A lawyer in pursuit of truth and unity: Mohandas Gandhi and the private practice of law.

Author:Lannon, Paul G., Jr.
  1. Introduction: Gandhi's "Special Views" of Lawyers and the Truth

    Before he was known around the world as Mahatma (or "great soul"), Mohandas K. Gandhi was known as esquire. He was an attorney. In fact, after being called to the bar in England in 1891, Gandhi practiced law as a private attorney in South Africa and India for over twenty years. (2) He eventually gave up his practice so that he could devote all of his remarkable energies towards public service and independence for India. (3)

    During his time as a practicing attorney, Gandhi developed "special," even "peculiar views" of lawyers and the practice of law. (4) These views are interwoven with his religious and political thinking and are evident in how he practiced both law and his nonviolent action campaigns or satyagrahas. Gandhi's views are founded upon his unquenchable and unshakeable search for truth, as he understood it. For Gandhi, truth is God. (5) To seek truth, therefore, is to seek God. A deeply religious but also practical man, Gandhi exhorted everyone to seek truth in all things as a means not only for salvation but also for ethical living and happiness. For lawyers, this means putting the pursuit of truth above the more narrow interest of clients, and putting societal interest above self-interest. It means rethinking a lawyer's duties and functions. This is not an idealist's flight of fancy. Gandhi was a practical reformer: he dubbed his autobiography "the story of my experiments with truth" because he tested his ideas by applying them to real life situations. In the practice of law, Gandhi endeavored to show readers in his writings and by his example that it is "not impossible to practice law without compromising truth." (6) At the same time, Gandhi expressed a deep ambivalence about the practice of law, at times denouncing the practice as immoral and even calling upon lawyers to give up their profession. (7)

    To examine these special views in depth, and to discern what value they may hold for lawyers practicing today in the United States, this article will compare current legal practice in the United States with three fundamental aspects of Gandhi's practice of law: his legal education, especially the connection with equity and religion; his representation of individual clients in private practice; and the role of alternative dispute resolution methods, especially arbitration. (8) As shown below, Gandhi's views on these subjects remain important to lawyers today because they offer an alternative perspective to the prevailing adversarial system. By emphasizing a lawyer's duty to pursue the truth, Gandhi's insights and examples offer the possibility of more meaningful representation of clients, greater personal and professional fulfillment for attorneys, and a less confrontational society.

    Appended at the end of this article are twelve principles for the ethical practice of law as Gandhi viewed it.


    As remains true for most lawyers, Gandhi's primary reason for joining the bar was to earn a living. It was the goal of Gandhi's family for him to succeed his father as the dewan, a kind of prime minister, serving the rulers of the princely state of Porbandar and receiving a substantial salary. (9) However, having withdrawn from Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, India, after only one term, Gandhi needed another means to qualify for Dewanship. (10) A local Brahmin friend, Mavji Dave, advised Gandhi's family to send the young student to England to join the bar. (11) Dave explained that it was comparatively easy and inexpensive to become a barrister in England, after which Gandhi "could get the Dewanship for the asking." (12) From that point, Gandhi wrestled, as many lawyers do, with striking the right balance between earning profits and performing public service. Gandhi believed he had found a way to do so, and lose "nothing thereby--not even money, certainly not my soul." (13)

    Before he could begin practicing, Gandhi had to study law and be admitted to the bar. (14) Legal education in England at the end of the nineteenth century, and even today, differs significantly from legal education in the United States. (15) Gandhi did not attend a law school. He did not learn legal principles from lectures or Socratic questioning, nor from the casebook method prevalent in most American law schools. Rather, the customary practice in England was to study legal treatises independently or with tutors. Accordingly, Gandhi came to rely primarily on his own interpretations of what he read, a habit of learning that gave him confidence later when he began his legal practice as well as when he began to assert his personal views on justice and morality. He read decisions of the common-law courts of England, Roman law (in Latin), the Justinian Code (which proved helpful to him in learning the Roman Dutch legal codes utilized in South Africa), and of particular note, Snell's textbook, Principles of Equity. (16) English principles of equity strongly influenced Gandhi's view of legal and economic justice and his development of satyagraha. (17)

