Is the NLU tag overrated? Lawyers raise question after controversial job post

A job post preferring graduates of National Law Universities has drawn the ire of the legal community and raised questions surrounding the bias employers have for the NLU tag.
National Law University
National Law University

Social media was recently abuzz after motor vehicle manufacturing company KIA India released its call for applicants for the post of a Legal Specialist, initially preferring applicants only from National Law Universities (NLUs).

KIA India original job post
KIA India original job post

Online comments lamented the prejudice against applicants from non-NLUs, as well as the bias that employers tend to have for law graduates having the NLU tag.

While some highlighted the socio-economic barriers that prevent some deserving persons from getting admission to an NLU, others shared pleasant experiences of working with students who graduated from other universities, who were just as smart and hardworking.

After facing strong backlash from the community over the past two days, the company made amends to the job post, which now reflects the requirement for a law degree from 'an accredited and well reputed institution'.

In the context of the furore, it is worthwhile to explore the question: do National Law Universities really live up to their hype?

In the past few years, some NLUs have made headlines for the lack of infrastructure, poor academic standards, inadequate placement opportunities and compromised hostel conditions, among others. Students at these NLUs have gone on protest an alarming number of times even as administrations had little to offer in the way of relief.

There is also an argument to be made that the NLU brand has been diluted owing to the mushrooming of these universities across the country.

Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court have made it abundantly clear that NLU graduates should not get special treatment by employers or others.

Not too long ago, CJI DY Chandrachud warned against the false sense of entitlement prevalent among students from NLUs.

A few years ago, a Delhi University graduate moved the Patna High Court regarding a recruitment post by Bihar Mining Corporation Limited for law officers which preferred only graduates from Chanakya National Law University (CNLU), Patna. The Court had issued notice to the State on the petition in March 2022.

Two years back, the Kerala High Court struck down a notification issued by National Thermal Power Corporation Limited restricting the post of an Assistant Law Officer to only those who had cleared the CLAT 2021 postgraduate examination as discriminatory. While doing so, Justice VG Arun had noted,

"There is no logical basis for the assumption that professionalism and competence is the fiefdom of only those passing from elite institutions."

And speaking of elitism, the average fees charged by the top 5 rated NLUs is a whopping ₹3 lakh per annum, while the average fees charged by the top 5 non-NLUs as per the 2023 NIRF rankings is half that much.

The latest IDIA survey report studying the composition of students admitted to NLUs revealed that 80% of those who made it to NLUs enrolled for Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) coaching at centres whose fees are over ₹50,000.

Surely, competence is not solely in the domain of the well-to-do?

So what do employers themselves think of preferring an NLU graduate for a job at a law firm or an in-house role?

Senior Partner at IC Universal Legal Sambhav Ranka shared his experience of recruiting and working with lawyers from both NLU and non-NLU backgrounds.

"By experience, I can say that just because a person is from an NLU does not mean they would be a bright candidate...I know people who are not from NLUs and are performing really well. While recruiting, we go to good universities, not just NLUs and look for the best candidates who suit our requirements and interests. We look for people with clarity who would be a good culture fit for us. When these parameters are met, it doesn't matter if they are from NLUs or not. The top three criteria when recruiting for me are - (1) culture fit, (2) experience in terms of internships/past work experience and their interest matching with the firm, and (3) the confidence level and other soft skills more than the technical aspects."

Commenting on the (original) job post by KIA India, Ranka said,

"For a job post to give preference to candidates who have graduated from NLUs is not common. Frankly, it isn't the ideal practice because technically, you're differentiating people in terms of their educational background at the first instance without seeing what they bring to the table - which is not the right approach. It gives a sense that people from other colleges are a little inferior to others. However, their possible intention would be that they are looking for someone who has gone through the rigours of an intensive law course...

...I know so many people from the top NLUs, but a few years down the line they would be struggling to find their feet, and at the same time people from unrecognized universities are doing phenomenally well. There are enough such examples. There's no fixed formula for gauging candidature of an individual only because of their law school."

