Menu Close

Category: Law Schools (page 1 of 11)

A broader idea of accountability in law student governance

PaarasPandey_NALSARTwo years ago, Nalsar’s Student Bar Council adopted an accountability policy. It had a formal mechanism of holding student representatives accountable including the appointment of a financial auditor and a grievance redressal officer for each activity-based committee. The auditor had to submit a report on the committee’s functioning at the end of the year.

Even before the policy came into force, if serious misconduct by a Student Bar Council (“SBC”) member was discovered and reported, students could (and often would) convene a meeting of that member’s activity-based committee. Today, some representatives even inform the students, either of their own accord or in response to queries, about the activities of the SBC.

These (formal and informal) mechanisms are creating a culture of accountability within the SBC. What they do not reveal is how the representative body has not once protested declining standards of academic integrity.

Problems such as academic dishonesty among the faculty, high-handed wardens, unacceptable messing and other hostel services, and ridiculous rules of discipline are prevalent in nearly all the NLUs. On a recent visit to the Gujarat National Law University, I saw hostels that resembled prisons  – there was not enough ventilation or provision for drainage and no emergency escape planning.

Accountability usually refers to the duty of people in positions of power to justify or give reasons in support of the decisions and actions they have taken on behalf of their constituents or stakeholders. However, because a student government can negotiate with the administration of a college on more even terms than individual students, and because student grievance redressal mechanisms are either in their formative stages or absent, student representatives must assume a duty to seek explanation from the authorities until important issues are brought to the table.

ExecutiveBodyofTheStudentBarCouncil_NALSAR

The Executive Body of NALSAR’s Student Bar Council addressing a gathering of students.

Engagement may even have to be confrontational and in extreme cases, take the shape of civil disobedience. Our ideas of accountability among student governments and representatives therefore, should be broadened to include questions about whether the representative body publicly articulates disagreements with the college administration or builds opinion about any aspect of their functioning.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar.

Written by myLaw

NALSAR’s constitution has embraced gender diversity but needs to do more on inclusion

PaarasPandey_NALSARStudents at the National Law Universities (“NLUs”) may identify themselves with a certain class, gender, culture, sexual orientation, language, or region. Their experiences at college, including their academic performance and personal interests, can also be a part of how they identify themselves. Because the student bodies are small and diverse, governance is also shaped by concerns about plurality, diversity, and inclusivity.

Gender in the transit constitution

In instituting reserved seats for women within the Executive Committee (a body of office bearers) for 2014-15 under a transit constitution, the NALSAR administration probably felt that they had addressed inclusion holistically.

Historically, Student Bar Council (“SBC”) politics had been disadvantageous to women and has completely ignored the interests of non-LLB students. I have often been part of the sexist and most demeaning lobbying that happens in the boys’ hostel. It was also often said, only partly in jest, that “in Nalsar, the only thing worse than being a first year is being a LLM”.

So when the transit constitution allowed neither for voting by the postgraduate students, nor their representation in the Executive Committee, there were doubts about how far it went in terms of diversity and inclusion.

To create more diversity at the committee and executive levels, the the Constitution Review Committee (“CRC”) had proposed a ‘review system’ as the mechanism for affirmative action.

Sneha Vardhani (above, taking the oath of office) became the first President of the NALSAR Student Bar Council after the elections for 2014-15. Photo credit: Abhishek Singh

Sneha Vardhani (above, taking the oath of office) became the first woman to become President of the NALSAR Student Bar Council after the elections for 2014-15. Photo credit: Abhishek Singh

Gender inclusion and the proposed review system

It would apply in case of an election in which three-fifths of the members of the Executive Committee were of a particular gender. If this happened, the office bearer positions for which a person of a different gender had secured second highest number of votes would be up for review. Among those who stood second, the one with the highest number of votes would be appointed to the post for which they had contested.

Although the review would be used to substitute a popularly elected candidate, it could guarantee a diverse Executive Committee, and importantly, an approachable one, especially in relation to cases of ragging and sexual harassment.

The CRC believed that ensuring plurality (of opinion) and diversity (in composition) would be a step towards incentivising student participation in self-governance in the NLUs and that different gender perspectives would be invaluable to decision making.

