Alternative Thinking Outside the “Law Firm” Box?

Many of us have lamented the fact that although the “national law schools” have churned out very gifted lawyers, we’ve lost many of them to law firms. It is but natural that many of them are attracted to financially rewarding jobs that law firms typically guarantee. However, given that these law schools were established to induce alternative forms of lawyering aimed at improving society, we have to admit that there has been a failure of sorts…and a massive one at that.

It pains me to see so many of our students devastated during the campus recruitment phase when they fail to land jobs with prestigious firms. And the one question I always ask is: are you sure this is what you want to do? Or are you merely following in the illustrious footsteps of your seniors? Surely, there are a million different ways of putting legal skills to use? Thinking “out of the box” and doing something different than being a mere cog in the wheel of corporate transactional lawyering is certainly more appealing?

More importantly, if you expand out the “base” of potential legal career opportunities, you don’t need to depend so heavily on firms that come to recruit? And surely, this will help future generations of law students that take inspiration from you… and relieve themselves of the herd mentality to think differently?

Why don’t you try something different, I ask in all earnestness?

I see a blank face…a blank stare…and often times, a smirk…

So what ails? Why don’t many of our students consider alternative legal careers and look beyond law firms? Or perhaps join firms, but move beyond the typical corporate transactional work to do more pro-bono stuff?

I hope to engage with these maladies another day. In the meantime, I’m delighted to report on a fabulous alternative lawyering initiative sparked up by a bunch of bright lawyers who recently graduated.

Styling themselves as the Pre Legislative Briefing Service (PLBS), these young turks have begun engaging with the Indian law making process in a fairly intense way. They pick up drafts of recent bills that are before Parliament, study it extensively and come up with nuanced reports on the various legal/policy implications of the bill.

Most recently, they’ve done an in-depth study of the nuclear liability bill and raised points that stalwarts who’ve been shouting in the media have simply failed to appreciate. If you wish to read their analysis of this bill, please see this report posted on SSRN.

Engaging with legal policy at this level will no doubt improve the quality of our laws in the long run. And we will have to much to thank this bright bunch for.

I list out details of their service and the team below:

The Pre-Legislative Briefing Service (PLBS)

i) To provide rigorous, independent and non-partisan legal and policy analysis of Bills introduced in Parliament

ii) To suggest appropriate legal reform to enable bills to pass tests of constitutionality if challenged

iii) To suggest appropriate policy reform if the legislative policy is to be sound in principle and efficacious in practice


1. Arghya Sengupta, B.A.LL.B. (Hons.), National Law School of India University, Bangalore (2008), Rhodes Scholar (2008), B.C.L., University of Oxford (2009) Current Status: M.Phil. Candidate in Law, University of Oxford.

2. Prashant Reddy T., B.A.LL.B. (Hons.), National Law School of India University, Bangalore (2008) Current Status: Research Associate, Ministry of HRD Chair on Intellectual Property Rights, West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

3. Sanhita Ambast, B.A.LL.B. (Hons.), National Law School of India University, Bangalore (2009) Current Status: Candidate for the Masters in Law and Diplomacy and LL.M. joint degree, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and Harvard University.

4. Shivprasad Swaminathan, B.S.L; LL.B., Indian Law Society, Pune (2004), B.C.L., University of Oxford (2006), Clarendon Scholar (2008) Current Status: D.Phil. Candidate in Law, University of Oxford

Contact: [email protected]

For those of you who’ve engaged with law making in this country and are privy to the legal illiteracy widely prevalent amongst Parliamentarians, you’ll appreciate how valuable this offering really is.

More importantly, from the perspective of inspiring younger law students to think of alternative careers, the PBLS team couldn’t have done better. Rather than playing around with the nitty-gritty of the law in badly drafted statutes, these recent graduates have decided to influence the very formation of the law itself. Certainly a much higher and more valuable terrain to play on. Perhaps law schools need to take a cue from this and focus more on the art and science of law making, rather than merely interpreting statutes and cases.

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12 years ago

The link for the SSRN report is broken.

Vinay Sitapati
Vinay Sitapati
12 years ago

Dear Shamnad,

You say that law graduates are “lost” to law firms and given the purpose of the national law schools, this is a “failure of sorts”. I couldn’t disagree more. There is the obvious counter-argument that graduates have every right to work where their skills are best rewarded (if senior advocates want quality juniors, let them pay for it!). But I also think you are too disparaging of what corporate law has done to our law schools.

One reason why “gifted” and bright people have entered the national law schools (or are pushed in by their parents) is the guarantee of a stable, well-paying corporate job at the end of it. That’s the same reason why bright Indian kids have traditionally joined engineering, medicine or government service. We might sneer at these middle-class anxieties, but they are what have shaped the few quality educational institutions in India – including the national law schools that most of us on this blog are products of.

