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Building a Law School from Scratch The Story of Christ College of Law

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The message in my Facebook inbox was innocuous enough, something to do with a law school at Christ University in Bangalore. “I remember they created a great learning atmosphere”, the message read. “Perhaps it would make for a good story?” To be honest, I did not expect much but it was a slow week and a crisp, little write-up on a “new age” law school just might make for a good read. I wasn’t counting on it though.

Law schools are being established with disconcerting regularity these days. Of the fourteen National Law Universities (NLUs) which accept admissions via the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), nine have been established in the last decade alone. NLU-Delhi, although not a participant in CLAT, was established four years ago. Tamil Nadu is slated to have an NLU soon. All these NLUs tend to have eerily similar characteristics: Five-year, “integrated” courses, impressive infrastructure (at least on paper), fees running into several lakhs, and, most importantly, the promise of guaranteed employment.

Thus when I eventually traced down the founding members of the School of Law, Christ University (SLCU), I wasn’t really expecting much. At best, I thought I would meet some marketing geniuses or a couple of smooth talkers with more glamour than substance.

I could not have been more wrong.

IT STARTED WITH A phone call in 2006. No. Wait, that is incorrect. It started way before that. “While I was a post graduate student [in 2004]……. I had four things jotted down on a piece of paper as things I want to do during my career ahead. One of them was to set up a law school” says John Thaliath the first Principal of SLCU.

John, who got his law degree from Mysore University, was pursuing his masters from the London School of Economics when he made that list of things to do. When he returned to India, he kept the list in mind, even while he was working with Indian law firm Trilegal.

In 2006, John was looking to enrol at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad where the semester starts in September. John wanted to sit in some accountancy and finance classes at Christ University before joining ISB since he was particularly weak in those subjects.

One morning in June 2006, John approached Father Thomas Chattanparambil, the Vice Chancellor of Christ University, hoping that the VC would allow John’s request. The very same day, John got a call from Fr. Thomas. Christ University had decided to set up a law school on its campus and they were looking for someone to head it. Would John be interested?

John did not take too long to make a decision. “To me it sounded like a much bigger opportunity than a management education”, says John. At the same time, he was aware that were he to take up this responsibility, he would have to move fast. And he did.

His focus initially was limited to three things: regulatory approval, good faculty, and getting students. The third factor was perhaps one of the most important. “How do I convince students that this is a great place to read law?” John wondered. He would need the answer and he would need it quickly: admissions were starting in three months.

BEING A PRIVATE INSTITUTION, Christ University was able to move with a speed which other governmental institutions would never have been able to achieve. Hence, SLCU was able to get accreditation from the Bar Council of India fairly quickly.

However, even this private institution would have to wait for complete autonomy in terms of academic curriculum. For the first two years of its existence, the SLCU was governed by the Bangalore University (BU). This meant that the courses taught would have to be as per the BU standards. To make sure that SLCU students did not miss out on what was taught at other NLUs, a series of “certificate” courses were introduced, over and above the BU-mandated syllabus.

It was only after two years, provided all went well, that SLCU would be granted deemed university status. This “deemed” status was what attracted a lot of people.

It certainly attracted C.S. Dattathreya. Of all the people John had contacted after deciding to head SLCU, Dattathreya was probably one of the most important. Along with Suparna Kar, who taught Sociology at Christ Graduate College, it was Dattathreya and John who formed the core team which established SLCU.

Dattathreya is a bit of an enigmatic character. He graduated from NLSIU in 1997, working with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Sri Lanka. In 2001 he went to Columbia University to complete an MA in sociology followed by MPhil, eventually returning to India in 2005. He did teach at his alma mater for a brief while but a strong difference of opinion with the NLSIU authorities meant this teaching stint was short-lived.

Known as a man who spoke his mind and never one to shy away from voicing his opinion, Dattathreya had used the internet to make his 

brutally honest views public, a move which no doubt generated heart burn amongst the NLSIU administration. Before meeting him, I had been told by more than one person that I should expect “fireworks tempered with brutal honesty”. I was expecting a revolutionary.

Which is why when I met him at his Bangalore home, I was more than a little surprised. Dattathreya is a slightly built man with twinkling eyes. He gave the impression of someone who is perpetually calm and composed. “This is the person who gave it back to The Man?” I wondered as he shook my hand. Has Time softened the revolutionary, I asked myself.

And then he began to speak.

