Are law schools creating social engineers? A hopeful response

Are Indian national law universities creating social engineers?

Are Indian national law universities creating social engineers?

National law schools were started in the hope that they could create ‘social engineers’, but it is argued by many that the experiment backfired, with the law schools instead mass-producing transaction lawyers. A recent article by Gopal Sankaranarayanan (you can access it on the Spicy IP link) explains some of the mistakes that could have been made in implementing the National Law School model (or the NLS Bangalore itself).

Of course, if the system were different, one can argue that the lawyers produced by it could possibly have chosen career paths with higher-impact, but then systems are seldom perfect – it often takes longer than expected to fine-tune a system to work at the desired level. However, that does not stall societal progression. The question here is this – despite systemic limitations, in which direction has the career-graph of modern-day lawyers progressed? Have national law schools merely fed the expansion of corporate law firms, or has there been more meaningful impact?

Although the expression ‘social engineers’ is not described at length, intuitively it appears that lawyers are being visualized as the primary thought-leaders who are at the forefront of a conscious and transformative social change. I cannot evaluate to what extent social engineering has occurred, but  I believe that the law school system has definitely shown the way forward for several transformative changes to occur (I don’t explore whether this is intentional or not). In this article, I will give several recent examples to illustrate the point, apart from the examples offered by Gopal Sankaranarayanan in his article.

#1 Number of lawyers practising transactional law may be seriously overestimated

Recruitment statistics (largely available from records of campus placement committees of different law universities) create a huge bias on how many lawyers opt for transactional law or working in corporate law firms – while most students start out working as transactional lawyers, it appears that a majority of those who take up law firm jobs quit in the first two to three years. In my batch itself, about 85 percent of my batchmates who graduated in 2011 from NUJS quit law firm jobs by the end of the first year itself. The reason why national law university graduates start out by working in law firms is not only the lure of money, but often a necessity to ‘recover’ or ‘justify’ the abnormally high costs of a law school education.

#2 Lawyers have carved out new career opportunities, restricting the popularity of working in a law firm

The dream of working in a large corporate law firm has not been so rosy post the financial crisis triggered in 2008. Lawyers working at several top law firms have been regularly striking out on their own and starting independent boutiques. Many lawyers have even moved on to different industries. Some have moved to unchartered territories like legal journalism or sports management. Raghul Sudheesh, for instance, is a legal media entrepreneur (alumnus of NUALS, Cochin) who worked extensively with Bar and Bench, Livelaw and is now an executive editor at the first ever print tabloid for lawyers called LegallyYours. Sonal Mattoo, for instance, started Helping Hands, an organization that has been helping companies create workplaces that are safe from sexual harassment, much before the 2013 law prohibiting sexual harassment was enacted. Similarly, Amba Salelkar is associated with the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy, which works with relevant stakeholders on ensuring that India is compliant with its international obligations on disability laws. These are only a handful of names that I can recollect from my experience. Several NLU graduates are working on public policy issues, at prestigious institutions such as PRS Legislative Research, Centre for Policy Research or the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.

Politics has also not been left untouched – Jaiveer Shergill (an NUJS alumnus), is one of the youngest spokespersons at the Congress party.

#3 New ways of using law have emerged, facilitated by alumni of national law schools

The way law is being used to solve problems is changing – Vakilsearch which provides very good quality legal advice, documentation and related services affordably, to Akosha which enables ordinary people to access consumer forums cheaply in the event of a dispute are good examples. Easylaw.in and Hiremyhead.com – both started by NLU alumni or current students also focus on reducing costs of legal services. These can change the way the common man perceives the law and benefits from the legal system. In a country where accessing lawyers or even finding the right kind of lawyer for your needs is extremely difficult, is making legal services affordable less of an achievement as compared to social engineering?

#4 Corporate lawyers are not always doing the same kind of work, they have diversified

The era of corporate lawyers exclusively working on deals for foreign investors is probably over – several lawyers are now doing different things. For example, Murali Neelakantan (an NLS alumnus), who is the Global General Counsel of the global pharmaceutical giant Cipla – assisting in devising strategy and decision-making processes at the highest levels of a global giant can have deep influence. Similarly, Mr. Suhaan Mukerji (an NLS alumnus), who, after working as a partner in Amarchand Mangaldas, now works as an Expert Adviser to Sam Pitroda at the Office of Advisor to the Prime Minister. Several top-notch corporate lawyers, such as Ms. Madhurima Mukherjee (again, an NLS alumnus) have taken to working on the IDIA project, which aims to enable students of economically weaker sections of society to access law school education. Professor Shamnad Basheer is not only a renowned teacher and expert on IP laws, he has also assisted the Supreme Court as amicus curiae in important decisions and has founded IDIA.

#5 Significant transformational results can be seen if law universities also engage in teaching law to non-lawyers

Law need not be used as a tool merely by lawyers. Like science, elementary mathematics or personal accounts, working knowledge of law can be essential for people in different walks of life. It may be too much to place the responsibility of becoming ‘social engineers’ exclusively on lawyers – why not teach law and legal rights to ordinary people and let them contribute in any way they can? Every person can benefit from an understanding of the law – for example, a factory manager or HR professional needs to understand labour laws, a businessman needs to understand taxes, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility. It is also possible for managers and businessmen to use law in ways that lawyers cannot.

What can be the impact of teaching corporate social responsibility to businessmen and directors, or sexual harassment laws in the workplace to employees? Can we imagine the effects of an education that teach a social entrepreneur how to negotiate his termsheet while he raises capital for his or her venture?

If it can lead to more responsible businesses and more sensitive employees who are aware of their rights at the workplace, will it not be a meaningful transformation? Can it not bring about social change at the grassroots level? It may not create individuals who are ‘social engineers’, but can the cumulative social change be classify as an outcome of ‘social engineering’?

#6 The system might be changing too, just not in the direction some of us would like it to

It was argued that the national law schools failed to attract practitioners, which is undoubtedly true. However, a change is gradually occurring– Professor M.P. Singh had ensured that some of the most reputed names taught at NUJS in his tenure. New universities such as National Law University Delhi and Jindal Global Law School have managed to draw practitioners into some form of teaching on a more regular basis than traditional law universities and even the earlier national law schools. Online education offers tremendous possibilities of bridging the gap between theory and practice of law across the nation – several online initiatives have already taken off quite well (see here for an example). In fact, I am part of an initiative that is helping NUJS to constitute the country’s largest industry-panel comprising of practitioners, which can advise the university in its various educational initiatives. Change is definitely under way, although it may be much different than originally envisioned.

It is hard to identify whether law school education has contributed anything towards this outcome in a conscious manner – that is, it may be pure coincidence. However, it is always helpful and gives us hope when we can identify and weigh positive outcomes (even if they are coincidental) together with negative outcomes and failures – it gives a more balanced sense of perspective.

About Abhyudaya Agarwal

Abhyudaya is a former restructuring lawyer turned entrepreneur. He writes on business laws, online education and interesting startup stories. He heads content development and operations at iPleaders, a legal education startup he co-founded.

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