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Dr. Sapna S is Principal and Associate Professor at the Bangalore Institute of Legal Studies (BILS). In this interview with Bar & Bench, she talks about coping with the non-NLU tag, the challenges of being a law teacher today, and more.
Bar & Bench: What drew you to law?
Dr. Sapna S: I come from a family of advocates. My father has been a tax law consultant and a company law expert for 45 years, and he’s also a designated Senior Counsel. He was a role model to me since my school days, and ever since then, I knew that I had to do law. So, joining law was with the natural course of things that were happening at home. After that, my brother, who is four years younger, also got into law. My husband is also a practicing criminal lawyer.
Bar & Bench: Did you practice law after graduating?
Dr. Sapna S: After completing my LLB in 1997, I practiced for two years on the criminal side. Side by side, I was doing my LLM. So there was no gap between my LLB and LLM. Even before my LLM results were announced, I joined as a Lecturer at BILS.
Bar & Bench: How do you think the role of a law teacher has changed over the years, given the fact that students can find anything on the internet?
Dr. Sapna S: No doubt everything is on net, yet I would say that every student requires guidance from a teacher. I still believe that the traditional student-teacher relationship exists today.
I am so happy and proud to say that I received that guidance in full measure from Dr. Sarasu Esther Thomas, Associate Professor, NLSIU when I was her Doctorate student at NLSIU. The Dean of BILS is Mr. Bhat, a former IPS Officer and a litigation lawyer of 30 years’ experience. I can confidently say his mentoring and guidance can never be compensated by anything available on net.
As a result of the availability of information online, students nowadays are much more updated. So, teachers need to be prepared for that. For example, when teaching Law of Torts, which has a lot of 19th century English cases, I would not limit my teaching only to what happened then. I would try apply the principle of strict liability to modern day scenarios.
Bar & Bench: Being a relatively young Principal, were there any difficulties you faced initially?
Dr. Sapna S: I would say ‘young’ is a compliment (laughs). One advantage I had is that I’ve been here for the better part of my life. BILS is my second home, where I’ve grown as a person and a professional. So, taking charge of BILS wasn’t very difficult for me.
I have a great team – both academic and administrative – and an immensely supportive Management. This has given tremendous confidence to me to move forward and make decisions. We at BILS believe academic excellence is paramount and students will be groomed to focus on that. To meet this end from our side, an-all-time-approachable office/faculty/principal has been our conscious effort.
Bar & Bench: What are the general career trends for graduates of BILS?
Dr. Sapna S: Our students have been placed in top law firms, with some of them securing PPOs in their fourth year. This year, 85% of our final year batch has been placed during campus recruitments. Some of our students have even done summer internships at Yale and Harvard, so that was something to be very proud of.
When you compare the previous years’ trends with this year, there is a gulf of difference. Up until last year, when you asked a student what they wanted to do, they would immediately say ‘corporate law’, without even knowing what it took to be a corporate lawyer. Since last year, most of the students have been opting for litigation. This, I would say is a positive trend, especially since the Dean of the college has been a hard core litigating advocate for more than 30 years.
Bar & Bench: Given your administrative duties, do you still find time to teach?
Dr. Sapna S: I make it a point to teach, because it is my first passion. Research might have taken a bit of backseat, though.
Bar & Bench: Could you tell us a bit about the new research centre?
Dr. Sapna S: It is called B-CARL (BILS Centre for Applied Research in Law). We are not looking at doctrinal research and preparing theses. Rather, we are looking at the application of law. The first project we have undertaken is Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace. There is an Act, but its implementation has been very slow. We are working with the Ministry of Women and Child Development and have already sent a proposal. The project will essentially be about effective implementation of the Act. We also want to spread awareness so that women know the laws. Nothing else gives you as much power as knowledge.
Bar & Bench: What recommendations have you made regarding the implementation of the Act?
Dr. Sapna S: The Vishaka guidelines were framed in 1997 by the landmark Supreme Court judgment. What is astounding is that it took more than a decade for the Act to be passed in 2013. The major issue with the Act, I feel, is that there is a part with regard to conciliation between the parties. That means the woman who has been harassed and the person who has perpetrated the act are made to sit face to face and conciliate. It amounts to telling them to hush up the matter. I have seen one such exercise where the woman was weeping throughout the process and the perpetrator was standing there and asking her questions directly. So, the conciliation method should be done away with.
Bar & Bench: What is your vision for BILS?
Dr. Sapna S: Our management, BHS higher education society is a 70 year plus institution of learning, which today has under its umbrella 17 educational institutions. At BILS, as I was saying, academic excellence is the nucleus around which everything else revolves. Professional discipline and academic excellence will continue to be the hallmark of this institution.
Bar & Bench: But what would make a student choose BILS over the multitude of NLUs?
Dr. Sapna S: BILS has always been known for its pan-India character. We have students from almost all the states. As far as non-NLUs are concerned, BILS has always been up there with the best. Our students are our brand ambassadors. We don’t believe in putting up huge advertisements, our fame has spread by word of mouth. Our strengths are discipline and the quality of the faculty.
Bar & Bench: How does a law university attract good faculty?
Dr. Sapna S: One thing that helps in attracting and retaining faculty is the environment you make for them. They need professional freedom to teach the way they want to. We have made it clear that mere classroom teaching is neither good for the students nor the teachers. The teachers have to inspire the students to think out of the box.
While doing research, you cannot afford to have small pressures on your head. If the ideas for research papers have to flow, your mind has to be free. So, we give our faculty a lot of time to focus on research. All our faculty members have presented papers in national and international seminars, and that is because of the professional freedom we give them.
Since most of our teachers are women, we have a strong gender sensitive approach. For example, if a woman faculty has a child and doesn’t have anyone to look after it at home, we tell them to bring the child to the college.
Bar & Bench: Why do you think that law graduates don’t want to get into academia?
Dr. Sapna S: One reason is definitely the pay. Another reason I think is that they are not well-informed about it. Now, I see that trend slowly changing. A number of my own students are opting to come back and work as teachers. In fact, two of them are guest faculty right now. People are coming out of the misconception that a Professor’s job is drab and boring.
Bar & Bench: BILS earlier had the option of a lateral exit.
Dr. Sapna S: Yes, earlier, if a student completed three years of the course, there was an option to receive the BA degree and leave the course. But now, ever since we have come under Karnataka State Law University, we offer the five-year integrated BA.LLB course, with no option of a lateral exit.
Bar & Bench: Don’t you think that was a viable option?
Dr. Sapna S: Yes, I feel that it was, given the number of law students who lose interest in law. But what used to happen for a few private law colleges, especially in rural areas, was that it became a trend to drop out after three years. One disadvantage of not having the lateral exit is that those people who drop out before five years will not have a degree, and have wasted two or three years.
Bar & Bench: How would you compare the three-year course with the five-year course?
Dr. Sapna S: If you ask me, there’s nothing like the five-year course. I believe that to make good future lawyers, you have to catch them when they’re young. It is an integrated course and involves serious study.
Bar & Bench: What advice would you have for law graduates who want to join the academia?
Dr. Sapna S: I think just like litigation or corporate law, becoming a teacher is a different kind of challenge. The desire to teach has to come from within. I would recommend every student to try it at least once to know what it involves. Earlier, people used to think teaching was a cakewalk where you say whatever you want and people will blindly listen to you. Now you have a classroom of well-informed, bold students who don’t mince their words. Which is why it has become more lively and challenging.