Getting a leg-up in legal
GC investigates Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA), an initiative to improve diversity among India’s elite law schools.
Levelling The Playing Field
Across the world’s business markets, the legal profession is stuffed to the brim with the cream of corporate minds, the elite of the elites. But, in India, that wasn’t always the case.
Despite being the first chosen career of icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, by the latter years of the twentieth century, the legal profession in India had suffered something of a fall from grace.
‘The joke always used to be that you would only become a lawyer if you were the son of a politician, a gangster, or somebody who couldn’t get in anywhere else,’ recalls Navneet Hrishikesan, director of legal services for service provider, Asia Pacific and Japan, at Cisco.
‘Growing up in the late 70s, 80s or 90s, there was a general feeling in India that the quality of legal education was not very good and that people attracted to the law were not of the calibre that you would like.’
That all began to change with the creation of prestigious National Law Schools, providing a five-year legal degree for those who pass a challenging entrance examination, usually the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT).
‘Over time, the law got a reputation for excellence, it became known to be something people would aspire to,’ says Hrishikesan. ‘For people like us, who joined in the early days, it was a bit of a shock to find people actually knew why we were doing law, as opposed to laughing at you.’
The National Law Schools of India University Act 1986, under which the first National Law School – the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore – was founded, stated that among the school’s objects was ‘to make law and legal processes efficient instruments of social development’.
‘The idea was that you would have people trained in the law who would actually go out and then change the country and help people with problems, with justice, human rights and fight for the downtrodden and the sick. Our illustrious director at law school, the late Dr Madhava Menon, called it “social engineering”,’ explains Hrishikesan.
But as the Indian economy opened up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the wealth of opportunities in the commercial arena began to tempt graduates, who found themselves suddenly in demand. And so the legal profession in India returned to the ranks of the elite.
Beyond the barriers
Social stratification in India is famously such that it is often said that India lives in several centuries at the same time – and the barriers to a legal career for less privileged hopefuls are many.
A legal education of 201,000 rupees a year (for general undergraduate students at NLSIU Bangalore during 2018-2019, for example) is prohibitively high for the average household income of less than 160,000 rupees (figure reported by Centre for Recording Indian Economy in 2015). It is perhaps no surprise that a 2014 survey of first year students at five of the top law schools conducted by Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) found that over 50% came from families earning an average annual income of a million rupees.
But the obstacles stray beyond the financial into the cultural, and even the linguistic, for less privileged aspiring lawyers. Despite not being the majority language in India – which teems with Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu and many more tongues – the importance of English for white-collar jobs means that large numbers of students are excluded from law school due to being educated in their vernacular.
An IDIA survey found that only five students from the top five law schools studied in vernacular medium schools, and that more than 70% came from families where both parents spoke fluent English.
‘Those who speak better English find it easier to get into these colleges and also stay in them. They are educated well in English, so they find it very easy to express themselves,’ says Aditi Kamath, executive vice president at IDIA.
And, with the concentration of National Law Schools in cities, children in the myriad of small towns and villages across the country are further faced with transport and accommodation costs, even to access coaching and training for the entrance exam – prerequisites for the rigours of CLAT.
The reality for sizeable sections of the population, not to mention those with disabilities, is that a legal career is not on the radar of students who otherwise have the ability and drive to succeed in one – if only they had the chance.
IDIA is one organisation which hopes to change all that. Founded in 2010 by legal academic Dr Shamnad Basheer, IDIA works to increase diversity in the Indian legal profession and empower underprivileged communities by creating lawyers from within their ranks.
‘[Basheer] was teaching at one of the national law universities and he realised there was not enough diversity in these schools. He knew of many students who came from towns and villages who wanted to study law but they had no access to a quality legal education. This is when he decided to do something about it,’ explains Kamath.
