Should the five-year law degree be reduced to a shorter duration?

In the backdrop of a petition filed in the Supreme Court, legal academics weigh in on whether one should get a law degree in three or four years right after school.
law graduates
law graduatesImage for representational purposes

A petition was recently filed in the Supreme Court seeking directions to reduce the duration of the five-year law programme to three years.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay prayed that aspiring lawyers be allowed to pursue a three-year LL.B. right after school.

The petition argues that five years is an 'unreasonable and irrational' duration, given the financial burden it causes parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Upadhyay also argued that back in the day, Ram Jethmalani completed his law degree at 17 years and began practicing at 18 years, and that Fali Nariman had also begun his practice at 21 years of age,

Is there any merit to these arguments? We spoke to academicians who discussed the pros and cons of reducing the law course duration.

Dean of BITS Law School Prof Dr Ashish Bhardwaj was of the opinion that the five-year course duration can be reduced.

Dr Ashish Bharadwaj
Dr Ashish Bharadwaj

“Five years is most certainly a protracted period. Student learning has become fast-paced, across disciplines, law included. When students see their counterparts in other disciplines get their undergraduate degree in three to four years, law students with a five-year program assume a relative disadvantage. When we go back to the genesis of this program, the idea was to bring it from a three plus three to a five-year course.

Fast forward 35-36 years since the initiation of the integrated program, we need to revisit the five-year period also, especially given the changes that are being introduced in the National Education Policy which makes students eligible for a one-year Master's program after a four-year undergraduate course. However, since legal education is beyond the NEP 2020, it needs to be reconsidered by the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the legal fraternity. It is too long a duration."

Weighing the pros and cons of reducing the course duration, Prof Bhardwaj said,

"Unlike the three-year standalone LL.B., where students have already done three years of college in whatever discipline, they come slightly more prepared for the law curriculum. In a five-year programme, we get almost ‘raw’ students. Some of them are not even sure if law is their cup of tea. That makes the entire learning slightly difficult, both for the teachers and the students. Entry into the law program at the age of 16-17 typically right after school is not a bad idea per se, given how well the five-year programmes have done in the last few decades, but it is the sheer length that can create a sense of fatigue."

He also called for a rethink on the five-year programme as it exists.

"In a typical five-year law program, students usually do around 56 courses. According to the Bar Council of India (BCI), they have to mandatorily do two English/language courses, 12 BA/BBA/other allied discipline courses depending on the program, four clinical courses (including Drafting, Pleading Conveyancing, professional ethics, Alternate Dispute Resolution and booting), do mandatory internships and the remaining are all core law subjects. This is a huge spread. On the other hand, students can enter the job market after completing a non-professional three year BA/BCom/BSc degree (or four years, under NEP). In integrated law programmes that commence after Grade 12, the overall learning outcomes can be achieved in less than 5 years without diluting the rigour of the curriculum, the practical training and without compromising a student's ability to become an astute lawyer."

Further elaborating on why the course length becomes problematic, and drawing from other undergraduate courses under the NEP, Bharadwaj said, 

"A student who has just come out of school may not necessarily appreciate why a course on legal history or political ideology or literature is an important foundation. A lot of law schools become mediocre in offering non-law courses and students don't taken them seriously, when they are eagerly waiting for the main law subjects. Five years test the patience of a very eager law aspirant and there is no exit option. It is crucial to check how law schools sequence and time the courses as per the broad framework prescribed by BCI rules."

On whether reducing the course duration would increase the pressure among students, Prof Bharadwaj said,

"Knowing that students are locked into a law programme for five years will add more stress. Five years is a long commitment. One lesson COVID-19 has taught us is that you can't anticipate the future over five years. I can give a very creative option - in the US there is a BA (Hons) Law or Legal Studies programme, which is a Bachelor's degree. In India, some private universities have started offering a similar degree, but BCI does not recognize it, since it does not lead to an LL.B.

You can have a three-year BA law degree which does not make you eligible to write the bar exam, then you have a fourth year which most people will take anyway because the fourth year will give you the LL.B. and the eligibility to write the Bar exam. That brings an exit option for those who are seeking an early completion of their UG studies and also reduces the overall duration of legal education."

Vice-Chancellor of Chanakya National Law University, Patna Prof Faizan Mustafa is largely in favour of reducing the course duration to four years. However, he opines that this cannot be brought about by a petition in court, since the BCI is the main regulatory body.

