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Professor Nigam Nuggehalli on Legal Research

Professor Nigam Nuggehalli, Dean of School of Law, BML Munjal University, routinely writes a series called ‘Letter to Law Students’, where he shares pearls of wisdom to help budding legal eagles make sense of what is happening around them. He always encourages the students to think for themselves and never imposes his view on anyone. His latest letter (reproduced below) talks about Legal Research.

“Letters to law students #18

My dear law students 

In this letter, I want to talk to you about socio-legal research, about regular research and writing, and about research that is relevant to the Indian legal ecosystem. 

In my first month at law school, I was asked to write a paper (or to use the law school terminology-project assignment) on the life of security guards for my course on sociology. My mandate was to do an empirical survey by interviewing security guards. I didn’t have the slightest clue about how to go about it. When NLSIU told me that law and social sciences were going to be integrated into one course, I didn’t realise that they will send me outside the classroom as soon as I got into it. Cursing my fate, I landed up at an apartment building in Malleswaram and accosted a security guard quietly going about his own business. Those were innocent days. Today my barging into an apartment building to ask the security guards about their business would have landed me in a special session with the nearest Station House Officer. I can’t remember what I asked the security guards or their replies. There is no record of my paper either.  This was an era when students wrote their assignments by hand. I typed my first assignment in my fifth year. Today, my teenage daughter uses handwritten notes as a novelty device, to be used on birthdays and if I behave myself, Father’s Day. 

The assignment on security guards was my first experience with research. At that time I did not know about the nuances of social science research. What kind of sampling do we need in order to come to any factual assertions about security guards? What kind of causal explanations could I draw from this research? Later in your law school years, we will introduce courses on social science research. I am not a complete convert to quantitative methods in social sciences; I believe human complexity is often not captured by numbers but that’s a discussion for another day. I  believe that every law student must have some appreciation (even if tinged with scepticism) of the formal tools available to understand social phenomena.

The law school I went to had elaborate plans for legal research. Every three months, we had to submit four project assignments. Depending on the faculty member involved, a student had to submit between 5000 to 10,000 words per assignment. This was a highly ambitious venture. Unfortunately, over time it dissolved into a farce with many students and faculty members treating the whole thing as a chore to be done at the last minute. The four projects every twelve weeks brought a hamster on the wheel  feel to it but it had one thing going for it: it inculcated a sense of discipline in the law students. At the end of his fifth year, a law student could crank out a written assignment overnight on any given topic. Unfortunately it also encouraged hustling, whether in the form of cut and paste or project exemptions. It is easy to criticise the law school project scheme, but it It is difficult to provide an alternative. I hope I can come up with a curriculum structure for you that can encourage good writing while also instilling the discipline of sustained writing in you, for one feeds on the other. 

This brings me to my final thought on legal research. I would like you to focus on research issues that are relevant to Indian circumstances. There are plenty of opportunities out there. Let me give you an example. The Indian parliament enacted the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 in order to make the process of restructuring Indian companies easier. The outcome of a restructuring under the IBC is a resolution plan under which the creditors of the company agree to forgive part of the debt of the company in return for a new buyer taking over the business of the company and starting off on a clean slate ie not liable for the past dues of the company. This blank state approach is necessarily-the new buyer knows coming in that all past dues have been been settled once and for all. 

If only that were the case in Indian conditions! One reads stories about how people bought a company that was supposedly cleared of all dues only to find out that the public utility companies cut off electricity unless the company paid its past dues. The revenue officers continued to send notices about taxes due before the restructuring. I want you to look into these issues: how the shiny new Indian law runs ragged in Indian conditions, and suggest ways out of the quagmire. If legal research is not to succumb to ennui, both students and faculty must try to relate their research to the Indian context. 

Nigam Nuggehalli


School of Law 

BML Munjal University”

Note: This letter has been reproduced after taking Professor Nuggehalli’s consent.

To read more from the series on ‘Letter to Law Students’, you could check out Professor Nigam Nuggehalli’s LinkedIn page here.  You could read more about Professor Nigam Nuggehalli here. 

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