Lead-Legal Operations at Spark Minda Honey Mishra shared some insights on the culture of hiring in the in-house space.

"Sometimes, if the higher management are people with an NLU background, there tends to be a bias towards candidates from NLUs. But in the corporate set-up, usually, each candidate is judged basis their interview and background exposure. In my personal experience, I haven't faced any situation where only an NLU candidate is performing well as compared to others. My only observation is that if a candidate has litigation experience in the initial years, their understanding of the law is a little better than someone who has been through and through with corporates. Some NLU candidates I have worked with were very good, but some were just so-so. Few lawyers I have worked with from colleges we haven't even heard of come out with flying colours and do extremely well in the workplace."

Managing Partner at Solomon & Co Aaron Solomon said that his firm makes no distinction based on the college an individual has graduated from.

"The NLUs certainly have a good reputation. However, given the multiple law colleges in and outside India, our firm does not have any preferences amongst law colleges. In relation to our recruitment of the more experienced candidates, it is the candidates' knowledge, experience, and skills that outweigh the name and location of their law college."

Senior Counsel and Head-Contracts and Commercial Transactions at TATA Technologies Sachin Chipade opines that the distinction isn't necessarily between NLUs and non-NLUs, but between tier-1 law schools and other lesser-known colleges. He said,

"I've seen people from ILS Pune, Symbiosis, Institute of Law NIRMA University perform very well and have a deeper understanding and knowledge of the law. Similarly, I have also observed when interviewing candidates from WBNUJS and NLU Jodhpur that their communication skills are really good, which is crucial in an in-house role. While recruiting, I won't be very hung up on the law school background. I would have a set of questions that I'd ask everyone then I wouldn't make any distinction and would test people basis how they respond, which matters more. Conceptual clarity tends to be better in tier 1 colleges and what you bring to the table. If you're fundamentally clear, more work may come to you." 

He went on to say,

"After 5 to 9 years, it doesn't really matter where you graduated from, but somewhere in the back of my mind, if a candidate has passed out from tier-1 colleges (not necessarily NLUs), I assume that the fundamental clarity would be much more nuanced which would give them an edge."

As much as recruiters claim that they do not prefer NLU grads, the fact remains that the highest paying corporate jobs at the top firms almost always go to graduates from the top NLUs.

Again, a distinction here has to be drawn between the top five or six NLUs and the rest.

Back in 2018, we did a study on recruitment at the top law firms and found that 191 jobs went to students from 7 NLUs, while only 15 students from other universities landed jobs at these firms.

Over five years later, there is little evidence to show that this trend has bucked.

On the trend of employers preferring NLU candidates, legal career coach Aashna Jain said,

"Sometimes, employers/companies don't want to spend resources or time in training people, and that's a bad thing. They rely on the idea that if a person is from an NLU, they would necessarily be groomed in the tasks expected on the job. However, it is counter-productive to rely on this belief. Students from non-NLUs who heavily engage in internships throughout their time in law school, take it on themselves to groom to work environments and specific tasks. So this distinction that recruiters make is very artificial and should not be done."

JSA Partner Dina Wadia revealed the firm's hiring strategy a few years ago:

"The decision to go to a particular law school or university to a large extent depends on the experience we have with the students from that university. The quality of students who intern with us from such schools also influences our decision. While we do have a certain standard of university in mind, that again is not the only factor when making a selection. Given our recruitment mix, we don’t visit all the law schools that invite us and visit three or four law schools each year. We further rotate one or two of them each year to give other and newer law schools an opportunity."

Logistical limitations aside, there is a tendency to assume that students of the top NLUs represent the cream of the crop.

While it remains the prerogative of the employer to fix eligibility criteria, surely it would be beneficial to law firms and corporates to cast their nets a little wider to find equally competent law grads in non-NLUs?

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news