Chronicling mediocrity in law schools
By Venkata Susmita Biswas
03rd September 2012 12:00 AM
We do have a small number of dynamic and outstanding law schools but I am afraid they remain islands of excellence amidst a sea of institutionalised mediocrity. We are not even marginally nearer to profound scholarship and enlightened research in law. As we, and we must introspect honestly...,” began Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his inaugural address at the Conference of National Consultation for Second Generation Reforms in Legal Education in 2010. He listed a number of problem areas that call for immediate attention, right from faculty crunch to lack of good libraries. Two years since his speech, we try to understand if the academia still faces these problems.
Back in 1986...
Systematising legal education in India was a major concern that was finally addressed in 1986 when the Bar Council of India (BCI) gave Prof NR Madhava Menon the responsibility of setting up a Model Law School. “It was to be a pacesetter in legal education reforms. Neither the Council nor my colleagues and well-wishers in the academic fraternity had even the remotest idea as to how it would be possible, given the extremely poor state of legal education in the country and absence of even minimum resources to realise a dream,” recollects Prof Menon. He was even advised by some well-wishers to not take the ‘risk’ as he had no chance of succeeding at that time! “It was Justice VR Krishna Iyer, Ram Jethmalani and Fali Nariman who encouraged me and gave support to keep my spirits high. In fact, some members of the BCI who were nominated to the first Governing Council of the National Law School (NLS) were themselves against the idea and attempted to sabotage the NLS and its five-year integrated LLB programme from within,” he reveals. Speaking about his passion to innovate and experiment, Prof Menon says, “My faculty and staff were trained and motivated by me through constant efforts to dream with me and to demonstrate that we can take the challenge and succeed. They made several sacrifices at a time when most people had written it off.”
Pedagogy and syllabus
Pioneering efforts always require great sacrifices as demonstrated by Prof Menon and his associates, but the role and importance of teachers and constant innovation in course content never diminishes. According to Prof Menon, “The course content and methods of delivery are not changing fast enough even in many of the leading law schools which have the exclusive power to revise their curricula. The BCI, the present regulator, is not cooperative and imposes a curriculum which it thinks serves the litigating profession. Given the expansion of legal practice outside litigation and the prospects of trade in legal services across the globe, law schools need to look beyond the courts and tribunals to serve future legal needs.”
Young minds who have been trained at India’s premier law schools agree with Prof Menon. Says Aditya Sondhi, an advocate practising before the High Court of Karnataka and Supreme Court of India, “There is a greater need, ironically, to get more orthodox in the approach to the study of law so that students are given a sound footing in subjects like jurisprudence, constitutional law and legal method. Moreover, the theory of law has to go with its application and students need greater exposure to the thrills of practice.” But this is yet to be realised. “The result is that the curriculum always lags behind societal needs and market demands,” says Prof Menon.
Prof R Venkata Rao, vice-chancellor, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, lists out the various areas of legal education that need attention: “We need to ensure autonomy for teachers, the institutes must function in a democratic manner and lastly, the syllabus must be updated constantly by teachers and institutes such that the courses are in sync with current trends.” Law is a supportive framework for regulating and solving problems and therefore needs to change with the times. “We have before us a new range of human activities and need to gear students up for diverse careers and a range of skills,” adds Prof Shashikala Gurpur, director, Symbiosis Law School (SLS), Pune. She says that new kinds of law jobs are emerging but the efforts to change and adapt are isolated. “For example, recent initiatives by SLS Pune (2007 onwards) to train teachers in the region for community legal service, in new pedagogy, getting global legal skills training as mandatory component through an international scholar in residence. Some national law schools have started a concerted attempt last month (by Prof Menon) to centre stage human rights teaching, clinical teaching and ethics teaching,” she reveals.
Prof Menon explains that law education is mainly “skills education” for the teaching for which we need clinical and experiential teaching methods. Prof Menon is trying to implement his novel ideas about teaching and legal education at Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training. NLSIU, Bangalore, has even invited him to undertake continuing legal education for advocates and teachers under its auspices.
Faculty crunch is part and parcel of any field of education and the one factor that rules here is that teaching does not pay. Prof Gurupur says, “In the West, the best go to teaching and research. They say ‘dregs go to profession’, here we have the best leaving for the profession as the pay is not so lucrative and the NET requirement dissuades many.” She adds that this void can be filled by innovative methods of visiting faculty offering modular courses in their area of expertise, And the rigour could be overseen by in-house full-time faculty.” But what is to be ensured is that law schools and firms facilitate these visiting faculty. Says Shreya Rao, a senior associate, Nishith Desai Associates, who has taught at NLSIU, “One of the key differences between the Indian national law schools and premier law institutions in abroad is the quality of faculty. For example law school courses are structured in a manner that makes it very difficult for adjuncts to participate on a long-term basis, which means that we lose out on experienced and highly qualified teachers who may want to participate in the pedagogical process but not enter academics full-time.”