What student governance can do to promote inclusion

Student government however, should also help students who are at an inherent disadvantage when they start at college, by virtue of cultural or other factors that have a potentially disabling effect. For instance, unfamiliarity with written or spoken English can disengage students from learning, especially as it is accompanied by the elitist environments at the NLUs. Student governments should take affirmative action to create support systems to help students overcome these basic barriers to integration into the law school experience.

An alumnus who recently visited NALSAR spoke about the experience of coming from a Tamil-speaking background. During the first year, the alumnus and some others from the same background, found it extremely difficult to understand the teaching. Some senior students organised preparatory sessions to help them with the language and the subjects that were part of the academic curriculum. Not attending these classes was not an option. If the first year students skipped these sessions, the senior ones would come searching, even if they were outside the campus. Eventually, they passed in all the subjects and saw the value in this exercise.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar.

Written by myLaw

A review of Nalsar’s SBC constitution is reinvigorating student self governance

PaarasPandey_NALSARIn the early days of my first year at Nalsar, I observed that because the administration tacitly encouraged senior students to handle even grave matters such as ragging, the final year students and especially the members of the Student Bar Council (“SBC”) were considered to be above all rules.

When student self-governance gets co-opted in this manner, absurd hierarchies develop within the student body. Along with this false hierarchy, the absence of grievance redressal mechanisms, the lack of filing requirements for candidates standing elections for these offices, and the students’ inability to directly elect office bearers, added to their disillusionment with the college’s affairs.

The Constitution Review Committee (“CRC”) was established in January 2014 to draft a revised constitution for the SBC that would reinvigorate student self governance at Nalsar through greater participation. It was a nine-member body with one student from the first year, two each from the third and fifth years, and three from the fourth year batch. Its sessions were chaired by the SBC President in a non-voting capacity. Among the members, only three were women and none had ever been an office bearer before.

The body worked by creating five sub-committees, each tasked with re-drafting the SBC constitution’s preamble, representative body structures, social justice mechanisms, financial allocation, and residuary features. The final version of the re-drafted constitution was submitted on May 20, 2014.

At the time that it submitted its report, all office bearers had to first contest at the class-level from any of eight committees – academic, cultural, hostel and campus welfare, literary and debating, mess and hospitality, moot court, sports, and student welfare. In such a system of indirect representation, none of the office bearers were truly representative of the popular will of the student body (as a whole), and therefore lacked the legitimacy to make representations on its behalf. In fact, the office bearers would feel the need to function as agents of their respective batches, because those students had voted for them.

In the CRC’s proposal, the student government would have two tiers – the Executive Council (“EC”) chosen through direct elections and the activity-based committees (“legislature”) chosen by elections within batches. Each committee had to coordinate and manage different spheres of students’ lives.

Every student could be part of the general decision-making body (“GB”) of any two committees. Except for their budget formulation, committees did not have constitutionally mandated functions. Instead, they had to formulate annual plans of action after consulting their GB.

Nalsar's Student Bar Council for 2014-15

Nalsar’s Student Bar Council for 2014-15

The EC could formulate policies or schemes but implement them only with legislative approval. Each office bearer in the EC also had responsibilities such as being the primary point of contact with the administration (the President), monitoring the finances of the committees (the Treasurer), and detailing the minutes of EC meetings (the Secretary). The Vice President would handle the student government’s ‘public affairs and consultation’.

A new post, that of an ombudsperson called the Student Advocate (“SA”), was also proposed. A fourth year CRC member borrowed the idea from the Public Advocate’s post in the New York City Council. The SA would be a non-voting member with the powers to receive complaints against representatives or take suo motu cognisance of a matter relating to inaction, impropriety, or partiality. Once the SA took up a matter, the erring representative or student committee was duty-bound to prepare a report and table it before the Legislature.

In this scheme, every power of a representative had been created only to enable the discharge of a specified duty, which is linked to rights enforceable by the students. Students have the right to be consulted, the right to be informed and seek information, the  right  to  file  individual  and  collective  complaints  with  authorities  and  to receive substantiated responses and replies, and the right to initiate impeachment or recall proceedings against representatives (including office bearers).

Most of the CRC’s proposals were never even explored fully. Many students were unwilling to experiment. Some said that they were opposed to direct elections because it would reduce chances for individual batches to win office bearer posts. This was unsurprising because by the second year, Nalsar’s hierarchy becomes an inseparable part of the students’ identities.

