A wake-up call on diversity in the legal profession
Loathed and mistrusted as they might be, lawyers from all backgrounds—economic, ethnic or otherwise—are needed to make for a vibrant society
The lack of diversity in the legal profession, as evidenced by the inequality in the appointments of senior counsel at the Supreme Court and high courts, is a serious issue at the top level, but it actually starts at the very bottom, according to research surveying students who entered India’s top national law schools in 2013-14.
Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA), an initiative that seeks to encourage students from under-represented and marginalized groups to study law, surveyed 550 students, of whom 18 were from non-traditional backgrounds supported by IDIA.
The survey collected responses from students at nine top national law schools—National Law School of India University, Bengaluru; Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad; National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata: National Law University, Jodhpur; Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow; Chanakya National Law University, Patna; National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi; National Law University, Delhi; and National Law University, Cuttack.
The results are not encouraging across the board.
A lack of English skills is indeed often the largest distinguishing factor between the privileged who go to national law universities and those that don’t.
A total of 97% of students surveyed went to higher secondary schools that had English as the medium of instruction, despite the fact that English was the mother tongue for only 3.5% of them.
Only 2% went to Hindi-language schools and 0.7% to schools in which other vernacular languages were the medium of instruction.
In more than 70% of households of National Law University students, both parents were conversant with English.
That can be indicative of the parents’ economic status and end up perpetuating the existing lack of diversity in the profession, as well as lending support to the adage that you need to know someone in the profession to become a lawyer: A whopping 42% of students have a friend or close relative in the legal profession, while just under 10% had a parent who was a lawyer.
Meanwhile, more than 83% of students’ parents earned more than Rs.3 lakh per year and 53% earned above Rs.7 lakh per year, yet nearly 80% of students took expensive coaching, which can cost Rs.1 lakh or more, to crack the highly competitive Common Law Admission Test (CLAT).
Only 1.6% of students came from Muslim families, despite Muslims making up 12% of India’s population. Christians are represented at 2.6%, which is in line with the national average, while 86% of NLU students are from Hindu households.
These types of minority issues can extend to bullying and ragging, according to the survey, with 7.3% of respondents reporting that they faced “harassment, ethnic or racial abuse” because of their background, including their lack of English conversational skills or dressing sense, and 12.4% reported difficulty fitting into law schools because of their background.
There was some good news for lawyers, though. In 2013-14, only 0.8% of parents were against the respondents studying law, while 11% of parents were initially against their offspring studying law but later supported their children. As recently as a decade ago, many students studying law were seen as the black sheep of the family when compared with siblings or cousins studying to be an engineer or doctor.
With more than 90% of students relying on parents or relatives for funding law school, that support is invaluable because only 1.5% of students surveyed were taking advantage of scholarships.
With fees spiralling ever upwards to easily more than Rs.2 lakh per year now, that will preclude a majority of India’s population by default.
Loathed and mistrusted as they might be, lawyers from all backgrounds—economic, ethnic or otherwise—are needed to make for a vibrant society, to help their communities understand the rights, obligations and possibilities the Rule of Law can offer.
If the legal machinery ends up being dominated by the rich and ethnic majority, we gradually end up weakening the position of the weakest in society and those who are most in need of protection by fundamental human and constitutional rights.
That’s not to say that only a lawyer or a judge who comes from the same caste or background as a litigant, victim or accused can be fair, but subconscious biases and prejudices are nearly impossible to eliminate.
Furthermore, the lawyers and activists who dedicate their careers to helping all communities are in a minuscule minority and each community will benefit from fostering its own legal expertise.
Finally, as legal careers have become increasingly lucrative, particularly in the corporate sector, encouraging greater diversity in the profession will also filter down to economically less well-off sections of society and can uplift entire families.
Kian Ganz is publishing editor at Legally India.