GETTING GOOD FACULTY WAS always going to be a challenge and both John and Dattathreya were well aware of it. The fact of the matter is that good law faculty were and, to some extent, still are extremely hard to come by. Reasons for this are many; ranging from poor pay to the fact that academia is simply not given the kind of importance it receives in other countries.

Academicians Chinmayi Arun and Anup Surendranath summed it up best when they wrote

“At NLUs, faculty members find themselves in a system that hardly rewards research output, innovative courses/teaching methods or quality publications and are instead left to negotiate a system that mainly rewards the number of years clocked in the job with no appropriate mechanism for faculty evaluation”

While doing the Law School Darshan series, I would inevitably have students telling me that they wished their teachers were better. In fact, the words they used were usually less kind but that was the general gist of their statements. Here too, the private nature of SLCU worked to John’s advantage. The private structure meant that he had a lot more freedom than that enjoyed by other law schools, especially NLUs.

John and Datthathreya knew that if they wanted SLCU to have good faculty, they would have to do something different: they would have to aim young. “For reasons that might be apparent”, Dattathreya told me, “what we discovered was that the people that were motivated to teach were often younger people.” Dattathreya partly attributes this to the fact that such people were more aware of the levels of teaching in domestic law schools. “The only criteria” adds John, “for [the faculty] would be whether they are given the space to be academically innovative and whether their work is respected.”

Zara Machado, who taught torts at SLCU for a semester remembers that “John was ready to hire recent graduates who brought fresh ideas, fresh perspectives and views on how their own University experience could have been bettered.” Machado says that she found her own legal education wanting and hence consciously tried to avoid those mistakes when she taught.

This need to change the system “from within” was something which I heard quite frequently while interacting with those who taught at SLCU. And here too, the private nature of SLCU allowed John and his team to attract people who were willing to affect change “from within”.

According to John, the private nature of the SLCU meant that he could do away with the traditional of a seniority based model. According to John, private institutions can create spaces which encourage a “meritocracy based structure”.

Within the first year, John and Dattathreya had roped in Johann Chacko, Olivia Rainford, Swagata Raha, Rajeev Kadambi, and RV Yashas as faculty. He also got Rahul Singh (NLS, Harvard) and Babu John (Cambridge) to sit in advisory positions.

Along with competency, John was looking to build a team, a cohesive unit that could exchange ideas and work together. Swagata Raha, a graduate from NUJS (2005), remembers the kind of camaraderie shared between the faculty members at SLCU. “We collectively drove each other. I mean I loved the teaching but it was the other things that really added to the whole experience…..There was a real discussion [and] you felt you were a key part of the university.”

Johann Chacko joined SLCU in its second year, along with Olivia Rainford.  The two of them shared a common vision: “to make the teaching environment world class” This was easier said than done, admits Johann. “[It] meant scholarly readings, classroom discussion, high quality research papers, cracking down on plagiarism………………..Most of all it meant putting time into class preparation, grading, etc.”

FINDING THE RIGHT STUDENTS was the next obstacle and perhaps one of the most difficult one to overcome. The National Law Universities (NLUs) were already attracting students from across the country. Worse, SLCU had to contend with two NLUs which were in the same region: NLSIU and NALSAR.

“Remember, [choosing SLCU] was a huge risk for the students”, says Dattathreya. A risk some students were willing to take.

Natasha Wilson, a student of the 2006 batch, says that most of her batch mates joined SLCU with “mixed expectations”. Currently working in the legal department of IT major Infosys, Wilson also told me that most of her friends who picked SLCU also made the choice given the brand value of Christ University. Similar thoughts were echoed by Mary Mathew, Wilson’s batch mate. “The initial years were quite rigorous”, says Matthew, “…we were competing against the [NLUs] which had already set [high] standards.”

To attract the right kind of students, SLCU used a mix of the age old channels and new alliances. John used Christ University’s traditional networks to spread the word while also using newer mediums such as Law School Tutorials to generate more awareness.

John and Dattathreya also used their own contacts to attract more students. They even managed to rope in Rahul Mattan, Prem Ayappa (both Trilegal) and Sachin Malhan (Law School Tutorials) to provide “non academic advisory support”.

IN THEIR FIRST YEAR, they received 400 applications and chose 80 students. And even here, SLCU attempted to do things differently: they introduced personal interviews. In the first year itself, students were selected on the basis of, among other things, their personal interview. In the second year, when SLCU received 4,000 applications, John and his team chose to interview the top three hundred, eventually narrowing down the list of students to eighty.

