Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Access to Quality Legal Education: 3 vs 5 Years?

I'm pleased to bring you a guest post from Kshitij Malhotra on a topic close to my heart.

As Kshitij rightly argues, we need to create more 3 year programs of a quality that matches up to the best 5 year programs. The Rajiv Gandhi School of IP law at IIT Kharagpur is a good step in this direction. DU has always had an enviable 3 year program record. And now the Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) promises to give a complete face-lift to 3 year courses.

But these schools are few and far between and we need more such degree programs.

However, I'm not so sure that Kshitij's proposal that lateral entry be permitted for graduates from other disciplines to the NLU's (in the 3rd year) is a viable one. Most national law schools do not just offer BA subjects (social science courses such as economics and sociology) in their first two years. Rather they intersperse it with a good sprinkling of basic legal subjects as well. This appears sensible policy to me, as students need some sense of the law in their first two years. A thoroughly compartmentalised BA vs LLB program defeats the very purpose of an integrated BA LLB course. And if this were to be the case, we may as well have just had separate BA and LLB courses and degrees.

Without much ado, I give you Kshitij's thoughtful musings on this theme. But first, a little background on Kshitij:

He is a qualified chemical engineer from Indraprastha University, and a student of law at University of Delhi (LC2). He is a registered patent agent, and working as a patent professional since 2006. Presently, he is involved with a start up company in Intellectual property service domain. Before working with this start up, he had a brief stint at an IP law firm, ZeusIP Advocates. He started his career from a knowledge process outsourcing company, Evalueserve.

Lack of 3 year LLB programs at top law schools: Restricting access to quality legal education

Gone are the days, when the term lawyer imaged a black robed guy sitting in a court chamber. Lawyers are now commonly seen in the carpeted bays of corporate offices. The practice has moved from saving shady criminals to overseeing merging of multi-national companies. From contending a family feud over a piece of land to getting injunctions over intellectual property infringement. Certainly, the legal profession is rapidly evolving, and so are the firms in the legal services industry. Cross-domain professionals are now highly sought. Company Secretaries well aware of business and compliance laws, Charted accountants that are versed with tax laws and PHDs that are well versed with patent laws.

Such professionals are accepted with open arms, and of course remunerated very well. Going forward, there seems to be an optimistic demand in the industry regarding such professionals. However, the concerns remain regarding the supply. The question therefore arises whether our legal education system is providing doctors, engineers, PHDs, CAs and civil administrators with enough opportunities to access quality education? The Bar Council of India, the body responsible for accreditation of courses at law schools, prescribes two streams of law courses required to be enrolled as an advocate viz. a 5 year integrated LLB degree open for students after 10+2 or 11+1, and a 3 year law course for graduates. The onus of choosing what to offer rests on the law schools.

At present, none of the top law schools including NLSIU, NLUI, NALSAR and NUJS, provide 3 year LLB programs (although initially few of the top law schools did offer 3 year LLB programs, but, then they gradually moved to the 5 year programs). This leaves graduates, and more importantly professionals, with very few options to pursue quality legal education. The reasons for not providing 3 year LLB programs are best known to these law schools. Some suggest that 5 year programs are easy to mange, and students are able to save a year in completing their education.

However, most often than not lack of interest in students for 3 year LLB courses is quoted as an excuse. But, is lack of interest really a justified reason to restrict these programs? Recently, IIT Kharagpur started a 3 year LLB program restricted to engineers, doctors and post graduate in sciences, and it has been a success. The 3 year LLB program at University of Delhi (the only program that has some credibility and quality) has always been well attended by professionals from civil administration, police, corporate, engineering, and information technology, and most of them enter into the legal profession as a litigator or a consultant, after the completion of the program.

Jindal Global Law School, probably the first law school set up with a vision of providing globalized education in India, has also instituted a 3 year LLB program. 3 year LLB programs at other universities, such as Banaras Hindu University and Banglore University, are also seriously attended. This clearly shows that takers of 3 year LLB programs have always been present.

Another reason given by administrators is that professionals do not consider study of law seriously, and only see it as a part time vocation. Law is serious business, and market forces cannot be allowed to govern studies in law. This argument though partly true, is not true in its entirety. Lackadaisical attitude has been prevalent in many students regarding legal education, wherein working professionals pursue LLB programs with a typical “ho jayega” (we will manage it somehow) attitude, and wherein graduates pursue LLB programs with a typical “kuch nahin se kuch to sahi” (better study law then do nothing) attitude.

However, this does not mandate closing the doors of quality education for professionals who are serious about studying law. I am sure, if given an opportunity of studying at top law schools of the country, a professional will definitely think of means to balance professional occupation with studies, and even might think of taking a sabbatical. Also, when a professional decides upon pursuing legal education, then his/her decision is based on much more deliberated grounds as compared to the decision of a typical teenager, who usually enters these top law schools right after completing schooling.

Also, opening up 3 year LLB courses does not mean compensating standards of education, such as relaxing minimum attendance criteria etc. Neither does it mean mandatory setting up of evening classes. Maintaining the standards of education is always in the hands of administrators. However, having evening classes scheduled for students, who are needy and want to work side by side for their sustenance, might not be a bad idea. Offering late evening classes has been a known concept at the B-schools in India. University of Delhi successfully runs an evening program at two of its centres. The onus of meeting the expectation of a law program is completely on the students enrolled at the program. In fact, the strict curriculum and attendance policies (some of which requires a minimum attendance of 75 percent) will automatically instill a sense of urgency and seriousness, if lacking in enrolled students.

The old Bar Council of India (BCI) rules (rule 5, 7 and 8 of section A) mandated all law schools to provide an option of lateral entry in their 5 year LLB courses, wherein graduate and post graduate students can enter the 3rd year of such programs. Notwithstanding, the concept of lateral entry might not be an attractive proposition anyway for professionals as this would mean studying with fellows, who are easily 5-6 years junior to them. This at least provided flexibility to professionals, post graduates and graduates to enter laterally into the 5 year LLB programs. However, these rules have been scrapped by the BCI and the latest set of BCI rules (rule 13 of Section A) prohibits such lateral entry and exit. In fact, the latest proposed rules of the BCI suggest implementation of an age bar to the entry of both 5 year and 3 year LLB programs. As per the proposed rules, no candidate above the age of 20 would be admitted to the 5 year LLB program, and nobody above 30 years of age will be allowed to join the 3 year LLB program. Imposition of such bar is not at all mandated.

On one hand, policy makers consider law to be sacred and a profession of the mature, and on the other hand, they are restricting entry of experienced and learned administrators, police officers, doctors and scientists into the profession!

Therefore, a review of 3 year LLB policy at top law schools is highly desirable. Further, a review of lateral entry to 5 year LLB by the BCI is also necessary as this might provide means for professionals and graduates to pursue quality legal education. Opening up evening classes on the lines of law program at University of Delhi can also be looked upon. Until then, it might be fair to say that our legal education system, which is supposed to imbibe the philosophies of justice, might be ignorantly or intentionally imparting injustice to law aspirants, and especially to a class of professionals including civil administrators, engineers, doctors, PHDs, CAs and CS. Excluding such a class of professionals will not only ruin the chances of taking up the level of legal profession in India, but might also ruin any chances of having domino effects on the standards of our judiciary.
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