Short on money, long on work

Short on money, long on work

At his convocation address in a law school, a few years ago, the then Chief Justice of India, Justice B.N. Kripal stated the intent behind the setting up of these institutions,   starting with the one in Bangalore.  It was hoped that these law schools would attract bright, young minds and draw them towards the field of litigation, thereby raising standards.  

Since Justice Kripal’s address, law schools have burgeoned across the country as the pursuit of a degree in law becomes the preferred choice of many.

What is it about the five-year integrated BA BL degree that attracts so many youngsters after Plus Two?  

Mihira, a 25-year-old litigator from Delhi, feels that the programme fills the space for an under-graduate professional course away from the Science stream.  The course certainly comes as a welcome respite for students who are able to resist familial pressure to do engineering or medicine when their hearts are not in these careers.

‘Every case is a passion’

But, 18 appears too tender an age for a student to really understand which field of law s/he would really want to pursue.  

Priyanka (25), advocate, says she opted for the law course in Hyderabad with the intention of becoming a Judicial Officer.  But a year-and-a-half into preparing for her judicial exams, she realised that being a District Judge was not what she wanted to do all her life.  This was when she moved to her second choice — litigation — which she finds immensely satisfying as “every case becomes a passion”.

While many in the area of litigation bemoan the fact that most of the law graduates from the elite institutions prefer to work in corporations or corporate law firms, Nitin R (28), an advocate and alumnus of the Bangalore Law School believes these institutions have raised the bar in increasing the quality of advocacy among the younger lawyers and also in background legal research work.

The fee structure in many of the law universities is on the high side, which might act as a deterrent for those who can’t afford it but it is not as if it is only these institutions that are increasing their fees.  Barring the subsidisation of fee structures in the IITs, most private institutions charge heavily for professional courses.  With the increase in fees for higher education, most banks have eased the process of educational loans.   Kabir (25) a graduate from the Hyderabad Law School, says most students opting for a career in law do so with the idea of joining law firms or corporations so it is immaterial whether their parents sponsor them or they avail of a loan. “As soon as s/he is out of college, hefty salaries are offered.  In such a scenario, why should the law schools not raise their fees?”

Activism and research

So, with big companies and legal firms coming in for campus placements, is it little wonder that youngsters are drawn towards the law courses?  Lawrence Liang, co-founder and member, Alternative Law Firm, says the trend of law graduates opting for such jobs has been noticeable almost from the second batch of the Bangalore school of which he is an alumnus.  He also admits this is not the purpose for which these institutions were established but if the choice is between “a low-paying job as a litigator or starting with unimaginable salaries and perks in firms and companies”, it is not surprising that most young people are opting for the latter.  

ALF, Bangalore, has succeeded in its objectives of providing a space for qualitative legal services to those who find it difficult to access the legal system, and “to create an organisation that would combine legal activism with academic research”.

Keshav (25), a Delhi-based litigator, says apart from the money, law courses offer manifold opportunities for careers abroad.  He says the degree also provides the foundation for careers in the civil services, journalism, international relations and in the social sciences (since the law degree is integrated with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities).  

Satisfaction, but no perks

Kabir is among the idealistic few who really joined a law university with the intention of pursuing a career in litigation.  But, he has recently been forced to change tracks and join a law firm.  He says that the remuneration that most litigation firms offer is simply not enough to survive. “The compensation does not bear any co-relation to the amount of work you do and the constant pressure you are under. There were times when one worked 14-16 hours a day without taking a day off for months together!”

So, what is it about litigating firms that prevents them from offering decent wages?  If corporations are willing to pay hefty salaries to law/MBA/ IIT graduates even as they train them, what prevents senior advocates from doing so?   Mihira says “most seniors take you on not because they need you, but because you need them”!   Priyanka speaks about friends, who work under well known senior advocates, who earn almost Rs 10 lakh a day but hesitate to even pay Rs 5,000 a month to their juniors. “This is devastating and demoralising for an upcoming lawyer,” she remarks.  The same thought is echoed by Nitin R who speaks of the “exploitative nature of the profession”. He adds that the challenges of legal litigation are far too many as opposed to desk-based advisory work.  

Too many hurdles

These are not the only hurdles for the young law graduate who wants to pursue litigation.  Keshav candidly admits that “practice in law cultivates, sustains and perpetuates pedigree-based recognition”.  He speaks of legal families, which over generations have virtually monopolised practice and skewered the pitch for those who step in without any godfathers.  

It may be a little difficult to use the term ‘godmothers’ in the field of law, as both the Bar and the Bench have been dominated by males. In her autobiography, On Balance, Leila Seth speaks of her experience of being referred to as “Your Lordship”, after being appointed a judge!    

Young litigants also feel that there is not enough in the syllabus of the law schools to orient them towards this vital area.  Keshav’s blunt take is that the elite law school culture looks at some of the areas of practice with disgust and this notion permeates from teachers to students acting as a deterrent for those who might want to opt for litigation.  

He speaks of “an insulation, a kind of disenfranchising” that affects career choices. But Mihira is more positive and says, “Law schools offer much more to students who do not fit that mould, than most other professional degrees, in terms of the wide range of subjects, freedom of thought and debate that is encouraged, and high academic standards which can by no stretch of the imagination be said to benefit only a few.”

Mihira, who was always clear that she wanted to litigate, wished that there had been more practical training available in the course. “What helped were the compulsory internships,” she adds.  Most of the law schools have the practice of providing long breaks during which the students work on internships.  This provides opportunities for students to be placed soon after they are through with the programme.   

What’s the solution?

Lawrence Liang suggests the need for “some long term solution where these institutions can provide some incentives for those who choose to get into public interest work as they do in many law schools in the US”.  There is no doubt that a career in litigation is demanding and calls for a dedication that goes beyond the call of lucre. 

Still there is a need for some regularisation of pay packets to ensure that idealists like Kabir are encouraged to stay the course rather than giving up in disgust.   In his corporate job he speaks of being able to enjoy weekly offs, affording holidays and of course making enough money with “half the work and effort that was involved in litigation.”

Keshav feels that the hope of an increase in remuneration is a “near impossible dream”.  The system, based on the English Guild system, is geared towards extracting work for a pittance where the master does not pay the apprentice/trainee for the skills imparted.  Kabir delineates the career path of a lawyer thus:

*Phase 1 — You slog, others earn.
*Phase 2 — You work a little lesser and earn a bit.
*Phase 3 — Others slog, you earn.
While Mihira speaks of the “intellectual stimulation” and the “high” that comes from arguing and winning a case, Priyanka speaks of job satisfaction. “I am happy today with what I am doing even though I am not minting money like my other class mates,” she says.

There still seems to be idealism left in young people who want to fulfil the objectives for which the law schools were set up.   Fair compensation and regulation of working hours (to maintain work-life balance) may help their tribe increase.

(Some names have been changed on request.)