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In Conversation with Professor Homer Pithawalla, Government Law College Mumbai

In Conversation with Professor Homer Pithawalla, Government Law College Mumbai

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Professor Homer Pithawalla has been teaching at the Government Law College in Mumbai for more than forty years.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, the commercial law expert talks about his years at the city’s biggest law firms, why he refuses to take attendance in his classes and what he loves about the teaching profession.

Bar & Bench: You have been at the Government Law College for more than four decades now, have a successful practice and are known to be the authority on Contract Law –

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Just a second and pardon me for interrupting. If you ask me, there is nobody in the world who is the authority on contract law.

Bar & Bench: Fair enough. Why did you choose to study law?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Well, I always wanted to do law from my college days. I don’t know why really. Maybe it was my argumentative nature or perhaps I thought as a lawyer one could serve the country. At the same time, I also had my eyes on joining the IAS.

So I decided to do my LL.M., and along with that, took the IAS exam. I passed IAS, finished the medicals as well – and then was faced with a big dilemma: In the same week, I had to either join the law firm, Mulla & Mulla, or go to Mussorie for IAS training. And I am very happy that I chose Mulla & Mulla. That was in 1971.

Bar & Bench: And how was the teaching of law back then?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Perhaps one of the things that made me start teaching was that some of my own professors were quite below the mark. For example, when I was studying Contracts as a student, after attending two classes, we all came to the conclusion that we could not go through any more classes on this subject. We just could not understand what the learned Professor was saying. We almost came to the conclusion that Contracts must be the worst possible subject in our syllabus. 

But it was not. In fact, Contract Law is perhaps the most interesting of all law subjects.  So I said this should not happen to the future generations, and this was one of the reasons why I started teaching at GLC.

Bar & Bench: And were you continuing your practice at the same time?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes of course! You see, GLC has a very interesting faculty profile. Even today out of the 48-odd faculty members, 40 are like me – they are part time teachers.

In those days, I also toyed with the idea of becoming a full time teacher but the salaries were so pathetic that I would not be able to support a family. Just to give you a very rough idea, six years ago I completed 35 years at GLC. I want you to guess what my monthly salary was at that point of time.

Bar & Bench: Forty thousand?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: (smiles) Nice joke! After 35 years of teaching, I was drawing eight hundred rupees a month. Now tell me, who will go and teach in a law school? And yes, after these 35 years, we all saw a welcome gesture of generosity – Salaries were increased to Rs. 3,000.

Bar & Bench: So, what kept you going?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: See – it is not the money. Even today, I incur more expenses out of my own pocket than my net salary. I say “net” because this salary is taxable. But it is the love of teaching; it is the students that keep you going. You feel younger when you go to college; you learn something new every time. I feel that every day I am continuing my own education.

Bar & Bench: Coming back to your early years. You are putting in the hours at Mulla & Mulla and also teaching at GLC on the side. How did you manage the two?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Well, GLC has morning classes so I was never late for office or for the court. We started at 7 in the morning and I would be free by the time the office [at Mulla] opened.

In Mulla’s I was doing mostly corporate law and more specifically the anti-competition law – the MRTP Act that has now been replaced by the Competition Act. This could be a historical accident – that the MRTP Act came into force and I joined Mulla’s in the same month.

We had lots of MRTP issues, and the Act was quite badly drafted and we had to come out with some ingenious solutions now and then – so that was fun. But in Mulla’s you just don’t do one type of work – you would do whatever your boss does. So I would be doing Constitutional matters, divorce matters, labour matters, going to cooperative courts, City Civil Court, High Court, Supreme Court, MRTP Commission (in Delhi) etc.

Bar & Bench: What was it like working at Mulla & Mulla during that time?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: In those days there were only two big firms, Mulla & Mulla and Crawford Bailey and one had to choose between the two. I spent 7 years in Mulla’s and the next 7 years at Crawford .

Bar & Bench: Why do you think becoming a Partner in both these firms was such a difficult process?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla:  This may not be the case now, but at that point of time, at Mulla’s it was difficult for an “outsider” to become a Partner. In Crawford Bailey, after spending seven years at the firm, I found the senior-most Partner making a public statement that the firm was not going to take any Partners for the next twenty years. What then was the point in staying on?

I did learn a lot from both the firms; but then I said the best thing is to move out, and with God’s grace, some clients from both the firms came to me. That was in 1985 and from that time onwards, I have been on my own.

Bar & Bench: When it comes to students at GLC, you are by far the most popular lecturer.

