Understanding the Greatness of Nani Palkhivala
Updated: Apr 26
To really understand the greatness of someone is quite a difficult task. Greatness is not tangible and nor can it be seen or read or physically felt. Greatness, I believe, can only be experienced.
While growing up, names of very famous and senior lawyers and Judges, at either the Bombay High Court or the Supreme Court of India fell on my ears regularly. Both, my father and my grandfather being practising Advocates at the Bombay High Court, my introduction to the field of law was very different as compared to most people in India. Names like Nani Palkhivala, Ram Jethmalani, Soli Sorabjee, Fali Nariman, etc. were names that I grew up hearing as being legends in the legal profession. There were several others too, but not naming them here is not a disservice to them or any attempt to underplay their contribution to the field of law. However, the one name that was held to be the pinnacle of Advocacy was that of Mr Nanabhoy (Nani) Ardeshir Palkhivala.
This article does not aim to write a biography of this legal luminary but this is an attempt to understand his greatness from the perspective of a young lawyer, who time and again hears about him but fails to actually grasp what actually made him, according to several lawyers, the greatest Advocate that India has ever seen. This greatness would stem, not from his educational qualifications or even his victories in the courtroom but from the impression that he has left behind him on those who he had worked with. The achievements of Mr Nani Palkhivala and the stories of his work would easily require a few voluminous books, but here, I only wish to express upon the young lawyers, why a deeper look into Mr Palkhivala’s life would be beneficial to them in their career. Of course, there would be several aspects of his life which will be left out in this, but I am sure that what I cover here shall at least empower the reader to better himself to a certain extent.
In an interview by Mr Iqbal Chagla (1) that I recently saw on YouTube, he describes an incident where he was assisting Mr Palkhivala in a matter governing the first principles of trust law. Mr Chagla describes that argument as the finest exposition on the first principles of trust law. He further also describes the manner in which Mr Palkhivala prepared for the argument, that showed his art of presenting a matter and his excellent memory. According to Mr Chagla, Mr Palkhivala had the art of making the most complicated question of law appear to be totally simple to the most obtuse Judge. Nani Palkhivala had the ability to make the Judge want to rule in his favour.
When a highly respected and accomplished lawyer like Mr Chagla espouses the abilities of someone he respects, a young lawyer like me takes notice and tries to understand that. After hearing about Mr Palkhivala’s ability to make the most complicated questions law appear to be so simple that it would make the Judge decide in his favour, it is the first sign of greatness that I can completely identify with and understand. What a litigating lawyer goes through in his initial years of practice can be described in one word as – petrifying! It is more so if you have started practising directly at the Bombay High Court without ever practising in any of the lower courts.
The Bombay High Court, located in the Fort area of Mumbai, with its magnificent building, replete with the high stone arches, winding stone staircases and very imposing architecture is sure to intimidate anyone who enters it for the first time. The spell that the building casts upon you strengthens as you enter the courtrooms, where the Hon’ble Justices sit on a dais, where the young lawyer, appearing for the first time, feels as if he is being dissected and starts to question everything – right from his hair-style to the way he has tied his bands around his collar to his every single word and at times, whether he can even speak a single word of any language, leave alone English.
Being able to overcome these initial trepidations about arguments in the Court is the first success that a young Advocate shall taste. The victories in arguments shall come much later. Now, after a few years at the Bar and having overcome the initial challenges, the very real challenge of being able to convey to the Court exactly what you want and in the simplest of manners, remains. It’s a skill that needs constant honing. I always tell my juniors to make it easy for the Judge to understand the matter. Of course, this is easier said than done. For anyone to be successful in this, a strong command over, whichever is the language of the Court, is essential. Fluency in a language is not the ability to speak fast or to have correct diction. Although they are important in certain scenarios, what is more important is the access to a large vocabulary with the correct meaning of the words associated with them.
I do recognize these challenges and I try to improve myself every single day; watching the seniors argue their matters and observing how they attempt to convey their client’s cause to the Court so that it is convinced enough to decide the matter in their favour. At the same time, I do recognize how difficult it is to simplify anything to the extent that it actually becomes simple. Even if I take it that Mr Chagla was exaggerating that Mr Nani Palkhivala had the ability to make his case appear to be extremely straight-forward, I do recognize his sentiment underlying that statement. If this example is being given by someone as accomplished as Mr Chagla, I accept it whole-heartedly. That having the ability to simplify your arguments should be considered as crucial to one’s profession as an Advocate, is something that I take away as a learning from Mr Nani Palkhivala.
In another interview (2), Mr Harish Salve, one of the top-most lawyers today in India, says that he has never seen a lawyer that tall. He elaborates that when he went to Mr Palkhivala with a question about any section, just the manner in which Mr Palkhivala read the section, gave the answer. Only after having spent some time as an Advocate am I able to appreciate the skill required to be able to answer a question in this manner. Interpretation of Statutes is a subject of law that requires intensive study. The primary aim of the Judiciary is to interpret the law. Anyone who is able to interpret the law and make the listener understand the law by just reading it in a manner that helps improve the understandability is a special skill that is a must for any lawyer.
Law can be terribly challenging and complicated at times, but to understand it, interpret it and communicate it effectively and efficiently would be hallmarks of a great Advocate. And, those who have seen Mr Nani Palkhivala in action, all attest to him being the personification of these abilities.
Perhaps the most important case in India post-independence and shall remain so for the future of India until completely improbable steps are taken, the Kesavananda Bharati vs. The State of Kerala case [AIR 1973 S.C. 1461, (1973) 4 SCC 225] is known to have put Mr Nani Palkhivala at the forefront and on the tip of the tongue of every aware Indian citizen at that time. His arguments in this matter, which finally upheld that no amendment can alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution of India, are considered to be some of the best that the Indian judiciary has ever witnessed. Mr Arvind Datar, another Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court, had mentioned recently that out of the 40 days that the matter was heard, Mr Palkhivala had argued for about 27-28 days alone and won the case very narrowly, with a Judgement of 7 to 6 (dissenting) thus saving the ‘basic structure’ of the Indian Constitution.
Knowing only 3 things about Mr Nani Palkhivala, viz. his ability to communicate efficiently, his ability to interpret the law so as to enable others to understand it and the third one, of having been responsible to a large extent in protecting the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution of India that we enjoy today, I am beholden to him for having been a part of the Indian legal fraternity that I am now a part of. To achieve so much and being known for such eloquence, especially for someone who had a speech impediment (4) and overcame that to become the legend that he is today, is no mean task!