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I am standing by the banks of the Mahanadi river, holding a cup of tea. For three bucks, it sure is lot of tea. I am standing in silence and watching the crowds gather along the river bank. This is where friends and families gather in the evenings, sitting and chatting and catching up on all that they have missed. It is wonderful and peaceful and I am chatting with him and telling him that I respect his bravery in doing what he is doing. Teaching is no easy profession and the decision to join a fledgling institution so early in one’s career must not have been an easy one to make. “Well, there are bad days….”, he says and the smile in his eyes seems to go away. But then the light in his eyes comes back again and he looks at me and says, “…but the good days make up for that.”
The National Law University Orissa, Cuttack (NLUO) was one of the two law schools that I was most curious to visit, the other being Jindal Global Law School. There were many reasons behind wanting to visit NLUO, it is one of the youngest law schools to join CLAT, it was headed by Prof. Faizan Mustafa who had managed to set up KIIT Law School before moving on to NLUO (a few months after my visit, he would shift to NALSAR). I had been told that Prof. Mustafa was an interesting academician who had tried to do something different at NLUO.
I had also managed to gather that NLUO has some very interesting faculty, and the sheer diversity in NLU faculty is something which fascinates me to no end. Lastly, the NLUO entrance examination, in the days before it joined CLAT, has been one of the most challenging entrance exams for all law schools.
But when I finally reached the campus, I was quite disappointed. The NLUO building itself is an unimpressive, four-storey building which used to be a hospital before it was rented out to NLUO. There is no “campus” whatsoever to speak of, it takes a couple of seconds to walk from the entrance gate to the building, and the mess is a collection of tables and chairs. The class rooms are nothing to write home about and I was told that the hostel facilities were not too great either.
First impression: Not good.
It took Prof. Mustafa roughly five minutes to win me over. I had just completed a visit to the Gujarat National Law University and I was amazed at the kind of physical infrastructure the University had. I was sharing these thoughts with the Professor when he looked at me and said with some amount of scorn, “You call benches, desks and air-conditioned classrooms infrastructure? The real infrastructure is in the books, the faculty……. A university is a place of learning.” He said it with simplicity and he said it with honesty.
Prof. Mustafa is old-school and when I say this, I do not mean that he is orthodox or is extremely traditional in his outlook. Rather he is one of the dying breed of academicians who is frank and to the point. He seems to be genuinely interested in promoting academic research and will swerve through existing restrictions (the combined LLM-PhD course is one example) as and when required.
Having said that, there are very few people who are able to combine both academic and administrative responsibilities and I got the distinct feeling that Prof. Mustafa was going to head back towards academia; he seemed tired of all the bureaucratic hassles that are part and parcel of running an institution.
Which is why, when I heard of his decision to shift to NALSAR, I was more than a little surprised. I suppose everyone has their reasons for doing what they do; it would be unwise to comment on it without being privy to the truth.
I am sitting in the conference room of NLU-O and speaking with Prof. Krishan Mahajan. For lack of better words, the man may be best described as “esshtud” (for the uninitiated esshtud is a Bangalorean way of describing someone who is so cool that the word “stud” would not do).
Here is a man who has lived his life and what a life it has been!
Management trainee, journalist, lawyer and now teacher. He has lived and worked in Paris as a correspondent, travelled to remote corners of the country to write on agricultural land reforms, written one of the longest running legal columns in an Indian newspaper, been appointed amicus by the Supreme Court in high-profile matters and is now teaching in an institution which is barely three years old.
I am once again forced to consider why people make the choices they do, and in particular, why would one opt for academia.
Anyway, Prof. Mahajan tells me a bit about life as a bureau chief, the skill required for evading contempt proceedings and why legal journalism can be an extremely exciting, and financially rewarding, profession. He also tells me of plans to start a course on legal journalism as well as launch a University newspaper.
I would like to attend that course.
A lot of the newer law schools seem to downplay the importance attached to placements in corporate firms. They argue that they are not perturbed by a lack of interest from law firms, after all, this is a law school with a difference. I tend to view such claims with a fair degree of cynicism. Given the chance, I feel that they would gladly publicise the 100 per cent placement track record, insert the names of all the leading law firms which visited their campus and so on and so forth.