Comprised of chapters in 21 states, each with 20 to 30 student volunteers from the existing (more typical) law school population and led by a student team leader, IDIA conducts ‘sensitisation’ sessions with high school students, identifying and encouraging those with the potential to get into law school. It then trains them to pass the entrance exam over a period of one or two years and supports successful applicants throughout the process of training to be a lawyer.
‘In India, especially in small towns and villages, people don’t really know what a lawyer is able to do in the real world – the only representation is the lawyers they see on the television and in film. So when we conduct sensitisations for these communities, we make sure we tell them the various things you can do as a lawyer, which is not just argue in a court of law – you can join the public services, you can do policy work, you can have your own NGO and help people in your community. These marginalised groups that our scholars come from have faced a lot of injustice in their lives, so these are things that really push them to be able to say that: “I want to study law to be able to help my community to do better”,’ says Kamath.
The legal community also provides support to IDIA scholars in the form of mentorship and internships.
‘What we look for more than anything is a passion to do better in your life. The fire in your belly. You can be taught things, but the passion and the drive cannot be taught – that has to come from within.’
After passing an aptitude test based on academic grades and a personal interview, as well as a means test, 50 or so students are enrolled in coaching centres to prepare for the law school entrance tests. IDIA fills out their forms and arranges for the coaching to take place for free, while current student volunteers tutor them in areas like logical reasoning and current affairs. Those needing to travel are given accommodation and expenses for transport, food and lodging. Currently, IDIA has 35 trainees getting ready to sit this year’s exam.
The money tree
For those who pass the entrance exam and receive a law school place – like the 64 students currently receiving IDIA sponsorship – IDIA also funds their education. It’s a huge financial undertaking, and the organisation often struggles to find donors. Some leading schools have instituted fee waivers and scholarships for IDIA scholars, and others are in negotiations. Where schemes are not in place, IDIA taps into the legal fraternity in India.
‘At the end of the entrance exam, we know which ones made it through. Once that list is out, we make up their profiles, and we circulate them to our donor group. Usually a lawyer picks one of the scholars and says, “I commit to sponsor this scholar for the next five years of law school.” We have scholars who are being sponsored by a particular law firm or sometimes a corporate group – Citibank sponsors five scholars,’ explains Kamath.
She adds: ‘We still have a few scholars without committed donors though, and we often struggle to match donors with scholars. Donors are also more willing to contribute towards scholars, but not towards organisational expenses like paying salaries, organising events, publicity and outreach, etc.’
‘Every year, we file a biannual progress report to each of our donors, saying, “This is how your scholar is doing right now, these are the grades, these are the internships they were picked up on, these are the seminars they have attended.” At the end of the year, we tell them that “Yes, the scholar was accepted on to the next year and this is how much we need to pay this year.” We write to donors and we attach the entire projected expenses for the scholar for that academic year and they send in the funds.
The legal community also provides practical support to IDIA scholars in the form of mentorship and internships. Mentors are assigned according to the individual needs of scholars, and relationships often continue past law school.
Cisco is one such company that offers backing in this way, assisting with sensitisation sessions, occasional mentorship, and regular internships – although Hrishikesan would personally like to do more.
‘Actually, that’s one of my grouses with the Indian legal education system. In Australia, for example, we have interns with us for up to a year, and the same in Spain. Here in India, course restrictions mean that we are not able to keep them for more than two months or three months at a time, which I think is unfortunate, because to change the legal profession and to change the way we teach our lawyers, I think more practical aspects are what’s required, not more theories from books,’ he says.
‘Particularly in an in-house environment because, unlike a law firm, our deals and our engagements tend to go on for a while, so to be able to actually gain value from it you need to be involved in it for a while. I’m a little frustrated by the fact that the educators in India are not willing to consider different models for their law schools.’
A new world
But IDIA and its professional stakeholders also recognise that there is something even more involved in developing lawyers from underprivileged backgrounds. Although extraordinarily gifted, these students are crossing not simply an academic bar, or even a linguistic one – they are entering into a whole new world.
