India’s governance landscape is an interesting case study for law practitioners across the world. The merits go beyond the usual aspects of federalisation, independent institutions and a functional democracy. Yes, there are hiccups and mixed issues. However, the sustenance of a parliamentary democracy matters, which is where India, at urban, semi-urban and rural levels, can share better use cases as insights to the world. India’s G20 Presidency also reflected the same when from a regulatory standpoint, New Delhi has been agile in coming up with statutory changes to regulate Web3, develop the Digital India Act and hold consultations with law firms and technology companies to replace the Information Technology Act 2000, and build new advances with the United States government via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Indo-US ICET Partnership. Truly, these developments are celebratory, reflecting India’s interest in pioneering technology governance. That stated, there is a connected arena where the system needs drastic changes, (as also pointed out by the Supreme Court of India) – Legal Education.
It is noteworthy that the Delhi High Court had recommended the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 as a compulsory subject in law schools and universities to the Bar Council of India (BCI). It is appreciative that the BCI has also approved the entry of Foreign Lawyers and Foreign Law Firms for practice (in non-litigious matters) in India. These developments among others such as e-SCR, SUPACE and others reflect that the legal industry and fraternity, both are inclined to bring about positive change. Nevertheless, the impact that these developments have on the legal education landscape, is not enough/sufficient. In fact, as the BCI Chairperson had stated that not even 20% of NLU students pursue or choose to work in litigation and that only 10% of the District Judges’ posts are filled via competitive examination. These issues are in the line of many unknown, uninformed and rather undiscovered issues in India’s legal education landscape, which must be approached differently.
Systemic Problems Cannot be Solved by a One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Every sector/industry has 3 basic pillars – market, regulators and institutions. The legal industry has these 3 basic pillars as well – the legal education market (universities, law firms & chambers, legal service firms, bar associations, lawyer unions & associations), regulators (the Bar Council of India and the State Bar Councils) and institutions (the judicial system and quasi-judicial bodies). There have been attempts by institutions to make necessary changes.
However, there is a lack of trickle-down effect of any such measures. This is because many universities, firms and other stakeholders fail in bringing that change. Here is a simple example. In many universities, including those of law, as per the UGC regulations, a minimum of 75% attendance has to be maintained by a student. The old consensus was that such strict policies are necessary otherwise no student would turn up for classes. However, in many institutions, including those of law, how would such an approach change things? For NLUs and top-tier private and government institutions, the picture could be different due to their specialised trimester/semester systems, but for most law universities, it does not change much and there is no estimate/data which shows that a restrictive attendance policy does help in producing better law graduates. In short, restrictive policies and guidelines (along a one-size-fits-all approach) are not healthy for the improvement of higher education, especially law.
The current guidelines for legal internships create issues for students interested in litigation who struggle to find opportunities to learn about the legal system at the local, regional, or national level. Moreover, the length of LLB programs, which can last for up to 5-7 years, means that students need exposure to make informed career decisions. However, not every student wants to work in Tier 1 cities or for Tier 1/Tier 2 law firms in Delhi or Mumbai. Some students may prefer to work in Subordinate or High Courts in Tier 2/Tier 3 cities or freelance through Upwork/LinkedIn. Others may choose to pursue academic studies in various legal areas.
Although self-regulated measures have had a positive impact on certain aspects of the legal industry (such as moot courts, essay competitions, and internship programs), the industry as a whole is not well understood or mainstreamed. This lack of understanding is especially prevalent in Tier 2 and 3 areas in India, where people may not know how the industry actually operates. Additionally, there is a lack of feedback to address concerns raised by students and young professionals, as evidenced by recent debates on NLU/non-NLU affiliation issues. While there are entry barriers in many legal areas, a common-sense approach is needed to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions.