Sondhi puts it succinctly when he says, “There is a trend of qualified lawyers taking to teaching regularly. The demand still outdoes the supply, though! There is greater scope for law schools to invite practising advocates to teach part-time or deliver guest lectures. For this, the management must be willing to accommodate advocates on a convenient schedule and remember that the application of law is no less important than its pedagogy. I’m happy that I have found such an atmosphere in the NLSIU where I am a visiting faculty.” Prof Rao whose institute is without doubt the byword for excellence, says, ‘‘Though Bangalore does not have a dearth of faculty, it is other law schools across the country that face the crunch. And one way to approach this problem is to first make teaching a more attractive avenue.”
It is common belief that landing a job after graduating from law school is about having the right contacts in the field. This was reinforced by the Prime Minister in 2010 when he said, “Today, some fortunate students who have the right contacts have the luxury of plenty in terms of options while several of their talented but less resourceful colleagues go begging for placements.” Prof Gurupur tells us that networking is of great importance when it comes to placements. “Law graduates do not get easily absorbed into the industry. It depends on networking, systematic human resource expertise utilised and streamlining processes (a structured development plan customised for each student based on her/his interest, ability and outcome of internships). Only the best law graduates get easily absorbed. Therefore, the quality of orientation and training regularly reviewed and updated based on stakeholder needs is the key.”
Sondhi, an NLSIU product, feels that the recruitment process in most NLUs is streamlined to ensure that many of the students get an offer even before they graduate. He adds that the jobs available in the corporate world seem to be aplenty. Vindhya Sunkavally, a Chennai-based associate, says, “When it comes to placements, the national schools and the rest have to be evaluated separately. Some private and top schools do not face a dearth of firms coming to recruit and at least 80-90 per cent of students are sure to get placed. The alumni and senior professors also help a lot in the process.”
Students in the search for better framed courses and foreign law firms often move out of India to Europe or USA. This is an openly debated topic and the UGC is trying its best to hold students back in India. “Mostly, students go abroad for the LLM course. This is the case because in the Ivy League universities the duration of this course is just one year, while in India it is stretched over two years. Now UGC is planning a one year LLM course for the benefit of students,” shares Prof Rao. The numbers also clearly suggest that a very low percentage of students join the traditional justice delivery system. Says Sondhi, one of the few who took up litigation, “A single-digit percentage of law graduates from the NLSIU enter litigation, mainly because of the lack of financial incentives at the beginning. A significant number of them are heading to the UK (and elsewhere) to join law firms.”
Prof Gurupur is of the opinion that the master’s degree abroad is very skill-oriented. “With the rigid rules of UGC, it is difficult in India. Students do not get many things in foreign universities which they get in India such as good grooming and teacher’s involvement. But they do get some new ideas, opportunities and a well-organised all-round training. I should say that the gap between good law schools in India and the best in the West is decreasing,” she prides. Prof Gurupur is quick to add that this brain-drain can be curbed by taking some positive steps like urging the government to appoint new judges, by opening judicial service training centres and by forging MoUs/links with local judicial academics as well as training students in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. “These steps are followed by SLS, and we are happy with the results,” she says.
A huge number of law students leave the country each year for the ‘magic circle’ or ‘white shoe’ law firms in other countries. Shreya gives us the flip side of the story. “The national law schools are expensive and litigation in India does not pay enough to justify the costs of a law school education. While a percentage of students is passionate about litigation, there is also a large percentage that does not enter litigation in spite of the student’s interest on account of the fact that senior counsel often pay their juniors a pittance. In comparison, law firm work offers a steady assured income, and allows you the flexibility of practicing with a law firm outside India. This imbalance in favour of law firm work is not the healthiest trend, but it will be difficult to draw bright people to the litigation space until it is made more conducive to their needs and student profile.” She adds that law firm setups tend to be fairly egalitarian and friendlier to women, who are present in significant numbers in national law schools.
The BCI in 2010 introduced the All India Bar Exam (AIBE) which all graduating students need to undertake in order to be certified for practice. This move faced immense opposition from students and lawyers across India but finally took off last year. “Prior to the AIBE, there was no other ‘test’ in order to enrol as an advocate and holding a law degree was sufficient. For a brief while there existed a mandatory apprenticeship of one year, when some of us enrolled. This was struck down by the Supreme Court. The AIBE is a welcome feature as it tests lawyers on a diverse range of topics. The multiple answer format, however, can be improved,” says Sondhi. “I personally tried answering the previous paper and was relieved to have passed!”
The concern among the fraternity is more about how it can be conducted and less about the need for such an exam. While Shreya also welcomes the move, she says, “I think the exam has the potential to be a positive influence on the quality of lawyers. The perceptional advantage may be that it could make the field more respectable in a country obsessed with competitive tests of the kinds typically found in engineering, chartered accountancy and medicine. However, its ability to impact the quality of professionals will depend on the manner in which the exam is put together and conducted, and whether the exam in itself can improve academic standards amongst Indian law schools.” Prof Rao believes that resistance is only natural as people have a general tendency to oppose change. Despite these current hurdles, he says, “The best of law education is yet to be.”
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