The importance of a relevant law school orientation programme

A one-size-fits-all orientation, much like a one-size-fits-all legal education, is a flawed idea which desensitises the institution to the needs of different students.
Law School
Law School

Recently, we conducted a week-long orientation programme for the freshers joining undergraduate courses at the BML Munjal Law School. The experience evoked memories of my first day at law school, and prompted me to reflect on how a meticulously designed orientation could go a long way in helping students navigate their way through law school.

In this post, I share my experiences as a student, and then proceed to stress on the importance of a good orientation programme.

When I joined law school in 2012, I knew little about the working of the law or what a court looked like. As a first-generation law student in the family, I had decided to traverse uncharted territory, without much assistance or enthusiasm from those around me. Even though I grew up reading books like To Kill a Mocking Bird, my imagination of law was largely a result of what I was fed by popular media via films and television.

As an 18-year-old, I expected to find in the courtroom characters like Sunny Deol's from Damini, who could give impromptu speeches and shout their lungs out to get a favourable order, or even a Govinda who could badger witnesses by running after them. If lawyers in Indian films were too dramatic, Western TV series painted an uber cool picture of law firm practice with their chic and suave Alan Shores and Harvey Specters.

However, my first substantive introduction to law came through a one-day day orientation programme organised at my university. All freshers were stuffed in the university hall along with their parents. It soon became clear that the orientation would in fact be a marathon of speeches delivered by people of eminence. I met lawyers, judges, and academics who spoke in an alien language interspersed with phrases which were not just Latin metaphorically, but also had their roots in the language. As each person spoke, our frustration grew, because all of them followed the same pattern of monologue with no questions allowed. In fact, one could safely mark the post-orientation high tea as the highlight of the day.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I look back at the event with a sense of worry. The worry stems from the fact that my law school had lost a golden opportunity to know its students and gauge their aptitude to learn the law. It viewed the orientation as an act to be performed on the students. Such restrictive understanding of an orientation programme only allowed students to become familiar with law and the institution, and not vice-versa.

I believe we need to mainstream a more expansive conception of the programme as an opportunity for the law school to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each student and the unique abilities they bring to the school. A one-size-fits-all orientation, much like a one-size-fits-all legal education, is a flawed idea which desensitises the institution to the needs of different students. An orientation could be the starting point of recognizing individuals who are not at par with their peers in terms of necessary skills required to do well at a law school.

However, this requires a drastic transformation in the functioning of law schools and would demand investment of time and effort on part of the professors to know the interests, strengths, and weaknesses of each student. Logically then, this assessment would act as a pivot for professors to curate their courses and assignments while keeping the special needs of students in mind.

Further, a good orientation programme must apprise the students of skills they must develop at law school. A good lawyer is an effective communicator and should be able to play with words to her advantage. However, popular media portrays lawyers primarily as charismatic public speakers, which leads one to believe that lawyers need to work disproportionately on their diction and voice modulations. It falls upon the law school as an important obligation to bust this myth in the initial stage itself and inform that good lawyering goes much beyond public speaking.

Critical reasoning, close reading, and clear writing, along with the ability to carry out quality research goes at the heart of this profession, and the student should take advantage of the law school environment to develop these skills. A good orientation, therefore, should ideally include thought experiments, texts, and activities that reveal to the students the overarching importance of such skills.

Lastly, an orientation should also inform the students of the dangers of studying law. Much like philosophy, reading law also carries risks that are both personal and political in nature. These risks spring from the fact that the law could confront us with what we already know and have internalised as truths. Ideas and preferences which one took for granted may become estranged. Debating questions of equality, limits on freedom, rights of minorities in context of controversial issues like gay rights, affirmative action, abortion etc., could cause an individual to question and accuse oneself of bias and prejudice.

Michael Sandel beautifully sums it up when he says,

"Self-knowledge is like lost innocence; however, unsettling you find it, it can never be 'unthought' or 'unknown'."

However, identifying these conflicts and finding methods to resolve them remains a deeply personal journey.

Thus, a good orientation is advantageous to both the student as well as the law school. It sets the expectations straight while allowing the stakeholders to assess each other’s capacities. More than informing a fresher about what law is, it alters their worldview which, more often than not, is impacted deeply by popular media and other assumptions. Students understand that the learning of law is not limited to public speaking and involves engaging with complex ideas and texts.

Most importantly, it allows them to cultivate respect for their vocation as they realise that it requires hard work and passion towards the discipline in contrast to the popular conception that conflates law with rote learning and academic bulimia.

The author is a Faculty Associate at the BML Munjal University.

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