Adv Ritesh Kumar has been practising law for over 18 years now. He is a first-generation lawyer, who began his career working under a senior advocate and is now an Advocate-on-Record and partner at KRN Law Offices in Delhi. In this interview with him, we trace his journey, the challenges he faced and how he overcame them to carve a successful career in litigation, with an emphasis on his AOR experience.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Ritesh Kumar, an Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court of India. I completed my law at one of the top law schools in India, Campus Law Centre, Delhi University, in 2002. I am also a litigating lawyer having worked alongside Senior Advocates and Standing Counsels in Delhi for close to eighteen years. At present, I am a Partner in KRN Law Offices, based out of Delhi.
2. How has your journey been as a lawyer who started in 2002?
Things in 2002 were very different! The Internet was an alien concept then, and whatever research we could do was limited to the available resources in print. We did have a broadband connection but back then, we didn't have instant results through Google, as we have now. The knowledge that we needed could be gotten only through the library's four walls or by consulting our seniors, peers, and colleagues. As a student and as a lawyer, I didn't think that a day like today would come into existence. I was unsure of my future and my career when I graduated from law school. As a first-generation lawyer, things were even more different because I couldn't build networks, make contacts like how people do it today! The struggle that I witnessed to understand this profession without any leads and guidance was one of its kind, something I still cherish because it has taught me to strive and work harder.
In 2002, there were very top law firms in India. Hence a majority of the graduates joined under senior advocates. I also worked under a senior advocate, and I got this job before I graduated, with the help of my best friend and his uncle, who connected me to a senior advocate for the job. This is how I started my career, even before enrolling myself with the Bar Council. However, it had its cons since I couldn't appear before the court or do anything that an advocate could do. I did a lot of administrative work, interacting with people who worked at the Delhi High Court, the largest high court in India and the Supreme Court registry. I learned how to file things in court, get the certified copy of an order, what forms are required to be filled in the court. It occupied me for a while, and soon after enrolment, I had a little more clarity about what I am supposed to do. I started dealing with clients, drafting pleadings, and I believe my life had a turning point after becoming an advocate. Things have not been the same ever since. I had the privilege to work under Justice Siddharth Mridul, who was then the Standing Counsel for Union of India and currently the Judge in the Delhi High Court. I worked the longest under Mr. Amarjit Singh Chandiok, Senior Advocate. All these experiences led me into practicing as the Standing Counsel in the Supreme Court from 2013 to 2019, where I worked closely with various ministries and departments.
When I started, I didn't think I would be here, so the journey, to sum up, has been a very sweet one, up till now.
3. Why did you choose to become an AOR?
My first senior, who I worked under, Mr. Ajit Kumar Sinha, was an Advocate-on-Record (now he is a Senior Advocate in the Supreme court of India), and it is through him that I indulged in working at the Supreme Court. Starting from the Supreme Court can be tricky because you can't learn the complexities unless you are well-versed with basics. However, working under Mr. Ajit gave me hands-on experience dealing with Supreme Court matters and their functioning. It is then that I came across the AOR exam, one of the toughest examinations in the fields of law.
In Delhi, there is no dearth of opportunities for a lawyer. It is the only city with the District Courts, High Court, the Supreme Court of India, and many major tribunals that make it the best city for lawyers.
Keeping this in mind, I thought becoming an AOR would help me in my professional career and practice as a litigating lawyer. Even though there is no restriction on an advocate to practice in any of the courts, one cannot appear in front of the Supreme Court without representation by an AOR. Many of my friends have been AORs before me, and this also inspired me to take up the exam and try becoming one. I wouldn't say it was a very easy thing for me to do. It was challenging. The exam was tough, but I got through it, and what was deemed challenging back then is reaping fruits as of now.
4. Who is an Advocate-on-record? What do they do, and how do they differ from advocates who are not AORs?
Article 145 of the Constitution enables the Supreme Court to make rules and regulations. Even though the Advocates Act and State Bar Councils govern an advocate and his practice, the Supreme Court's things are governed by the Hon'ble court itself.
The AOR is a designation in the Supreme Court of India, responsible for filing cases on behalf of any party in the Apex Court. The Supreme Court rolled out this designation under Order IV of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 (previously Order IV, Rule 2, Rule 4, and Rule 6 of the Supreme Court Rules, 1966). As per these rules, no other advocate other than the AOR is entitled to file an appearance or act for a party in this Apex Court. No other advocate can appear or plead in any matter unless he is instructed by an AOR or is represented by the AOR in this court of law. This is how they differ from advocates who are not AORs, to put simply.