Perhaps the proposals were idealistic, but change won eventually. For the SBC elections for 2014-15, the administration promulgated a ‘transit constitution’, which reflected some of the CRC’s proposals but ignored significant ones. Although the CRC’s draft had not proposed reservation as a means of increasing diversity at all, this new constitution created reserved posts for women in the Executive Council. One welcome change was that voting for the President’s election was opened to the entire student body.

Note: I am grateful to Divya Venugopal for her study “The Elephant in the Room: Dealing with Final Year Disengagement”, which proved very helpful in understanding the causes of and methods to tackle student disengagement.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar. 

Written by myLaw

Organise into self-governing groups, NLU students, and influence decisions in your college

PaarasPandey_NALSARThe recurring controversies around the conduct of the Common Law Admission Test (“CLAT”) are merely symptomatic of the state of the country’s premier law colleges.

Perennially short of funds, the universities cannot allocate enough resources towards identifying and solving many of the problems faced by the students. They are unable to attract adequate grants (sanctioned specifically) for paying teachers’ salaries and with the resulting human resource crunch, the regular conduct of classes has become a rare phenomenon, especially for students in their fourth and fifth years.

The management of services related to food, water, sanitation, and housing fall short of acceptable standards. Fees increase every year, compelling more students to seek loans, thus coercing them to consider only corporate jobs once they graduate.

Although the National Law Universities (“NLUs”) are heavily dependent on fees from students, the students have no voice in the day-to-day affairs of these institutions. The parent statutes of the NLUs do not envision student participation in any form.

But students have been able to make useful contributions. For example, some from Nalsar, the Hyderabad-based NLU, advocated with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation to carry out regular garbage collection and disposal. Students have previously raised money to fund scholarships and even attempted tree-plantation and gardening with some success. But these programmes suffer once the individual students who initiate them graduate.

Through student self-governing organisations (“student governments”), students may perhaps be able to have a sustained influence on the day-to-day governance of colleges. They will have to arrive at practical and economically sound solutions to their problems and later, advocate with the administration for the adoption of these solutions through ‘collective bargaining’.

For instance, the academic committee of the student government (the Student Bar Council or the “SBC”) lobbied successfully for the relaxation of the unrealistic hostel curfew (9 p.m., also when the library would close) and that the library be kept open till 11 p.m. on all weekdays. When the college administration noticed a sizeable crowd in the library even late at night, the 1 a.m. closing time (applicable only on the days before an exam) was extended to non-exam weekdays as well. The library and the space around it which once seemed dead at 9 p.m. are today vibrant with student activity till much later at night.

Nalsar's Student Bar Council for 2014-15

Nalsar’s Student Bar Council for 2014-15. Photo courtesy Abhishek Singh.

Admittedly, some of the problems I have mentioned above are a tougher ask for the students to solve but the central rationale for the existence of student governments is much wider than solving problems. Sound decision-making requires deliberation between decision makers and the affected individuals. Student governments could serve as a platform to represent the concerns of students to the administration of the college.

Popular and democratic participation in student governments give their representations legitimacy. A student government would find it difficult to negotiate with the administration if it restricts itself to token representation, or where the representatives’ will is subjugated to the will of the administration, or where the will of a few dictates the will of the others.

Recently, the SBC  requested the administration to institute a committee to review its constitution. The debates that followed after the Constitution Review Committee (“CRC”) presented its draft constitution exposed many fault lines on issues such as the role of gender, reservations, models of election and diversity, but also demonstrated a commitment to tackling problems.

These experiences have showed me that the students of the NLUs can do much to change the situation they find themselves in. Were they to organise themselves into democratic self-governing groups, they could begin to influence decision-making in the college administration. They must become participants in administration through student government models that have popular support. To gain recognition from the college administration and popular legitimacy from their electorates, the representative bodies must be centred on the values of diversity, universal participation, transparency, and accountability.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar.

Written by myLaw

Those who can, teach – How law teaching builds bridges and fosters intellectual arenas

AtreyeeMajumder_CraftingLawCareersLaw is a difficult thing to teach. It requires the teaching of large concepts that vastly influence how governments and authority work or should work. Skills needed for the application, implementation, and adjudication of legal provisions are important and need to be taught as well.

