My Top 5 Advice to Law Students who want to become Extraordinary Lawyers

This article has been written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, CEO of iPleaders

As founder and CEO of iPleaders and LawSikho, I always keep wondering about this question – why should we make so many online courses? How are these relevant? Do people really need these online courses? Beyond the marketing, are we really being able to create highly useful, valuable products or services that actually deliver value to those who buy them? What is the future of legal education going to look like?

When you have invested a decade of your life’s work ignoring other lucrative opportunities, that tends to happen. I have become obsessed about thinking and future gazing about technology enabled legal learning and how it will impact the future of legal profession. Let me share some of my best realizations and insights with you.

I can assure a few of these will make you rethink your own plans and strategy.

#Lesson 1
The legal education system is inefficient and fails to deliver results, don’t rely on it entirely

There is no clear path to becoming a good lawyer, in any area of practice – be it criminal, civil or corporate law practice. No matter whether you make it into a top law school or not, you will at best get some basic knowledge about various statutes and many case laws, and will be totally unprepared for real life legal work.

My favourite example is from my own life. I wanted to be a good business lawyer. I wanted to learn everything I could about contract law because I was quite sure this is a critical subject. I scored very well in my contract paper. But I was sure that would not be enough. So I made time to study famous textbooks like Anson’s Law of Contracts, fat volumes of Mulla and Mulla. I read all the hundreds of case laws prescribed by my very demanding contract law teacher.

Then I thought, well, after so much good work, and knowing much more than my peers, I must be now at a good place. Turned out that I was only being vain. When for the first time an entrepreneur trusted me to draft a marketing contract for him, and was even ready to pay me INR 10,000 (back in 2009, for a college student, that used to be quite a bit of money) for it, I didn’t know where to begin drafting a contract.

By the time I was in 4th year, I was reading books like the Predators Ball, Cold Steel and Barbarians at the Gate, books about the world of M&A, deal making, innovative securities, derivatives and stuff like that. I wanted to be a part of that world. What could I do to prepare myself for an illustrious career in corporate law? I asked around. I asked seniors, guest faculty, practicing lawyers – none of them could be of much help.

Apart from your syllabus, read Economic Times, they said. However, I read Economic Times from the time when I was preparing for CLAT. How was it going to make me any better a lawyer? But that was the best advice anyone could give me, and it’s not their fault. There wasn’t any better way available to learn practical aspects of law.

It was not a problem only I faced back in 2010 when I was looking at imminent graduation and wanted to prepare myself ahead of the time when I was finally going to join a law firm in July of 2011. All bright, hard working law students face that exact same problem even today.

This is because law schools teach some statutes and case law, and are not equipped to teach any more than that. If you study a textbook on corporate governance, you will learn more statutes and case laws, but precisely little about how to govern a company, how to manage its affairs, or anything about what role a lawyer is expected to play in the process.

You can top in your class in IP law, and still have no idea about which part of IP law you need to focus on to make a career in IP law. In that situation, your only hope is to get a job in an IP law firm somehow and then figure out over the years what you are probably going to do.

Can’t we put the 5 years in law school to a better use? What would be possible if we could deliver this critical practical knowledge, which is in no way very hard to learn, but somehow unavailable, to the students while they were still in college?

Law schools are charging lakhs every year to the students, could they not deliver some basic practical skills so that the graduates will be better prepared for their professional take off?

#Lesson 2
If you don’t prepare yourself, you will have a real hard time when you begin your legal career

When I started working at Trilegal in 2011, the first couple of months were easy. I was like – “that’s it?” But then one day work pressure built up. Multiple transactions going on all around me, I was a junior associate eager to impress everyone I came across. I wanted to be the star. However, in reality, I was struggling. I didn’t understand very well what was expected of me.

Trilegal had an extensive knowledge management program, a way to train their human talent. It didn’t quite do the job for me. I struggled every day to keep myself updated with the latest circulars, FDI policies, learn new statutes, do research for a new due diligence requisition list, understand what my partner expects from me, learning how to write a research note, how to draft a contract or how to finalize a due diligence report.

It was hard. I spent 11 am to 3 am in the morning in the office on most days. There was a stretch of 3 months in which I hardly did anything outside of office. As I understand now, it wasn’t as much as work pressure as it was my own inefficiency, lack of understanding and confusion.