    Equity is premised upon the recognition that strict application of the law can sometimes produce unjust results. Equity, in that sense, softens the sharp edge of the law, making it more flexible when justice so requires. Snell describes equity as a "moral virtue" and a "universal truth," terms which, in Gandhi's mind, linked the practice of law with the moral imperative to pursue truth. (18) A foundational principle of equity reasons that a party seeking equity must "do equity." (19) Put another way, the party who seeks an equitable remedy must demonstrate that he or she has "clean hands" before invoking the cause of justice. (20) This principle resonates throughout Gandhi's teachings, especially in his strict adherence to nonharming (ahimsa) and self-suffering (tapasya), which he required of himself and his satyagrahis before making demands on others. (21)

    Because "the Bar examinations did not require much study" and there was no need to follow syllabi to pass specific courses as in the typical law school education, Gandhi had the time and opportunity to read widely. (22) In addition to the canonical legal treatises, Gandhi spent considerable time reading, thinking and talking about religion. He read the English Bible, the Bhagavad Gita--Sir Edwin Arnold's translation--and Theosophy tracts; he also joined in the meetings and conversations of many religious friends. (23) He found himself captivated by the moral principles he discerned in the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gita regarding public service, equality, nonviolence, noncooperation with unjust forces--principles that would later guide his legal practice and civil rights campaigns. (24) Thus, from the start, Gandhi's study of law went hand in hand with his study of religion. Intertwining law and religion, both in study and practice, would continue throughout his life in South Africa and India with powerful effects. (25) As he later developed his nonviolent action technique of satyagraha, literally "truth force," and his concept of "trusteeship" to describe the proper relationship between people and property, Gandhi reflected that in studying the Bhagavad Gita he was reminded of the maxims of equity, and that the teachings of law and religion fused in his mind: "My regard for jurisprudence increased, I discovered in it religion." (26) Gandhi viewed both the law and religion as means of discovering truth in the daily challenge of trying to live a moral life. (27)

    In addition to studying for bar examinations, Gandhi and other would-be barristers had the requirement of "keeping terms," which meant attending a series of dinners over three years hosted by one of London's four Inns of Court, the fraternal organizations of lawyers responsible for selecting, training and regulating barristers in England and Wales. (28) The Inns of Court maintain a monopoly on calling students to practice at the bar. Gandhi joined the Inner Temple and attended its dinners, but he found them to be of no practical value. (29) Although he passed the bar examinations on his first try, he lamented in his autobiography that he had "read the laws, but not learnt how to practice law"; he understood the legal maxims but "did not know how to apply them in [his] profession." (30)

    In the United States, law students typically spend their summers as interns at law firms or in government positions, then take associate positions after graduating with a three-year juris doctor degree. (31) In England, after passing the bar, barristers typically apprentice for several years under the willing tutelage of a senior barrister. (32) It is not clear whether such a position would have been available to Gandhi, a native of India, but in any event, he chose to return to India and seek practical experience from members of the bar in Bombay and Rajkot. From his experience with the Inns of Court, Gandhi knew that practicing law under the English system was an elite affair; becoming successful required connections with established members of society who could make introductions and send him business. This recognition served Gandhi well as he skillfully cultivated connections with successful lawyers, businessmen and politicians who were willing to support his private practice and later his satyagraha campaigns.


    In the United States, attorneys are ethically obligated to represent their clients' interests zealously. This obligation forms the basis of our adversarial system of justice. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Model Rules), promulgated by the American Bar Association and adopted by most states, provide a framework for the ethical practice of law in the United States. The Preamble of the Model Rules states that "[a]s advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the...

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