The Frustrations of Studying at a Traditional Law College [READER’S BLOG]

Note: This is a reader’s blog. The views expressed, are the writer’s views and not that of Lawctopus.

The debate about whether National Law Schools truly offer a better experience than traditional law colleges is not a new one – indeed, the debate that we see playing out in India is but a manifestation of the contestations that have been underway between elite and non-elite institutions in countries across the globe for multiple decades.

Rivers of ink and reams of paper have been utilized by thinkers on both sides of the spectrum to establish the superiority of their claim — by those in favour of elite institutions to argue that educational institutions which follow a very rigorous admission process deserve a higher degree of reverence and respect on account of the way in which they have been able to shape the thoughts and worldview of some of the world’s finest professionals and by those who believe that traditional colleges offer an equally enriching experience to argue that education cannot be a preserve of a handful of institutions in the information age and that it is the students’ intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge that play a far more fundamental and formative role in their career than the name of the institution from where they acquire their professional qualifications.

My aim of writing this piece is not to analyse this problem from the ivory tower by weighing the pros and cons associated with studying in a traditional law college through a set of abstract arguments, but to give expression to the frustration, the anger and the helplessness that I, and thousands of honest, hardworking, intellectually curious and ambitious students like me studying in such law colleges, have to grapple with every single day.

That most traditional law colleges have woefully inadequate infrastructure, unprepared and uninformed faculty and limited access to legal databases and books is a platitude.

Truth be told, very few of the supposedly elite institutions in India can boast of those attributes. No, that is not what I am particularly disillusioned with.

My sadness and anger towards the traditional law colleges stems principally from the remarkably poor quality of students who study in these institutions – students who do not know what a non obstante clause or proviso or prima facie mean even after successfully completing their law course; students who strive to glorify ignorance and seek solace in each others’ lack of understanding of the law; students who haven’t read a single judgment, citation or legal article in their 5 years of law school; students who believe that objectifying people of the opposite gender is more interesting and cool than questioning the legal arguments that they would be well served to study; students who believe that education is just about copying your neighbour’s answers and passing exams; students who believe that internships, moots and extracurricular activities are a waste of time and are not going to be of any help to them in the real world.

The standard of legal education in the country possessing the world’s second largest population of lawyers is best epitomized by the fact that many of these students eventually end up bagging medals and securing excellent marks in their exams, never realizing the extent of their ignorance.

I often ask myself and anyone kind enough to listen the reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

Are these students merely victims of a system that promotes and perpetuates mediocrity – a system where only those who are born and brought up in wealthy, academically-oriented families which can equip them with the wherewithal required to crack competitive exams are typically able to receive quality education or at least study in an environment which fosters critical and independent thinking and provides them the tools needed to develop analytical skills – or do they have no one but their own lackadaisical attitude, lack of passion for the law and general indifference to blame for their fate?

The answer to this question, as to most other hard and practical questions in life, lies somewhere in the middle.

If a set of bright young individuals who are confused about their place in the world, the meaning of their existence and the role that they can play in making existing systems and societal structures more just, fair and transparent are robbed of the opportunity to access the tools and resources, sans which it is difficult to think about these issues deeply and fully, and are surrounded by incompetent adults who have done very little in their lives for themselves or for those around them, it isn’t entirely fair to expect these students to carve out a path for themselves, all on their own, that can allow them to give expression to the intrinsic worth and value that we all possess in ample measure.

This is not to say that the barriers that this form of institutionalized mediocrity throws up are so insurmountable and the challenges so difficult that hardworking and diligent students cannot break this vicious cycle and find ways of making a meaningful and substantive contribution in their chosen field – history is replete with many examples of people who have done just that – but it is certainly true that very few students can hope to compete with their counterparts who have access to better resources when the odds are so heavily stacked against them.

At the same time, we cannot lay all the blame on the door of these institutions and lose sight of the fact that most of these institutions would not be able to function in the unacceptable ways in which they do if their students were more assertive, informed and desirous of questioning and changing the status quo.

If you try to engage in a meaningful conversation with such students about the possible steps that can be taken to change the existing state of affairs or about any recent legal developments, they are quick to associate such adjectives as uncool, uninteresting and nerdy with your name.

Ask such students what they plan to do with their law degree or what their professional aspirations are, and they will be quick to change the conversation to such subjects as the looks of the girl sitting on the next table and their last confrontation with their significant other.

To be sure, I recognize the importance of such conversations and genuinely believe that they form an integral component of the bonds that one builds in college, but one forgoes vital opportunities to broaden and deepen one’s understanding of the things that actually matter in law school when such conversations are conducted to the exclusion of all else.

While it is true that the actions of a substantial portion of the students who behave in such self-destructive ways and do a huge disservice to the legal profession are actuated by choice and not compulsion, it is equally true that most of these students are never fully exposed to the possibility of living a more fuller, deeper and meaningful life because of our fundamentally flawed school education system.

And maybe in the library too?
And maybe in the library too?

Indeed, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court has rightly noted, we cannot blame students for their failure to excel in a race which many of them don’t even know is being run.

The causes for the events that I have sketched above are many, but its immediate effect is only one which manifests itself in different forms: When we go to college, far too often we are ruefully informed that classes have been cancelled; far too many students spend the most formative period of their lives in canteens and cafes; far too many of us only study a handful of important questions which we are told will help us pass the exam with flying colours; far too many of us enter the legal profession woefully underprepared.

And just as it is said that India cannot grow in an inclusive and sustainable manner until her villages show signs of growth, we cannot honestly say that we have a robust legal education system until the colleges that produce a large chunk of the roughly 70,000 law students that graduate each year undergo the paradigmatic shift needed to convert them from breeding grounds of indolence and incompetence to bastions of personal and professional growth

Note: This is a reader’s blog. The views expressed, are the writer’s views and not that of Lawctopus.

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