The kind of “alternative” careers you talk about, Shamnad, are products of a decent liberal arts education – something that India has always lacked. India’s law schools have become substitute liberal arts colleges, creating activists, academics, litigators (apart from transaction lawyers).Without Amarchand, these law schools would never have attracted the quality of students that it has; the few who pursue “alternate” careers would never have had access to sociology, constitutional law, political science, economics etc.

The explosion of career choices some of us enjoy ends up producing what Freud called the “narcissism of petty differences”. Academics think corporate-types are “sell-outs”; academics in turn are accused of “irrelevance”. Journalists are accused of being shallow; litigators are uncouth sleaz-balls. Perhaps we need these invectives to justify what we are not; but that’s not very “alternative”, is it?

Vinay Sitapati

Vinay Sitapati
Vinay Sitapati
12 years ago

Dear Shamnad,

I totally get you are saying about the ill-informed career choices law graduates end up making. Often the desire to follow the herd produces unhappy corporate lawyers whose talents lie elsewhere. This is a serious worry and while structural changes like career services programmes within campus (like what happens in US/UK universities) might lessen having to rely on received wisdom from 'Seniors', the question surely merits a larger debate.

But there have long been such debates in elite professional colleges in India, and abroad. The majority of mechanical/civil engineers from IIT who join consultancies like Mckinsey have long been accused of betraying the Nehruvian dream of building the temples of modern India. Ditto for doctors who leave medical schools usually set up with a "social" purpose. Why don't they work in the villages, like they the tax payers who subsidised their seats hoped them to?

Yet the IITs live on. Their rich (if disloyal) alumni promote the brand, are giving back to their alma mater through scholarships and grants. Besides, the IITians who have chosen alternative careers (and there are many many, besides Chetan Bhagat) surely owe something to the reputation of the IITs — something that their classmates who made it big in Silicon Valley have helped foster.

It is inevitable (and even a benefit) that a majority of law graduates take up well paying jobs in the corporate sectors. Even after better career counselling, this will still be the dominant trend. Many recent graduates will choose corporate law for the reason most people choose jobs .i.e. it is the best paymaster in town.

The sense I get from your post is that you also disparage this trend of a majority of law graduates joining the corporate sector. That is where we disagree.


Lawrence Liang
Lawrence Liang
12 years ago

A few thoughts

First: And this concerns anyone who has taught in any of the law schools in the last few years. What is the effect of the ‘law firm as final goal’ approach to legal education. If the route towards the law firm/ company is paved through your CV, the chances are that this is going to take a rather drastic toll on the choices you make when you are studying. The classic division between the 'soft' and the hard courses are well known. But atleast in the first four years, since you dont have a choice you end up taking a range of courses. At the final year level when seminars are offered, a number of students feel that they shouldn’t even take courses which they may find interesting, because of its adverse CV value. When we offered a course on law, literature and violence a few years ago, we had a number of students coming to us, and asking us if they could sit in even thought they were not part of the course, and apologetically asking us to understand that they needed to take some other courses for their CVs.

I sympathize with the students completely, and reflecting on my own path I understand the difficulty of choices that one makes. Even though I knew I never wanted to join a law firm or a company, and much of my law school life had been spent fruitfully towards a lifetime of being a 'pseudo' :), the fact is I joined the corporate sector- because of the usual compulsions- middle class background, family etc etc.
So I read Shamnad's post as one that was raising the larger question about the way education and careers were headed, rather than one that was patronizing.

When Shamnad says

"It pains me to see so many of our students devastated during the campus recruitment phase when they fail to land jobs with prestigious firms. And the one question I always ask is: are you sure this is what you want to do? Or are you merely following in the illustrious footsteps of your seniors? Surely, there are a million different ways of putting legal skills to use? Thinking "out of the box" and doing something different than being a mere cog in the wheel of corporate transactional lawyering is certainly more appealing?"

An expression of being pained by a student's devastation surely cannot be read as condescending and patronizing, and it merits a much more generous interpretation which is attempting to raise a set of structural questions which are as much of a concern for students forced into things they dont want to do, as it is for teachers and institutions. If someone is happy in a firm then thats great, who can ever grudge another person's choice. But having gone through law school, we also know that some of our friends who were the most incredibly creative people, e.g a classmate who pulled off a three hundred member staging of Mahabharata, and who would be most happy doing theatre having now to completely abandon theatre.

Madhav I agree with you when you say that at the end of the day the choices we make – whether mainstream or alternative- are personal ones driven more by our own desires than some grand design of changing the world or one's political convictions. That is what personal freedom is about, but surely we have to agree that the pressures on personal freedom, not just in law schools, but also in the IITS, the IIMs and the JNUs is exactly what is really under threat.

