Nishant Gokhale on legal education
Nishant Gokhale

The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession at the global level. Along with the LLM application itself, these interviews are meant to bring across a slightly macro perspective on things.

And I can think of few better people than Nishant Gokhale to discuss such a perspective. The first part of the interview focused on, inter alia, the application process for Harvard Law School, and then the Gates Cambridge scholarship. In the second part, we talk about Indian law schools, the competition to “build” a CV, legal academia and a whole lot more.

If one looks at your achievements, there appears to be this common line of working with the underrepresented – was this a conscious decision, or do you think that sometimes things appear to be linked only in hindsight?

Honestly, this is mostly in hindsight. I remember being taken aback when a classmate at NUJS asked if my work with the Legal Aid Society was only to get a job. At that moment, I was quite flabbergasted at the suggestion that this work even had any CV value!

Looking back though, the question was not a strange one at all. Law schools are unhealthy and limiting environments where many experiences are judged on the singular metric of whether or not it can add a line to your CV. Working in legal aid surely added a line or two to mine. That was not why I did it, nor do I think that it had any direct causation with getting jobs after law school.

“Law schools are unhealthy and limiting environments where many experiences are judged on the singular metric of whether or not it can add a line to your CV. “

My first few years in the legal profession as a judicial clerk and a litigation chamber were conventional but very valuable. I got to see and work with some exceptional lawyers. I soon realized that there was no dearth of excellent legal representation for people who can afford to pay.

Some years later, I shifted gears to work with prisoners on death-row who for the most part had been victims of poor legal representation, both privately and through the legal aid system. In this work, many of the lawyers I worked with previously were agreeable to to do pro bono work for death row convicts, which was heartening to see.

I was always interested by the difference that Roscoe Pound makes between “law in books” and the “law in action”. This is what drew me to work with the NUJS Legal Aid Society and internships in Mumbai’s trial courts. These opened up a whole new ways of thinking about the law. Does what Parliament or the Supreme Court do really minutely affect a person who knows little or nothing about their existence? Law school curricula seems too taken up with what these bodies at the top do, and have little to do with its impact on the ground.

“Law school curricula seems too taken up with what these bodies at the top do, and have little to do with its impact on the ground.”

You have also worked with a number of law schools, including NLU D and their Project 39A – don’t mean to put you in a spot (I do), but do you think law schools are encouraging legal research and activism? And if not, how can they do this?

Students have a great perception of the inequities around them and are quick to take issue against it. While their methods of articulating this may not always be ideal, that is not a reason to brush aside their grievances. Student activism was around when I was in NUJS and it remains alive and well even today. The issues seem very different though.

During my undergraduate days, the handful of protests were about the quality of faculty members, perceived injustices in evaluation etc. Current activism seems to be about much more essential things such as sufficient room in the hostels, freedoms on campus, sufficient numbers of faculty etc. These were considered givens at a law school previously.

There is a disproportionate amount of emphasis on corporate and commercial law in law schools in India, but I cannot honestly say that is a new thing. There is very little encouragement to students in legal research and activism at an institutional level. It is important to engage with students on issues that they are passionate about and relate what they learn in the class-rooms to what is happening around them and in the world outside the class-room.

Getting practitioners and activists to co-teach some elective courses with academics is a good way to ensure that students get more real-world exposure. Law schools need to create incentives to enable students to take up work that they are passionate about, rather than doing a bewildering number of internships for the sole reason that other law students are.

“Law schools need to create incentives to enable students to take up work that they are passionate about, rather than doing a bewildering number of internships for the sole reason that other law students are.”

Also, what is your take on the multiple “projects” that law students are expected to submit throughout the academic year – did this exercise help develop an interest in research? And do you think it can be improved? 

In the first few years of undergraduate studies, having a 5,000 word project for every subject in the term was quite helpful. It ensured that you read more intensively for a topic than you would do for classes and exams. It certainly helped develop an interest in research and reinforcing that the notion that what you learn in class is little more than a sampling of what that subject has to offer.

Beyond roughly two years, it seems to be a little excessive and it would be a good idea to have fewer projects but require more intensive research. It would be necessary to also teach good writing skills. A lot of what is written in petitions and by legal academics today is difficult to comprehend because the language and ideation is unclear. The root of that seems to be the lack of guidance provided during law-school days.

“A lot of what is written in petitions and by legal academics today is difficult to comprehend because the language and ideation is unclear. The root of that seems to be the lack of guidance provided during law-school days.”

Some of the courses I benefited from most in NUJS and other institutions that I have had the privilege to attend were those which had no written exams, but just papers we were required to submit. This meant that you were given a reasonable period of time in which to think through an issue and write about it.

Continuing with this theme, what do you think the study of law ought to provide? And, with this as a marker, do you think the “national” law universities are meeting these goals?

