A few days ago, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, during a discussion at NLU-Delhi asked why law students are increasingly choosing not to enter the legal profession. As the number of law students increases every year and the Bar Council of India has put a three-year moratorium on new law schools, one wonders why the question even needs to be asked. But the question highlights an increasing divide between the haves and have-nots of the legal fraternity of India. For the uninitiated, the haves consist of courtroom professionals – judges, advocates, disputes teams and even the odd legal scholar. This exclusive circle of professionals looks down upon anyone with a law degree who has chosen a path outside the courtroom. In recent years, as rightly pointed out by CJI Gogoi, the number of law students choosing the latter path has steadily increased. The reason for this is that the profession, simply put, does not value talent.
The CLAT (Common Law Admission Test) was introduced in 2007 to bring uniformity to the quality of students being admitted to the elite National Law Universities (NLU’s). As of 2020, the CLAT will be used by 20 NLU’s offering just 2502 undergraduate seats. To put it in context, over 50,000 studentstake the CLAT each year. But the CLAT is by no means the only test – there are also the AILET, MAHA CET, etc. for other colleges. There are no recent numbers available but as per the Bar Council of India in 2013, there were 1200 law colleges operating in India teaching 400,000 – 500,000 law students; of which around 60,000 – 70,000 joined the legal profession each year. With so many students joining the profession each year, it is surprising to learn that there were only 130,000 registered advocates.
So why is there such an aversion to practice?
Practice does not pay… at least upfront. In order to be able to practice, tradition and commonsense mandate that one must learn the ropes from a senior who may or may not be a Senior Advocate. Like apprentices – they are expected to learn skills and are free to take on their own matters. Pursuant to this demoralising tradition, Junior Counsels are often not paid for their work (as is common in Bombay, the most expensive city in the country) or are paid pittance in comparison to the lucrative law firm salaries that their batchmates wrangled on Day Zero. Every year, the number of law students increases and striking talent comes from all parts of the country and from different socio-economic backgrounds. However, it is only a very privileged set that can afford this unlucrative apprenticeship. If the story of an unpaid UN Intern camping on the banks of Lake Geneva to make ends meet was upsetting to some, imagine the plight of a recent law graduate who thought their degree and choice of practice would ensure at least a livable income.
An aspiring Litigator will thus be advised to head to a law firm for a few years before venturing into practice only in order to pay for the few years that they will spend without a steady income. Even if they go to a law firm with the expectation of joining a chamber later, financial exigencies and burnout due to the punishing schedule at law firms are part of the reason why individuals do not stick to this path. Having also missed the formative years of learning courtroom skills under a Senior, it is difficult for a firm-trained lawyer to acquire the same degree of skill and charisma.
The selection process for Juniors is also largely opaque and everyone is told that they need a ‘contact’ to get into a good chamber. At a leading Chamber in any city, one will be told of the long legal lineage of some of the juniors – their fathers and grandfathers often range from other Senior Advocates to Politicians, Judges and rich corporate clients. So how is a young law student with no lineage or godfather expected to enter these hallowed halls? SC Justice Rohinton Nariman, at 37 was the youngest ever Senior Advocate and was then elevated to the bench. Justice Nariman himself is the son of renowned Senior Advocate Fali Nariman and they have been criticised in the past for appearing in court on the same matter. Supreme Court Judge DY Chandrachud is the son of late Supreme Court Judge YV Chandrachud, and his own son Abhinav is also an advocate. This is not to decry any of their individual talents or sacrifices but to highlight the larger problem of nepotism within the legal fraternity.
Law Firms are not exactly devoid of the culture of nepotism. But unlike in Chambers where a Judges son may not be fired for incompetence for fear of retaliation in Court, perhaps law firms do not compromise on expected financial dividends.
Women are not valued in these circles, partially due to Clients’ own biases but also due to the boy’s club culture of legal practice. There have only been 14 female designated Senior Advocates since Independence, 6 of whom were designated only in 2019. These numbers are appalling.
It is not uncommon for male seniors to have rules about how females may work in their chambers – one law student who applied to a Senior Advocate in Mumbai was told that she would not be permitted to intern unless there was another female intern along with her. A new Chamber in Delhi is made up entirely of young male lawyers, almost as though they did not think to ask any of their female colleagues to join them. The recent case of a young lawyer who resigned from Khaitan and Co. due to their failure to provide statutory due process in the context of a sexual harassment complaint is yet another example of how women are disregarded in the profession. We do not even need to get into the Supreme Court’s image problem after Justice Gogoi’s handling of accusations of sexual harassment against him.
These are just some of the hurdles that might motivate a young law student to look elsewhere for a career. Without a level playing field, transparent systems and rewarding skill over lineage, one cannot expect a talented student to join a fraternity that does not value them. If these trends towards abuse of dominance continue, the exclusive circle of practitioners will continue to dwindle while also preventing a new generation from making its mark on the legal profession.
Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi asked why the profession is not a students natural choice and one can only hope that he is willing to tackle these issues head on.
Note: A previous version of this article referred to the Indian Express published rumour regarding the designation of Advocate Tanmay Mehta, who, as per the article was expected to be designated as the youngest ever Senior Advocate at the age of 33. Mr. Mehta has since clarified that he has not sought the designation and that the story as published was untrue.