Academics at law school – learn as much as possible and don’t expect to be spoon-fed

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversitySince the Bar Council of India prescribes that law schools must teach sixty courses over five years, you can make a fair guess that academics will consume most of your time there. Now, at the end of five years at law school, I think our time is largely shaped by how we take to the academic system that is in place. I can try to give you a headstart but, given that NLSIU follows a different system with three terms as against two, my knowledge is specific to my experience there.

Schools don’t have classrooms with eighty people, so the first day of college was quite strange – no fixed seats and no real friends yet to help you decide where to sit. Decisions were made along easy lines: while some came early to grab seats right up front, and some others specifically took seats at the back to text through class, most just sat near their roommates. Try taking a picture of how class sat on the first day, and look at it at the end of term. You would be amazed at the difference.

I can imagine the first legal methods class across colleges starting around that same old question: ‘What is law?’. A bunch of eighty wide-eyed enthusiasts then debate over a term that will forever remain beyond definition. It is sad though, that in my five years of law school, Legal Methods became something like the Defence against the Dark Arts class – every year, the teacher changed. Tort law was an early favourite because we could show off the little law we learned during our CLAT prep: damnum sine injuria FTW. The terror though, lay beyond law. Every first year student was taught to become afraid of the horror that is Economics-I, Professor Somashekar (though most women end up adoring him and his aviators), his slides full of graphs, and a sense of humour (I leave you to judge that). Pay enough attention, read your Pindyck, and you realise that economics is really not that hard after all. It also includes some of the coolest project topics, such as the ‘economics of dating in law school’.

From left to right, the library at NLIU Bhopal, exams at Salgaocar College of Law in Goa, and a student engaged in solitary study at NLSIU Bangalore.

Research papers, or ‘projects’, take academics outside the classroom. Now this is not some CBSE holiday homework assignment, nor a Chemistry practical exam. Projects are academic papers you write, which allow you to really learn something through in-depth research on a specific topic. For me, this was the best part of the academic life in law school. It taught me more than most classroom-teaching; it helped me develop research skills, hone my legal writing ability, and to respect academic integrity. My own economics paper, on the ‘economics of a chaat-vendor’, involved getting to know the business of a local vendor, figuring costs and profits, and determining whether the enterprise was profitable. I shared my findings with the vendor, and I can never forget how the predictions in the paper were realised later. This wasn’t policy-making or world peace, but few things give more satisfaction than seeing how you can affect change.

All this does not mean things are always rosy: courses are not a breeze, and don’t listen to those who insist otherwise. Exams happen twice a term, along with which you have projects for each course. During the first year, it seemed like an endless cycle: project submission, mid-term exam, second submission, end-term, and then ‘repeat’. In all of this, you’re lucky to have an amazing resource pool to tap into: your seniors. I don’t think many of us would have navigated the first year without having a senior to turn to at every step, be it exam preparation, projects, or anything else. When there’s just a day left to submit your economics project draft with a million changes, that’s who you will turn to. Talk to them, learn from them, make new friends, but don’t ever stop thinking for yourself in that entire process.

LawSchoolInductionCollege is not meant to be like school. Teachers are not supposed to spoon-feed you by dictating notes which you vomit during exams to get marks which don’t reflect your level of understanding. Prospective NLS first years, I can guarantee Professor Elizabeth will tell you this and many more things, and in a way that you are never likely to forget. The sad part is that some courses can easily end up involving nothing more than mugging notes, and getting marks with little resemblance to your understanding. Grades matter, but when the person across the table sees the mismatch between your grades and your ideas, it is not a nice place to be in.

Luckily, you can decide whether things should go that way. With everything else that is going to happen, try using your five years to learn as much law as possible. You will never get five years for simply doing this again.

(Abhinav Sekhri is a fifth year student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. The previous article in this series is here.)


Hello freshers, welcome to law school!

AbhinavSekhri_NationalLawSchoolofIndiaUniversityIt’s almost here – July 1, 2014; the date that most of you will begin your law school journey. The CLAT, your first hurdle, has been successfully dealt with and all the hard work that you put in at law training classes has finally paid off. Some of you may have been at it for a couple of years, almost breathing law by the time you step foot into college. Some of you, like me, would have just taken the crash courses, not knowing what you wanted to do after school and now can’t believe your luck. After spending some time after the exam discussing the sheer idiocy of some questions from the GK section, , the wait would have become an apprehensive one if you really wanted to get in to law school. I remember how when I took the CLAT, the website crashed and delayed the results. One of my friends then had an entire extended family glued to computer screens. Getting to know that I had made it remains one of my sweetest memories and I am sure it is the same for you.