The law classroom, I had felt, was less effective in teaching law than the practical experience of having to work out a legal argument to fit a real-life situation. This slipping on of the real-life shoes however, is not possible without a basic skill-set, one that is complex and diverse. Different law-teaching systems have had different visions about this skill-set.

The four legal professionals who have featured in this series so far have all had some teaching experience. Usha Ramanathan has, during the course of her career, taught at the National Law School of India University (“NLSIU”), Bangalore, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and at the National Law University, Delhi. Arvind Narrain has taught, among others, courses related to human rights and illegal citizenship at NLSIU and several ad hoc courses on human rights, gender, and sexuality for non-law students. Harish Narasappa has taught short courses at the Indian Institute of Management and at NLSIU. Amba Salelkar takes classes on disability law at Vidya Sagar, a Chennai-based non-profit organisation.

Building bridges to law

The challenges of teaching  feature amidst the larger practice of being publicly engaged lawyers. Students from non-law backgrounds, both Salelkar and Narrain say, are not daunted by the law. People in non-profit organisations in particular, where the knowledge of law can significantly reorient practice, seem to come at it with enthusiasm. Narrain has experienced great fortitude among college students coming at judgments on sexual violence containing disturbing details. He says he found in the classroom, key allies for the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. People who were intrigued or interested came forth and became involved.

Many law teachers find themselves delivering bridges to the world of law to students of politics, economics, management, and development studies. Sudhir Krishnaswamy, who has taught at several law schools and has designed and taught a law and governance concentration in the development masters programme at Azim Premji University, is immersed in this exercise. He says that his primary learning from the programme was that students of non-elite backgrounds were grappling with their first encounters with the law in ways very similar to first year law students. The challenges they faced, too, were similar to the ones faced by law students – in learning to work with law and fact. The diversity of material he used has expanded considerably. For instance, he engages more thickly with legal history, using literature from colonial and post-colonial history in general. These are materials he read himself, but didn’t use in law school classrooms. Krishnaswamy’s long teaching career has shaped his belief that law as a discipline, actively straddles the domain of social sciences and humanities, especially as it concerns questions of language and cognition.

Teaching law without the intention to teach

Law teaching can be seen, thus, along three major lines – teaching in a law programme, teaching in a non-law programme, and teaching law outside the university set-up. It helps me to elaborate on the third aspect first. Law arrives at the ears of lawyers through courts, judgments, other lawyers – seniors and peers, and in the classroom. A good part of the teaching can and may occur without the intention to teach. The professional architecture places some people in pedagogic positions with regard to others. Many in the litigating field would say the senior advocates they worked for, were their teachers or gurus. They did not teach the disciplines of law in the packaged form that is usually delivered in a classroom. Skills and intuitions about what the law can offer in a given situation, and how best to use this avenue to one’s advantage, might however, be best learnt and taught through everyday interactions. Many say they learnt a lot of law listening to court proceedings, especially as interns.

I am surprised at this as court proceedings occur in fragments where the issue at stake may not be clear to a bystander who does not have access to the relevant case file. Matters quickly transition into the next matter of the day, one realm of law to the next. If a bystander – a litigant, a journalist, or an intern – learns from this, it is not intended teaching that she derives from. It is a kind of learning by immersion – osmosis, perhaps. Languages are learnt often by immersion in the social milieu where the language is spoken. Can law be learnt and taught in the same way? Some say it is an effective way.

The other method of ‘unintentioned’ teaching and learning of the law, more predictably, is through books. Law reporters, treatises, newspaper articles, and the Internet are ways in which a legal topic or idea can be learnt and disseminated. There is a vast difference of course between reading a thick tome on jurisprudence in a dark library and opening several news websites at one go and consuming some update on a legal matter as one of the many things the Internet offers for consumption. The written word is common to both modes of communication and receipt and the latter is often an effective way for a non-legal audience to learn about the law. Undergraduate students’ interests are often piqued by legal domains being involved in a matter of contemporary news – for instance, land acquisition in recent months, because of the amendment bill. I continue to learn about the law (being no longer in practice) talking with friends and colleagues who are experts in legal fields, and from the media, especially from commentaries and editorials written by practicing lawyers like Indira Jaising and Flavia Agnes.

