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How to become a social lawyer (and why not)


What drives successful lawyers and graduates to forge a career path in civil society despite myriad challenges and the financial hit? And why are there not more of them? We ask them to find out.

Srinivasan Gowrishankar is a graduate of NLSIU Bangalore. At a time when law firms vie with each other to hire graduates from India's top law schools, he could have chosen to work at a firm that would have paid him a handsome salary with perks to boot.

Instead he chose to work for Teach for India, a nationwide movement that recruits young professionals to teach in low income schools for two years.

What drives young lawyers to opt for a career path that is unconventional and not as financially rewarding?

Manohar Hosea, who is a lawyer at the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring institute feels it is a personal choice and reasons vary.

“The decision-making process isn't influenced only by the remuneration offered. There are lawyers who choose to serve non-profit organisations after years of established practice,” he explains. “In this case it depends on how the individual evolves during the time spent as a practitioner.”

Numbers game

In terms of remuneration, the figures can go a long way to explain why the path is less well-travelled.

Recent graduates from national law schools can expect an annual package of Rs 2.7 lakhs from Teach for India, and similarly the Human Rights Law Network, which is a well-known lawyers’ organisation, pays freshers Rs 1.2 lakhs per annum.

Such packages are in stark contrast to those offered by national law firms that are easily willing to spend more than Rs 10 lakhs per year to attract talent, in addition to hefty bonuses.

Against this background it comes as no surprise that out of 250-odd students graduating from law schools like Nalsar Hyderabad, NLSIU and NUJS Kolkata only 14 opted for either Civil Services or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Reasoned Choice?

That said the curriculum and culture of a law school should by all rights be a perfect grounding for a career in the not-for-profit sector.

NLSIU pass-out and Chevening Scholar Lawrence Liang, who co-founded Bangalore’s Alternative Law Forum, says that the first two years of the undergraduate program helps in familiarising a student with the social and political workings of the law but whether a student chooses to act upon such influence and opt for a career in this direction is an individual choice.

Gautam John, who is an ex-lawyer, TED Fellow, entrepreneur and manager at Pratham Books – a trust that seeks to make books more widely available to school children, stresses the importance of legal training. “Law school is brilliant at inculcating a value for logic and an organised pattern of thought - a skill that helps one while working for the betterment of people too.”

Gowrishankar feels it is the nature of the engagement that sets such a career apart. “The feeling one gets in law school is that it's the money that is enjoyed more than the work at a law firm.”

“Being a Fellow and going into the community exposed me to people who can live with what we might consider nothing - it is a different life.”

“It is about how you feel for the last person on the street,” says Jaishree Satpute, a lawyer at Delhi’s Human Rights Law Network, in stressing the importance of empathy. “Also there has to be a willingness to struggle.”

A later switch from big money corporate law to the social sector is not impossible either, although not many manage.

Antara Lahiri is an NUJS graduate and ex-Amarchand Mangaldas lawyer who now works as a “senior intrapreneur” at Ashoka, an organisation that assists social entrepreneurs. She says that a legal background – also in a law firm - has been invaluable now; she calls it the cornerstone that helps her deal with day-to-day challenges.

Some law graduates also choose to serve people through the Government. The trend of law students aspiring for Civil Services reflects the commonalities between law and social administration.

NLSIU 2010 pass out Devranjan Mishra believes that legal education can make one temperamentally suited to bureaucratic work. “Law school instils the sanctity of the written word, which is the backbone of an office-based administration.”

“Also, a person well-trained in law is better suited to ensure that his action would stand the scrutiny of a court of law tomorrow, if the same stands challenged,” claims Mishra.

“While working for the government could be fraught with constraints, the opportunity to serve people makes the civil services a viable choice - NGOs often work with the government.”

Rock bottom realities

But ground realities in NGOs are a factor that can act as a deterrent.

Even where free legal aid is provided, sometimes lawyers have to pay out of their own pockets because the funding they receive does not meet the cost of serving people.

And Satpute adds that it is not the money alone that makes it difficult but also the guardians of the system.

“Judges are not very aware and sensitised to the needs of the weaker sections,” argues Satpute. “They don't connect with people susceptible to trauma such as [those of] HIV-positive women and are often pro-management. Lawyering becomes very difficult then.”

Such problems ail the legal fraternity in India perhaps more than elsewhere. Public interest lawyers in the US, for example, can work on more reasonable terms thanks to no-win-no-fee arrangement. If they do not win a case, they are not paid but in the event of a win the lawyer can share damages with his or her client. This is potentially lucrative, in light of US courts’ penchant to award huge sums in punitive damages.

While the UK system does not award exemplary damages and legal aid budgets are strained, occasionally wealthy benefactors can prop up the system and alleviate some of the legal costs of serving people. For example, Sir James Goldsmith had established the Goldsmith Libel Fund to cover the legal costs of libel defendants.

The system in India could do with changes along these lines to make social service a viable choice for the finest legal minds in our country.

Balancing act

But accepting the mission of improving society one case or campaign at a time is not without significant positives, while there exists a wealth of opportunities in many social organisations that could move public-spirited students to enter the fray.

Satpute notes that there is no dearth of cases and international exposure to bodies such as the United Nations can lurk in the job too, and adds: “Apart from this there is the job satisfaction.”

Similarly, John says that education has “struck a resonant chord” with him.

Lahiri believes that in her career choices and her shift to Ashoka a very important factor was actually her family background, with a mother active in the disability sector, a father working in government and a freedom fighter grandfather. “I have seen that throughout my life and they've actively encouraged me to volunteer - it forms a very large part for the reasons.”

It is clear that the seduction of law firm jobs and pay will always loom large but many of those who opt for the way of the social lawyer appear to do so for intensely personal reasons.

And many of those who carve out a unique career path for themselves also happen to be thoroughly remarkable individuals. Or, at the very least, they are likely to start turning into truly remarkable people in the process.

Photo by noahg

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