Elite national law universities have captured the corporate law world. Do lawyers from the lower-rung schools stand a chance? Rebecca Abraham takes a look at the challenges for aspiring lawyers

The Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the online screening test used by India’s 19 national law colleges and around 25 other law schools, triggered petitions in high courts across the country this year.

One such petition filed by the Supreme Court argued that the students’ fundamental right to equality had been violated as technical glitches during the test had caused them to lose time.

Hurdles such as this will be the first of many that confront the vast majority of those who aspire for a career in law.

HIGHLY COVETED

For a start, the odds of winning a place at one of India’s elite law schools are extremely low as a high score in CLAT, taken by 54,000 students this year, is necessary.

India’s most prestigious law school, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, admits only 80 students each year to its five-year undergraduate programme. The remaining 18 National Law Schools together admit around 2,300 students, which means that the vast majority have to settle for what are considered second and third tier law schools.

Approximately 1,400 law schools of varying quality dot the country, following a veritable explosion in the number of law schools over the past two decades. Over 60% of the 1,390 law schools recognized by the Bar Council of India were set up after 2000, according to a 2014 Harvard Law School research paper.

PEDIGREE MATTERS

With corporate law as a profession getting greater visibility over the past couple of decades, finding an opportunity at a corporate law firm is what an increasing number of law students are working towards. But here too, anecdotal evidence suggests the odds of obtaining an internship at a corporate law firm, and securing a job offer may be extremely low for students who lack the right pedigree.

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“Some young lawyers won’t get their 15 or 20 minutes before a law firm partner because of the school they have attended or the law college they attended … it’s a fact,” said Ameet Datta, a partner at Saikrishna & Associates, pointing out that as Indian law firms do not invest in training people they would rather take on lawyers from law schools that have a track record of excellence.

A product of a little-known law school in Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya in Madhya Pradesh, Datta has been at the receiving end of the bias against lawyers who are not from the top-tier schools. Yet having acquired an enviable track record and recognition as a copyright law expert, he believes that while “the system can delay your progression, it can’t hold you back”.

Be that as it may, there are plenty of examples of lawyers who struggle to find job openings. Delhi-based Shubhankar Sengupta is one such lawyer who says that in his experience merit counts for nothing. Sengupta, who spent six years assisting a senior advocate of the Delhi High Court, during which time he often worked alongside lawyers from some of the country’s top corporate law firms, said that when he attempted to find work at such firms he found the doors closed. He believes this was because not only is he a first-generation lawyer but also a graduate from a law school that is not in the same league as India’s more prestigious ones. Sengupta studied at KLE Society’s Law College in Bengaluru.

“Recruiters have told me that there is no way that I will get into one of the top corporate law firms with my kind of background,” says Sengupta who recognizes that things would have been different if he had family members in the legal profession. “I was 18 when I got into law school and didn’t realize how important it was to get into a top law school or how much it would count against me.”

SKILLS MISMATCH

Lawyers who emerge from run-of-the-mill law schools typically go on to a career in litigation and at the courts. Few make it to corporate law firms or in-house legal teams. This is in part due to a lack of focus on corporate law in the curriculum and lack of links with companies and corporate law firms. The legal community is aware of this and efforts are on to connect the lesser known law schools with the corporate world.

PM Devaiah, partner and general counsel at Everstone Capital Advisors, has taken it upon himself to mentor students and provide interning opportunities. His concern is with students from tier three and four law schools who he says have an appetite for learning, but lack basic communication skills.

“The internships give these students a peek into the corporate culture … I try and give them an idea of what their options can be,” says Devaiah who adds that he encourages students to take in-house jobs even if it’s in a small company. “If you are good at communication and have decent writing skills, you’ll somehow make it.”

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Prompted by the gap in opportunities for lawyers from elite law schools and others, Ojasvita Srivastava, regional legal counsel at G4S, provides guidance on career options and job opportunities to law graduates. As a first-generation lawyer who struggled to find her feet in the profession, Srivastava set up Project Abhimanyu, which provides one-on-one guidance to law students over email, phone or in person, in 2015 and has mentored students from 70 law schools.

“The basic fact is that, unlike in the West, hiring by law firms in India can be ad hoc and not transparent,” says Srivastava pointing out that there is no structured training for lawyers in India, and “students need to be able to make informed decisions about their careers”.

CHANGE IN THE AIR?

It will take more efforts such as these to raise the prospects of students from the majority of India’s law schools. For now, a few law firms, including Saikrishna & Associates, take pride in attracting lawyers from diverse backgrounds and law schools. Datta reports that only two of the 108 lawyers at Saikrishna & Associates are graduates of national law schools.

This is a telling sign that “talent is not restricted to the 2,300 people who study at National Law Schools”, as Bhumesh Verma, a New Delhi-based private practice lawyer and partner at Corp Comm Legal points out. “Whether you get into a national law school is a matter of luck and chance … even tier two or tier three colleges have many bright minds,” says Verma.

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His sentiments are echoed by Chhaya Bhardwaj, a member of the faculty at Lloyd Law College in Greater Noida outside Delhi, when she says law schools such as hers are often chosen by students who “could not or did not get a good ranking in the CLAT”. As for their ability to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, Bhardwaj, who is also a graduate of Lloyd, believes “we can definitely match up to the national law schools”.