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.
In this edition, I speak with Professor Reena Patel. As part of the first graduating batch of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Prof. Patel has an insider’s view into what would eventually mark a substantial shift in Indian legal education. She followed the undergraduate law degree with an LL.M. and then a PhD at Warwick University.
I first came across Prof. Patel while visiting the Maharishi Law School (MLS), of which she was the Dean, for giving a talk on LL.M applications. The MLS had been conducting some interesting experiments in the field of legal education, and I was curious to know more. In the first part of the interview though, we focus more on the NLSIU experience, and her own legal education.
You were part of the first batch at NLSIU. Back then, did you have an inkling that you were part of something novel?
Yes I did, actually. I came to make the application for NLSIU knowing that this was an initiative to improve legal education and that it was being set up with the involvement and support of senior advocates, judges and academics including Prof. Madhava Menon, and Prof. Upendra Baxi.
Once at NLSIU, we were all very aware that this was unique from the very start of the enrolment process. The key aspect of it being the pace and intensity of learning, coupled with breadth and depth of the opportunities created for us to do so. The small class size, the novel trimester system, the minimum attendance requirement and 6 day teaching week set the stage for the innovative delivery to ensure continuous learning and student engagement.
“Once at NLSIU, we were all very aware that this was unique from the very start of the enrolment process. The key aspect of it being the pace and intensity of learning, coupled with breadth and depth of the opportunities created for us to do so.”
The breadth of the curriculum, covering 60 courses over 5 years itself was a huge change and brought many new, multidisciplinary course offerings that had never been taught, such as Law and Rural Development, Environmental Law, among others. Research led Seminar courses and Practice led Clinical courses were introduced as part of the undergraduate programme for the first time.
As students, we were required to take responsibility for our own learning and the Socratic method, problem based learning, case studies, independent research (project papers), group projects and individual viva voce exams helped to achieve this.
At the same time, we had eminent academics and legal professionals from around the world teaching as guest faculty at regular, frequent intervals. We were privileged to have, for example, the late Mr. Ram Jethmalani teach us Criminal Law for a couple of weeks in our very first trimester.
Furthermore, apart from regular activities such as Moot Court competitions, participating in Legal Aid Clinics, Lok Adalats, hosting conferences, mandatory internships were not only novel, they were opportunities to learn from the best. All of this had a cumulatively positive effect in shaping a comprehensive programme and lead to graduates with a wide array of skills.
Keeping in view the prevailing low expectations from most institutions as well as students at undergraduate level elsewhere across the country, we knew that being part of a programme thoroughly structured around maximum student learning and growth was truly remarkable.
“We knew that being part of a programme thoroughly structured around maximum student learning and growth was truly remarkable.”
The bar was set high for us by the institution and the realisation that we were expected to succeed was itself a powerful transformative force in shaping our learning and success through the five years and later.
Looking back, what were some of the most valuable aspects of the learning experience at NLSIU? And more specifically, what were some practices/experiments that needed to be rethought?
The emphasis on independent learning and that the field of law was a constantly evolving one, highlighted by the fact that our professors were seen to be constantly learning too. This entrenched both an openness to looking beyond the ‘givens’ to search out what was relevant but yet unclear in the field.
“The emphasis on independent learning and that the field of law was a constantly evolving one, highlighted by the fact that our professors were seen to be constantly learning too.”
I wouldn’t say there were any experiments as such which did not have strong pedagogical foundations, nor that there were any practices which needed to be rethought. Yes, they certainly needed to be consistently delivered and effectively monitored to be so.
You have enjoyed quite an enviable career since your undergraduate days. What got you to Warwick, and what kept you there?
I chose to go to Warwick to study Law in Development, which in those days was not an established field in India and available as a specialised area of learning only in a few institutions globally.
Given my own upbringing in Western Orissa in small towns, development issues were always important to me and I believed it was imperative that educational excellence needed to be orientated towards, and be relevant towards, working on development challenges.
“I believed it was imperative that educational excellence needed to be orientated towards, and be relevant towards, working on development challenges.”
I was also fortunate to be awarded a full scholarship by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK to do my LLM and I took the opportunity to learn at one of the leading institutions in the world in this field.
I was subsequently awarded another scholarship to undertake Doctoral Studies in the area of Gender, Law and Development which I have always been passionate about. After completing my Doctorate, I secured a Lectureship at Warwick itself to teach on the LLM in Law and Development (among other subjects). I secured a tenured, permanent position soon thereafter and continued until 2011.
My years at Warwick were extremely fulfilling, not least because I was engaged in the teaching and research in subject areas I thoroughly enjoyed and was passionate about.
“My years at Warwick were extremely fulfilling, not least because I was engaged in the teaching and research in subject areas I thoroughly enjoyed and was passionate about.”
Furthermore, the international student and faculty, interdisciplinarity of academic engagement and the culture of collaborative work all contributed to a very enriching and fulfilling experience.