When I decided to opt for a career in law, I was treated as an outcast by friends and family. Only those that didn’t make it to engineering, medicine or any of the other coveted professional courses chose law. And here I was, rejecting a fine engineering college for a not so well known law school in Bangalore!
By Shamnad Basheer
When I decided to opt for a career in law, I was treated as an outcast by friends and family. Only those that didn’t make it to engineering, medicine or any of the other coveted professional courses chose law. And here I was, rejecting a fine engineering college for a not so well known law school in Bangalore (National Law School of India University) that had barely graduated two batches of students.
It was a huge gamble, but one that paid off enormously. For today, law is one of the most sought after professions in India. The image of a lawyer has undergone one of the sharpest face-lifts ever. The version of a modern lawyer is one of a well respected, well groomed and well paid professional, whose identity is not circumscribed by the court-room alone, but extends to the corridors of corporate power houses and international organisations.
To some extent, this change in perception can be credited to the rising influence of the National Law Universities (NLU’s), widely acknowledged as the leading institutions of legal learning in the country today. In the words of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the NLU’s are, “a small number of dynamic and outstanding law schools” in the country, which “remain islands of excellence amidst a sea of institutionalised mediocrity.”
It all began with the establishment of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore in 1987 which experimented with a highly rigorous five year B.A. LL.B. model, where students fresh out of high school were subjected to an intensive training programme that combined theory and practice and mandated continuous evaluation and copious amounts of legal writing and research. They were also encouraged to participate widely in co-curricular and extra curricular activities such as moot courts. It was hoped that at the end of the training, these freshly minted graduates would go on to take their rightful place as social engineers. Since the establishment of NLSIU, 14 other NLU’s have cropped up over the years in different states.
The success of the NLU’s owes, in some part to India’s liberalisation reforms in 1990s; this opening up of the economy threw up unprecedented business opportunities, and demanded a new set of skilled corporate transactional lawyers. Little wonder then that many of the leading NLU’s have near perfect placement statistics and their graduates earn some of the highest entry level salaries, competing with the best from the IIT’s and IIM’s. Top graduates from the top NLU’s can earn as much as 15 lakh per annum soon after graduation.
Of course, not all graduates opt for such high paying jobs at law firms and corporate houses. Some prefer to join NGO’s and leverage their legal skills to bring about social change in areas such as human rights and environmental protection. Others join international organisations such as the UN, World Bank and the WTO with a view to contributing towards world peace, conflict resolution and a more efficient framework for international trade. Yet others go on to pursue careers in research, teaching and policy advocacy, often after completing higher studies (LLM) from globally reputed institutions; a career choice made more feasible now, thanks to the fifth pay commission pay outs. More recently some appear to have been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, starting up their own businesses, such as legal process outsourcing units. Others are beginning to experiment with niche areas such as legal journalism.
One might argue that the sheer range and diversity of career options thrown up by a law degree is unmatched by any other professional degree. For law is intrinsically a multi-disciplinary endeavour and the content of law has to necessarily draw from other disciplines. Illustratively, the criminal lawyer has to have some understanding of human psychology and forensic science, the corporate lawyer an understanding of commerce and capital, and the intellectual property lawyer, a basic understanding of science.
If not for anything else, a law degree arms one with serious advocacy skills, enabling one to argue in favour of any cause. In fact if one were to roll back the pages of our history, one finds that many of our freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were armed with legal training, which stood them in good stead in their fight against the British. The nexus between law and political leadership continues to be a strong one to this day, with several leading politicians possessing law degrees the world over, the most notable example being Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America.
There is considerable controversy regarding the ranking of various NLU’s. These rankings become even more controversial when one considers the older law schools (such as Faculty of Law, ILS Pune), which compete with the NLUs in terms of their faculty and student quality. Further private law schools with deep pockets and world-class infrastructure and faculty such as the Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) have begun to enter the foray, posing competition to the reputational might of the NLUs.
One also sees the mushrooming of specialised law programmes such as the Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property law at IIT Kharagpur, geared towards creating specialised intellectual property attorneys, a breed that India sorely lacks. Only those with first degrees in science are entitled to join this intensive three year law programme.
Potential entrants to the various NLU’s are selected via an entrance exam, CLAT (Common Law admission test) which tests students on their levels of English comprehension, their capacity for logical and legal reasoning, elementary mathematics and their awareness of current affairs. Last year, approximately 24,000 candidates appeared for the CLAT exam, of which only 1200 or so were selected for admission to the various NLUs. This highly competitive filter ensures that the very best and brightest of applicants are selected. Little wonder then that the reputation of the NLU’s, has much more to do with their student quality and less with infrastructure and faculty quality.
Given the rising importance of lawyers in today’s global economy and the metamorphosis in perception, it is not surprising that law now is coming to be a first choice for many high school students. In fact, the reputation of Indian law graduates has crossed seven seas, with the result that international law firms and global consultancies such as Mckinsey are flocking in large numbers to the NLUs to recruit directly for their London and Paris offices.
However, despite these placement successes, there is a gnawing feeling that there is a disproportionate number of fresh graduates entering the corporate sector, with recent figures as high as 70%. To this extent, the initial promise of the NLUs to produce an army of lawyers that would represent a diversity of cause and clientele remains an unfulfilled dream. A variety of factors have conspired against this, including a herd mentality that sees many graduates flocking towards high paying corporate jobs, the inability of NLU’s to credibly weave in social consciousness into the existing curriculum and most importantly, an abysmally high tuition fee that necessitates back loans repayable upon graduation.
Hopefully, these challenges will be overcome in the years to come and the dream will gradually convert to reality, as a larger number of NLU students diversify into other areas and pick up legal cudgels on behalf of the marginalised and underrepresented as well.
Shamnad Basheer is the founder of IDIA, a movement to train underprivileged students for the study of law.
Article was originally published in India Today.