NLSIU_AishwaryaBakery_ChettaI bet you can’t wait to find out what law school holds for you. It will be your home for the next few years. I remember the only thing I knew about the place was a cousin telling me that NLS was a little island of greenery in the middle of nowhere, something that is not so true anymore. Sometimes, with siblings or cousins in law school, you would already know a lot of things your peers would only explore during their first week. At NLS, this includes things like the small bakery (known as ‘Chetta’) on which most of the college runs and other golden words – like faff – that will become integral to a lot of conversations.

In the coming weeks, I am going to write about some specific facets of life at law school. My view would be dominated by my time at NLS and I know little of life at other law schools, but I am sure there is much in common, including a certain language that we speak, the cracking of locus standi jokes (incorrectly), interpretations of sentences in ways that they were not intended to be interpreted, the practices of eulogising “studs” and going thirty hours without sleep (or more if you are a mooter), and parties where you will experience various “firsts” in life.

LawSchoolInductionAs valuable as my insights are, please do not rely too much on them. Even the slightest of preconceived notions can cause you to miss out on a lot of experiences. For instance, don’t mistrust your seniors thinking they are only out to get you. I remember how in the first week, it was my roommate’s birthday. I was told of a tradition of cutting cake at midnight and giving a birthday bash at Chetta, but thought it was just another cheap trick. I was wrong, and those “barbed wire birthdays” were pretty special.

Having said that, I realise after five years that it is perhaps not the best thing to come without having the faintest idea of what is on offer. You’d have a lot coming your way in the first month, and with my posts here, I’ll do my bit to help you settle in.

Until next time.

(Abhinav Sekhri is a fifth year student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.)

Human Rights

The future of legal aid in India: Lessons from Mewat, Haryana

What is the future of legal aid in India? What role do lawyers, law schools, and NGOs have in securing the rights and entitlements of citizens in rural India? Jane E. Schukoske, a firm believer in the potential of legal aid in alleviating poverty, is the CEO of the Institute of Rural Research and Development (“IRRAD“). Navneet Narwal is a Programme Leader at the same organisation and works with their Good Governance Now project, which has conducted structured training of citizens about their rights and entitlements in Mewat district in Haryana. They spoke with us about enhancing the current framework of the National Legal Services Authority and subordinate legal services authorities and the requirements placed on law schools to conduct legal aid clinics.

Law Schools

Volunteers for technology

By Vishnu Shriram

Vishnu Shriram recently took over the reins of the Cyber Committee at the W.B.N.U.J.S. Here, he narrates the story of how a bunch of students became an Internet Service Provider to a University.
Vishnu Shriram recently took over the reins of the Cyber Committee at the W.B.N.U.J.S. Here, he narrates the story of how a bunch of students became an Internet Service Provider to a University.

Internet access used to be a prized commodity at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS). Six years ago, internet access was provided for one to three hours a week at a common computer to students who paid a required fee. Faced with repeated refusal by the University to support technology access in any credible manner, the Committee used to survive on generous student donations and regular salvages at the computer market at Chandi Chowk.

Today, “nujs.local”, spanning two six storey buildings and over four hundred users is the resident network, wholly conceived, setup and managed by the Cyber Committee. ‘ccom’, as it has come to be known, is comprised entirely of students and has become one of the core committees under the Student Juridical Association (SJA). Like every other committee, it has a Faculty Advisor who guides committee policies and helps out in matters which require funds and consent from the University.

It was established nearly nine years ago as a temporary measure until the University hired professionals to provide internet access and manage the network for the two hostels and the academic block. A high investment proposal by ERNET (a wing of the Information Technology Department of the Government of India) was (and still is!) in the pipeline and so ccom was established by a bunch of nerdy law students who took it upon themselves to provide internet access to the hostels.

