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Dr. Nachiketa Mittal is the founder of India's first Virtual Law School (VLS), an initiative that seeks provide quality legal education at an "affordable cost". With close to a decade of experience in Indian legal education, Dr. Mittal was the Dean of the United World School of Law before he set up the VLS.
In this interview with Shubham Gupta, Dr. Mittal shares how and why VLS was set up, Indian law schools and the Covid pandemic, and a whole lot more.
Foremost, I am thankful to Bar & Bench for having showing interest in a law teacher led initiative of connecting law students with a quality legal education at affordable cost. While I share the story of Virtual Law School (India’s 1st) with you, I welcome you to be a part of it in its initial phase.
I conceptualised the Virtual Law School during the national lockdown in the month of April. At that point of time, I was heading the United World School of Law (UWSL). Like many educational institutions, we also started online law teaching.
In this process, I could invite Justice Kurian Joseph to lecture, Sr. Adv. Sidharth Luthra taught entire module on bail jurisprudence for my students at UWSL. And I began to post these updates on my social media pages.
But as we all know, not every law school was ready for online teaching. Not every law student gets admitted to the few NLUs or Universities which may have such facilities.
As a result, hundreds of law students get left out in this crisis of pandemic and were getting distanced from continued legal education. I began to receive several requests from law students of other colleges to allow them to attend online law classes at UWSL. That was not possible due to a conflict of interest.
Hence, I thought of making it possible. During the lockdown, we all had some extra leisure hours at our disposal. I thought of using this time to teach these students of other law schools online. I reached out to some of my colleagues and friends in other law schools, former judges of the Supreme Court and the senior lawyers. Most of them supported my idea and promised to come on board.
I then put out an advertisement on social media for pro bono law teaching and named it as Virtual Law School (VLS). Before I could realise, I got 500 students signing up for studying with VLS.
Since then I have only been moving ahead in making this movement more streamlined, structured and professionally sound.
To be honest, it was one of the most crucial decisions of my professional life. Never before I had encountered such a tough call. I had to choose between the well-paid job of a Dean or a pro bono law teaching movement that I was starting.
Times were challenging and I could foresee that it is not going to be better anytime soon. Generally, managements don’t support such initiatives when you are on someone’s payroll.
Although in my case there was no conflict of interest involved because it was entirely pro bono with former judges of the Supreme Court on board, it didn’t quite work. Hence, I took a conscious decision to quit the job of a Dean and formally establish the Virtual Law School.
Then there was the challenge of finding more likeminded law teachers than the few initial friends who agreed to teach with me. However, in this case, I find myself quite blessed. I got an overwhelmingly positive response from many law teachers and lawyers who joined me in a pro bono law teaching movement.
Since the day I thought of establishing Virtual Law School, I have been blessed with the support of former judges like Justice A. K. Sikri, Justice Kurian Joseph; Justice Anand Pathak of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, senior counsel Sidharth Luthra, and the arbitrator Mr. Abhijeet Sinha.
They all have been very supportive of VLS and have also delivered lectures on various law subjects.
Senior lawyers of the Supreme Court who have been very kind in delivering special lectures for our students. Some of these include Mr. Kapil Sibal, Mr. Salman Khurshid, Mr. Yatindra Singh and Dr. Abhishek Singhvi.
I sincerely thank them all for motivating me in continuing this journey of the Virtual Law School.
With the changing conditions of legal education due to the compelling circumstances posed by COVID-19 and national lockdown, the Bar Council of India has also explored new possibilities of online legal education.
In this regard, BCI has permitted all the law schools recognised by it to conduct online law classes, which was until then not a possibility under existing rules of BCI. We have been consistently conducting LIVE classes for over 750 law students now. This has been done by following a proper curriculum and syllabus in a very disciplined manner of six days a week, five hours a day.
We have been following all the teaching norms of the standard law schools recognized by BCI and UGC.
I understand that it is not possible and easy for the BCI to recognize VLS immediately. But if the BCI could verify our teaching standards, it could possible grant us temporary recognition during COVID times.
This will enable a greater number of law students in studying with us and benefitting because not every law school recognized by BCI is in a position to ensure online law classes. And we are providing it at very affordable fees, presently at INR 750 for per subject to be taught in 30 teaching hours in 3 months.
Rules and procedures are always made as per the changing conditions of society. Hence, I hope that the BCI will at least consider this. We welcome the BCI to attend our classes and understand our vision and commitment of legal education. I would be happy to assist the BCI and other law schools in upgrading themselves and providing quality legal education to hundreds of law students at extremely affordable fees.
