Philosophy of a profession


Gandhi’s experiments with the law offer compelling lessons about service, determination and legal practice with a conscience, writes Charles DiSalvo

It doesn’t matter what kind of law you practise. It doesn’t matter what the setting is in which you practise. And it doesn’t matter how little or how much money you make from practise. Every lawyer asks this question: “Is my life in the law meaningful?”

Charles di Salvo
Charles di Salvo

That is the same question Mohandas K Gandhi undoubtedly asked himself many times over during the 23 years he studied and practised law. As many India Business Law Journal readers will know, Gandhi studied law at the Inns of Court in London from 1888 until being called to the bar there in 1891. He practised law until 1911. Except for two brief periods when he attempted to establish himself in India, Gandhi practised in British colonies in South Africa. He practised there for the better part of two decades before returning home in 1915 to take up a leading role in the Independence movement.

What does Gandhi’s time in the law teach us lawyers about the meaningfulness of our lives?

When he arrived in South Africa, Gandhi found that tens of thousands of indentured servants from his homeland had preceded him, all brought to South Africa to work for European colonists who were operating sugar and tea plantations along the African coast. Indian merchants followed them. As these merchants began to acquire economic and political power, the Europeans were quick to clamp down on their civil and economic liberties. The merchants reached out to the only Indian lawyer in all of South Africa for help. Gandhi made them an offer: Give me your legal business and I will look after your civil and economic rights.

A deal was struck and Gandhi instantly had a thriving practice representing the most successful Indian businesses in South Africa. His private law practice provided him with the financial security and social standing that allowed him to speak up for, and organize, his community when it was under attack. He did not act as a lawyer for his fellow Indians, but as a political organizer, whose favourite weapon at this time was the petition. Stealing time from his practice, he wrote, organized, and launched innumerable petitions – one carried more than 10,000 signatures – directed at both the colonial and London governments.

When the attacks on Indian rights continued, Gandhi altered the shape of his practice and his life. In this second phase, he began to devote some of his professional work and time to defending his community. When the Natal government, for example, attempted to drive Indians out of businesses by denying them the necessary operating licences, Gandhi and a colleague took the battle to court. When the city of Durban insisted on prohibiting Indians from riding in rickshaws, Gandhi mounted a legal argument against the restrictions. And when Johannesburg established a modern electrical tram system, Gandhi used the court system to fight against the segregation of Indian passengers from Europeans. Gandhi performed this community work while continuing to operate, and indeed expand, his commercial law practice.

The final phase of Gandhi’s practice came into view as the attack on Indian rights escalated even further. When the government of the Transvaal enacted a draconian new law requiring Indians to register with the government and be fingerprinted, Indians were outraged. Gandhi called for a campaign of mass civil disobedience. When his Indian compatriots resisted the law and found themselves prosecuted in a criminal court by the government, Gandhi was by their side. This defence work became the work that defined and dominated his practice.

Over the long arc of his time in the law we find three Gandhis, three distinct phases of his practice, and three answers to the question about the meaningfulness of our lives in the law. We find the Gandhi who ministers to his community outside of his ordinary practice, the Gandhi who devotes a portion of his practice to addressing the special needs of his community, and the Gandhi who devotes almost all of his practice to the service of his community.

Gandhi’s life in the law challenges us because it leaves behind thorny questions for those who admire him. Do I need to go beyond my ordinary practice to meet the needs of the poor, the homeless, the hungry? Does not the ordinary part of my practice also serve my community as I go about helping parties in conflict peacefully avoid and resolve disputes? Does not my work for business and industry help advance the common good? Am I certain that the activities of those whom I represent contribute to the building of a just and fair society? Am I satisfied that I have the right balance in my professional life between making a living and serving those less fortunate than myself?

There are no easy answers. Nevertheless, through the decades, Gandhi calls on each of us who holds a law licence to take some time to carefully and conscientiously ponder difficult questions about the worthiness of life as a lawyer – and to act consistently with our answers.

Charles DiSalvo is a professor of law at West Virginia University and the author of The Man Before The Mahatma: MK Gandhi, Attorney At Law.