Suicide rates, depression, low self esteem amongst students and the stuff that produces a Three Idiots or an Udaan deserve our serious attention and I read Shamnad's post as an attempt to raise these questions

Piggy Little
Piggy Little
12 years ago

how interesting to see my belief reiterated here…about an issue i was just discussing very hot headedly last night.

given the competitive nature of the exams that students sit through, it is only natural that law schools attract the best brains in the country. however the very motivation i think is questionable. i really doubt and do not believe that people come to law schools for making changes to the world, bettering the social conditions or to pursue alternative career options. they come because they want to go into law firms. period.

when i was studying in law school, where Mr. Basheer is currently based, i was the only one in my batch who wanted to work in the so called "alternative sector". since i was the only one, the campus placement committee did not bother with opportunities in the ngo sector- which is not only regretful but i think it reflects a very certain kind of mentality.

we are conditioned to believe that our education, as soon as it is complete should recoup the money that we have put into acquring that education. THAT is how everyone who joins a law firm defends his or her decision- citing their middle class upbringing and their need to recoup the money. but i am not sure that is case. it is an absolute case of herd mentality and also the glamour and the pull of money- people KNOW it will pay them as much to be well versed where the law is and how to find it and how to be adept at doing formatting and be presentable. i myself know of people in my batch who were infinitely smarter and who failed to make a cut at ANY lawfirm because they were considered less presentable. not that they wanted an alternative career option. they also wanted to be a part of the lawfirm. but the lawfirm "culture" so as to say, excluded them.

people who want to work in the alternative sector are looked down upon- there is hardly a "community" of sorts of such people and whatever miniscule number there is, feels so cowed down by their peers (esp. by imaging the future that when two later, if there ever is a reunion, they would still be on paltry salaries as against their lawfirm mates– i KNOW of people who have quit the lawfirm culture FOR the alternative career and who miss the money and the glamour that came with their previous job) and disillusioned with the nochalance of the systems in place that they have no option but to opt for wanting to go to a lawfirm. they will get potloads of money, but would it make them happy? i guess not.

even the alternative subjects like sociology is looked down upon. even jurisprudence, which perhaps is so critical to understanding all of the law….is considered to be a worthless subject which doesnt need to be studied or taught.

trying something alternative takes guts and courage. two things which our lawschools do not teach.

Madhav Khosla
Madhav Khosla
12 years ago

Dear Shamnad:

Thanks very much for your post. I’m glad this has led to such a spirited debate!

I wanted to disagree on a few points:

First, I reject, most fundamentally, the moral hierarchy between jobs (of course beyond a certain threshold). I do not believe that people who do academic work are have made superior choices to those who work in corporate law; I also do not believe that it is possible to demonstrate that the former are engaging in more socially relevant work. If anything, the output and contribution of the latter category is certainly more tangible.

Second, I strongly agree with Vinay that the corporate world has been instrumental in giving NLS the status which it has. It has, as Vinay’s comments so aptly demonstrate, given many of us the security to make unconventional career choices.

Third, I think that Lawrence raises some interesting points that require us to draw an important distinction: those between students who join corporate law and between students who have the courage to do what they want. I think we certainly ought to encourage students to make courageous decisions to do what they truly love; and so I agree with Lawrence on the point that “who can ever grudge another person’s choice.” On the other hand Shamnad, you posit that you “have a huge issue with… disproportionate number of law students packing off to law firms”. I am not certain whether this reality in itself is something that should upset us – unless we are sure that students are taking this decision against their true passions, arising out of lack of courage, compulsions many of us may not have, or some other factor. If someone loves corporate law, I am not sure on what ground we can grudge that decision or morally judge their choice to be inferior. If the yardstick is social relevance, then we should all either work in grassroots non-governmental organizations or perhaps join politics. At any rate, I firmly believe that this moral structuring obscures the reality of how social changes actually take place – where different actors from a range of positions all play a small and often unobvious part in big changes.

I believe if the national law schools can give students the freedom to find their voice that’s the most we should aspire towards; however much we may disagree with the song that is ultimately sung.


12 years ago

Some disjointed thoughts for whatever it is worth.

Unlike Vinay and Madhav, I did not read Shamnad as disparaging law firms. In some ways, the people cited in the post are swimming against the tide and this requires to be acknowledged. But acknowledging this does not mean that one is necessarily critical of the choice made by law firm-ites.

That said, Vinay made a very good point about the absence of good liberal arts education in India. I wonder how many of the new pvt univs offer courses in humanities and social sciences (a point Prof. Nussbaum has also made before btw).

I have no idea of the career advising scene in law schools, so with that caveat, let me offer a suggestion – perhaps there should be an online portal for law students interested in non-law firm careers on the lines of the north American pslawnet. Maybe the proposed site can be a locus for all non-law firm career paths like legal journalism, legal publishing, govt, academia, development sector, UN etc?

12 years ago

"I will do another post making all of this more explicit. And perhaps also throw up some potential alternative options that haven't been explored yet (or have been explored in small numbers). And options where you could still earn decent money and not go hungry."