Mammoth change

After Akash Sirohi (Batch of 2009) took over from the original resident network admin Joydeep Haldar (Batch of 2008) as Convenor of the Cyber Committee, a host of changes were made to the network structure and the software systems that are used to run the various components of the network. The switch from the popular and proprietary Windows platform to open source software on the Linux (Ubuntu) platform helped make tremendous headway. The members became regulars on Ubuntu and networking forums. Sirohi and Soumya Shanker (Batch of 2010), a trouble-shooter for the committee since his first year at NUJS, began the slow and arduous switch to more powerful networking systems. It was also during this period that a cache web server was put into place and faster broadband connections were acquired from BSNL.


Today, the Cyber Committee has put in place far more problem-free system – at least on the software side. The local network is fully self sufficient now with a resident firewall, web cache proxy server, a direct connect hub for file sharing purposes, an in-house DNS resolution server, an authoritative DHCP server, an ad-block proxy server, an Ubuntu update cache server and a host of network management services on all of these. The structure of the network map has been reworked only slightly since its initial days and currently uses CAT5E cables and entry-level access layer switches on each floor of the hostels. Apart from these, the signals cascade down to the access layer switches from a pair of distribution layer switches and the core switch of the network.

The winter semester of 2009 saw the arrival of the much awaited 2 MBps Leased Line connection (courtesy of BSNL again) and new switches. It took the committee a bit of time to free funds from the hands of the University in order to incorporate the newly acquired connection into the network as December 2009 saw a remarkable change in internet access at NUJS. We were all at long last, a static entity on the internet. This spelt joy in project making as research websites such as Heinonline and Westlaw which had access in the library could not previously be incorporated into the hostel network. The popular file sharing program DC++ was also introduced to users soon enough and a file sharing frenzy gripped the network. Today, nujs.local has over eight terabytes of shared data across the network.

The Works

Simply put, ccom is the resident Internet Service Provider. The committee carries out both the technical and the administrative side of running a network that is a medium-sized one, even in networking terms (small being between 180 – 200 users).

The administrative work by itself proves quite cumbersome as this involves the gathering of funds to pay off bills and the replacement of the usual loss by wear and tear. The bill for the leased line is paid off by gathering an equal portion of the bill amount from all users of the network’s facilities. Usage is tracked through a system of compulsory static IP addresses that are assigned to the users upon registration. Members also make regular jaunts to the Chandni tech market to meet the routine needs of the network. For several years now Anshuman Rath (Batch of 2011 and Convenor) has been at the helm of affairs in this department.

The technical part of running a network is divided in some sense into two tasks – that of managing the hardware and that of the software systems in place. The committee members branch out when it comes to this and people take up what they are most comfortable with.  A feature of the Committee is that the entire network is hosted and managed from a server room (two hostel double rooms put together) on the third floor of the Boys’ Hostel so naturally the role of the female ccom members is minimal. This is as a result of the basic network structure (being centred away from the Girls’ Hostel) and in some sense due to a difference in the level of technical expertise. All technical duties are invariably undertaken by the guys while the work of compiling lists of users on every floor and the like is carried out by the ccom member on every floor. This obviously means that ccom members are pretty much the only guys who have easy access to the girls’ hostel building. This can be quite irritating as lack of access fails to prove a good enough excuse for failing to fix electronic equipment that has been put out of order by a female hand (which is very often the case).


Doubts have been expressed  in the past about over-dependence on certain ccom members, especially in managing the networking and software. However, over the years, a notion of continuity has strongly been established as senior members tutor the less experienced ones to carry the baton once they have left. The Cyber Committee’s work almost never ceases, computers having no time or place to give up on you and troubleshooting and management even at preposterously unearthly hours is almost expected of the committee. The committee provides an essential service, and is not simply a form of co-curricular activity, This places it on quite a different footing on comparison with its counterparts.

There are certainly perks associated with the position of a network administrator just as there are perks with every other position of responsibility and power, but members in the past have expressed concern over a growing notion amongst the student body that the ccom is obligated to keep the network running, forgetting that the committee is in its truest sense, just like every other, where the members are simply enthusiastic and interested volunteers who are setting aside personal time and space.

With the ERNET project still hanging uncertain, the committee has chalked out grander plans of improving connection stability and to add more features to the network. An 8 MBPS leased line connection and power backup to begin with.

