There is a need to look beyond the perceived falling academic standards in the National Law Schools
All is not well with India’s legal education system. A common solution suggested is to establish more law schools like Banaglore’s National Law School of India University (NLSIU). However, a recently published report by a commission headed by Justice K.T. Thomas on the NLSIU records falling academic standards at the institution and calls for immediate remedial measures.
The Commission has observed that “the young minds... have become an easy prey to all sorts of evil practices of smoking, drinking, drug abuse, sex, etc., resulting in terrible stress, dreadful depression, at least two cases of suicides and a dozen of attempted suicides, and even a murder!” There is no doubt that the problems identified by the Commission are real and affect all reputed NLSs.
As an alumnus of one these institutions I have seen students with great academic potential being taken away to rehabilitation facilities to deal with substance abuse problems. Each of the three top NLSs has had at least one case of suspected suicide.
The Commission lays much of the blame for this on laxity in teaching and evaluation and falling academic rigour. In his famous autobiographical work, One-L, Scott Turow credits his first year at the prestigious Harvard Law School with reviving his nicotine habit. So attributing the problems identified by the Commission only to a fall in academic standards evades a scrutiny of other important factors.
A similar report on NALSAR, Hyderabad, also adds little to the understanding of the real issues at hand. NLSs have never been reputed for having great faculty, lengthy class hours or strict discipline. So what is the reason for this ‘deterioration’ in the recent years?
Before law school, most students enjoy family, friendship, and community networks that provide social and emotional support, as well as a sense of belonging and personal value. A majority of students entering an NLS come from far-flung places and lose most such connections within the first few months of campus life. Law school affords few opportunities to develop new ones. Students rarely look up to faculty with affection or respect, for the latter to be able to provide any support system.
Very soon students are taught what it means to ‘think like a lawyer’ and the main thrust of this form of thinking is the ability to come up with convincing reasons in support of any argument, irrespective of personal conviction.
Even the most popular faculty members in NLSs employ the case-method or problem-method of teaching which underline this form of thinking. This is probably why it is not uncommon for a staunch ‘Gandhian’ to change into an anarchist or for a student with moral reservations about alcohol to indulge in excess, within two years of NLS life.
Though it is well recognised that the only solution to this problem is to expose students to more practical learning and clinical education, classes on clinical law and ethical practices in an NLS never attract student interest because of absence of qualified teachers and because by the time these courses are offered student interests are transformed beyond repair. There is absolutely no initiative to deal with this problem.
The other possible cause for the stressful environment in NLSs is the palpable self-consciousness of being ‘elite’ among students. Students who enter NLSs pass through a demanding competitive exam and are capable of matching the country’s best talent. They arrive exhilarated at the thought of studying law at a top law school. Quickly, however, they learn that there is no need to compete or do anything creative, that their mere presence at an NLS will guarantee them a well-paying job.
Students soon become cynical about law school. There is a pre-existing sense of self-worth that is punctured if one cannot make it to the top of the class GPA curve. Making it to the law school’s moot court team can also be a very stressful pursuit in maintaining one’s elite tag. The creation of an elite within the elite, through the much maligned grading system and other standards like moot court selections, can have serious detrimental effects on the student psyche.
Many students react to these situations through “fight or flight” techniques. Ones who are determined to break into the top-league take the competition so seriously that apart from developing serious psychological issues such as insecurity and aloofness, they grow so exhausted by the end of five years that their eyes are firmly set only on ‘extrinsic motivations’ and monetary rewards as a result of which they do nothing more than take up the best paying of the corporate jobs.
Consequences are more severe for students who choose ‘flight’. Confident of getting a decent job, they ‘play dead’ for the rest of law school often adopting alcoholism, substance abuse or even sex as means of dealing with stress and boredom.
Right from the 1970s, studies have shown that students from even the best American law schools, which are known for their rigorous standards, are more prone to psychiatric stress than students from any other discipline. There may be a lot to learn from the American experience because of the common source of attraction for the American law schools and our NLSs — corporate jobs and thick pay cheques.
The craze and opportunities for getting corporate firm jobs have increased dramatically over the last decade or so. This is also probably why the problems identified by the Commission do not appear to have affected the earlier batches of NLSIU students.
Students who aspire to enter these law schools must keep in mind that an NLS does nothing more than offer very good resources and exposure in learning law.
While gaining what an NLS has to offer, one must avoid being overwhelmed by popular campus norms to be able to see the large variety of opportunities that the study of law has to offer.
Our policy-makers need to realise that quality of faculty, availability of resources, academic rigour can only play a supplementary role in alleviating problems. The solution lies in creating an enabling atmosphere where each law student feels control over his choices, interests, values and motivations.
(The writer is BA.LL.B (Hons) (NUJS), advocate, High Court of Madras)