New Delhi: If the alumni record is a measure of the success of an institution, then the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, has done exceedingly well for itself. Further, a review of the recent Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) preferences of the high-scoring candidates indicates that NLSIU is still the top school of choice for prospective law students.
Nothing works like success. Since NLSIU was set up in 1986, 13 other national law schools, based on the same blueprint, have come up across India. Earlier this month, faculty and students at the Gujarat National Law University moved into a brand new 50-acre campus in Gandhinagar in which the construction cost the government Rs150 crore. Last June, Ranchi’s law school received 100 acres and before that Raipur’s law university got 60 acres. The latest one to be set up is in Delhi and ministers have promised at least one in each state.
But what is of growing concern is that the schools represent an island of success.
N.R. Madhava Menon, founder of NLSIU, was asked by Ram Jethmalani to reform legal education in India in the 1980s. Photo: Vivek Nair/Mint
The success of the 20 national law schools has not percolated deep enough to pull the other 880 law colleges up by the bootstraps as it were. Instead they continue to serve outdated course material, teaching styles and processes that are out of sync with the new reality of a rapidly growing economy that has diverse demands being made of the legal profession.
This was adequately summed up in May 2010 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while speaking at a function to usher in second-generation reforms in legal education. According to him, besides a few “islands of excellence”, law colleges in India were “a sea of institutionalized mediocrity.”
Admission to any of the national law schools is a highly competitive process—about 1,000 seats are available in total. CLAT’s level of difficulty has increased progressively over the years, as have the number of applicants (19,000 took it in May last year, up from 16,000 in 2010). And as with any competitive entrance exam, a parallel ecosystem of coaching classes and crash courses flourishes in several towns and cities.
It was not always so. The evolution has been unlike that of institutions of excellence such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).
Nearly three decades ago, N. R. Madhava Menon was teaching at Delhi University’s faculty of law. He received a missive from Ram Jethmalani, then chairman of the Bar Council of India (BCI), asking him to spearhead an experiment in Indian legal education. An enthused Menon took a three-year sabbatical from Delhi University to join the BCI. He proposed a new model for a law school and travelled through many states in search of support to set it up.
“But there were no takers (among the governments). Eventually, my three-year tenure finished and I returned to Delhi University,” recalls Menon.
The BCI later sought an opinion from the then attorney general K. Parasaran on the proposed law school, asking that it be recognized as a deemed university under the University Grants Commission Act. After the attorney general’s assent, Menon was recalled and he struck a deal with Ramakrishna Hegde, then chief minister of Karnataka, leading to Bangalore being chosen as the location for the first national law school.
The start was anything but promising, with the school, in the initial stages, forced to operate from a couple of abandoned garages on the fringes of the Bangalore University campus. Things changed however, after the ordinance setting up the institute became a law (National Law School of India University Act, 1986). Armed with 12 handpicked faculty members and two grants of Rs50 lakh each from the state government and the Bar Council of India Trust, respectively, Menon managed to obtain deemed university status. Six years later, the first batch of 50 graduates emerged from NLSIU. Impressed, the government directed Menon and his team to replicate the success in Kolkata.
Narayanan Ramaswamy, head of KPMG’s education practice, believes NLSIU brought a sense of pride and legitimacy to legal education. “The large positive effect is on the profession. Legal education has got a bit of respect. Earlier, it was almost like in chartered accountancy where the education did not matter, only the apprentice part did,” he said.
Bringing change: Dayan Krishnan, a Delhi-based advocate who graduated in 1993 as part of NLSIU’s first batch; Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
A key reason for which the national law schools were set up was improving legal education through model law schools. Today, there still exists a vast gulf between the top 20 law schools in India and the remaining 880. Unlike the national law schools and a handful of private ones, these colleges and departments that are housed in several universities have not altered the method or process of teaching of law in decades. Many of them follow the old system—a three-year programme that students can take up only after they have obtained an under-graduate degree.
Stung by the PM’s comments in 2010, then solicitor general and BCI chairman Gopal Subramanium immediately put in place an all-India bar exam to raise the quality of law graduates entering the profession. This caused an uproar across the country from some of the 60,000 law graduates being churned out annually.
But Subramanium refused to relent.
“The fault, I think, is that it is far too easy to become an enrolled advocate at most of the high courts,” said Subramanium, who quit as solicitor general, and consequently chairman of BCI, last year. “It seems to me that the universities which depend largely upon the number of pupils who come to them are likely to be in favour of the continuation of a situation where the university degree carries such potential subsequent advantages. Moreover, for the purpose of maintaining or increasing the supply of pupils there is a temptation to a university to make it easier from time to time the conditions of the qualifying examination for law degree.”