As of Monsoon Semester 2010, I have taken over the hefty baton of the Committee. At the end of the day, despite the seeming thanklessness of playing a network administrator at nujs.local, the sheer volume and vastness of the knowledge and skill that one acquires as a committee member, especially on the technical side is something in my opinion, every ccom member ought to be extremely thankful for.

Law Schools

The Training of Trapeze Artists

bibliothequenationale“The diploma gives society a phantom guarantee and its holders phantom rights. The holder of the diploma passes officially for possessing knowledge, and comes to believe, in turn, that society owes him something. Never has a convention been created which is more unfortunate for everyone- the state, the individual, and in particular, society.”

Paul Valery

This Independence Day, a friend studying at NLSIU wrote an exam on Private International Law. The special repeat in question (more on those in a minute) was scheduled for the previous afternoon; postponed at the last minute at the request (presumably) of Rahul Gandhi’s security detail, who occupied NLSIU’s academic block all afternoon. ‘We figured the exam was cancelled’, said my highly amused friend that evening, ‘when we were waved away from the building by a guy with a gun’. Mr. Gandhi was coming later that day to address a student body directed to bedeck and bejewel themselves in his honour, but refrain from any spontaneous displays of political acuity.  That a politician could halt and censor the administration of the best legal school in the country isn’t, however, the amazing part of this story (though is it only alumni who remember when Yasin Mallik was to be found waiting to give his talk at tea-shops outside law school?). Of the four people who wrote the exam the following morning, a final roadblock for the weary on the path to graduation two weeks later, only three passed. It was a somnolent public holiday, not to mention the Sabbath, yet the college revived itself from the festivities long enough to shaft someone. Maybe I reread Little Women a few too many times growing up, but does this sound like an allegory of Pilgrim’s Progress already? And I’m just getting started.  If only a German professor could come rescue us already.

The culturally appropriate reference here is probably 3 Idiots, the college-angst movie I watched rather late in the hype. Many themes in the movie were familiar to anyone who has spent time in educational institutes across the country: the suicides we avoid, the intellectual tyranny we seek to escape, vindictive and petty teachers, the formalisation of an education system focused more on job training and less on creativity. In science circles, this has meant the invention-cycle gets derailed and we expend our brains to help other people make discoveries; in legal circles, it means we care less about policy and big pictures and more about dodging regulation and honing the company line. Other elements in the movie, like Aamir Khan’s wholly improbable character, are clearly theatrical. Colleges punish slackers, true, but they punish the genius maverick just as much. Rather, they define and distort such people until either the genius or the maverick in them is burned out. Perhaps, though, that is only my college. Did yours happen to fail anyone on Independence Day?

It was no ordinary exam that she failed: the special repeat is granted only to those people who have one subject standing between them and salvation, whether it be going up a year or getting out entirely. This special repeat was a fifth-year one, which meant the person who failed will only graduate next year, after being a hair’s breadth away from a finishing line she has been aspiring to for eight years. The length of the stick bears no comparison to the paltry carrot: the NLS degree, a barcode to the good life. Parents consider it a guarantee for employment; friends, who know better, counsel legitimacy.  For the people who are writing this exam, the degree is a shiny piece of cardboard limp with age and effort; long toil having sapped any enthusiasm they might once have had for it. It is only an ability to explain to the curious and the critical what one did for the last five (six/seven/eight) years that motivates people writing exams one week before convocation; the quick rebuff, ‘I got my degree’, because you have no genuine response to the question. It is a scenario to prove Montaigne’s prescience: the school of necessity is indeed kept by a violent mistress.

I did not run that particular gauntlet in my final year, but can vividly sympathise with the emotion that propels it. One year later, I am still filling the vast gaps in my education, still grappling with the terror of utter ignorance. Arguably, a legal education is intended to forge orators more than writers and framers of technical minutiae more than artists in abstraction; maybe the failing is all my own. I was not the brightest button in my class, nor in my college, but neither was the person who topped it, at best a schemer and at worst a venal backstabber. To be a star in this academic firmament, you needed not only smarts and work, but also the right kind of intelligence and increasingly the right kind of wheedling.

