Carving a space in the Indian law firm: A case for the part time teaching model

Carving a space in the Indian law firm: A case for the part time teaching model

Bar & Bench

Shreya Rao

In the first article under the Working Title series, we get Harvard graduate Shreya Rao to discuss the pros and cons of teaching in  a law school, whether it is a feasible option while simultaneously working at a corporate law firm and why teaching should get a lot more attention than it currently does.

“Love” doesn’t seem to get half as much priority as it should in work related decisions, which may explain the widespread homogenisation of professional choice. This is why I’m thrilled about this series Bar and Bench is putting together on people who’ve pursued their interests and alternative career options. I qualify to be on the list, apparently, because I juggle my full time job at a law firm with one trimester of teaching at a law school in Bangalore each year. While I’m not convinced that the switching of hats qualifies as truly “alternative” (the model is fairly common in other parts of the world), I’d like to use this opportunity to root for the part time teaching model and examine a few questions in relation to its viability in India.

First, some statistics. Law firms are increasingly the first choice for first jobs amongst law school graduates. A study of graduates from three national law schools in 2010, says that 44% opted for first jobs with law firms.1 My classmate Rohan Kaul examined the numbers for my graduating batch (Nalsar, 2006) to come up with a slightly smaller figure (42%). What interested me most about his study was the finding that, five years later, only 28% of us remained with law firms, and only one person continued (without break) with the same law firm. There isn’t data to indicate whether this abandonment was coincidence and specific to my batch, or whether this is a trend that replicates across the board. However, the detail tied in quite spookily with stories you hear of fatigue/ disillusionment/attrition among mid level associates in law firms.

This lead me to my first question: “Why do we resign ourselves to or abandon less than ideal work lives rather than try test the boundaries of what the law firm framework will permit us? Or do some people try, and does the law firm culture fail them by mandating an either/or choice between work and alternative professional interests?”

I decided to list out friends/ acquaintances who have kept themselves engaged by pursuing other law-related-interests while working with a law firm. There are several examples of associates engaging with moot court activity, some of them taking sabbaticals to teach, volunteer with NGOs in India and abroad or write books on their chosen subjects. The point to note is that each of these choices does not require physical presence away from the law firm. Where such presence is mandated (as with moots or volunteer work), the activity appears to be weekend specific, short term, or accompanied by a sabbatical. I only found three other examples of people who work with an Indian law firm and engage with an activity which could require a few hours off from work each week.2 One of them, Nandini Ravichandran, teaches late night spoken English for Teach India and says it’s worked because the classes involve minimal preparation time and can be scheduled late at night. Where there have been scheduling conflicts, she’s had to ask the Times of India people to step in, and she’s not sure that kind of liberty would have been possible in a more formal academic set up.3 The second person, Somasekhar Sundaresan, is a partner at JSA who teaches Takeover Regulations at a securities law course at Government Law College, Mumbai. He says that being a partner may help with making time available in terms of dealing with scheduling conflicts, but that clients tend to be demanding of partner face time. He also says that JSA’s flexitime policy does give junior members some leeway in being able to pursue other interests. I was unable to get an input from the third person.

This is, admittedly, a tiny sample size restricted to my friends and acquaintances, but considering how small the national law school community is, those are still not encouraging odds. Which makes me ask again: does law firm culture per se mandate an either/or choice, to the exclusion of interests such as teaching, which may require regular time?4

I decided to use the experience of law firms in other countries as a reference point. The part time teaching model is famously prevalent in the United States. “There is a long tradition and history in the US of each lawyer promoting legal education. It is a part of legal culture to engage in teaching”, says Nandan Nelivigi, a partner with White & Case LLP, who also teaches at the Columbia Law School. Darrell Low is a senior associate with Drew & Napier in Singapore who also teaches at the National University of Singapore. He estimates that 15-25% of tutors at Singapore’s two law schools are adjunct professors/ tutors who work with law firms. Ivana Mrazova works with Sustek & Co. in Prague and used to teach at the Charles University Faculty of Law. She says that as far as she knows, part time teaching is not an uncommon practice in Europe and that “…a vast number of faculty members in Prague are either working in a law firm, or serve as judges, or are in the administration.” Flavio Rubinstein works with Vettori, Rubinstein & Foz in Brazil and teaches at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas and the Sao Judas University School of Law, and says that the model is common in Brazil and as far as he knows also in South America generally. Michael Timmins who used to work in commercial litigation with a law firm in New Zealand says that while it isn’t very common for lawyers in NZ to combine the two (firms are accommodating but not encouraging and do not credit teaching time into billable hours), when he taught at the Melbourne Law School in Australia, there were a number of lecturers from practice.

I put together a rough comparison of weekly hour requirements for the countries these people are from. Again, this is rough data from friends/acquaintances and not thorough statistical proof, which suggests that Indian lawyers in law firms typically work about 45-60 hours per week, contingent on practice area, firm, city etc. In comparison, the figures I received for other countries are: US (35 hours, can be 60 plus in NYC), Singapore (45-60), Czech Republic (45-60), Brazil (45-60), New Zealand (50-60). The ballpark figures don’t seem to justify the near absence of law firm faculty in Indian academia.

My moment of epiphany came from Michael’s comment on academic time not translating to billability in NZ (a statement confirmed by Nandan with respect to the US), and Ivana’s statement that, “The dual appointment did not work with a big law firm. Smaller local firms showed more understanding but when it came to clashes, they were not very happy with the time and energy the school required.” Ivana subsequently went to work with a friend from a similar background, hoping that shared experience would help ease out scheduling difficulties. I realised that even in jurisdictions where part time teaching is well accepted, its success is contingent on the law firm’s openness to flexible arrangements and the individual’s ability to ask and have a plan. In India, where the idea is yet to take off, the importance of such openness, such a plan is even greater.  

