An innovative university in India has revolutionized the teaching of law
By Shailaja Neelakantan
Chronicle of Higher Education
Issue cover-dated December 2, 2005
When Mrinal Satish quit his job as a corporate lawyer to teach at his alma mater, the National Law School of India University here in the southern city of Bangalore, his former classmates and colleagues thought he was crazy.
After graduating from India's premier law school, he had been recruited by a top firm and was making an impressive salary. "I did corporate law for a while but realized that I was really interested in teaching — not any kind, but the kind we do here," says Mr. Satish, pointing toward the school's premises.
The campus may not be striking, but what takes place inside the classrooms is. Unlike most Indian universities, where professors often read their lectures from notes and students learn by rote, the National Law School vibrates with energy. In class, one hears students' voices as often as one hears the teachers. Laughter sounds through the halls, and when the bell signals that time is up, students file out with reluctance instead of jubilation.
"Students here are not spoon-fed," says Mr. Satish. "They are encouraged to discover stuff on their own, making the classroom situation more interactive. It is exciting."
In just the 12 years since it graduated its first batch of lawyers, the National Law School has revolutionized the teaching of law in India. Its graduates are some of the most successful lawyers in the country, and it has inspired more than a half-dozen copycat institutions. It has also helped to make law an attractive option in a country where a legal career has not always been a ticket to wealth and prestige.
Until the National Law School came on the scene in 1988, India's law schools often attracted students with little interest in the profession. Some were biding their time while studying for India's civil-service examination, others simply saw law school as a way to extend the perks of college life, such as cheap lodging and the opportunity to participate in campus politics.
"Until NLSIU began, law was not a preferred option; it was actually pretty low on the scale of options," says Probal Bhadhuri, a 1994 graduate of the university and a partner in one of India's top law firms. "So, for example, if anyone didn't get into the administrative services, they would fall back on their law degree."
Sunila Awasthi, a colleague of Mr. Bhadhuri's who attended the University of Delhi's graduate law program, agrees. "In my class of around 60, only 10 to
15 of us were really interested in being lawyers," she says.
The resulting mess — thousands of mediocre lawyers clogging up a legal system already notorious for obstructionism and endless delays — deterred many competent students from entering the profession.
An old joke, true enough to elicit rueful laughter, is that a civil suit in the Indian courts is the closest one can come to experiencing eternity. India's lower courts have a backlog of about 20 million civil and criminal cases. An additional 3.2 million cases are pending before the high courts, while the Supreme Court has about 20,000 old cases on the docket.
In the mid-1970s, concerned about the poor quality of India's law-school graduates and their effect on the legal system, the Bar Council of India, a professional organization that regulates the legal profession and sets standards for legal education, proposed the creation of a university devoted solely to the teaching of law. It took more than a decade of internal wrangling — these were lawyers, after all — before the bar council determined it could actually run a college.
Although its critics point out that most of National Law School's graduates eschew courtroom practice in favor of corporate transactions, others say the university may change the way law is practiced in India.
Stirring Up Debate
The most innovative aspect of the new university was that it enrolled students straight out of high school. Until then, all law schools consisted of a two-year graduate program, resulting in an L.L.B., or bachelor of law.
Five years in length, the new program sought to subsume the entirety of its students' university education.
The man tapped to bring the concept to fruition by the council of jurists was N.R. Madhava Menon, then head of the law department at the University of Delhi. The respected legal educator, who had set up India's first university-sponsored legal-aid program, had clear ideas about how the university should be run.
When Mr. Menon visited the law school at Columbia University, in New York, in the early 1970s, he was struck by the volunteer work that its students were doing for the poorer sections of the city. "My main objective was to provide clinical legal education like I had seen at Columbia," says Mr. Menon, who is now director of the National Judicial Academy, which is responsible for the continuing education of judges. Mr. Menon also felt strongly that the traditional way of teaching law, using lectures and rote learning, was not sufficient. So he introduced the Socratic method.
Mr. Bhaduri, the 1994 graduate, says that made all the difference. "We were told we would be discussing an issue in the next few days, say defamation, so we would go do our own research on it and in class it would be more of a Q and A and much more exciting," he recalls.
Siddharth Aggarwal, a 1998 graduate and a New Delhi-based litigator, says it was not uncommon for three professors to teach one class. "They would stir up a debate just by having different opinions. The school inculcated in us that in law there is no one correct answer. If you can justify your opinion, it is the correct answer," says Mr. Aggarwal.