The classroom as an intellectual arena

Sudhir Krishnaswamy (left), Amba Salelkar, and Arvind Narrain.

Sudhir Krishnaswamy (left), Amba Salelkar, and Arvind Narrain.

The classroom though, remains an important space. What is its specific role from the point of view of legal professionals who have multifaceted careers? A classroom offers the possibility of a dialogic space. Facts and ideas may be taught and disseminated there. But if the teacher is attentive, it can unfold into a  democratic and dynamic intellectual arena. Like Narrain’s experience where students became long-term associates, for many teachers whose interest in the law is motivated by possibilities of change, the classroom should be an important space to invest in. Salelkar has found the need to press a certain literacy of law, especially constitutional law, to be important in her classes on disability law. She finds it a challenge to veer between giving activists too much hope and too little. Many, she finds, enter the domain of law with great wonder and energy. Krishnaswamy found it a place to toy with law’s relationship with the broad spectrum of social sciences. I have found the acquaintance of teachers who create longer paths of learning to often begin in the classroom discussion. The discussion itself may be of lesser importance but the dialogic space it affirms creates intellectual alliances that might have long-term implications for both parties. The importance of law teaching grows with the possibility of law creating a democratic space in addition to the ones already available in civil society.

(Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist. She teaches at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.)

Written by myLaw

Curriculum can be tweaked to teach mediation theory and have practical sessions

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversity

At every district court in Delhi today, you can see banners urging litigants to consider alternate methods for dispute resolution. Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 empowers a court to send parties for an out of court settlement where it appears possible. Such a settlement may be arrived at through arbitration, conciliation, judicial settlement, or mediation. The preferred method, judging by the frequency of the banners, is mediation. Given the clear systemic importance given to this method, one must ask whether law schools are acting on this cue. I spoke with Suveni Bhagat, an associate at Khaitan & Co. Excerpts from our conversation follow.

Abhinav Sekhri: What was your exposure to mediation activities in law school?

Suveni Bhagat: I was the Joint Convenor of the Alternate Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) Board of my college for a year during college and actively participated in ADR activities like client counselling, negotiation, and mediation. I also undertook a course on negotiation and conflict resolution during my exchange spell at the Singapore Management University. Organisational experience apart, my first participation in a mediation competition came at the International Academny of Dispute Resolution (“INADR”) Mediation Competition organised by NLIU Bhopal in 2011. The INADR delegates from the USA undertook a two-day training programme for us, and I found out later that they are also involved in training the mediators at various district courts in India.

AS: How much value, according to you, does the law school environment attach to mediation activities as against other co-curricular ones? Where does it rank?

Suveni Bhagat

Suveni Bhagat, associate at Khaitan & Co.

SB: Well, while mooting and debating had independent activity-based committees across law schools, I wasn’t aware of ADR having the same standing. The ADR Board at NLS Bangalore was also part of another committee when I was the Joint Convenor. I think that is also a product of the nascent stage of the relationship between law schools and ADR competitions. There are very, very few mediation competitions organised in India and most of them had their first edition just 2-3 years ago. The growing popularity of these activities is bound to change that. Another thing I found problematic was the way in which students considered these activities ‘easy’ requiring little skill, as opposed to something like mooting. Of course you don’t need to read tons of cases for mediation, but there is a different kind of skill involved. Persuasion requires training and practice. The good mediators know a lot of different techniques and approaches, and are quick on their feet because they go through a lot of practice scenarios.

AS: What (if any) opportunities did the law school academic curriculum offer to students for learning mediation skills, both regular courses and credit courses?

SB: We did have a course on ADR in our third year. However, around 75% of that course was dedicated to arbitration, and the rest was spent on negotiation and mediation. We did have mock negotiation sessions, but not for mediation. I think the course did not provide any insight on mediation as a skill and how it works in practice. During my time at law school, there weren’t any credit courses on mediation.

AS: Currently, most law schools offer a course on court litigation. Do you think the current focus on imparting litigation skills should be relaxed to help students learn mediation skills?

