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 the second part of the interview with Professor Reena Patel (you can read the first part here), I talk to her about her experiences at Maharishi Law School, which she set up, her thoughts on Indian legal education, and a whole lot more.
We spoke about the Maharishi Law School experience earlier. But, for the readers, what was the most exciting part about setting up the law school?
The most exciting, as well as the most challenging, aspect was the opportunity to create a School that is driven by the aspiration to constantly grow and improve, where excellence was the standard from the get go.
Establishing this required curriculum, pedagogical and administrative aspects to be set up and delivered, involving both faculty and student responsibilities and expectations. Particular emphasis had to be placed on capacity building and enabling all stakeholders to take responsibility for their respective roles while guiding and supporting them.
“Particular emphasis had to be placed on capacity building and enabling all stakeholders to take responsibility for their respective roles while guiding and supporting them.”
All of this amounted to effectively setting up a culture where the academic endeavour takes precedence and has paramountcy within the broader institution and achieving this was both exciting and fulfilling.
You introduced some fairly novel practices when it came to both, student and faculty recruitment. First, for the students, you insisted on having an interview round before admissions were granted – why?
The most important quality we looked for in a student, beyond the requirement of fairly basic high school results, was their willingness and ability to commit to rigorous learning for their period of study.
To establish this, we interviewed every single applicant before they were offered a place at the School.
And for faculty, you invested a lot of time and effort on training and pedagogy – what was the kind of response you received?
The faculty were like sponges – they soaked up every opportunity to learn, to grow and achieved very commendable success in their output both within and outside the School at conferences and other fora. Many were successful in achieving fellowships, some received awards and have continued to achieve greater success as academics.
Sticking to Maharishi, one of the things you tried to encourage was an examination system that did not rest solely on penalties. Could you tell me a bit about how you set this up?
The penalty system is premised on the assumption that the responsibility for successful learning rests solely on the student, whereas it rests equally on faculty and students, although the responsibilities are different in each case. Success or failure of the student, therefore, is predicated on the concomitant fulfilment of faculty responsibilities.
At the institutional level, it is the responsibility of the institution to ensure that every possible learning opportunity is given to the students. Apart from classroom teaching and summative assignments, formative assignments of various kinds are possible including assigned reading and writing, skill driven creative output, tutorial sessions and guided study, among others, and all of these were encouraged to be adopted as required.
It is only at the exhaustion of all these opportunities that if a student has failed to learn that the burden of that failure can be placed on the student and penalties follow.
“It is only at the exhaustion of all these opportunities that if a student has failed to learn that the burden of that failure can be placed on the student and penalties follow.”
Therefore it is imperative to identify and address the gaps and failures in creating these opportunities throughout the delivery. This is iterative process for a new institution where the opportunities for student learning have to be created to suit the abilities and needs of the student body, aligned with the standards and goals of the institution.
Maharishi was followed by a short stint at UPES. Given your experience in the private sector, do you think legal education is being overrun by commercial interests?
Unfortunately, yes. But the real regrettable aspect in my experience more broadly is the prevalent model where commercial success is understood to be at the cost of academic depth excellence. Clearly, as the most successful institutions around the world demonstrate, this need not be so.
“The real regrettable aspect in my experience more broadly is the prevalent model where commercial success is understood to be at the cost of academic depth excellence.”
And when it comes to the “national” law schools, how do you think they can overcome the funding deficit. Clearly, raising fees is not a desirable solution is it?
Absolutely. Raising the fees is not the answer at all. The only way is as every successful educational institution anywhere in the world is able to do so – through generating research funding. This of course depends on research depth and excellence.
The LLM is a course that just has not got the attention it deserves when it comes to Indian law schools – how do you think this can change? How do we build an environment of academic research and publishing in law schools?
Academic research can be broadly of any of the three kinds – theoretical/conceptual (which is what ‘academic’ research is generally understood as in India), policy research and applied research. In the field of law, all these are necessary, relevant and urgently required to be developed in India.
The first step towards this is to deliver quality postgraduate programmes since it is only at the Masters’ level that a student has sufficiently broad based knowledge across the discipline to start in depth analysis in any specific area within the field.
“It is only at the Masters’ level that a student has sufficiently broad based knowledge across the discipline to start in depth analysis in any specific area within the field.”
The tools for in depth analysis learned at this level then enable the student to go deeper at the Doctoral stage and successfully develop a unique insight that makes a contribution to the field and thereafter lead as an expert and specialist in that field, whether as an academic or practitioner.
Currently in India, I believe we are not focusing enough on generating this kind of depth of expertise through our postgraduate programmes.
To begin with, the relevance of research/expertise in a given area for the development of law as a field needs to be established and this needs to come from law schools through outputs which are seen by other academics, practitioners and policy makers as relevant. As far as policy and applied research are concerned, this can be begun through devising appropriate research focus areas at the institutional level and facilitating a role for policy and practice experts in postgraduate academic programmes as is widely practiced in North America.
Regarding the development of theoretical/conceptual research, one of the ways this can be integrated is by enabling academics to devise and teach courses pertinent to their expertise areas, which would also have the positive effect of generating specialised course offerings for the School.
Further, we need to encourage as much of academics’ expertise areas as possible to come through in their teaching, both undergraduate and postgraduate. This autonomy to devise the curriculum and their syllabus is essential both to make it worthwhile for the academic to continue their research which directly contributes to fulfilling the necessary teaching requirements as well as to enable students to gather insights in a consistent, regular manner throughout their tenure at Law School.
“The fact is, research activity and research led teaching is resource intensive and faculty need time to develop and deliver these.”
The fact is, research activity and research led teaching is resource intensive and faculty need time to develop and deliver these. Which in turn would require a revision of the teaching model we have in India that is classroom delivery heavy and essentially leaves academics with very little time, and institutions very little leeway, to devise research led courses and delivery. The setting out of required curriculum and mechanically adopted syllabi across law schools do not help. either.
Lastly, what are your readings on the future of legal education in India? Would you say that the future is bright?
It is bright because there is so much to be done and tremendous potential for development!