The increasing importance of legal education and growth of national law schools in India has, besides widening other career options, made legal academia a viable career choice for many law graduates. Emphasis on research and writing, engagement with theoretical questions on law and justice and the possibility of academic work contributing towards legal reforms are partly responsible for attracting young graduates to academia. Many law graduates now choose to go abroad for pursuing a master’s programme, and, impressed by academics and professors in foreign universities, consider pursuing academia back home.
There does not seem to be much information out there for graduates considering an academic career, perhaps because it is assumed that spending most of your life as a student would have already familiarized you with what a teacher does. In this post, I reflect upon a legal academic career in India and seek to address some concerns and set out some considerations for law students and young graduates aspiring to embark upon this career. But I do want to first put this disclaimer that I have been in academia only for a little more than a year. Immediately after completing B.A., LL.B. programme, I went for LL.M. studies and thereafter started teaching, without having practiced law or worked in a law firm/company before. My opinions are naturally limited by my narrow experience.
Here are my thoughts on a career in the legal academia.
Teaching v. Research
If you are planning to pursue an academic career, and not already pursuing it, you are probably interested in teaching or research or both. Both are important aspects of academia. But in an academic institution, teaching is primary. Even while research will be part of your work profile, you will need to make conscious efforts and seek time and opportunities for research while you are employed at the institution. If you are attracted to academia mainly because of the opportunity to research and write, and consider teaching incidental, then you might want to consider joining research organizations or think tanks. You are likely to be devoting most of your time in a university in preparing for classes, especially at the nascency of your career. Teaching, of course, helps you keep updated with the law; you may also run into good ideas and possible research topics in the classroom. But you really need to carve out time for research and writing.
If you love teaching but don’t care for publications, you could still be a successful teacher. I personally believe it is possible to be a good teacher even if you are not doing extensive legal writing. But universities often encourage faculty to publish in domestic or preferably international journals. Before applying, you may want to check the university policy and figure out if your progress and promotions depend upon your research output. In general, the notion of ‘publish or perish’ is gaining ground.
Work Timings and Flexibility
If you think academics is a 9-to-3 or even a 9-to-5 job, you are wrong. It requires far more commitment. The official working hours are often inadequate even to prepare for your teaching, let alone research, especially when you are new to teaching or are allotted courses to teach that you are not very familiar with. Even though teaching hours themselves are limited, developing a good knowledge of the subject to be prepared to answer all kinds of doubts from students requires immense reading. Depending on your schedule, you may even find yourself teaching on weekends if you have weekend classes or working over weekends if you have classes on a Monday morning. Besides preparing for and taking classes, other teaching-related tasks include meeting students during office hours, drafting question papers, evaluating students, marking attendance and managing attendance reports, and so on, all of which take their own time.
Depending upon the institutional requirements and your own inclinations, you may get involved in institutional activities that range from judging student moot rounds to organizing conferences. Research and writing require additional commitment. If you are not actively involved in research and writing, you could have a pretty non-hectic life, especially compared to working in law firms or in litigation. How busy or relaxed your life would be depends much upon how much non-teaching work you choose to take up, if at all there is a choice.
That being said, the advantage of an academic job is flexibility in your work schedule. Even if academia requires significant time commitment, it does not require you to stay at your workplace till late at night and you may finish a chunk of your work from home. It is often possible to take time off in the day to hit the gym or take up some other activity. Depending upon university policy on your attendance, you may be able to adjust your work to your body clock as an evening or a morning person, subject of course to your teaching hours.
In my opinion, an academic career will give you enough money to live a reasonably comfortable life but not a lavish life. Apart from your salary, for specific research projects, attending conferences, etc. you can look out for research grants and apply accordingly.
What next after law school?
If you are planning on an academic career but do not have a master’s level degree yet, you should probably start thinking about it. You need a Master’s to be able to start teaching law. After your LL.M., check out the UGC-NET exam for Junior Research Fellowship and Eligibility for Lectureship. Some state universities will not employ you as a full-time teacher unless you clear the exam. Also try to get some publications, if possible at least one of them international. Even in universities where this is not an essential requirement, it will give you an edge over other applicants.