My 1 year stretch at Trilegal was quite a nightmare for me. My confidence took a dip. I got depressed. I do not blame the law firm or my bosses for this anymore. They tried their best to make it easy for me. However, my ambition, my skills and the realities were not a good match. I wished I was trained and prepared in a better way for working in a law firm.

Why wasn’t it possible? After all, most of us joined good law schools with exactly this dream – of making it big in corporate law. Why couldn’t our prestigious law schools prepare us for that life? We succeeded with the curriculum the law school gave us, we scored well, we won moots, we wrote tons of papers, participated in lots of credit courses, became members of committees, we did whatever they expected us to do, and bagged multiple offers from top law firms – what went wrong?

You may think that I am generalizing my experience and attributing to other lawyers. I can assure you that is not the case. In the 2011 NUJS batch, total 31 of us got through to the top 5-6 law firms. By the time I quit, according to my count, I was the 20th to quit. 19 out of those 31 batchmates of mine had already quit big law firm jobs with disappointment, or could not handle the pressure, or didn’t like that life.

I have a suspicion that many of them would have stayed put had they got the right training and preparation for the life that was waiting for them at big law firms. This story repeats year after year in big law firms. A tiny fraction of bright eyed young freshers who join the big law firms remain in the firm after a year. Please do not take my word on this, and ask anybody who has worked in such a firm if this is true.

By the time I got a hang of how things are done in a law firm, I quit Trilegal determined to create an alternative system of legal education where we will focus on teaching practical legal work. Not the bare act of contract, but how to draft valuable commercial contracts. We wanted to create a world of legal education where you could learn on demand, no matter who you are, the practical insights, best practices, the work as it is done by the best lawyers and law firms.

It is really no different for young lawyers who begin in litigation rather than law firms. Over the next 7 years, I have interacted with close to 4000 students through iPleaders and LawSikho, and I know the amazing advantage one can get if they hit the ground running with above average knowledge of the work they will have to do upon joining. This holds true to all careers.

#Lesson 3
You may get stuck in the legal education bottleneck

If the college is not going to teach essential skills that you need as a lawyer then who will? Of course, despite you paying through your nose for your coveted legal education to a law school, the employer is left to pick up the tab. They have to take you in based on your general intelligence and knowledge of law, then train you to do the kind of work they need you to do.

They do not know how productive you will be, and whether you will after all learn. Even if you learn well,  they don’t know if you will stay back or leave to set up your own practice. Law firms openly say that for first 6-12 months they do not expect fresh associates to be profitable or productive for the firm.

Of course, this kind of arrangement can work only for law firms and in-house legal teams with large associate pools. A lot of senior lawyers to teach a bunch of juniors. For small teams, this model is impossible.

Which is why you will find that a large number of lawyers, law firms and companies simply refuse to hire any fresh graduates at all. They want to hire only experienced lawyers who know what they have to do and how to do. Most freshers find it very difficult to get any opportunities at all!

There are other lawyers who take full advantage of this situation by offering meagre salaries or no salary at all to their junior lawyers. We are teaching you, so you should pay us, isn’t it? We are doing a favour to you by allowing you inside our chamber. Thank us for the opportunity, learn as much as you can, and figure out your own legal career thereafter.

A large number of law graduates in this country are not even paid minimum wages. Kerala Govt. had to start a stipend of INR 5000 for new law graduates who don’t earn enough!

What does that say to you about the legal profession? It is not that there is any dearth of work for lawyers. Even a lawyer who drafts a rental agreement charges at least INR 10,000. Why do lawyers need INR 5000 dole from government? People are desperately searching for good, skillful lawyers who can get their work done, and they are ready to pay a king’s ransom for it quite often.

However, there is a lack of trained lawyers who can do the work, thanks to the bottleneck. Also, thanks to the bottleneck, there are jobless and directionless young lawyers wondering if they made a mistake by choosing law as a profession.

Can we break this bottleneck by teaching how to do different kind of legal work through online lessons to anybody who needs to learn it?

#Lesson 4
You will need to upgrade your skills and knowledge mid career

Careers do not always move in a straight line. I started working in a law firm and then decided to be a legal entrepreneur. There are others who decide to practice criminal law. Or maybe those practicing in the court decide that it will be a good idea to start drafting contracts as well.