“We were looking for students who were keen on studying law”, recounts Dattathreya, that breezy evening in Bangalore. I had quite shamelessly invited myself to his house and was being fed the most delicious akki rotis in the world.

“It was essentially a personality test”, he told me, “Although some kids were really focused, there were a few who wrote the entrance test simply because they did not want to do engineering or medicine.We wanted to give those students a chance.”

The personal interviews also meant that those who had not topped the entrance exam had another shot at making it. “We were also looking at things like diversity”, says Dattathreya. I found this statement quite remarkable. Law schools in the US have only recently begun to devote huge amounts of time and money to ensure diversity in their intake. Here was a fledgling law school in India trying to do the same.

IT WASN’T ALL PERFECT though.  A lot of the initiatives taken by John and his team were on a trial and error basis. New electives were introduced and removed, additional courses were experimented with. I would presume that the faculty members, many of whom were fresh out of law school, were also taking some time to adjust to the new profession.

Secondly, to create a truly academic atmosphere is easier said than done. It requires discipline and dedication, something which might face opposition from both students and faculty alike. SLCU was probably one of the earliest users of software such as Turnitin to counter plagiarism. Spurthi Mouli, a graduate of the 2011 batch recalls that the early years at SCLU were fairly rigorous in nature, with classes starting from nine in the morning to four in the evening. At the same time, she found the schedule “intellectually stimulating” and remembers that a considerable amount of importance was given to “research work, writing of research papers, debates, discussions, presentations etc.”

Another, subtle way in which SLCU was different from other NLUs was the fact that it had a counsellor on campus. This was a practice instituted by Christ University and it worked wonders. The counsellor provided some sort of outlet for students to discuss their worries (which, in law school, can be numerous). At the same time, the counsellor also allowed faculty members to understand their students better.

There was another aspect of SLCU which, I think, differentiated it from the rest: academic output.  John and his team were always clear that they wanted to promote academic research and quality output from both students and faculty. “I think what we tried to create”, Dattathreya told me, “was a culture and environment where they [the faculty] could hone their teaching skills and also keep their research and publication projects going.”

THIS NEW PERSPECTIVE ALSO had an obvious impact on the manner in which the student body perceived faculty.  It has often been observed (and this is a point which Chinmayi and Anup do a much better job of explaining), that students at NLU believe that nothing can be learned in class and it would hence be better to focus on extra-curricular activities. This often means that students are non-responsive in class.

However, the students and faculty at SLCU simply did not have that kind of baggage to deal with.

“In the initial years, we, as a class, were more willing to take risks, as we had no idea what the world held, and we just jumped at every opportunity that came our way” Wilson told me and I knew exactly what she was talking about. When I visited NLU Orissa, I got the exact same feeling. A fresh, new batch is that much hungrier for success, that much more willing to experiment.

And experiment they did.

Of course, the experiments were not limited to academia “One of my fondest memories” Swagata told me, “was the Teachers v Student tug of war contest. I remember John even got Red Bull cans for all of us and told us we had to have it.”

Even over the phone, I could hear the smile in her voice. I could sense some amount of wistfulness as well. Or was I just hearing things?

INTERNSHIPS WERE ANOTHER AREA in which SLCU was at a disadvantage. Law firms can be notoriously selective when it comes to even selecting interns. An HR official in a top-tier firm was fairly blunt when it came to describing the recruitment procedure. “We invite applications from certain law schools and that is about it”, he told me, “the rest we do not consider.”

Wilson admits that, initially, getting internships was difficult. “It was hard to get internships when nobody has heard of you”, recounts the SLCU graduate. It was only through time that Wilson and her classmates managed to generate more awareness about SLCU. The positive feedback her batch received only made things easier for the batches which followed.

Spurthi reiterates this fact. Although internships were a “huge challenge”, Spurthi says that they eventually did manage to build and develop working relationships with lawyers and law firms by organising lectures, seminars etc, a practice which helped make “our presence felt”

However, the initial success of SCLU also brought attention of an unwanted kind.

SOMETIME IN 2008, things began to change at SCLU.

In the initial years, John and his team were given tremendous freedom and saw very little interference from the Christ University Management. In the beginning, SLCU was viewed more as an experiment; a way for Christ University to test the waters. The lack of interest meant a lack of interference.