I have undergone this dilemma of giving up a job in reputed law firms twice. First time, it was in June 2006 when I had completed my law degree from University of Pune and got a job in a reputed law firm in Delhi. I still vividly remember coming out of the interview with a job offer and was waiting for a bus to travel to then Gurgaon (now Gurugram).
I received a call from my sister Ritambhara telling me that I had secured 7th National Rank in the NLSIU All India entrance test. She has been my inspiration and motivation in my journey through out. And it is her counselling which led me to choose the 2-year LL.M. in Human Rights at NLSIU.
The second time, I joined a law office after finishing my LL.M but given my drive for social sector and academics, I decided to settle for a lesser salary in the social sector. And it was while working in RELK, Dehardun that I happened to coach several law students from across the country who used to intern with me.
I used to sit through their presentations and began to enjoy the process of teaching. Later, I was fortunate that my senior colleague and a dear friend Dr. Yogesh Pratap Singh, Registrar, NLU Odisha and Prof. Faizan Mustafa, then Vice-Chancellor of NLU Odisha invited me to law teaching.
Since then there was no looking back and I continue to discover this journey of a law teacher.
I feel that to some extent there is a difference in teaching but only in handful of NLUs and non-NLU law schools. In case of some of the younger NLUs, I feel some non-NLUs are way better.
We must not only get carried away by the tag of NLUs. It is good that as many as 23 NLUs have come up now but sadly they have not been able to imbibe and even maintain the standards set by NLSIU or NALSAR. They have tried to copy the model but the academic sincerity and rigor is missing.
Many NLUs including the top five or 3 have seen several students protest over the years for shortage of faculty, non-transparent examination system, teaching quality and arbitrary administrative actions.
This is not just sad but should be a wake-up call for the Senior Law Professors who serve as the Vice-Chancellors to look inwards and set things right and not simply work towards claiming second term as the Vice-Chancellors, which is a new normal in NLUs. I hope a serious thought would be given to this.
Private law schools are no better; they charge exorbitant fees but fall short in quality.
In my opinion, most Indian law schools are not yet ready to chalk out a plan to cope with pandemic and its ensuing consequences. They are taking it as temporary phase which shall pass and until then, they should keep the students busy by organising some online classes. I am yet to see a long-term vision and plan especially in case of the private law schools.
Here, I feel NLUs may score a little over private law schools. This is because most of the private law schools have been sadly laying off law teachers or are deducting up to 50 percent salary of law teachers. But they have not been reducing the fees.
Some of the private law schools have also been warning students about levying late fees in case next semester’s fees are not deposited. I hear these stories from my students of Virtual Law School on a daily basis.
No doubt law schools are equally hard hit like many other educational institutions but there is an imminent need of a fool proof plan to combat the pandemic crisis and yet ensure quality law teaching.
My academic services are open for all the law students and all the law schools of the country, the Virtual Law School is not a business model but a new age teaching model. Let us jointly combat the academic challenges and present a new model of legal education in keeping with the changing world.
When I talk about the NLUs, I think Vice-Chancellors need to focus more on classroom teaching quality. This is one of the most neglected areas in almost all law schools. Most of NLUs look good because they keep organising national and international conferences and invite judges and lots of guest speakers. The question of what goes inside the classrooms gets conveniently pushed under the carpet.
Likewise, private law schools concentrate more on the quantity of seminars and conferences to get covered in newspapers every day. But who organises these in any law school? It is the law teachers who do all leg work and put in hours of hard work. They sometimes have to ghost write speeches for the guest speakers, sometimes act as public relation managers for a law school.
In this process, law teachers are never able to get time to research beyond what is necessary to conduct daily classes. Such culture of looking good in rankings needs to change.
It is critical to focus more and more on pedagogy training for law teachers and necessary handholding for young law teachers, instead of only assigning them random subjects and leaving it for the students to judge them.
Law teachers training is absolutely missing from law schools of all kinds.
Likewise, I feel the standards of legal education to rank law schools by the government as well as the private assessment bodies need to change. Rankings should focus more on internal classroom quality rather than giving more weightage to all other paraphernalia the law schools carry.
I hope the law schools will use this pandemic in setting their house in order and collectively emerge as reformers of legal education than merely extracting exorbitant fees from parents and students and still continue huge deferment in salaries in the name of economic slowdown.
Quality continues to be a constant matter of concern even for NLUs which are mostly supervised either by the Chief Justice of India or the CJI’s nominee as the Visitor and in most cases, the Chief Justice of the High Court as the Chancellor.
I hope at least the Chancellor Judges will realise their administrative responsibility and would make not only NLUs but all law schools in the State improve their quality.
(Shubham Gupta is the Bar & Bench Campus Ambassador for Chandigarh University, Mohali)