Playing the Waiting Game: A Lawyer’s Day in Court

Anupama Hebbar


A day page125in the life of a litigating lawyer is nothing like you see on television. All right, maybe a little bit. It is equal parts exciting and frustrating. Given the number of variables a litigating lawyer has to work with, it is near impossible to tell anyone how a day progresses, but I will try. The very first mantra is — every case is urgent and everything must be done immediately. That’s what your client will tell you. It took me the better part of four years to recognise the true emergencies and to learn to successfully mollify those clients whose cases could wait!

I begin my work day at about 9:30 am. This gives me a half hour to ensure I have everything I need for court and to mentally prepare for my best laid plans to go awry. In Bengaluru, most courts start by 10:30 or 11 am and are in session till 5 pm. The High Court of Karnataka works five days a week. The trial courts and tribunals six days (with the exception of second Saturdays of the month). Sounds intense? We do get to take a break during vacations when courts shut for four weeks in summer and two during Christmas. (Time for long holidays and the only thing corporate lawyers truly envy us for!)

Now, on to why our days are so unpredictable — shocking fact number 1, the High Court of Karnataka does not have the practice of fixing dates for cases. What they do instead is release a list of cases to be heard in court the next day at about 7 pm the previous evening. I have tried and failed to understand this system and a lot of unpredictability can be attributed to this one factor. Most lawyers learn from experience which cases to expect when, but there really is no method and you often find yourself spending all night preparing for a case listed unexpectedly.

As if that isn’t sufficient to throw your day, all courts follow a different procedure for hearing cases page126and if you have cases in multiple fora you must make educated guesses about which case is likely to reach at what time and try and race (sometimes in cars, sometimes we just run) from one location to the other, lest you annoy any judge by being late! I truly wonder how they managed this before mobile phones!

Then there is the human element — the judge. Our strategy for getting most out of the day must necessarily factor in the temperament of the judge. Different judges hold court differently — some are fast, some slow. Some are strict, some more accommodating. When you need an adjournment, some allow you to ‘mention’ the case at the start of the session and some expect you to wait all day till the case is taken up to grant an adjournment. A whole day of waiting so you can live to die another day.

Let’s start with the High Court. There are about 30 courtrooms and each court has a minimum of 70 cases per day. Most lawyers have multiple cases listed on any given day. If your case is, for instance, at serial number 10 in one court hall, you must wait your turn till the preceding nine are done. Lawyers make educated guesses on how long it will take for a court to reach serial number 10 depending on the nature of cases at numbers 1–9 and the judge’s pace. This is how they juggle between court halls. If you are really lucky, your case will reach at the anticipated time and you attend your other cases and/or get back to the office. About 60 per cent of the time, however, I wait longer than expected, or I miss one case for the other, or none of my cases are even taken up on the day! Even if my case does reach, the outcome of the hearing is far from predictable. Sometimes the opponent takes an adjournment, sometimes are asked to argue the entire case although it is listed for hearing on an interim application, sometimes the judge will to hear it another day … the list of possible outcomes is endless.

It is no different at the trial courts and tribunals. Fixed dates are given for cases here so you can be better prepared but there are so many more stages in a trial that the probability of anything substantive happening in your case on every date is quite low. Court starts with a first calling of the case when the counsels for parties indicate whether they are ready to proceed with the case that day. If they aren’t, the case is usually adjourned (unless one counsel or the judge opposes, in which circumstance it is entirely the judge’s discretion). If they are ready, the case is ‘passed over’, and called out again later in the day. Most trial courts follow a system where they take up evidence cases pre-lunch and hearings/arguments post lunch. On an average there are 60–70 cases before a judge. Out of these maybe 8–10 are listed for evidence. Some get done early. However, if there is a cross-examination set down for the day, it is excruciatingly slow and could take hours. By the time first hearing is done and evidence taken up, it’s noon. That gives the court two hours till lunch. This is usually not even enough to finish one case, forget multiple cases. Then court resumes at 3 pm to start hearings and sits till 5 pm. Once again, some arguments are short and some take days to complete. All this while, all the lawyer can do is wait. And hope. And wait.

So there you have it — the reason why lawyers never schedule client meetings between 10 am and 5 pm. Even we don’t know how long we will be stuck in court on any given day. All this waiting sounds exasperating — and it can be. Nonetheless, most days there is much to be learnt (and entertainment to be had) by watching court proceedings so it’s tolerable!

I have tried very hard to use this ‘dead time’ more productively but it is difficult to do substantive work, such as drafting, in court. We can’t take our laptops — so I just take another file or some research to read. There is also usually so much of a crowd in court that you don’t always get a seat or page127the kind of quiet you need to concentrate. It’s better to download ‘Candy Crush’ and make peace with the waiting.

After all the waiting (I can’t use ‘waiting’ enough), it is hard to face clients. If your client is defending the action, they can usually see the plus side of a long drawn out legal battle but for people who are in desperate need for the court’s assistance, it can be rather difficult to explain why I am unable to help them get any relief day after day after day. I advocate getting clients to attend court once or twice — just so they empathise and know that a litigator is being totally honest when they send them an invoice for 10 hearing dates and showing zero progress. Clients from outside the country are the hardest to explain to — they find it almost impossible to understand our systemic delays.

After 5 pm, I get back to the office and take a short break. I know all I have done is wait, but it is surprisingly exhausting to sit around in the heat under three layers of clothing and do nothing all day. Then begins the day’s work — drafting, research, preparing, correspondence, meeting clients, returning phone calls, etc.— all those things I couldn’t do when stuck in court. Many days I have arbitrations that start at 6 pm. Those days are the longest and most exhausting.

Then it comes to be 7 pm again and if your case is listed before the High Court the next day, there go all your plans. If the case involves briefing a senior counsel (who are usually very busy), meetings start only at 9 pm or early the next morning. Before you know it, it is the next day. If you don’t learn to adapt and anticipate, it can be daunting — this flurry of days passing by unnoticed. We cope by taking educated guesses and trying to find ways to making it work. The system could of course be better — there really is no need that for every case taken up, 10 lawyers waste their time waiting.

On an average at a busy office (like my former office), my day ended at 9 or 10 pm. This was six days a week. Sundays would be off or working days depending on your cases for Monday! At my current office however, I wrap up by 8 pm and encourage colleagues to do so too so we can try and achieve a work–life balance and encourage women in the profession — especially married women and working mothers.

This job can be harder for women and younger lawyers. If you are both, the system is geared against you, and you are most likely always dismissed as being a junior who is there just to ask for an adjournment or mark time till a senior lawyer comes. Seldom are you presumed to be a competent counsel in her own right who knows her case. It is also the case with clients who find it harder to trust women lawyers. This is of course not true of every judge or client. I try to look at the positive side of this and hope that this low bar makes it easier for me to leave an impression.