But with the growing success of the law school program, the levels of interest rose drastically. The “Christ College of Law” became the “School of Law, Christ University”. The management at Christ University began to take a number of unilateral decisions, including those related to admission of students. “We did all the hard work and then we were simply shunted out of the decision making process” rues Dattathreya.

A decision which may well have been the final straw was the decision to drastically increase the number of seats at SLCU. From a class of 80 students in 2006, SLCU began accepting batches of 160 in 2009.

The private nature of SLCU, the very factor which had allowed it to grow quickly and efficiently, began working against it. “I think the biggest problems came from the top. For profit education far outstrips non-profit motivations.” Johann wrote to me.  “The need to increase or maintain profit margins, and tightly manage behaviour… often hurts teaching quality.”

As differences of opinion got divided, the tension between Christ University and SLCU increased. In the early years, John was the conduit through which the faculty at SLCU would air their views and this was the way it had functioned for two, whole years. Once communication broke down, things began to turn for the worst.

OF ALL THE PEOPLE I have spoken to, not a single one is willing to go on the record about what exactly happened at SLCU in 2008-09. And I understand why. Most are worried about the kind of impact this will have on current students at SLCU and the silence is one way to protect the interests of these very students.

All I managed to gather were rumours about excessive interference, irregularities in the admission procedure, ugly stand offs between the management and John and his team, and a student-body which was unsure about where to turn, who to look up to. A Wikipedia entry raised even more questions whose answers I could not find.

I can only vaguely imagine what the students, especially the ones who had been at SLCU since the start, must have gone through. Those must have been some very, very tense times.

By the end of 2008, John and Dattathreya had left SLCU. Before leaving though, they made sure that at least the students knew why they were taking such drastic steps.”Clearly, we took responsibility of the kids” says Dattathreya, “…so we articulated our reasons for leaving…and a lot of kids respected that.”

Most of the original faculty followed suit. “After John left”, says Swagata, “things were just not the same.” The Head of Department was now someone who did not possess a degree in law. The faculty posts slowly began to be filled with graduates from traditional law schools. The current faculty profile (last checked in April 2012) speaks for itself.

IN THE END, though it looks like things at SCLU finally did work out. If placements are the be all and end all of law school then SCLU managed to do pretty well. In 2011, of the 52 students who sat for recruitment, 22 managed to get placed. Given the fact that this was the first recruitment SLCU had seen, this is a fairly impressive statistic. But to me, what were more important were the fundamentals which John and his team had stuck to. John was determined that a student should not simply leave with a “law degree and a job”. Rather, he was adamant that an education at SLCU should be “a holistic preparation for life”.

It would be unfair to evaluate the “success” (or otherwise) of SCLU given the fact that it has barely been in existence for six years. As John had once said, the “success” of a law school can only be measured on a long-term basis; perhaps 10-15 years down the line and this is something which few people have the patience for. John also has an interesting yardstick to measure the success of any institution. “The success of any institution….” wrote John, “should be measured by what their students have become and how they have contributed … to the society..”

THERE ARE SOME LESSONS to be learnt from the entire SLCU story.

One, it is important to have a clear vision before establishing a law school. Discussing the initial bunch of ideas behind SLCU, John says that they were always clear that they did not want SLCU to turn into a “teaching shop”. He was also clear that there was a need to have a multidisciplinary approach towards teaching.

Two, once the law school has been set up, it must be run with great care. The student experience must remain “top class” observes Dattathreya, and “any signs of student fatigue or alienation should be addressed head-on.”

Three, thought must be given to the career plans of teachers. Glass ceilings may not only be the bane of practicing lawyers and there must be a conscious attempt to encourage and reward academic output.

Four, and perhaps most importantly, one must have a management which is willing to commit to the vision of the founders.

While writing this piece, the one aspect which was particularly interesting was that SLCU was an example of the sum being greater than any individual part.This is important given the fact that most NLUs have a very top-heavy approach when it comes to adminsitration. The success of SLCU lies in the fact that it was a team effort backed by vision and hard work. Swagata put it most appropriately when she said, “I don’t think we were a special bunch of people really. Any group of people who are mature enough to realise that they are not right all the time; that they have to be receptive to the ideas of others, can work just fine.”

The author wishes to thank (in alphabetical order) Chinmayi Arun, CS Dattathreya,  Gautam Chawla, Johann Chacko, John Thaliath, Natasha Wilson, Spurthi Mouli, Swagata Raha and Zara Machado for their time and patience. And of course Mrs. D for the akki rotis.