Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Indian Legal Academia: Evolution of Phase 3?

I recently joined the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, ranked as one of the top five law schools in India (along with NLS (Bangalore), Nalsar (Hyderabad), NLIU (Bhopal) and NLU (Jodhpur)).

Many friends and well wishers were rather surprised that I opted to stake out a career at an Indian law school. As opposed to pursuing a career abroad, thought to be far more promising, both in terms of scholarship generation and financial remuneration.

This post attempts to respond to their concerns as to why it might make sense to teach at an Indian law school in this day and age. I try to make out the case that legal academia in India is slowly entering its "third" phase--a phase that is (or will soon be) characterised by a focus on legal scholarship, research and original legal thought. This is not to say that teaching will not be as important—but that the nature and quality of teaching will respond in many ways to this emphasis on scholarship.

The hope is that this (non enforceable) promise of an enlightened phase 3 might incentivise young legal scholars from around the world to give Indian legal academia some serious thought.

Although this post will touch upon general aspects of Indian legal education, its key thrust will be on “legal academia”. For the sake of convenience, I broadly define this term here to mean the “environment and community concerned with the pursuit of research, scholarship and education”.

A bit of history first that will help explain Phases 1 and 2 and set the tone for Phase 3.

Phase 1


For a great many decades after India’s independence, the quality of legal academia was deplorable (and one might argue that this remains the case even today, albeit with some progress). Faculty were often third rate and their commitment to the cause of legal education left much to be desired.

Many law professors played truant (more so than students), choosing to spend time engaged with financially lucrative activities, such as appearing before courts (which prompted the Bar Council to pass rules prohibiting law professors from practicing law) and even moonlighting as real estate agents! This utter callousness cannot be divorced from the ills that plagued legal education in general. Notably, law professors were paid a pittance leaving them little incentive to perform, library resources and general infrastructure were often lacking, and students were completely disinterested in classes.

A memorandum prepared as far back as the 1950’s by a leading legal academic, R.U. Singh (Dean of the Lucknow Law Faculty) highlights some of these problems: irregular timings of classes; low attendance rates by students who faced little if any disciplinary action for missing classes; poor testing methods by instructors; inadequate library facilities; outdated curricula; and second-rate instructors who were paid below average salaries (referenced from Jayanth Krishnan’s excellent article on legal education in India and the American influence (or non influence), which is available for download on SSRN).

Not too surprisingly, the quality of legal education and the calibre of lawyers that entered the profession was pathetic. What was perhaps most striking was the fact that the number of law students that entered the profession was but a tiny fraction of the total number of students churned out by these law schools.

Little wonder then that the system was not geared towards either attracting the best talent for teaching or in ensuring that those that joined had some incentive in teaching to create high quality lawyers.

The licensing of several sub standard law schools by the Bar Council (in their bid to de-brahminise the legal profession by having several students from a myriad of castes and backgrounds enter law schools from far flung areas) contributed to this problem of oversupply of third rate lawyers in the country. Net result: a number of us that wished to join the National law school, Bangalore within the first few years of its functioning faced severe opposition from our parents and well wishers, to whom law was but a poor third choice (after must sought after degrees in engineering and medicine).

Indian lawyers will no doubt, be pleasantly surprised at the respect and adulation accorded to lawyers in Japan. Bengoshis (the Japanese term for lawyers) are a truly venerated lot—given that only 1-3% qualify the bar exam and become lawyers. Naturally, the man on the Tokyo omnibus assumes that an Indian lawyer must have undergone a similarly rigorous experience. Little do they know that the number of law schools and law students in India outnumber theirs by a factor of a hundred or even upwards. And more importantly, that we are spared the agony of bar exams and are entitled to enrol immediately upon our final exam results being declared!

Anyway, I digress. The point of the build up above was to set the stage for the entry of a dynamic law professor, Dr Madhav Menon, who first mooted the idea for a national law school in a bid to raise the quality of legal education in India. This widely hailed "national law school" experiment in 1987 ushered in Phase 2 of Indian legal education, a phase characterised predominantly by allegedly new pedagogic techniques and the development of a cadre of law students that came to be internationally reputed. But unfortunately, it also resulted in a faculty that, burdened with a high teaching and administrative load, produced next to no scholarship.

Although I started out intending this to be a single blog post, my ramblings have now forced me to split up the post into 3 parts. I am therefore constrained to deal with Phases 2 and 3 in later posts. I hope readers will bear with me.

ps: Arun Thiruvnegendam, in a well researched article documenting the evolution of legal education in India notes that “those who have ventured to write the history of legal educational reform tend to make generalizations about the trends witnessed in this process.”

Given word limitations and the nature of blog posts, I have to plead guilty to this charge of “generalizing”. Much as I would love to, space constraints do not permit me to pay homage to academic pioneers such as Dean Anandjee, Prof RU Singh and Prof Upendra Baxi who existed in phases 1 and 2 --phases that were otherwise characterised by the lack of scholarship and original thought. I will attempt to do justice to their contributions another day.

Unfortunately, Arun, being the perfectionist that he is, refuses to publish this piece (titled "The Waning of a Magnificent Obsession: An Abridged Story of the History of Legal Educational Reform in India") at this stage. Since I will be quoting from his insightful piece in the follow up posts, I have to communicate his caveat (to me) to all readers: “I wrote it during my NLS LL.M days and it documents the story of the creation of NLS and some of the debates about legal education in India. However, a lot of my views about the way NLS and other places should be reformed have changed quite drastically.”

pps: Jay Krishnan’s article rightly notes that the idea for "national law schools" first came out of the Gajendragadkar Committee report in the 1960’s. (Report of the Committee on the Reorganisation of Legal Education in the University of Delhi, 1964 (The University of Delhi, Delhi : 1964).
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