The Legal Industry by its very nature is Unique and Informal
Those working in law firms in Tier 1 cities may think that India’s legal industry is well-structured and formalized, and that perception is valid. However, the reality is different for most law graduates and lawyers in Tier 2/3 areas, who face challenges/questions like: what opportunities exist beyond civil and criminal litigation, and how to have a stable livelihood in an industry where the issue of insufficient pay to juniors/associates is rampant. Many students and young graduates lack an understanding of the contours of the legal market and haven’t networked enough. Understanding the legal market is crucial for anyone seeking to join the industry.
In fields like management, technology, finance, commerce, governance/policy (UPSC, SSC, Judicial Services, etc.) and other professions, certain SOPs, skills, certifications and market dynamics are well known. The benefit of this is that nearly anyone who aspires to join these professions is aware of the trajectory of the profession they wish to be a part of. Frankly, the legal industry and the legal academia is yet to democratise common knowledge among people who aspire to build their careers in law. Furthermore, due to the competitive nature of the profession and the constant peer pressure, many people have a strange fear of missing out apart from the mental trauma they face in the legal industry. The reason is simple – they do not understand the dynamics of the profession (because of the lack of exposure and networking), and it is not properly taught as to how the system and the industry, both work. This leads to many side-effects like how the Indian judiciary as a whole is misunderstood by politicians, academics, professionals and other people who have no relation to law as a field/industry. This is a grave issue and sadly, it is not discussed enough.
The Legal Economy is a Hybrid Economy and is Multi-Layered
Many academic institutions in India which teach law courses of any sort, fail to understand or anticipate the future of the legal economy. Take alternative dispute resolution for example. Many judges (especially High Court benches) try their best to ensure that court-directed mediations and settlements happen, so as to ensure expeditious disposal of cases. In matrimonial issues, many lawyers will agree that mediations are better suited and are often used to resolve complicated personal law disputes. If the lawyers and their clients do not understand how they can make great use of this system, they cannot efficiently utilise it.
In commercial mediation, if lawyers from both sides make maximalist demands, the chances of solving the dispute would obviously decrease. This is where organisations like Sama, CORD and CAMP are trying their best to promote alternative dispute resolution systems and forums. However, many law colleges are failing to educate and train their students in this field. Legal education should be considered from a mass-level perspective, which many people in the academia fail to address. This explains that one does not limit their scope of working to litigation only. Many successful lawyers and eminent judges in India agree that India needs a class of lawyers who dedicate most of their skills and time to arbitration and other forms of dispute resolution – which we can also refer to as the Mediation Bar and Arbitration Bar. That is a positive way to promote ADR in India. The academia however, remains muted and many institutions fail in addressing this issue.
There is another instance one may take to understand how legal education is not taken seriously. It is similar to how some if not all MBA programs make no sense for the future of work and evolved career and business opportunities. As start-ups and unicorns grow in India, lawyers might still be expected to join them as legal counsels and advisors. A lot of legal jobs probably could be limited to tax law, auditing and corporate governance. However, even if it begins from Tier 1 cities in India, legal professionals are now expected to contribute to institutions in a specific sense which flourishes the cause of the institutions.
Let’s take a simple example. If someone acts as a Legal Consultant in the Ministry of Commerce or any other ministry in the Government of India, their job is not limited to handling legal disputes. Their job also involves addressing public policy issues, inter-ministerial concerns and shaping the workflow of the government departments they are associated with. They are supposed to help bureaucrats enhance their workflow. However, none of this is known to the aspirants and young professionals.
Similarly, even in specialised business setups, law professionals are expected to devise legal solutions which are consistent with the growth and expansion of the business of that particular entity. These solutions may sometimes be “innovative” or “out-of-the-box”, and it is also possible that on most days, tasks could still remain procedurally plain and unattractive. However, helping systems grow is something where law professionals can contribute a lot. This is why some finance/business graduates become good commercial lawyers. Likewise, some lawyers who pursue MBA/ PGPs become valuable to the organisations they work with. Unfortunately, none of this taught to the students in many academic institutions, especially in Tier 2/3 cities. Lack of exposure is a real problem and while equality of opportunity is needed, everyone may not be able to avail things the same way.