If you were to ask me what I discovered in my five years training to be a lawyer, how to down a dozen shots and the wondrous Sonny Boy Williamson would probably rank higher than any academic achievements. On the other hand, I am an inveterate reader, and a finer library you would be hard pressed to find in your everyday college. The “elite college” is thus a complex conundrum: quicksilver classmates who take one from country bumpkin to consummate blatherer, teachers who can inspire if they would just try, a vigorous curriculum which can’t but help improve one’s erudition and elocution. I learned plenty writing four papers every trimester; it taught me invaluable lessons in pacing, structure, discipline, research, and creativity. True, these developments went largely unnoticed by anyone except me: they certainly didn’t reflect on my grades. Yet, without law school I wouldn’t be writing this column, and for that I will always be heartily grateful.

If the only marker of education is the improvement of one’s personal lot in life, there is no doubt graduating from a reputable institution repays one hundred-fold. For every classmate lost between years, there is one at Harvard and another making more money than Midas. Yet, all too often, the cost of the degree is obscured by publicity, and all anyone on the outside hears about is the payoffs and the kickoffs. As with any bloodsport, broken bones and buckets of guts and tears are ignored in the quest for the ideal outcome, the perfect reputation. When this goes on for too long, middlemen and managers become peddlers in dreams and fantasies, and an image is crafted that lacks any relationship with reality. Everyone doesn’t graduate; people leave to save their sanity, people are forced to leave; sometimes they kill themselves, often they become cardboard cutouts of their earlier vibrant selves. Any worthy enterprise takes its toll, to be sure, but shouldn’t worth be measured, partially, by its downside? Don’t potential students have the right to know what they might be getting into, rather than be encouraged to rush headlong into the promise of a rosier existence?

The real benefit of the education is emancipation, social as much as personal. It opens up worlds and doors that are all too readily closed to fresh blood, it catapults one into the arena where decisions are made and policy considered. It gives one, to use a hackneyed word, agency. A legal education, with its emphasis on the ways in which we are governed, does that better than most. We are, truly, the music-makers, the movers and shakers; and sometimes the world-losers and world-forsakers.  It is not a responsibility that is easy to evade, which is not to say we don’t flee as fast as we can into the arms of private capital, but to have informed, considered opinions on our politics and our democracy is no small thing. Democracies are run, or ought to be run, from a vantage of knowledge, and simply reading India’s constitution with a view of understanding it, does, in fact, take the better part of three college courses. Yet, this is precisely what makes a stultified legal education, of the kind we increasingly notice in our institutions, such a terrible waste: laws were invented to be interpreted, and when one’s creative faculties are locked away for five years, that is a skill it is impossible to learn. One might know, down to last precedent, what everyone else thinks of the matter (and reap the rewards of being such an autodidact) without the least inklings of an autonomous opinion.

It is the fearlessness required to prove everyone else wrong, or dated, that makes a good brain a brave one, and that is the difference education is intended to foster. We were all smart before we got in (while the entrance exam tests for privilege rather than potential, that is the subject of another essay), it is the purpose of a professional education to transform us into courageous, enlightened, and engaged intellectuals, with less to lose than most people and thus more spunk and daring on display. It is the purpose of a legal education to empower one to convert helplessness into franchise, to aid those who can’t speak to stand up for what they are owed by society, by privilege, by history. Chomsky called it the ability to speak truth to power, a responsibility Edward Said once spoke passionately about in Representations of the Intellectual:

“The intellectual, in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier, nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas (sic), or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or the conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public.

“This is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along. That this involves a steady realism, an almost athletic rational energy, and a complicated struggle to balance the problems of one’s own selfhood against the demands of publishing and speaking out in the public sphere is what makes it an everlasting sphere. Yet its invigorations and complexities are, for me at least, the richer for it, even though it doesn’t make one particularly popular.” 

We were sent to a law school that was founded on the premise that it would educate questioning minds as well as polished ones; that it would train people to appreciate what Joyce meant when he said “Thinking is a mode of experiencing the world”. Instead, we leave little more than trained monkeys who can marry the right AIR with the right occasion (admittedly no small skill; shelves of AIRs induce vertigo in my brain). To boil it down to a nutshell sound bite, here is my point: perhaps, to be advocates in the truest sense of the word, we should also be taught to stop and wonder, every so often, whether precedent might be less important than principle, and heresy more productive than hierarchy.

Nandini Ramachandran blogs at Chaosbogey and is the “subtlest beast of all the field”. We understand she will write on law, society and education.