NLUO made me think twice. The attempt to tone down the importance normally attributed towards law firms is present alright but in a more visible way. For example, the NLU-O prospectus for 2011-12 says (on page 2):
“The University is……conscious of the fact that most graduates of other national law universities tend to avoid a career in litigation…..and instead seek employment in law firms and corporate houses. We seek to reverse this trend of ‘soft lawyering’ by actively encouraging students to opt for ‘hard law’ career options.”
The desire to be different from the rest is also reflected in the course offered. NLU-O offers an BBA-LLB program, which contains 12 papers on Business Management. In addition, the University also offers an LLM-PhD program (alluded to earlier by Prof. Mustafa), a six-semester course which seems to be tailor made for those interested in academia.
I think it is simply too early to gauge the success of these programs and whether they actually do differentiate NLUO from any other law school. From a long-perspective though, as the legal education market for these five-year courses matures, I think law schools will need to look at different avenues to attract the best students.
When I sit down for a discussion with faculty from the social, law and managerial schools, the first question I ask is whether the University has taken a conscious decision to promote litigation as a career option. The answer is “no”.
“I don’t judge students for choosing law firm jobs”, says Prof. Rita Ray, the senior-most professor from the School of Social Sciences, “what we try to do is focus on social justice. Unless a student is aware of the interplay between society and law, she will not be able to see the larger perspective.”
I also ask Prof. Ray about the perception that non-law faculty should be a grade lower than law-faculty. “This is an unfortunate truth in most law schools….and we are trying to remedy this. Most do not recognise the important linkages between the social sciences and the law.” I think Prof. Ray has an extremely valid point here; often the “BA” in the “BA LLB” course is seen as a formal necessity rather than an integral part of legal education.
Prof. Mahajan, typically, has a much shorter answer to my query. “We try to offer as holistic an education as possible. The eventual choice [of career] is obviously left to the student.”
As for the students, the one word that comes to my mind almost instantaneously is “hunger”. The kids here are hungry for success, they are hungry to prove that they are as good as any other NLU and they are willing to take far greater risks than what others might take. And they are getting the opportunities to do this.
“Sir,” (yes they all call me “Sir” nowadays. Cringe.) “where else would a first year student get the chance to try for an international moot?” and I get the point he is trying to make. I guess the advantage of being a student in a new institution is that it opens the doors to opportunities that one simply would not have in an older, well-established institution.
Having said that, studying at such a young university, also means that one will not have access to mentors or seniors who could have provided guidance. The out-of-class learning experience, such an important factor in most law schools, will be lacking to a large extent.
Furthermore, this hunger can only last for a certain amount of time. The challenge which NLUO will face, and this is true of any other NLU, is in keeping that momentum going.
So what do I think about NLUO? Well, it is currently in a period of transformation. I think the decision to join the CLAT gives them a far wider reach than before. So the students are likely to come from different parts of the county. This can only be a good thing.
The faculty is a bit of eclectic mix really and I could not really gauge what students thought of them. My opinion is that there are a few extremely well-qualified individuals in the faculty, it really is up to the students to extract as much as they can from them.
The physical infrastructure is something which ought to be taken care of once the new campus (pictured left, photo taken in February 2012) is up and ready, that is by the start of the academic year 2012-13. So negatives such as poor hostels, lack of accommodation for faculty and administrative staff etc. will be resolved by this.
NLUO is now headed by Dr. Chandra Krishnamurthy, who has also headed a massive institution such as SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. It will be interesting to see how she copes with the changes in both size and responsibilities. Of course, her vision would be much clearer once she consents to an interview, something which I expect to happen fairly soon.
Being a new institution, there are bound to be disadvantages, the lack of an alumni network being one of the most important. The location of NLUO does work against it; connectivity is a huge issue, especially if you do not hail from the eastern part of the country. This might also hamper the ability to attract good faculty or even guest faculty. And like NLU Jodhpur, the nearest city (Cuttack) is small and traditional. Students arriving from the metros may just face a few difficulties settling down to the different environment. The new campus is even further away from Cuttack so that might be something a prospective student would want to consider.
All in all, I would keep an eye out for this University in the coming years, the way it is positioning itself as a “law school with a difference” might just end up working for it.