning have an idea of what a revolution you might bring into the world in terms of legal services? Please tell us what it was like when you were beginning your career. Were you certain about your professional goal in life?
Mr. Chugh: I was in India in the early 80s and I finished B.Com, and one of my friends said – “Hey, I’m enrolling in Law School, do you want to too?” So I said – ‘yeah, sure. Go ahead.” So he enrolled me. So I did one year of law in Nagpur and then left for US. I was also working for a CA firm in Nagpur, with Salve and Co., and I left that after one year.
When I arrived at the US – I felt what am I going to do now? And I felt that I have unfinished business from India. One, I needed to finish my CA, and the other I needed to finish my Law. So I thought that I should start with CA first and so I did that. And to keep my student visa alive so that I could stay in the US, I had to be enrolled in school – so I enrolled myself in undergrad again, because they wouldn’t count my 11 years of schooling and 3 years of B.Com as 16 years of schooling.
So I did my undergrad and then M.B.A. just to keep my student visa alive. I then later went to law school. I was lucky that there was an essay competition and the winner would get free law school tuition, which was about 50,000 bucks, 25 years ago. I don’t know what I wrote, but I guess I wrote better than 300 people and I got a letter saying – ‘congratulations’. Being a good Indian, I wasn’t going to say no to the 50,000, and that is how I went to law school. So things just happened.
Woody Allen used to say that – “90 percent of success is just showing up”; and somebody said that there’s an essay competition and I should show up. Most of the times we don’t show up, and I have a habit of showing up.
After finishing with law school, I was wondering what I was doing and how I got into that. I read a sentence somewhere, 30 years ago, that I still haven’t forgotten – “No matter where you are in any given moment of time, it is exactly where you are supposed to be. No matter how it may seem or appear otherwise.” You really have to think about this a few times because what it does is it empowers you to stop complaining about whatever is going on in life inherent in the game of life there is – desperation and unhappiness – you are where you are and if you don’t like it then you do something about it. I read that along with another sentence which said that you are one hundred percent responsible for whatever goes on in your life – no pointing fingers. And if you are pointing fingers, then you are not taking responsibility and you never grow and therefore, never get the power and its always your fault.
Then I realized that 25 out of the 45 US Presidents were lawyers and I also realized that with a degree of law you can do many things – you can teach, you can be in politics, you can go into social service, you can work for the government. A good chunk of the 600,000 public offices in the US are filled with lawyers; you can practice law, and you can become a judge, it’s actually endless. The former CEO of Citi Bank was also a lawyer, so there is absolutely no end to what lawyers can do. And as I started doing law in the US, it started dawning on me that if I could change anything in India it would be that we need to fix the legal system. The judiciary, the practice of law, the lack of efficiency, how there is no justice really – because if justice is delayed, there is no justice; there are 30 million pending cases – somebody wrote a paper which said that it will take 466 years to clear the backlog. As humans in India are getting more educated and more socially literate, they are going to file more law suits. So we really need to fix the legal system and I firmly believe that the next revolution of India – we had political freedom in 1947, we had economic freedom in 1991 – the next revolution will come from law.
Legal Bites: Sir, ILA is growing at a fast pace. Do tell our readers/viewers about ILA and its objectives. What was the main idea that gave rise to ILA and what purpose does it mean to serve?
Mr. Chugh: I left India 37 years ago and I was kind of cursing myself that I was not in touch with India and the legal system. 25 years ago I started the Indian Lawyers Association in Los Angeles with 50 Indian lawyers, we formed a legal association. Then we started one in San Francisco, and then we slowly started an Indian Lawyers Association in every big city in the United States and in Canada.
We later started a national organization called – the North American South Asian Bar Association to hold these 27 chapters. 14 years ago, in 2004, we hosted our first annual conference.