SB: Not necessarily, because at least at NLS, that course taught various practical aspects of the entire legal process. But certainly I think the curriculum can be tweaked a bit to teach mediation theory and have practical sessions. The practical sessions are key, because mediation involves so much more than pure legal knowledge. It is more about handling advocates and their clients, trying to understand their requirements and resolve the issue, without imposing or forcing your own solution on them. This could be well supplemented with an increase in mediation competitions, which always do well to garner student interest.

AS: How do you think students would benefit from this skill-set in their different potential workplaces?

SB: I think the very obvious benefit would be to understand the role of the mediator and more Mediationimportantly, the role of an advocate in a mediation. Considering cases are sometimes referred by the court to mediation, I think it would definitely be useful for law students to know the role of an advocate in mediation is different from that in court, and that the approach has to be different in order to get the best results for the client. Moreover, I think possibly the most important skill set that students can learn from mediation and negotiation is to approach issues with a win-win attitude, as opposed to a win-lose attitude, as in many cases there are joint gains that can be reaped. Splitting the difference, as is commonly suggested by many people, is an approach that actually undermines the results that can be achieved for both parties involved. One of the other important things that it teaches is to focus on the problem at hand, and not the people, so you can avoid ego issues getting in the way of resolving a conflict. The important understanding that negotiation should be not be based on positions but on interests (the classic fight over an orange example) and that it is imperative that you separate the problem from the people to achieve the best results. Further, the skill set developed as a result of training in mediation regarding handling people and figuring out the solution would be useful in any potential workplace, as it would help in not only dealing with an opposite counsel or party, but also your own client and organisation. Overall, I definitely think that mediation training helps you achieve a more well-rounded approach to dealing with conflicts and the acquired skill set would definitely benefit students in their varied potential workplaces.

(Abhinav Sekhri is an advocate practising in Delhi.)

Written by myLaw

Law schools should evaluate internships more rigorously and intervene to limit bad choices

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversityHaving explored different connections between practising law in India and the education provided in our law schools in previous posts, the internship stands out as the primary opportunity for law students to meaningfully interact with the real world before they graduate. It also tends to have a big influence on their decisions about the future.

Today, most major law schools make internships mandatory during vacarions and have their own internship rules. These rules will lay out where and for how long students are required to intern, and whether students are required to file reports that are then graded. Students may be required to work at different levels of the hierarchy of courts, and by the end of five years, they are expected to have been adequately exposed to the legal system.

How serious are law schools about grading internships?

Making internships mandatory reflects how important a university considers them, but the manner in which these rules are enforced belies their importance. The administration is quick to check whether the internship lasted a minimum duration and whether entries for each day have been made in the report, but not enough attention is paid to what is actually written. This is a more serious issue in institutions where the internship programme is graded, as it is in NLSIU.  There was also something quite amiss about having questions posed at us by academics about our experiences as practising advocates. The lack of any real criteria to evaluate internships meant that very few people knew how they were graded.

The rigid adherence to form also manifests itself in refusing outright, corporate internships as the rules require time to be spent in court. This ends up entirely defeating the purpose of mandatory internships for most, as they wish to gain exposure to various environments to make informed decisions about their careers. Students in turn, are forced to fudge their internship reports, which creates a lose-lose situation. By refusing to acknowledge corporatre internships, law schools turn a blind eye to the commercial realities of today where most students head for corporate jobs.

Reforms should also focus on the content of internships

lawschoolinternsPossible reforms must not only focus on the structure of the internship programme (such as expanding the time and allowing corporate internships) but also the content. Laziness cannot be the only reason for the failure to keenly evaluate internship reports. Teachers are not accustomed to the lack of uniformity either. Currently, there is a great degree of randomness associated with the internship experience, as different chambers and firms follow their own systems. Colleges could, perhaps, require the chamber or the firm to teach certain basic skills (such as drafting a contract), depending on how senior the student is. This would also ensure that students do not suffer because of the unpredictability, as can often happen at big offices. Such a step would help students make more informed decisions about their careers and also assist in objectively determining which offices are good places to intern.