Maybe in your district there is a sudden boom of industries and a lot of factories open up. Maybe you get an opportunity to work on some transactions that involve FDI. Maybe there is now an excellent opportunity to help these new potential clients with their labour law compliance. Maybe you start working for a technology company and suddenly need to upgrade your knowledge of IP laws and technology regulation. Maybe you realise that knowing tax laws is going to help to get the next promotion.

Where do you go? What is the method at your disposal to quickly acquire the relevant knowledge without wasting a ton of time?

In the course of your law career, time and again you will feel the need to systematically learn about new areas of law, and develop new practice areas. My solution would be to talk to a few friends working in that practice area already. Then I may buy a few textbooks related to that practice area. Then I will opt for an in-depth, practical work oriented online course developed by real experts.

We are talking about people who have done that work for several years on the front line – those should be the people teaching you. Not an academic with a PhD behind his name as far as this particular purpose is concerned.

I would want that through such a course I will not only get some study material that I can learn at my own pace, but also access to experts to whom I can present my questions and confusions. I will want to become part of a network where people know this area of practice. I will want the templates, checklists and sample documents that can get me a headstart in that area.

That’s exactly what I try to provide through every law course we launch. Do you think there is more we can provide? We try to provide some career opportunities too! It’s hard though. We are launching a bunch of in-depth brand new online courses, as we redesign, our flagship courses marketplace.

#Lesson 5
Certification is far less important than success, and certification doesn’t guarantee success

For a long time, we tried to co-opt universities and work with them to launch these courses that we believe can revolutionize legal education. However, after 7 years, we have kind of given up on working with universities, and have decided that the way forward is to work on our own, and utilize fully the freedom of being able to build whatever we want.

It is really hard to work with Universities. They will not be comfortable to let your experiment. They may not always appreciate the vision you have. They do not understand the problem statements we work with and they do not care much about how better things could be. Though it is easier to sell a course certified by an University, delivering what a student expects from us becomes difficult.

Well, in most cases, they do not see value in bringing in an external partner with real expertise in creating online courses. Many universities we spoke to were not even comfortable with launching online courses. The ones that want to, sometimes want to launch banal courses that are heavy on assessment and tiny on learning. They want their professors with PhDs but zero practical exposure to teach wonderful theories that will be of zero value to people we want to help.

Last year, in the beginning of 2017 to be precise, we decided that it is high time we launch our own courses and try to sell them without University certification. The results were amazing. Our courses, offered through LawSikho without any University certification has been doing exceedingly well, which is a proof of concept that learning and skills that lead to success are far more important than University certification. Several law firms have come forward to collaborate on this, and I will be happy to soon announce a few MoUs we have signed.

We can deliver much more success when we offer our own courses, without having bureaucrats and old academicians without any understanding of technology or possibilities of online learning to interfere. So that’s the way to go, even if it’s a little harder for us to start with. We are now investing mainly in our own curriculums focussing on careers like these:

Competition law course –  a very difficult area of practice to succeed in – simplified and explained. With this course, you can begin your attempts at getting a foot through the door with a lot more confidence and real expertise to back your courage.

Contract Drafting and Negotiation course –  a course that will teach you to draft over 100 different types of contracts along with templates!

Intellectual Property Law course – one of the most popular careers, made easy through a comprehensive online course you can use to teach yourself.

GST course – a course that can help you to develop your own GST practice, from scratch.

Arbitration law course – a course that can help you to enter the exclusive world of ADR with incomparable prior knowledge and preparation that will impress everyone you come across.

Ace your Internship – planning to intern in a corporate law firm or in-house legal team? This is the course if you want to prepare ahead, so that you can impress your boss, and bag a pre-placement offer, or at the least a call back internship!

Preparation is the key to success. A certificate is just a vague promise of competence. It is never a replacement for developing real competency. I have learnt to ignore certificates and rely more on a quick interview or a trial task to decide who I should be hiring or giving an opportunity. The world is getting wiser! Focus on building real skills, and you will always beat the ones who are tigers only on their CV!

I want to know your thoughts

What is the future of online learning according to you? Is online education going to survive the test of time? Can you learn from an online course after all? What are your biggest challenges if you want to become an extraordinary lawyer? What have you been doing to chase your dream of becoming a great lawyer? What did you do in the last 30 days? Would it help if you had a mentor to call you up and check on your progress?

We are experimenting with legal education, and we can learn the best lessons from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or just shoot me a mail! I am available at ramanuj[attherate]ipleaders [dot] in. If you have internship mails please don’t send them to me, send them to [email protected]. Thanks!


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