It didn’t dawn on me till last year that India doesn’t have an Indian Lawyers Association. There are 1.3 million lawyers, but no association. For whatever reason, many reasons – that a majority of lawyers in India don’t make a lot of money, because the judicial system is so slow and inefficient. The clients don’t see the results so they don’t want to pay. Secondly, a big chunk of lawyers in the United States make money doing contingency lawyering, and that’s not allowed in India. I feel that any country that doesn’t allow contingency lawyering has a sign outside that says that justice in this country is only for the rich who can afford to hire lawyers; because the poor around the world get justice only if the lawyer is willing to work for free or as a gamble that if they win the lawsuit – they are going to split it – 2/3, 1/3, 50-50 – whatever that might be. In addition, the lawyers in India cannot advertise in this day and age in 2018 where – we went to the moon 50 years ago and we increased our lifespan by 40 years in the last 150 years and have removed 1 billion people from absolute poverty in the last 25 years. A plumber can advertise, a cobbler can advertise and everybody can advertise but lawyers can’t. As the bar council has set up these rules, I believe that they are unconstitutional, primarily because the constitution says that there shall be no restraint on trade and it is funny that the enforcers of the constitution – the lawyers – themselves are being restrained from trade. Furthermore, if that restraint wasn’t enough that you can’t advertise and you can’t do contingency lawyering, there’s another wonderful restraint – god knows why – but a lawyer cannot do any other business in India. If you do any other business you have to give away your law license. One of the reasons all of this is happening is because the lawyers don’t have a voice. They don’t have a platform. They don’t have a foundation. They are not together. They don’t band together to say that – “hey, this seems unfair.” Maybe somebody can do something about telling the government of India to not do unconstitutional things.
Legal Bites: Sir, ILACON 2018 is going to be a massive event with 1300 delegates; eminent speakers and participants. How do you plan to bring this entire cosmos under one roof and how hectic or easy is it going to be? Do tell us something about the process and behind the scenes of this big an event.
Mr. Chugh: So we started ILA on January 1, and within 6 months, with Shweta’s help, we conducted 102 chapters. Shweta is our executive director. Towards the end of the year, I felt that we should have one national event which will solidify the existence of ILA. People keep wondering what the future of ILA is and what will be due. Until we do a national conference we’re not a national association. There are 1.3 million lawyers in India so we felt that at least one out of every 1000 lawyers should show up. So that’s why the goal of 1300.
We’re going to have 6 keynote sessions, 2 breakfast sessions, 2 lunch sessions, and 3 dinner sessions. We’ll have 6 keynote speakers and 120 speakers in 24 panels. The 24 panels are there to ensure that every aspect of law in India is covered. So, from corporate law, tax law, intellectual property, pro bono, general counsel’s forum, criminal law, bankruptcy and every area of law is covered. So when lawyers come, we don’t want anybody to say that – “hey, you don’t have nothing of interest for us.” So there is no area that we don’t plan to cover. Everybody will have a panel session that they can go to which could be of huge interest to them and maybe another one or two that maybe are of less interest to them. We also have panel sessions on how to start a practice, how to manage a practice, how to market a practice, how to become a partner at a law firm, and so on. So basically, from starting a practice to how to make it better and make more money to how to contribute to the society through pro bono and legal aid – which we want ILA to propagate more of – because India, needs that quite badly.
Legal Bites: Sir, is this the era of partnerships and collaborations? Although mutually beneficial for everyone, how helpful is hosting a conference like this for an organization such as yours – with diverse areas of expertise of all partners?
Mr. Chugh: I think it will be great as we will have lawyers from all over India come and it is probably the first time many of these lawyers will meet each other. The 102 presidents we have of the 102 chapters, they have never met, at least most of them have not met. When these people will meet each other, they might realize that it might be 70 years late but better late than never. One other thing that we get to hear a lot in terms of requests on daily basis is that – “do you know a lawyer in another city?” As a business grows in India and companies and individuals use more lawyers, I believe that the lawyers need a more organized network and ILA wants to establish that network.
I don’t want to keep comparing, but there are around 25,000 bar associations around the world and India doesn’t have a single one.