Law schools should help their students make good choices

If we do believe that this current post-hoc intervention of law schools with internships is beneficial, should this be expanded to cover the pre-internship phases as well? At the moment, the entire business of securing an internship, whether at a chamber or otherwise, is left to the students. Offices usually treat students on a first-come-first-serve basis, which leads to the absurd need to secure internships for February 2016, in June 2015 itself. From what I last heard, NLSIU was trying out an internship coordinator to verify the internships taken by students, and facilitate securing internships for students who could not find one. In principle, I think the idea is sound; as long as the regulation is restricted to overseeing the process and providing information and not enforcing decisions. Currently, internship decisions are often made based on paltry information and unhelpful factors. For instance, first year law students apply to a senior advocate when all they know is a smattering of tort law, as they think a big name means a good internship. The same is not always true, and even a process to help supply that absent information can reduce faulty decision-making. I’m no fan of paternalism, but sometimes a little help doesn’t hurt.

(Abhinav Sekhri is an advocate practising in Delhi.)

Written by myLaw

Law schools are not very good at teaching drafting – and that’s a problem affecting everyone

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversityOral advocacy, which we discussed in my last post, is only one aspect of life as a litigator. An equal, if not greater, time and effort is spent in drafting legal documents, which help sustain everyday transactions.

How are the set of skills required for these nurtured in law school? Students at NLSIU only spend one-thirtieth of their time on average trying to draft documents – once during the Drafting Pleading and Conveyancing course in the third year and then in the Trial Advocacy course in the final year. This is undoubtedly a very short amount of time to develop these skills. At times, the focus was to get through as many documents as possible which curtailed the time spent on understanding the meanings of terms involved. Students therefore, end up not much better off compared to those people who may seek them out for advice on a verbose document. This encourages students, upon graduation, to use templates without appreciating how each clause may need tinkering for different situations.

AQOLbannerThere are structural issues at play as well. The current system views drafting mainly as an individual-centric exercise, teaching only those legal documents that natural persons execute among themselves or file in a court. We were taught how to draft mortgage deeds, sale agreements, and bail applications – but always for individuals and never from the perspective of corporate transactions. Elective courses apart, there is no training for drafting or understanding proper contracts, non-disclosure agreements, and their various clauses. This inexperience severely limits the exposure possible at internships, particularly in law firms.

The little that is being taught however, is surprisingly useful in the practice of law. That is simply because documents like sale deeds, bail applications, quashing petitions and the like still contain many formulaic elements and their form has not drastically changed over the last twenty-five years. The law school has been rather adept at simply providing the students those templates for later use. But is that a good thing? I think not.

In failing to critically deal with status quo, the law schools lets go of its most important responsibility – making the students think about the legal system. The manner in which legal documents continue to be drafted in India is very archaic, verbose, and hyper-technical; all of which pushes the common man even further away from the justice system. Is there an irreplaceable benefit to retaining the several “wherefore”s, “whereas”’, and “henceforth”s in a deed? None – apart from the apparent benefit of making it sound legal.

ThewaywedraftI view this as a symptom of a problematic imbalance in place at law schools today. Courses are designed to make students familiar with the text of the law, but not its application. There are hardly any drafting sessions during the two mandatory courses on contract law. Criminal procedure was taught without ever looking at a bail application. Similarly, property law went by without ever going through an actual sale deed or mortgage deed. The point is clear. National law schools must narrow the divide between the teaching of statutes and precedent and their application to real-world scenarios. Otherwise, their very purpose of providing India with socially useful lawyers may be lost.

(Abhinav Sekhri is an advocate practising in Delhi.)

Written by myLaw

Law schools cannot do much to improve the efficiency of arguments in courts

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversityStarting out, every law student nurtures some ambition to argue a case in court. The reason may be the glamour associated with lawyers in pop-culture or the innocent belief that arguing in court is what being a lawyer is about. A fresh law graduate however, rarely gets an opportunity to actually argue. Instead, they can observe the various styles of argument that lawyers employ and reflect on how five long years of legal education could have been put to better use for a life in the courts.

The vernacular as an entry barrier

Arguments at the high courts and the Supreme Court are conducted in English and the lawyers sound properly deferential to their lordships. At the district courts, the vernacular often supplements English and there is more informality with lawyers resorting to idioms and phrases to lighten the mood or make pointed remarks. Skilled trial lawyers are often adept at switching languages, playing to their strengths, and reading a judge’s reaction.