Prof Faizan Mustafa
Prof Faizan Mustafa

Opining that four years would be an optimal duration for the undergraduate law degree, Prof Mustafa said,

"The five-year period was there because the earlier rule required one to complete graduation and then pursue law. The University Grants Commission (UGC) rule in concurrence with the BCI Rules then allowed combining two degrees, thereby saving one year. Since BTech is four years and MBBS is also four-and-a-half years and one year of internship, for law it should be possible to come up with interdisciplinary courses like Law and Economics or Sociology of Law rather than directly teaching 43 courses each in social sciences. What can be done in five years, if squeezed into four years, it would be better. May be one year of apprenticeship should be made compulsory before graduates enroll as advocates."

On how the law course could be reduced in duration and the practicalities that need to be taken into account, Mustafa said,

"A relook into the syllabus is needed such that when social sciences courses are reduced and integrated with the law, the learning outcomes are the same or improved, but this cannot be done only by lawyers. There has to be a proper body of experts of academicians, BCI representatives, judges and social sciences experts." 

ILS Law College Officiating Principal Prof Dr Deepa Paturkar was against the reduction of the course duration.

Dr. Deepa Paturkar
Dr. Deepa

“Currently after three years, students get awarded a BA degree and after five years, they get the LL.B. degree. This is done to bring parity with BA, BCom, BSc students who appear for competitive exams like UPSC. In light of NEP now, BA, BCom, BSc (Hons) will be awarded after four years, in which case awarding the first degree in the integrated course will happen after four years, and again there will be no parity. Another issue is if students want to join the three-year LL.B. after first undergraduation, they would have spent seven years in graduation (4+3) which seems really impractical. People may not want to spend such a long duration to join the profession after 12th grade. This will increase the burden on the parents especially when students are from rural backgrounds or relatively disadvantaged socio-economic status. They want their children to be independent as early as possible." 

Expressing the practical challenges in reducing the law course duration and the surrounding concerns of the time it takes to hone legal and analytical skills, Prof Paturkar said, 

“To bring the course duration down to three or four years, the Bar Council Rules and Advocates Act will have to be amended, and then also the syllabus. Students are too raw after 12th grade. If you compare a first year LL.B. student to a third year student of a five-year course, the former almost always has a better level of understanding and maturity. The nuances and intricacies in legal provisions takes time to develop, so I don’t think it is advisable to reduce the duration of the course. There are so many laws that are not covered even in the five-year course, so reducing the duration would exacerbate this problem. We need to incorporate in the curriculum as many subjects as possible. Reducing the duration may compromise students’ understanding of the law, their analytical skills.

Another challenge is that students come from different streams after 12th, so unless one has studied Political Science, students may not have the temperament to understand legal terms. The law focuses on the assimilation and application of facts, and these faculties take time to develop. The five-year course gives time to develop the skill sets and the ability to apply the law," Prof Paturkar observed. 

Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University Vice-Chancellor Prof D Surya Prakasa Rao expressed skepticism on whether the BCI would agree to the petition, but shared that four years would be a good time duration for a law program.

Dr D Surya Prakasa Rao
Dr D Surya Prakasa Rao

"I think four years for the law course would be a good bet, given that other professional courses are also of the same duration. If it is reduced to three years like a BA or BSc, the law program may not be seen as a professional course, and if it is reduced to as less as three years, tomorrow somebody may come and say why not two years, since it is less expensive. One year after the law course can be devoted for practical training," Prof Rao opined.

Prof Sanjay Jain of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore opines that the five-year program is already a tight course and that shortening the duration may not be appropriate.

 Professor Dr. Sanjay Jain
Professor Dr. Sanjay Jain

"I don't think the course duration can be reduced below five years. A social science background is essential in a law degree, especially after 12th grade. Apart from that, even in a five-year law programme there are a lot of basic subjects that don't get covered, so bringing it down to four years like an engineering degree may not be possible. Students are getting two degrees in the five-year program, so it is not correct to say it is a five-year LL.B.

It is a different matter than social sciences subjects are not taken seriously in law school, but an understanding of these subjects is crucial to develop understanding of the law."

Advocate Gautam Bhatia
Advocate Gautam Bhatia

Advocate Gautam Bhatia agreed, saying,

"I think there should be enough attention paid to humanities and social sciences subjects, which can't happen if the law course is reduced to three years. Law should not be just a vocational degree immediately after college, because the exposure to the fields that law draws from - History, Political Theory, Sociology, and Economics is very important."

Bhatia drew from one of Lord Denning's quotes to support his opinion: 'A lawyer with knowledge of these subjects is an architect, and one without is a maze.'

On whether there should be a middle ground of making it a four year degree, Bhatia said,

"The five year degree already compresses the amount of time you spend on humanities and social sciences. Ideally, it should be 3+3 as it was. More compressing would mean that you come out of the law school completely untrained in these essential fields."

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