Envisioning Legal Education Reform

Written by  //  November 10, 2010  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  5 Comments

[This is a guest post by Jonathan Gingerich and Aditya Singh. Jonathan is a recent graduate of the Harvard Law School, and Aditya is a final year student at NALSAR, Hyderabad.  The authors are Student Empirical Research Fellows at the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession.  They can be contacted at indianlegaleducation@law.harvard.edu.]

Earlier this year, the Bar Council of India and the Ministry of Law and Justice organised a National Consultation on “Second Generation Reform in Legal Education.”  At this consultation, the Law Minister presented a Vision Statement, proposing a set of ambitious reforms to legal education.

 The government’s commitment to improving legal education is commendable, and one important aspect of legal education that it should consider reforming is evaluation and assessment of students.  Particularly, the government should consider how law schools can improve writing requirements and examinations.

Aside from a small number of national law schools, most schools assess their students with examinations that require memorising legal rules and abstract theoretical concepts.

Another crucial aspect of student assessment at the National Law Schools and a handful of other law schools are research projects, or term papers.  These law schools typically require students to write a research project for every course and, students usually study ten to twelve courses every academic year.  However, students find it difficult to complete so many research papers every year, and feel that they often sacrifice quality for quantity, while professors struggle to evaluate and provide proper feedback on such a large number of lengthy projects.

On the other hand, many traditional law colleges do not require their students to complete any written work.  An effective policy should neither impose unrealistic writing requirements on students and faculty nor leave students without significant experience crafting legal essays.  It should help students to become creative and persuasive writers by providing them with the experience of thoroughly exploring a large body of information and applying their original insights to a problem that interests them.

In order to enhance the quality and inclusiveness of legal education, law school examinations and writing requirements need to be reformed to emphasise the importance of students’ analytical skills.  Two important, connected problems related to professional integrity are academic misconduct and ineffective evaluation in law schools.

This June, Gopal Subramanium, Chairman of the Bar Council of India, released a statement acknowledging the wide prevalence of plagiarism in law schools and proposed that the Bar Council partner with a private firm to develop software that law schools could use to detect plagiarism. This is an important step to promote integrity, but it will be most effective if coupled with the development of methods of student assessment that are less amenable to plagiarism.

With respect to examinations, to prepare legal professionals who can address the challenges accompanying the continuous developments of the Indian economy, more law schools should challenge their students to think critically about contemporary legal issues with problem-oriented examinations.

Evaluation reform is often treated as a technical matter best left to administrators.  However, it should occupy an important position in Second Generation legal education reforms.  Academic evaluation is the primary extrinsic incentive for law students to learn and acquire legal skills.

When students do not receive meaningful feedback or have doubts about the accuracy or reliability of the evaluation of exams and research projects, they become disillusioned with their assignments and are unlikely to take them seriously.  The Bar Council and the Government may design and implement outstanding curricular reforms for law schools, but such reforms will be meaningless unless students are appropriately incentivised to absorb the curriculum.

Because of the relevance of assessment reform to law students, discussing evaluation would provide an opportunity to involve students directly in the national consultation and enhance its legitimacy among all stakeholders.  Reforms to legal education will be most effective when they incorporates examinations that encourage greater creativity and writing requirements that instil research skills.

Inadequate law student evaluation is not a problem limited to India.  In the United States and around the world, a common complaint of law students and practising lawyers is that law school examinations neither prepare students to practice law nor predict whether students will be successful as practicing lawyers.  By developing accurate, reliable and relevant assessments of law students, India can further position itself as a leader in global legal education.

It is particularly important when considering the proposed reforms that they reach all law schools in India.  Currently, most reforms have been experienced at a small group of elite law schools.  In order for the Second Generation of legal reforms to be fully effective while furthering the goal of inclusion, they must permeate through the entire system of legal education.

Speaking at the National Consultation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recognised that Indian legal education is characterized by a few “islands of excellence amidst a sea of institutionalised mediocrity. To remedy this mediocrity, the Government and Bar Council must commit themselves to making their vision a reality that includes student participation, better assessment, and broad-based implementation.

About the Author

Advocate, Madras High Court Trainee Solicitor, Clifford Chance LLP, London (2008-2010). Author, The Law of Reservation and Anti-discrimination, LexisNexis Butterworths Wadhwa Nagpur (2008). Chief-editor, Justice R.S.Bachawat's Law of Arbitration and Conciliation, 5th edition, LexisNexis Butterworths Wadhwa Nagpur (2010).

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5 Comments on "Envisioning Legal Education Reform"

  1. Arghya November 11, 2010 at 7:27 am ·

    Hi,

    Excellent topic and one that merits far greater discussion than what we’ve had so far. I have a couple of small points to add:
    1. It’s necessary to talk about evaluation reform. But I think the larger question of why we have law schools should be answered first to tackle the former question effectively. In your post you mention examinations “that encourage greater creativity and writing requirements that instil research skills” are required. It’s a sentiment that can’t be disagreed with. But the question is- what type of research skills- of a practising lawyer, an academic, or perhaps even an activist or perhaps a mixture of these and some other factors depending on courses. Essentially my point is that evaluation reform is an extremely relevant issue, but that the devil really lies in the detail and it raises larger questions of the purpose of legal education in India, which I think at this stage is at best fuzzy.
    Second, you talk about the BCI wanting to develop a software for plagiarism detection with a private company. But there are some rather good softwares in the market which are already available and fairly accurate. What I have in mind is stuff like TurnItIn. Many universities use it, and as has recently come to my attention, many IB schools in India as well. The BCI or the law schools don’t have to think about this one too hard, unlike the first one.

  2. Arvind Singh November 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm ·

    Nice article, I agree with you, to improve the quality of education and legal integration, school exams and requirements of the law in writing must be reformed to emphasize the importance of students skills of analysis. Two major problems associated with it as part of the professional integrity of misconduct and ineffective evaluation of law schools.

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