Yamuna Menon is in her fifth year at NLSIU Bangalore. Academically, she is currently Rank-1 in her batch and was recently selected by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in India to represent the nation abroad in a youth delegation. But, despite an English-medium education, as an IDIA scholar from a small town in Kerala, fitting in was a process of cultural adjustment.
‘I cannot deny that in the first few months here I actually questioned the decision I made. It was difficult to adapt to this place initially because there were people with a different cultural makeup; their inclinations and interests were different from mine. I was unable to understand things which were happening, like the context, or being part of normal conversations with people for that matter – just like being in a friend circle. They might have a joke and I might not get it,’ she explains.
‘I can never forget my roots and where I come from and what values I hold. But at the same time, I had to make some changes to myself for the professional environment that I am getting into, and I think that’s part of the process. So right now I’m really enjoying it, but adaptation has to take place and, in that journey, I have made some really good friends for the rest of my life.’
‘Mental health is also a part of concern for us, because they are coming to a big city and a big college, where students are well-informed about the world,’ adds Kamath. ‘At that formative age, where you are can be quite intimidating for the scholars sometimes. Some of our scholars do feel a little insecure and get a little bogged down, so we offer help in that scenario also – find them an accredited counsellor and we make sure they feel better.’
IDIA describes its core aim as the creation of ‘community leaders and leading lawyers’.
Hrishikesan, a classmate of IDIA’s founder Basheer, recalls that the movement could always be characterised as personal.
‘We had a classmate who was very smart and intelligent, but he came from a very humble background and struggled in law school as a result, because ultimately what happens is that the rest are a bunch of these westernised, well-to-do kids who have very little in common with you. It’s difficult enough being a teenager in a new place. On top of it, you are almost forsaken, nobody is really socialising with you, you probably struggle with English a bit, the quality of education is probably high compared to where you have come from and what you have been used to, you don’t read English books at home, and basically you struggle to fit in,’ he explains.
‘I think Basheer took a lot of that to heart, because he looked at it and said, “Ok, it’s not just about helping somebody to get into law school, it’s also about helping them through that process – how do you make sure that people don’t feel left out while they are in college?”’
So, has IDIA set out to create a regiment of socially conscious lawyers, armed to tackle the injustices of society? Not exactly, although it describes its core aim as the creation of ‘community leaders and leading lawyers’. Many current and former students speak of a desire to use their skills to help their communities.
‘There are IDIA scholars who, while they are in law school, have taken on local mafia-type organisations and fought for the rights for villagers around,’ says Hrishikesan.
‘But I think it’s very much left to you, personally speaking, what you would like to do. And I think that’s the right approach. I don’t think there’s an expectation that you have to say no to the commercial sector.’
And the opportunities for graduates are certainly there. Menon harbours ambitions to complete an LLM abroad, perhaps Oxford, Cambridge or Yale.
‘I have had exposure to both [law firm and other organisation] areas. Definitely an aspect of giving back to society and making a difference is something that I can’t do away with but, at the same time, commercial law gives you a lot of opportunities in diverse areas, and I enjoy the same. I believe that there is no need to cut off commercial law from public policy, so I’m trying to balance it out.’
IDIA is up-front about its end-game, which is to ultimately render itself unnecessary – not only through the empowerment of underprivileged communities, but by also creating the circumstances whereby the more typical, privileged students are better equipped to carry the torch themselves.
‘Our idea is to become obsolete after ensuring that law schools – and national law schools particularly – become more diverse, and more people from marginalised and underprivileged communities get up and see that they have this opportunity open for them and that they can do a lot for their own community. We would love it if there was no reason for us to exist!’ says Kamath.
‘We want to produce better lawyers who have more empathy towards other groups, who know that not everyone comes from a privileged background and that people need help sometimes. It is very important to put them in a diverse environment so they can interact with these scholars from other, marginalised groups and find out how, as lawyers, you can work to create a better situation for everyone.’
(If you wish to support IDIA in any manner, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org to know more)