The growth of artificial intelligence systems will also affect the legal industry in many forms. However, when the very basics of the industry are not properly taught to the students, it is impractical to expect the institutions to equip the students with the skills to collaborate as well as compete with growing technologies.
Legal Research is the Most Important Asset
In the legal fraternity (and academia), legal research is narrowed down to a limited sense of understanding, i.e., publication of blogs, articles and papers, or legal reporting or drafting and auditing tasks. However, in reality, legal research is the most powerful skill or asset that one may possess as a lawyer. It transcends the specifics of any particular area/field of law and is something that would be needed in all areas/fields. There are innumerable examples where people who have previously been into fields like criminal law have gone onto become some of the best arbitrators in the field of international investment law and other fields, across the world, from France to New York and even Hong Kong and Singapore. Law is a comprehensive field (like public policy) and the understanding concerning legal research needs to be broadened. Academic institutions must help law students enhance their legal research skills by introducing initiatives which are directed towards critical thinking, research methodology and legal writing.
The Revamp Starts with Recognition
It is important to realise that the state of legal education in India needs drastic changes. To start with, legal research may be considered the most important skill for anyone associated with law as a profession. On that note, I would also like to share my experience of supervising law students who interned with the Indian Society of Artificial Intelligence and Law (ISAIL) from 2020-2022. These law students belonged to various states, law schools and diverse socio-economic backgrounds. As per the VLiGTA Research History Report (2022), Charts 1.5 and 1.6 of which reflect that nearly 43% of law students who were recruited as research interns, were highly productive. On the other hand, we also realised that a lot of students were not even aware of legal research as a skill. Quite a lot of students knew how to write a research paper but were unaware as to the correct approach towards legal research in general. This is where my team and I helped them enhance their legal research skills. The 2021 Handbook on AI and International Law (2022) & the 2020 Handbook on AI and International Law (2021), two key publications by ISAIL had mostly law students as contributing authors. The chapters in these handbooks show how policy-related and market-related legal issues were addressed in a holistic fashion. Our approach was different than usual because we helped our former interns focus on areas which reflect their skill and understanding of things.
Figure 1: Report on Research History (2022), indicpacific.com/research-history, p. 38.
The second recommendation could be that the syllabus in law schools must go through some soft reforms where only the basic/foundational legal subjects like contracts, constitutional law, criminal law, alternative dispute resolution, public international law, jurisprudence and a few more are considered to be mandatory. Apart from these courses, students may be given courses which help them undergo a comprehensive pathway to entrepreneurship / research and development in academia / career. Specialised credit courses (taught by law professionals) is one of the many positive steps a number of law schools have taken. This may inspire more institutions to come up with relatable novel solutions.
Another recommendation is that the legal economy (and industry) must be explored by every stakeholder in an independent fashion. Be it a student, a judge, a teacher, a professional or anyone not even into law. There is a need to understand that this industry is incomparable to other professions. While, moot courts, essay competitions and dispute resolution tournaments / competitions serve their respective purposes, students must participate in these events not due to the fear of missing out, but to get some ground for using their research skills and related soft skills for preparatory purposes. However, it must also be pointed that there is a fair share of elitism attached to most of the moot courts and other competitive tournaments.
It is therefore advisable that students should attempt to also participate in activities other than the ones mentioned above which give them a decent exposure to present their research skills and do networking (examples include research conferences, workshops, legal services camps etc). Internships should be used effectively to get the taste of different legal sectors. Nevertheless, recognition would definitely help achieve short-term revamps.
(This post has been authored by Abhivardhan, who is the Managing Partner of Indic Pacific Legal Research LLP and the Chairperson & Managing Trustee of the Indian Society of Artificial Intelligence and Law.)
Cite as: Abhivardhan, ‘Legal Education in India: Need for a Revamp?’ (The Contemporary Law Forum, 26 April 2023) <https://tclf.in/2023/04/26/legal-education-in-india-need-for-a-revamp/> date of access.