5. What is the procedure of becoming one? Are there experience-related pre-requisites to becoming an AOR?
One needs to qualify the exam to become an AOR. The AOR exam is conducted by the Supreme Court on an annual basis, while the requirement is that the person has been enrolled with the Bar Council for not less than five years and should have an active practicing experience of at least five years. Once the exam is qualified, they become eligible to file a case, plead the case and appear on behalf of parties even in the Supreme Court, which other advocates are restricted to do.
A year of training under an AOR is also a mandate, which can be commenced only after a four-year practice in the court. Hence, the five years of practice can be 4+1 to appear for the exam. You need to produce a certificate from the respective State Bar Council for the experience to be present on the record. The AOR must have at least ten years of experience of practicing in the Supreme Court to train the AOR aspirant.
There are four areas which should be focussed on while preparing for the exam. They are - Drafting, Professional Ethics, Preparing for Practice and Procedure, and Leading cases. The exam has questions around these four areas, which are monumental for an advocate to practice directly in India's Supreme Court. I also had a subject called "Elementary Practice of Booking and Accounting," which I had to prepare for when giving the AOR exam. This subject isn't included anymore. The Supreme Court publishes certain study materials on its website, which are important for an aspirant.
The question paper is set by the Senior Advocates and examined by them as well. Even though the paper is not made by any central body, the emphasis on the practical aspect of law makes it difficult for the aspirants to get through this exam. It is said that only 18 to 20 percent of the aspirants get through this examination.
Another obligation on an AOR is that he/she should have an office chamber within a 16km radius from the Supreme Court and a registered clerk in the office.
6. How has becoming an AOR helped you in your professional trajectory? Are there any benefits attached to this distinguished job role?
Becoming an AOR has made it easier for me to practice in the Supreme Court. It has made me even more aware of the procedure and functioning of the Supreme Court. It is a very beneficial designation if one qualifies for the exam because it increases your value in the legal fraternity. AORs are given first preference while allocating chambers in the Supreme Court, which is beneficial because getting chambers within Court premises otherwise is very difficult.
The appellate jurisdiction in the Supreme Court from all courts and tribunals is another advantage of becoming an AOR. When an appeal is filed in this Court, AORs come into play, and because of the adversity of appeals, an AOR can get hands-on experience about a lot of areas, a lot of things that get limited when you are an advocate and not an AOR.
While we get a lot of exposure and opportunities on behalf of the party, we need to be very careful because the onus is on the AOR if there are any discrepancies in conducting the case.
Becoming an AOR has added value to my career, where I can now fully practice advocacy in the Supreme Court. This has also benefitted me on the knowledge front, as I am now even more well-versed with the Supreme Court's judgments.
7. What is your suggestion for advocates who are looking forward to becoming an AOR? How should they go about it?
If you are looking forward to being an AOR, you should be ready for challenges that would come your way because the journey to becoming an AOR is undoubtedly not easy. One should take advantage of training under the AOR, as understanding the practice and procedure is deepened during this time. One should sharpen their drafting skills as much as possible during this training period and be well-versed with all the latest judgments delivered by the Supreme Court. The AOR syllabus lists the leading cases required to be known by the aspirant. However, there is no harm in learning about the latest judgments, apart from the list provided. Questions can also come from the latest judgments; hence knowledge is essential for this exam. Of course, you have to brush up on certain Acts and Rules because while you may be applying them in your practice, you sometimes don't know the exact rule or where to find it until you study them carefully. This includes the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, the Advocates Act, 1961 and Bar Council of India Rules.
The Supreme Court conducts a few sessions before the exam, which a senior usually heads. The aspirants must attend these sessions to get their doubts clarified and prepare with other aspirants. I found the sessions very helpful.
Preparing alongside practicing in the court as an advocate is tricky because you do not get leaves to prepare for this exam. However, this is a challenge that can be overcome by prioritizing time. Time management is an important factor whilst preparing for this exam, and once you attain that quality, it is not difficult to pass this exam and become an AOR. It is suggested trying to start slightly in advance, by March or April, so that you can slowly begin to going through the material before the beginning of the summer break. Last moment preparation is never good, so the aspirant should stay consistent while preparing and regularly read and update oneself about the judiciary's latest developments.
Read more about the AOR exam, the toughest exams in India here.