A Case Study – Mr. Arvind Datar

Last Updated at: Mar 10, 2020

Mr. Arvind Datar is a prominent senior advocate (designated by the Madras High Court in 1999) with more than 30 years of practice at the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court. He is an authority on tax, company and Constitutional matters, having authored several highly regarded legal commentaries (Author of “Guide to Central Excise Law and Practice: With Accounting Practices”; Datar Commentary on Constitution of India” and revising editor of “A Ramaiya Guide to the Companies Act” and “Kanga and Palkhivala’s – The Law and Practice of Income Tax”).

He has appeared before the Supreme Court in several landmark cases including the Vodafone – Income Tax case, National Tax Tribunal case, the SEBI- Sahara case and the NJAC (appointment of judges) case.

We spoke to him about his early career, challenges, and thoughts on building a legal practice:

His early practice:

He joined the bar in 1980 and started his independent practice four years later. He always wanted to become a tax lawyer but it took a long time before that happened. He initially took up a lot of civil work – mostly trial work and a few writ petitions. It was only after he wrote his book on central excise that his excise work picked up.

Mr. Datar:

“The early years of independent practice didn’t go according to plan. Fortunately, I had a civil law background, so I was able to take up a large amount of civil work at the city civil and small causes courts and a few matters in the high court.

Doing civil practice before I started on my own was possibly the best decision I made, which helped me immensely. I wish I had also done one year of criminal practice as well so that I would have known both civil and criminal law before setting up an independent practice.”

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Dealing with the financial strain

He is a very strong advocate for writing regularly about your chosen field. In the early days of his practice, he wrote many articles in various newspapers and journals; and taught law in various institutes to supplement his income. It helped that Mr. Datar could live with his parents, and also set up his office in their garage, which saved him a lot of expenses. It is also important to prioritize, save and spend only on the essentials.

Mr. Datar:

“I taught contracts and commercial law in the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants; general laws and company law in the Institute of company secretaries and taxation law at the Institute of chartered accountants. I traveled to Trichy on the weekends to teach taxation at the Bharatidasan Institute of Management. I used to take 32 lectures – approximately 6 lectures per weekends. I also taught at Natesan Cooperative training college and other institutes.

I bought my first car after 11 years of starting my practice. Initially, just traveling by bus wasn’t expensive. Strangely, initially, 50% of my income was paid to my stenographer but it was an investment – because of my obligation to pay him that money, I started writing more articles to earn the money.”

Don’t get into any loan commitments – never, never borrow money for any luxury or for your enjoyment. I believe that one should never eat up their capital in luxurious living – it’s important to have a nice nest egg. Whatever else you do must come out of your revenue/ interest income.”

The biggest struggle

The biggest struggle initially was waiting for work as it took longer than expected before work started coming his way.

Mr. Datar:

“I had decided at the beginning of my career to never to solicit work or go to any client’s office. While I knew the basics of the profession, I did not know that it would take so much longer to get going.

Mr. T.N Sitaraman of the Indian Express, who briefed my senior, Mr. Ramamani on tax cases gave me a lot of the Express Group’s civil cases initially. There were others, like Mr. Rajaram, who was a criminal lawyer – he passed on his rent control cases to me, which brought in some income in the early stages.”

His first case and first big case

Mr. Datar got his first case through a friend in Bombay even before he was enrolled as an advocate. And he got his first big case through his senior, who gave him one of his own cases when Mr. Datar left to set up his own practice.

Mr. Datar:

“My first case was a small money recovery suit of an amount of Rs. 11,000 or 12,000 from a company in Madras. I was awaiting my results at the time. So, even before I enrolled myself, I studied the file and made notes. The moment my enrollment came through, I issued a legal notice and filed a suit. Fortunately, we succeeded and more work came my way.

I got my first big case thanks to my guru, Sri Ramamani. When I told him I was going to leave the office in 1984 to set up my own practice, I had no chamber, nothing. He was extremely kind – there was a very big Bank of India suit against a fisheries export house and in 1982, that suit was for Rs. 81 lakhs, which was a king’s ransom. Today, it would be worth at least Rs. 70-80 crores. So, when I left, Mr. Ramamani told me to take that suit. My schedule fee, I still remember, was Rs. 49, 200/- and they paid me in 3 installments. That suit really kept me going – I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to my senior for that – he need not have done it, he could have kept that suit for his firm, but I don’t know why he just felt that he should encourage me to set up my practice.”

Early dilemmas and the importance of saying “no”

His biggest dilemma, like most young lawyers, was whether to specialize or to take up multiple kinds of work.

Mr. Datar:

“In the Madras High Court, the extent of specialization was not as much as it was in Bombay, so a lawyer like me would do central excise, an arbitration, a company matter, appear before the Company Law Board and so on. However, looking back, maybe I should have stuck to taxation, constitutional and company law. I should have avoided general civil work beyond a particular point.

The most important thing that a young junior should remember is to learn the art of saying “no” – not to take up a case out of sympathy or short-term temptation of fees because in the long run, it really takes away from your specialization and pushes your long-term goals away.

There are many cases which I have spent hours and hours of time on and looking back, I think that if I had used that time to devote to taxation and constitutional law, I would have been better off.”