Just as you cannot teach art in an art school, you cannot teach law in a law school. What the pedagogy in these institutions enables a student to do is to acquire the skills, foundational knowledge and ways of thinking required to do well in these vocations.

A lot of the work in law school is self-driven and it is important to have faculty and library staff who can guide rather than compel students as is done in many places.

I feel that law-schools are failing to meet these goals by not sufficiently equipping students to tackle challenges that they face in their work. When I worked as a litigator, I was completely at sea about what to do in actual cases: legal strategy, courtroom terminology, procedural requirements etc. despite having done five years of law-school. While not everything can be taught in a class-room setting, there is certainly a dearth of law-teachers who have practical exposure to the subjects that they are teaching.

“While not everything can be taught in a class-room setting, there is certainly a dearth of law-teachers who have practical exposure to the subjects that they are teaching.”

It is important to also keep in mind that law-schools are more than just about teaching law. They are also places for research and fora for government, lawyers, judges, police, prosecutors, NGOs and other stakeholders to debate and discuss legal problems and solutions. Only a handful of law schools and research centres have lived up to the research and policy-making goals with which these were set up for.

The veneer of the “national” in national law schools is rapidly falling away with people choosing law schools closest to their home states and domicile-based allotment of seats. The regional/geographic diversity in the student body is likely to shrink as a result, but I have no data to support this. With more law schools emerging over the past few years, it is necessary to focus more on issues within their respective region and work on law reform projects at a regional, state or community level.

“With more law schools emerging over the past few years, it is necessary to focus more on issues within their respective region and work on law reform projects at a regional, state or community level.”

One of the interesting things about your time as a law student at WBNUJS was that it was during this time that your interest in tribal communities began. As an institution, how do you think the Indian law school can encourage greater student diversity? 

I got an opportunity to be class-mates with students from various states across the country. Apart from a few union territories, I believe that there was someone from every state who I got to meet at NUJS. I recall that a close friend from Meghalaya struggled to remember the names of cases for exams since these were mostly names of people which were not very common in his case. So apart from remembering the facts and principles involved, he also had to remember several unfamiliar names.

Another experience was visiting some tribal areas during law school and seeing how differently the law was perceived— as the individual officials who were tasked with administration—- rather than the government as an impersonal given as it was in Mumbai and Kolkata where I was in my undergraduate days.

I feel that law-schools need to be much more creative in how they raise funding. It cannot be based upon student fees alone since that provides very little flexibility in who it can support. Law is a popular career choice amongst many elites across various identity markers. It needs to be popularised as an option amongst communities who are dependent upon the law to meet their basic needs.

“Law is a popular career choice amongst many elites across various identity markers. It needs to be popularised as an option amongst communities who are dependent upon the law to meet their basic needs.”

It would be wonderful to see outreach programs by CLAT authorities and by law schools to regions within their states with poor socio-economic indicators and amongst first-generation college students. There should also be opportunities for students to work in their communities after graduating from law-schools which are supported financially rather than working in a major city or corporate firm which may not interest them.

“There should also be opportunities for students to work in their communities after graduating from law-schools which are supported financially rather than working in a major city or corporate firm which may not interest them.”

Correspondingly, the curriculum also needs to be changed to reflect happenings in society rather than simply only limited to traditional black-letter courses. This is however, not to say that core subjects should be done away with, but in fact new lenses of looking at them should be applied. Combining the law with some other discipline yields fascinating results and that interdisciplinarity is something that is sorely missed in law schools.

Last question, always curious to know what are the motivations behind an academic/research career – what are they in your case? What keeps you driven? And what are some of the aspects of such a career that you wish more people learn before making their decision to jump in?

I cannot say that my path towards academics has been a perfectly clear one. Given that I have started my PhD at a relatively later age, I tell people that I have taken the “scenic route”. It is important to keep alive the urge to discover more and challenge ideas that you have held for a long time.

I find the experience of learning new things which have the potential to change your perspectives forever to be exhilarating. Having a group of close friends who will help you stay the course, as well as hobbies outside of your work, cannot be overestimated. These have helped motivate me through the course of my undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

Academia is often a natural progression for many after the Ph.D. The nature of the job is very different based on the institutions that you are at. While I have not experienced academia fully, anecdotally, it is far from utopian. The money is much lesser than in practise and it is fraught with its own issues of sexism, petty politics, race inequalities etc. It is not ideal, but it presents a potential to be self-reflective.

“The money is much lesser than in practise and it is fraught with its own issues of sexism, petty politics, race inequalities etc. It is not ideal, but it presents a potential to be self-reflective.”

Getting into academics needs to be viewed as a responsibility rather than an easy job. Increasingly, the academic field in India has begun to become very competitive. While approaches vary, I have (with some notable exceptions) found that individuals with practical experience make much better academics than those who have never had practical experience.

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