Training professors was no easy task. "After we selected the faculty, for six months all we did was unlearn the old ways of teaching law," Mr. Menon remembers. "We conducted workshops, had refresher courses, invited faculty from other countries to advise us, and discussed and demonstrated how we should change the ways of teaching." Now all the school's professors are required to teach in this manner, and standards are strictly monitored.
Because Mr. Menon believed that academy-bar-bench cooperation would be key to ensuring high standards, he saw to it that the university's governing body included the chief justice of India, the chairman of the Bar Council of India, and leading lawyers of the Supreme Court and other high courts.
Students also study history, economics, politics, and sociology, says Mr.
Menon, "to give a social context to future lawyers." He notes that more than half of all the people in India are shut out of the legal system because they can't afford lawyers' fees. "We were the first people to seriously do this. A law degree isn't just an appendage to some other degree," says A. Jayagovind, the university's current director.
The range of legal issues students study is broad. Subjects include civil and criminal law, corporate and commercial law, mediation and negotiation, international law, intellectual-property law, medical-negligence law, environmental law, and human-rights law.
The National Law School was also the first to introduce internships that count toward course credits. These begin as early as students' third year so that future lawyers can swiftly apply their classroom knowledge.
"This practical-oriented approach to teaching gives a big edge when we go out into the real world," says Rajshekhar Rao, a 1999 graduate who has already argued cases before the Supreme Court. "It instills the ability to think tangentially and also the desire to make a difference in a variety of fields. An institution that teaches law should not teach just about law." In his brief career, Mr. Rao has been a counsel for the state of Delhi on the case of the 2001 attack on India's Parliament. "I've interacted with lawyers who have studied elsewhere," he says, "and I can see the difference."
The government of Karnataka state, of which Bangalore is the capital, provided land, basic infrastructure, and support of $150,000 to the university when it first started. But administrators say it wisely left the running of the institution — both academically and financially — to the Bar Council of India. India's federally subsidized universities, by comparison, are notoriously politicized and corrupt. Administrators and professors are often hired based on their political connections rather than on their academic credentials.
"We could experiment and innovate only because we were autonomous," says Mr. Menon.
National Law School's high academic standards have paid off — literally.
Starting salaries for recent graduates average about $450 a month — more than six times what other law-school graduates make. Today the university's alumni work at the country's top law firms and serve as in-house counsel to companies like General Electric and organizations like the Red Cross and Amnesty International.
The National Law School's success has had a profound impact on legal education throughout India. In 1995 a three-judge committee appointed by India's chief justice to evaluate legal education recommended that every state establish a college on the model of the National Law School. Six states so far have done just that. Like the university, these new institutions offer five-year degrees, use the Socratic teaching method, and stress an interdisciplinary approach.
Improvement All Around
Members of the legal profession hope that spillover effect will change the face of law in the country. "Because these new schools are trying to measure themselves against NLSIU, the quality of education has improved drastically all around," says Udaya Holla, a Bangalore-based lawyer who has appeared before the Supreme Court.
Some say the change is already under way. "The practice of law has already changed, thanks to all these new graduates," says Mr. Aggarwal. " ... When they perform in court you can really tell they know their stuff. This is a sea change from 20 years ago."
One of the few criticisms leveled against the National Law School is that the bulk of its graduates enter the lucrative world of corporate transaction law, rather than litigation, which requires contact with courts and judges.
"There is disillusionment with the legal system and there is a misconception that there is no room for merit in litigation," says Aditya Sondhi, a 1998 graduate who runs a constitutional and corporate litigation practice in Bangalore. "Another deterrent is that it takes much longer to grow financially in litigation, and when colleagues take up such tempting corporate offers, the trend becomes to go for early money."
That is slowly changing. Mr. Satish says that after he quit his corporate job to teach, a couple of his colleagues quit corporate transaction law to start their own litigation practice. He has also noticed that more students seem to be interested in working for nonprofit groups.
Mr. Aggarwal believes that as the number of top-quality lawyers increases, so will their interest in litigation. And "once the quality of the bar changes, the quality of the bench will also change," says Mr. Jayagovind, the National Law School's director.
Mr. Menon, the university's founder, who went on to establish the National University of Juridical Sciences, in Calcutta, one of the dozen institutions inspired by the National Law School, hopes that these new law schools will help spur legal reform and social justice.
"It is a bit disappointing to see so many graduates go into corporate law,"
he says, "but I have seen that at least sensitivity to the poor has been inculcated in these lawyers. A faster, more humane system is evolving."
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