Monday, June 19, 2006

Supreme Court Clerkships in India: A Former Clerk’s Perspective

In this guest note, I hope to give an ‘insider’s perspective’ on judicial clerkships at the Supreme Court of India, since I myself happened to clerk for Justice B.N. Srikrishna during the 2005-6 term of the Court. Disclaimer: I don’t mean this to be some rigorous and scholarly analysis of the clerkship system or anything. The views are mine and mine alone and they are drawn exclusively from open-sources.

The first U.S. Supreme Court clerk came in the 1880s, whereas the first Indian clerk came in the 1990’s (who, I’m guessing is Arun Thiruvengadam, a distinguished contributor to this blog). Nevertheless a comparison between US and Indian Supreme Court clerkships may be interesting. There have been less than a hundred ‘official’ Indian clerks (my own ID showed me as “LC-16”) so the sample is pretty small. Looking at anecdotal evidence from an even smaller sub-set, namely clerks from the National Law School, I believe that certain trends can be seen.

First, applicants tend to usually be from the top 3-15% of their classes (compared with the top 2-5% in the U.S.). However, the Supreme Court allows applicants only from the National Law Schools and ILS Law College Pune whereas in the US there is no such bar. Indeed, recent US Supreme Court clerks are increasingly coming from non-Ivy league schools. Still, even though overall demand outstrip supply of clerkships at the Supreme Court of India (especially, with students from the non-National Law Schools), the gap while not as wide as in the US, is certainly getting larger. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of India also seems to be keen to attract the brightest students from the best law schools and this is certainly a forward-looking approach.

Secondly, like in the US, Indian clerks don’t consider the clerkship as a form of employment but as stepping-stone for something else (usually, admission to an international LLM programme or a means of getting genuine litigation exposure). Indeed, among the NLS clerks atleast, there was no shortage of job offers. Among the four Supreme Court clerks from the NLS class of 2005, three had prior offers with law firms (among the best firms in India, Singapore and the U.K.), which they were to join upon completing the clerkship (the fourth law clerk withdrew from the recruitment process specifically to take up the clerkship). All of the firms were extremely encouraging and supportive of the clerkship.

Also, a fairly enlightened approach of the Supreme Court towards clerk-pay is likely to pay dividends in the long-term. The pay-package of Rs. 12000 (all-inclusive) is quite respectable both for a government agency and for an organization that is litigation-oriented (in comparison, in Madras first year associates at good litigation firms start off at Rs.1500 all-inclusive!).

Above all, at least among the NLS clerks, perhaps the major motivation for the clerking its so-called ‘CV-value’. Yet while the clerkship without doubt does enhance one's credentials, it really cant be looked at in isolation. The second motivation is exposure to high quality appellate litigation with view to a career in litigation practice . But crucially, whatever one's motivations, a successful clerkship really hinges on the rapport with the Justice concerned. I was fortunate that my own Justice, B.N. Srikrishna was, extremely supportive of the clerkship institution and ensured that the clerks were made full use of.

Finally, while the comparisons with the successes of former US clerks is premature, comparisons with post-clerkship careers is interestingly similar. Indian clerks, like US clerks have now broken into academe, law firms in India and the US and appellate litigation. (As mentioned already, law firms in India and abroad have been extremely supportive of their prospective associates clerking for a year). The only category we havent yet seen are former clerks becoming judges (although I do know one clerk who was preparing for the subordinate judiciary). Still the blue ribbon test for the Indian clerkship institution is when a former clerk becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court.
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