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Well, I don’t know! But perhaps that is what the students often say. Frankly, I don’t like to take attendance. I don’t want a single student to come to my class because I am going to mark him or her absent or present. Attending my class is totally voluntary, which means that people come if they have the urge, if they have the interest to come, and if they want to enjoy themselves!

Bar & Bench: And this is something you followed right from the start?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes. Sometimes, in the past, I would get a firing from the then Principal for not taking the roll call. I remember, I would tell him, “Sorry. Tomorrow onwards, I will remember to take the roll call.” And after one month, he would call me again and show me a blank Roll Call. (laughs).  Now how could I explain to him that his thinking and my thinking were slightly different?

In Conversation with Professor Homer Pithawalla, Government Law College Mumbai

Bar & Bench: What is your opinion of GLC as a college? You have seen it up close for quite some time now.

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: What I have seen four decades ago and what I see today makes me very sad – because, let’s admit it, the standards are going down. Let me give you an example. Last month, when walking through GLC, I saw seven students sitting in one class, three in another, and there was one class that only had the professor and only one student. In fact, since I knew this student, later, I even asked her if the College had begun a new system of private tuitions! Mind you, I am not saying that I am someone exceptional, but I do think that the other faculty members need to attract more students.  

Bar & Bench: But if you pay your teachers the amounts we just talked about –  

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes. Who will come?  Lawyers are charging this amount for a minute’s consultation. Recently, there was a Committee set up under a High Court Judge to examine certain aspects of GLC. At that time, I believe that the Judge recommended a salary of Rs. 40,000, which was nothing exorbitant  – but quite good compared to the then-existing salary of Rs. 3,000. But the government said, “No. Forty thousand is too much. How can you jump from 3,000 to 40,000?” So they have now made it twelve thousand.

Bar & Bench: Twelve thousand rupees a month in a city like Bombay.

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes. Now, very good teachers who might want to come to GLC do not come. Why should they sacrifice their time? Some counsels have conferences in the morning and in one conference alone the counsel can make a hundred times that amount. Why should he come here for this grand amount?

Bar & Bench: But the profession of teaching has never been about the money has it?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: That is true but the point is – it is not fair that a person should be actually be out of pocket! What we do now is we get guest lecturers – but that is not really enough. Someone who is an expert in arbitration – or some other subject – will come and take a class or two. But had this lawyer of judge taken the entire course on arbitration, how much more the students would have benefited!

Bar & Bench: But GLC still enjoys a good reputation.

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: I agree. In fact last week, a friend and I were discussing precisely this, and he remarked that GLC is like the Titanic – it is huge, it is famous, but let us hope it does not meet the same fate!

Bar & Bench: What is your opinion of national law schools?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Well, I had in the past been invited to the National Law School near Bangalore – and I could see the difference. Today, if there is a vacancy in a law firm, a graduate from a national law school will be preferred, and he will even get a better salary.

Bar & Bench: Would you give a better salary?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Maybe. I confess that perhaps, I would. The national law school students are studying full-time, and their approach is quite different. I remember when I was [at NLSIU] in the evenings,  students would sit on benches and discuss their courses –sometimes even joined by a resident Professor.

Here, there is nothing like that. Many of our students are working, and not necessarily in law firms. They often end up skipping classes to be on time for office. This is not the case for residential programs like those at national law schools.

Bar & Bench: Any changes you have noticed in students over the years?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes, of course! In my student days, less than 5% of the students would go into practice. Today, you can do the LL.B. after the 12th grade. So a person who joins the 5-year course has no intention of doing anything else but law; nor will he have the option to do anything else. So that brings about a focus – and this is a good thing.

The other thing that I have noticed is that in my days,  less than 10% of the students were girls. Today if you come to my class, there are less than 10% boys.

Bar & Bench: One of the interesting things I have heard is that you take revision classes before the exams. You are perhaps the only GLC professor to do this.

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: What happens often is that there is a big gap of time without classes between the closing of the college and the final exams.  And if I am in town and the students want the revision class – or if they want me help out with other subjects, then why not?  I think all classes can be fun –

In Conversation with Professor Homer Pithawalla, Government Law College Mumbai

Bar & Bench: Fun?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes. I always tell my students that learning should be fun. And law is not a subject that is really fun. You have to make the class interesting. So we talk about any and every current topic, be it Tarun Tejpal or Justice Ganguly or the Supreme Court judgment on S.377 of the IPC.

And I often tell my students that matters of current interest are more important than Contract Law. They will understand Contract Law even if I don’t teach the subject, but it is far more interesting to have a discussion where my students express different views and come up with really ingenious and clever arguments. It is fun.