Subramanium suggested derecognizing law colleges that were not up to the mark. He said the intention was to reduce the number of law colleges from 900 to less than 200 by merging some of them with each other. In September 2010, the BCI refused to renew the licences of 50 law colleges on the grounds that their faculty did not have the requisite qualifications to teach.
The second all-India bar exam was held on Sunday. All law graduates now have to pass the exam in order to be eligible to practice law in the courts.
The concept of national law schools was also being nudged along as model institutions in the push toward legal education reform. The syllabus was accordingly tailor-made for the teaching of law, Menon explained.
“Law should be studied in a social context,” he said. “It is a matter for social engineering, a policy instrument for governance—you must study law in relation to economics, sociology, history, philosophy, public administration. Initially, it was thought that it would be the same economics taught in a BA economics college that would be taught in law school. But we decided to teach economics in relation to law—to better understand contracts, torts and other legal principles. Similarly for political science, psychology, history and other social sciences.”
Besides emulating the Harvard Law School teaching method using case law, the course was designed as a shorter integrated five-year law degree fine-tuned for law students, saving them one additional year of college.
The ultimate test
Whether by design or otherwise, the national law schools have produced multi-disciplinary law graduates. They’ve been hired by the Supreme Court and high court judges as law clerks, Magic Circle law firms in London, international agencies such as the United Nations, arbitration firms in Singapore, and even news organizations in India and abroad. The law schools have also spawned academics and entrepreneurs who have dabbled in education, social work and philanthropy.
As Rahul Singh, a professor and alumnus of NLSIU, said: “The alumni has really chosen to do a variety of stuff—it is the broadest range of possible career options that an alumni body could have chosen.”
Corporate law has undoubtedly been the largest beneficiary of the national law schools. This is partly due to good timing as these graduates were lucky enough to see a boom in demand from corporate law firms that emerged to address the growing needs of a rapidly expanding economy. Several of India’s top law firms employ graduates of the national law schools as partners.
The biggest criticism of the national law schools is that institutions funded by taxpayers’ money are churning out lawyers for large companies and rich clients. Critics also argue that many graduates leave for a foreign university or firm, thereby creating a brain-drain like the IITs did, albeit smaller.
They contend that this makes the programme a failure since a very small percentage of national law school graduates have contributed to the profession’s traditional areas such as justice delivery and litigation. Part of the reason could be that litigation is an area that takes several years of experience to master and hence graduates from the national law schools are yet to make a proper mark in the courts. It’s also a field that’s ruled by a handful of highly paid, superstar lawyers.
No graduate of the national law schools has been designated as senior counsel by any high court or the Supreme Court yet. But there are some contenders according to observers at the Bar—among them Dayan Krishnan, a Delhi advocate who graduated in 1993 as part of NLSIU’s first batch. He was recently appointed standing counsel for the Delhi government and has been known to handle prosecution work. Another is Aditya Sondhi, a 1998 graduate who practices in the Karnataka high court in Bangalore.
By extension, places on the bench at the high courts or the Supreme Court are still a long way off, although this will happen with time. “The national law schools have succeeded in making law a popular career choice, but not quite in contributing to the Bar and thereby to the dispensation of justice,” Sondhi said.
Nick Robinson, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research who has taught at NLSIU, Bangalore, and the Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat, said the situation is more complex. “I think it’s a little more grey than black and white—the original mission of the NLS (national law schools) as I understood it was to create litigators—particularly litigators for poor people. That hasn’t happened too much—although I don’t think you should discount those who do it, there are people like Alternate Law Forum in Bangalore,” he said.
Robinson encourages diversity among the alumni. “If you think of the NLS as more of a lead school like Harvard or Yale—most of the alumni of Harvard and Yale don’t go into litigation either—they go into firms, into government and academia. I don’t think that law schools should be only for cranking out litigators. In India itself, the whole freedom struggle was led by lawyers who joined politics. I’d be happy to see more NLS students going into politics or policy,” he added.
There have been criticisms from the Bar and sometimes from judges that graduates are not willing to take up lower-rung litigation or the join judicial services. But Ashok Parija, chairman of the Bar Council of India, disagrees that the graduates can be blamed for not choosing this option. “All these national schools are located in the state capitals and big cities—so you cannot expect these graduates to not go to the high courts or the Supreme Court. One cannot expect them to relocate to small towns and start trial court work there.”
Parija added that the graduates’ “arguments for joining law firms is simple—they get better salaries. Some of them have loans to pay back. There have been instances of some of these graduates moving to practice or to teaching after four-five years (of working in a law firm). Blaming them totally cannot be very fair—the Bar should also find ways and means to look after them.”
While NLSIU has had a significant impact on India’s legal system, it’s still not clear whether this success can be emulated to reorder the scale and scope of legal education in the country.