What about a doctorate? I haven’t done my doctoral studies yet so I am really not competent to comment on when you should go for a doctorate. But sooner or later, you are likely to confront this question. Although not an eligibility requirement to teach law, a Ph.D. (or SJD/JSD) is often desirable and will help you progress in your career. You will need to assess your options and figure out where you want to do your doctorate from (India or abroad), explore full-time or part-time opportunities, search for funding and scholarships, and so on.
Should you work elsewhere for some time before joining academia?
I did not, so I cannot say if working elsewhere before joining legal academia would have helped me. If you join academia straight after your studies, you may at times feel you are missing out on practice or haven’t really explored the ‘real lawyering world’. I feel that any type of law work experience is a relevant work experience for an academic, so you might as well spend a few years out there to get to know things and also figure out what you really want to do. Practical exposure may in fact enhance your teaching and research later on, and help you design a more practically grounded course for the benefit of your students. It may also give you an edge with respect to promotion and salary in your academic career.
But if you are sure that academia is where you want to be, then you might as well just go for it without working elsewhere. You are just fresh out of law school; you know what your teachers did well and what ought to change. You may be more willing to experiment and motivated to implement ideas both about better teaching methodologies and the overall university structure.
Even as an academic, you may look out for good empirical research opportunities which will help you engage with the grassroots and make your work more ‘socially relevant’. Try seeking senior faculty members engaged in such work and start working with them. This may or may not compensate for your lack of practical experience otherwise, but will help you engage with people outside the university setting and see practical results of your research work.
So is this the right career for you?
I do not know, and probably you don’t either at this stage. Teaching is rewarding yet, like any other profession, challenging. If you like reading and don’t mind learning the law again, you may consider a teaching career. You are basically getting paid to do what you would even otherwise like to do, i.e. read and talk about your areas of interest, so it is a win-win situation. But remember that you may not always be assigned courses that you want to teach, especially in the initial stages of your career.
Academia also offers immense scope to unleash your creativity, especially in the classroom. You can creatively develop your communication and presentational skills. When you adopt a different teaching methodology successfully, it is gratifying to see students reciprocate your enthusiasm and learn better. You can also creatively design your courses, and in addition to the core course component, sneak in that one that one reading you always felt was path-breaking but was unjustifiably not made a part of your course by your teacher. So, if your research interest lies in jurisprudence and you are assigned to teach torts, you may have a discussion on jurisprudential theories on liability. You will find yourself balancing between revising your basics for teaching on one hand and studying complex materials to develop your expertise in your research areas on the other.
Academia requires a lot of self-discipline and will power. Unlike many other careers, there are no strict bosses or tight deadlines under which you work. While this may be great news, this also means that you need a lot of will power to keep yourself motivated to work and succeed in your life. While the pressure of not getting embarrassed before students will probably make you work hard for your classes, there really is no ‘check’ when it comes to your research and writing. You need to list your own tasks; set your own deadlines and also follow them.
Academic career also demands much patience, though I guess that is true for most professions. You develop both knowledge and teaching skills gradually. If studying under a brilliant professor at law school was what inspired you to join academics, it may take a long time to reach that stage. You can use the opportunity to attend lectures by senior professors at your university and, possibly, to work with them. Research and publications are also long-drawn processes, requiring a lot of time, commitment and patience. It is for you to figure out what you seek in life, where your strengths and weaknesses lie and whether you will enjoy and succeed in the academic world.
This is just a little insight into the world of legal academia. I hope this will help law students and graduates considering on pursuing an academic career make a slightly-better informed decision about their lives.
Raadhika Gupta completed her Masters in law from Harvard Law School after graduating from NALSAR, Hyderabad. She is currently teaching at the Jindal Global Law School, Haryana.