Bar & Bench: That is how you like your classes to be?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes, the class should be interactive. If I just keep on talking and they all sit just writing down notes – according to me, that is not education.

In fact, I came across a very nice definition of the lecture method that said that it is a method whereby some matter passes from the mouth of the teacher into the books of the student without passing through the brains of either. I think that is very true!

Bar & Bench: How do you maintain student’s attention for a long period while teaching a subject such as Contracts?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Come to my class and you will find out!

Bar & Bench: GLC has a fairly large class size. Are you able to interact with every student in a class?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Well, that is very desirable – but just not possible. However, I try to get to know as many of them as possible.  And I encourage them to ask questions in the classroom – and this is how a lot of time is spent – rather than on “teaching” Also I tell them that when I ask any question, a student should not hesitate or feel bad to volunteer – even if the answer is likely to be wrong. I often tell them that I would respect a student’s wrong answer more than no answer at all.  

Bar & Bench: What’s your opinion on the current system of grading of papers?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: First of all, it is the system itself that I don’t like. I have suffered as a student myself and many students of mine have suffered. In my days, there were no semesters; so we did all the eight papers in one go. How can you evaluate a person in 3 hours for what he has studied for one whole year? I believe there should be a continuous system of evaluation.

Secondly I have often shocked my students, just before an exam, by telling them that their question paper is already out! No, the paper has not really leaked! I tell them to take the last ten papers and go through them, because each and every question appearing in their paper is going to be picked up from these papers. I don’t think this amounts to an effective evaluation of a student’s real knowledge of law. Are you testing memory or are you testing the knowledge of law?

Bar & Bench: What are your thoughts on the state of legal education itself?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: As far as GLC is concerned, we are rather unfortunate in the sense we are governed by three masters – one is the State government, the second is Bombay University and the third is the Bar Council.  And sometimes, there is little coordination between the three. Really, it’s a case of having too many cooks…

Let me give you a concrete example of what happened some years ago. The Arbitration Act of 1996 replaced an older Act of 1940. After the 1996 Act was passed, for the next three years questions were asked from the old Act. This meant that the college had to teach the old Act – otherwise the students would fail. And why did this happen? Because it did not strike anybody to change the syllabus!

Bar & Bench: This almost sounds like a poor joke of some kind.

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Yes, you are right. It is very frustrating but what can you do? I don’t think this can happen in any reputed University. And the college has no power to change the syllabus!

Bar & Bench: What do you enjoy more – teaching or practice?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Teaching – of course! I often tell people that if I am a lawyer for one of two brothers fighting for property, and I win the case for one of them, what is the big deal? Or take the extreme example of a man who is a murderer.  You use your intelligence and your legal acumen to get him acquitted and he pays you a fortune! But, does that give any real satisfaction? Personally, I would not be able to sleep that night – and many more – if I was in that lawyer’s place.

The main benefit of teaching is you get to share your knowledge. You get the good wishes and blessings of your students and so many of my students have become judges, advocate-generals, ministers,  etc.

As a teacher, you can not only see, but also feel, the appreciation of your students: you see them clamoring for your classes, attending classes even when the attendance is not taken or it is vacation time – and even bringing extra chairs to accommodate themselves (generally inside, but on some occasions, even outside the classroom).

Bar & Bench: Any advice for those who are interested in teaching?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: Well first of all, you must come down to the level of the student. If you are standing on a pedestal and trying to teach, it is just not possible. There are Professors who get irritated by students who are unable to answer questions asked by the Professor in class. Now, let us remember that the student is here because he cannot answer! How can you criticise him – and that too, in the presence of other students –  if he does not know the answer to the question you put to him?

I feel that you must encourage students to think.  In my very first Contracts class, I ask my students whether any of them has entered into a contract that morning. Chances are – none of them will say “Yes”. When everyday instances of entering into contracts are pointed out – like taking a bus, a cab or a train to college or whether any of them has bought or sold something that day – students realise how we all are entering into contracts every day of our lives. So that, I think, is a good introduction to Contract Law!

Believe me, teaching is a passion! There is very little monetary gain, but loads and loads of satisfaction.

Bar & Bench: Any last words?

Prof. Homer Pithawalla: I would like to thank you for this interview and for deftly extracting so many things from me. And yes, if some of my students – past or present – happen to read this, I would like to take this opportunity to wish them all success in life!

(This interview was conducted on December 12, 2013 in Bombay. This is the second interview of faculty members teaching at institutes other than National Law Universities. The first interview in this series was that of Prof. Gudavarthy)