Honing these skills is a matter of experience, but that comes later. The use of the vernacular is a significant entry barrier for those who want to practice law in the courts. At NLS, there were only non-mandatory Kannada classes. Provided no training in any language other than English, a Delhi boy like me for example, will almost automatically, regardless of other factors, exclude trial litigation at lower courts in the south of India from his options for a career. Law schools should do their bit to improve the diversity in the profession by at least equipping students to practice law in the state where they are studying law.

The Indian styles of argument

OralAdvocacyIndianCourtsFrom top to bottom, an overflowing docket unites Indian judges who rarely have the time to familiarise themselves with each case. This has led to the development of peculiar styles of argument across courts. Judges, it is generally believed, cannot fully appreciate the written submissions because of the heavy burden of cases. Lawyers not only argue the case in law, they also spend time providing clarity on facts. Judges rarely ask lawyers to hurry up. Without a time limit, lawyers proceed leisurely from one issue to another, repeating arguments and returning to points. Linked to this is the practice of reading extracts from the written submissions aloud before the judge. This can be seen at a magistrate’s court and all the way up to the Apex Court. Several hours are spent fleshing out settled legal propositions by rehearsing case law in trying detail.

These inefficiencies can only be partly remedied by our legal education system. Law schools already expose students to more efficient ways of presenting arguments and promote the structured presentation of arguments. Through moots, students even practice how to present arguments for the most difficult legal problems in a coherent fashion within twenty-five minutes.

Legal education however, can only do so much. Judges and clients have grown so accustomed to these inefficient methods that any deviation seems a very high-risk strategy for lawyers. Change is much more likely to come through the bench. Recently, much to my delight, it was reported that the Supreme Court was considering time limits for oral arguments to curb delays caused by lawyers taking too much time over settled points. It’s certainly a start, but there is a long road ahead.

(Abhinav Sekhri is an advocate practising in Delhi.)

Written by myLaw

Why I wish law schools would organise more court visits

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversityMy first court visit, during an internship, remains etched in my memory. Visitor pass in hand, I entered the Supreme Court, gazing awestruck at the beautiful façade. I set out to find Courtroom Number 12. How hard could it be? Very hard indeed. It took me half an hour, during which I was even ushered out of a judges’ enclosure, and I missed the matter. I later discovered that this was a rite of passage. All my classmates had stories of getting lost in the winding corridors of court complexes.

Today, only after some months of running around the many district courts of Delhi am I able to carry myself about with a measure of certainty. I discovered many previously unknown parts of court complexes. On its face, a court is little more than the main building with many small courtrooms inside. Only when you get your elbows into work do you discover what lies beneath. Inside the courtroom itself, there is a lot that goes on beyond the interaction between a lawyer and a judge. The judge is assisted by a Reader who handles all administrative work inside the room and the Ahlmad who is charged with handling all judicial files for that court. Outside courts, areas are designated for lawyers’ chambers, and all sorts of para-legal assistance — typists to help with an application, oath commissioners for the accompanying affidavit, and copiers to get the several copies that courts require.

myLaw Unltd.

The library and canteen are more interesting. At the court libraries, there are lawyers deeply engrossed in commentaries and preparing their arguments, while others rush in and out looking for copies of cases in matters that are currently being argued. At the canteens, there are tables where lawyers gossip and others where the discussion is about an issue of law.

Windingstaircase_MadrasHighCourtThough a very interesting one, my process of discovering courts left me with some concerns. Courts seemed to pay little or no attention to the ordinary litigant. Lawyers on the other hand, were demigods. Buildings have complex layouts with little or no directional assistance to get around. Security passes at the higher courts automatically exclude litigants without readily available identity proofs but anyone in black and white will manage to enter them unchecked. The bureaucratic dependence on files breeds corruption by creating more palms to grease for any work that needs to be done. Given the scale of the problem, it seems the common litigant can only hope to snigger and chip away, one date at a time.

Courts would certainly benefit from fresh ideas, but where will these come from? A university is the best place for the germination of fresh ideas, but law students are afforded little or no opportunities to familiarise themselves with the problem. Most students only get an opportunity to attend court during internships. But in those few weeks, there is rarely time to explore the court. More exposure to the court would also allow students to make better decisions about their careers.

(Abhinav Sekhri is an advocate practising in Delhi.)

Written by myLaw