I’ve been lucky in this regard. My firm gives me a lot of space when it comes to my university obligations and does not schedule meetings/ calls/ travel during class times. My colleagues make an effort to make life easy when I’m grading papers. The university schedules classes when convenient to me and is always considerate about my not being on campus. Students bear with (and sometimes even manage to be enthusiastic about) three back-to-back hours of a dry, intimidating subject like tax. It’s taken collective effort, patience and willingness to experiment, but it has worked. We’ve winged it thus for four courses spread over two and a half years.    

All law firms are not made equal, and some are likely to be less accommodating than others. However, there are a couple of reasons why I think Indian law firms could adapt to the part time teaching model, if they were asked. First, Indian law firms are still relatively small and perhaps easier adjusted to alternative schedules. Second, national law school alums are increasing as a percentage of senior members at major law firms or setting up smaller law firms, which may work in favour of people who want to teach at these law schools. Third, law firms in India enjoy a high ratio of women and may have flexitime policies in place. If so, it may be easier to convince them to allow for teaching time, if you can otherwise balance commitments. Class preparation though, does require a bit of scheduling around work hours (I do this on weekends).

What’s in it for the law firms? Michael and Nandan have both said that part time teaching has prevailed in Australia and the United States on account of a desire to contribute back to the profession. My firm has a student outreach program setup with similar intentions, which may have enabled them to look more kindly upon my desire to engage with academics. While Somasekhar agrees that “law firms owe it to ecosystem to improve the quality of education in law schools”, he also mentions two other reasons that are relevant to consider. The first relates to investment: “I would think law firms should take to greater interaction as a measure of fixing the problem at the root. It is true that some law school products are not deployable in the practising world, without material professional learning. If some of this burden is shifted back to the law schools, it would be a long term investment because the quality of products from these schools would only go up and lighten the burden for the law firms in investing in training recruits.” His second point relates to scoping out and networking with potential recruits: “To me, it is a commercial investment as well, because students who see and interact with a representative of a firm (even if it does not recruit fresh graduates) build in their minds an equity for the brand of the firm. Going forward, after they have cut their teeth in other law firms, the bright ones would want to work with the firm.”

Another reason could be the intellectual stimulation that part time teaching could offer associates, which could prevent or mitigate law firm fatigue and contribute to a better quality of lawyer. But the most interesting reason came from Karolina Tetlak, who taught at Warsaw University while working with Weil Gotshal. She says, “In Poland every law firm would be happy to have an academic teacher on board because it is forbidden to advertise legal services. University means prestige and free publicity.” Hear that, Indian law firms?

This brings me to my last, most important question: “What’s in it for the lawyer? Why volunteer to be quartered?” Nandan says that he does it to be closer to the next generation of lawyers, and that there is a long term personal interest involved. For me as a younger professional, the reasons were not initially as clear. I had only senior litigators as part-time teacher role models, all of whom had flexible schedules and more experience. I constantly wondered if I was biting off more than I could chew, abandoning a meaningful engagement with academics and practice, for a cause that my years would keep me from doing justice to. Several well meaning people advised me that mine was an impossible balance.

I’ve found however that teaching and law firm work feed into each other in a most wholesome way which benefits me as well as the backgrounds I engage with. My law firm background keeps me appreciative and communicative of the practical aspects of legal provisions we discuss in class, which helps reduce the disconnect between academic theory and practice. Darrell puts it very well when he says, “It is a privilege to be able to inject real life experiences into the classroom setting; thus adding colour and texture to what is being taught.” Having to teach the entire range of a statute to an energetic, often argumentative, class strengthens my core technicals and helps me be patient with difficult clients. I am a better student as a teacher than I ever was as a student, and this isn’t an experience unique to me. Even as a partner with years of experience, Somasekhar says that he discovers new facets of the law every time he teaches the regulations.

This takes me back to the subject of “love”. While writing this piece, I was informed of the demise of one of the most inspiring people I have known, Professor Vepa Sarathi who taught at Nalsar. Online obits and tributes mention his humour, clarity of thought and sheer breadth and depth of knowledge, which were all truly remarkable, but my strongest personal association will be his love for the study of law at age 96, well into his seventh decade of engagement with the subject. I can’t begin to imagine what love it is that would sustain that long, or what it would take to identify it or nurture it. I do know though, that the juxtaposition of two different backgrounds keeps me constantly challenged and curious. Whether this will sustain me into the fourth quarter of my life is uncertain, but if I can be adequately invested into what I do on a day to day basis, I think eternity will take care of itself. 

A big ‘thank you’ to Rohan Kaul, Nandini Ravichandran, Somasekhar Sundaresan, Nandan Nelivigi, Darrell Low, Ivana Mrazova, Michael Timmins, Flavio Rubinstein, Karolina Tetlak, Anirudh Rastogi and Neela Badami for their inputs.

1 Mihaela Papa and David B. Wilkins, “Globalization, Lawyers, and India: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis of Globalization Studies and the Sociology of the Legal Profession”, forthcoming in the International Journal of the Legal Profession and available online at
2 If any of the readers of this piece are working with a law firm and teaching at a law school alongside, it would be great if you could email in and let us know.
3 One solution to this could be to have a course jointly conducted by a full time academician and practitioner. As Anirudh Rastogi points out, this has worked very well at the Harvard Law School and is perhaps common in other schools as well. It could provide the practitioner some amount of flexibility when it comes to scheduling conflicts.
4 The rest of my piece deals with part time teaching, but I guess this question could be applicable across interests such as pro bono or policy work if they require regular time on the side.

Shreya Rao is a Senior Associate with the international tax practice at Nishith Desai Associates and teaches direct tax and international tax at the National Law School of India University. 

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