The Future of the Indian Legal Profession
“The Honorable Judge Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud, Supreme Court of India”
Adapted from Judge Chandrachud’s keynote address at the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession’s Delhi book launch of The Indian Legal Profession in the Age of Globalization: The Rise of the Corporate Legal Sector and its Impact on Lawyers and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2017) held on December 11, 2017. Transcript edited for style and length.
Let me begin by telling you that one of the most significant impacts of the last 20 years or so has been on legal education in India due to the increasing number of law graduates—particularly from the elite law schools—who chose to work in law firms. The prospect of high-paying corporate jobs at the end of the law course has changed who applies to law schools, the choice of law schools, the educational experience at law schools, and how much students are willing to pay for legal education.
I must tell you a story about Delhi University when I was a law student. A very enterprising friend asked me, “What are you going to do after you graduate law school?” I said, “I am going to be a lawyer.” He said, “How are you going to earn your income?” I said, “From the practice of the law.” He said, “You belong to a legal family. Why don’t you, through your contacts, get a gas agency or a petroleum outlet?” I said, “What does that have to do with all our learning as lawyers?” He said, “That’s how you are going to make your income as a lawyer.” The demand of corporate law firms for law graduates, and the exceedingly high supply of law graduates, has significantly altered the landscape of legal education.
But that was true of India in the 1980s. Prior to the emergence of the corporate legal sector, jobs available to graduating lawyers like me were mostly assisting as junior advocates that paid little or nothing. Law was, thus, not always a viable profession for students who did not have families that would support them for a long period of time. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the setting up of the National Law Schools with the objective of supplying well-trained lawyers to the bar and the bench so that access to justice is enlarged and the quality of justice to the common man is improved and strengthened.
Yet, what we have really produced is something in the reverse. The 1990s were also a milestone in the Indian economy, and the landscape of a liberalized Indian economy created a demand for lawyers who could provide legal advice in completely new terrain. This led to the growth of the corporate legal sector. The high-pay packages that are offered at law firms, even at the entry-level, have now made law a more lucrative and alluring profession, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of students pursuing law as a career option.
The demand of corporate law firms for law graduates, and the exceedingly high supply of law graduates, has significantly altered the landscape of legal education. The most influential law firms that offer high-paying jobs at the entry-level are known to recruit from only a handful of the top law schools. Students interested in securing these jobs scramble to gain admission into one of these select law schools in India. Prospective law students and lawyers are willing to pay much more and even take loans to attend law schools that offer highly remunerative jobs. In 1982, we had to pay a princely sum of Rs200 in fees every quarter at Delhi University. The financial return from working in a law firm comes much sooner than it does in litigation, making the investment in legal education a less risky investment for the young.
The quest for a high-paying job at a law firm does not end with gaining admission into a law school. Students interested in gaining employment in the corporate legal sector fashion their choice of courses, their extracurricular activities, as well as the internships they pursue, in a manner that would make them attractive candidates for recruitment—the corporatization of education.
At this point, it is important to mention that these elite law schools in India, roughly a dozen in number, represent only a small fraction of the nearly 1,390 law colleges recognized by the Bar Council of India. The corporate legal sector is known to recruit only from the top-most law schools, which are really a single-digit number. Unfortunately, some of our law firms are also known to discriminate between graduates at the same position or level by offering lower salaries to graduates of what is considered to be tier 2 and tier 3 law schools. This elitism and the discriminatory practice itself must be condemned because it is antithetical to the principles of fairness and equality upon which the practice of law is founded. Not only do these practices deprive meritorious students of opportunities, but they also deprive the corporate legal structure of the talented legal minds that are found in the majority of Indian law schools and colleges.
A top Indian law firm discriminates in salaries on the basis of your grades in law school. If you were in the top 10 ranks of your batch, your salary is roughly Rs100,000 more per month. While this may be some way to reward academic excellence, it is time we moved away from recognizing merit only through grades and university rankings are given that the Indian legal education system is far from perfect.
An overwhelming majority of the top students in India’s best legal institutions now work in the corporate sector.
The fact that legal education is now being viewed as a means to secure a job in a high-paying law firm is evident in the manner in which law schools are ranked. Recruitment by the corporate sector is the most important factor in determining law school rankings. This approach of viewing legal education as only a means to an end and not an end in itself is problematic and is leading to our young lawyers missing out on the true value of education in their lives.