Motivation and Support

His biggest motivation came from his passion for the law and a strong belief in himself. His family was also an immense support at this time – an understanding wife and parents made a huge difference.

Mr. Datar:

“I told my father that I would not take a job and if it came down to it, I would beg, but I would beg at the High Court building!

I was confident that it was only a matter of time before I made it. I believed firmly that if I did not stray from the straight path, I would eventually succeed.”

On writing and building his profile

He built his profile mainly by writing relentlessly and speaking at as many lectures and seminars as possible. He established himself as an expert in two new areas of law  – central excise law saw an overhaul in 1986 and the Company Law Board was set up in 1991. Mr. Datar wrote a book on Central Excise and also became the revising editor of Ramaiya on Company Law, effectively distinguishing himself in these areas. On the advice of his publisher, he brought out one edition of his central excise book every two years until 1994 – this helped firmly establish his expertise in central excise.

Mr. Datar:

“I decided that if I had to make a mark for myself in the profession I must have a certain specialization. I decided to write a book on central excise after the major transformation, with the new tariff and new MODVAT, since it was a relatively uncharted territory. I felt that it would be relatively easier to establish myself in a new field rather than established areas like income tax and company law.

I must also mention here that apart from central excise, I became the revising editor of Ramaiaya and it was my good luck because the Company Law Board had just started in 1991, so both central excise and CLB were new and I got a lot of work in both areas. Both were a result of my writing.

Clients would generally be reluctant to approach a newcomer and would prefer experienced senior practitioners in that field. The best way to build a profile is to specialize in a particular area, write books/ gain masteries. I also started speaking on the budget every year and conducting budget seminars through a management study centre. Many companies attended these lectures and a lot of work came my way as a result.”

Importance of appearances

Mr. Datar stresses the importance of appearances and taking on as many cases as possible, however small, at the beginning of your career, in order to gain visibility. When he started off, he could not afford to refuse any work, so he took all the work he got for the first 10 years of his practice.

Mr. Datar:

“One thing I learnt was that you must be seen in court – out of sight is out of mind. So even when I didn’t have any work, I would put on my coat and gown and walk through the city civil court and high court: just walk around with one brief in my hand and then after about half an hour, go and sit in the library. Again after lunch, I would go around, so that everybody knew that I was still around.”

It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation – if you refuse a case that’s not in your specialization, then you lose a court appearance. So if you want more court appearances, you have to take work that you may not want to do. That’s what happened to me when I started going more often to the Supreme Court – I kept taking matters because it resulted in more appearances and that gives you visibility. After a certain point, you are in a position to call the shots and say ‘I will not do this work’, because by then you’re guaranteed to be busy with enough work. In fact, sometimes, you have no option but to refuse work because you will do injustice and quality will fall by taking on too much work.”

On networking and attracting clients

For him, establishing himself as an expert is far more important and useful than merely building a network of contacts. Although there are people who recommend joining social clubs and other organizations to build a network, he never joined as he felt that it would eat into his time.

Mr. Datar:

“The only way I could attract clients was through my writing. That’s why I had very few clients initially. Once my book got going, then I didn’t look back. Clients automatically came to me without any kind of networking or recommendation.

I am not really familiar with this concept of “networking”, I think it’s a newer concept. I feel the best way to attract clients is to build expertise since you presumably knew more than anyone else in your field. At the end of the day, a client may come to you out of friendship once or twice, but if you’re an expert, he’ll remain with you much longer.

Even with the profession, I never actively tried to build contacts, I used to just address seminars and stay focused on that. I also stayed away from any politics in the Bar, I was not in any association, clique or group. I just kept working all the time – I used to take lectures in the morning and in the evenings and on the weekends, along with addressing seminars.

So in a sense, I did not really have any time to build up a network amongst my professional colleagues. There were acquaintances and friends, but that was that. Whatever little time I had, I spent with my family. But I don’t think I suffered because of that – in fact, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise because I didn’t owe anything to anyone.”

Getting clients to take you seriously

Mr. Datar believes firmly in maintaining a strictly professional equation with clients and that cultivating a friendship with clients or taking on a friend as a client is not healthy.  


“It’s very difficult to maintain a client relationship with a friend – unnecessary expectations, not being able to charge your regular fees and other complications may arise and sometimes friendships may also be ruined by that.

I also maintained a policy of never socializing with my clients. Don’t be too friendly, too cozy with them because then they will take you for granted. Respect always comes from a distance. Ultimately, beyond a point, the client doesn’t really care: if they feel that you are slightly incompetent or you’re slackening, they’re just going to drop you like a hot potato and move on to another lawyer.

Be extremely good at your work, be an absolute master in your subject, and keep an arm’s length distance from your clients – that way you respect them and they also respect you and it’s a healthy relationship.”

On the ‘ideal’ client

According to Mr. Datar, an ideal client is not the only one who pays the fee on time, but someone who is cooperative and works along with you.


“An ideal client is one who pays the fees on time and gives you proper instructions. As important as fees, I think someone who works in tandem with you, gives you all the factual support and is completely cooperative to bring everything that is needed to make a perfect brief. You can only do your best when you get good support from the client.”

A lawyer with 14 years' experience, Vikram has worked with several well-known corporate law firms before joining Vakilsearch.