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Miles to go: Prof Madhava Menon interview

He has been called a "living legend of law" by the International Bar Association and is nothing less than the father of modern Indian legal education. But even at age 75, Padmashree Professor Dr. Neelakanta Ramakrishna Madhava Menon is not slowing down.

We have talked to him about his vision and hopes for the future of legal education and of India.

Mission: Build a Harvard
In 1985 the Bar Council of India (BCI) invited Menon to set up the country's first national law school. The BCI's brief was for Menon to create a 'Harvard of the East' by introducing an integrated legal education programme of five years.

And so National Law School of India University Bangalore (NLSIU) began from a few rooms at Central College Campus with a total budget of Rs 50 lakhs and R. V. Krishnappa as its first registrar.

Menon recalls that this was the most challenging experience of his life at a time when legal education was not very much in demand. "Not many bright students were attracted to legal education and a law degree was available cheap from a variety of institutions."

"When I took it up, I myself never believed that it is going to click really and reverse the trend of bright students passing out of 12th standard to seek law as a priority," he says.

"That impossible thing happened."

Soon after, Menon repeated the feat and founded National University of Juridical Sciences Kolkata (NUJS) and National Judicial Academy Bhopal.

However, unlike Menon, the national law school model is now showing its age.

"What are we lacking?" he asks. "We have extremely bright students who make a mark wherever they go, we have the capacity to train them for the requirements of the new globalised environment but we are just not doing it."

He says a second generation of reforms is necessary which will have to make Indian law schools competitive with the world's top legal institutions.

"NLS was conceived in the early 80s and that time it turned out to be a resounding success, partly because there were no competitors and whatever you did was something different from the existing state of affairs, which was deplorable," he argues.

"Since we are now a part of the globalisation process and it is the legal system which pushes the global agenda, there is no time to wait - already Harvard, Yale and Stanford want to set up campuses in India."

Future of Indian law schools
The future is very bright, says Menon and adds that "Indians shine wherever they go", expecting Indian lawyers to compete on a global scale.

"For the 14,000 seats in the 14 National Law Schools, there are over 15,000 applicants, who are the cream of12th standard higher secondary school examinations," says Menon and he believes that they are the best judge of the future.

But the challenges remain real. "In a country of 1.2bn people we need to provide access at least to 25 to 30 per cent of our eligible population to study law," he argues. Today this figure is less than 12 per cent.

He believes that the private sector will have a huge role to play in this goal.

Menon says that the source from which students attain excellence is not important as long as excellence is accomplished with a degree of equity and equality, which is also a constitutional guarantee.

"There cannot be elitism for a certain section and mediocrity for the rest," he argues although merit-based selections and selective admission procedures will have to remain paramount.

Liberal views
"As far as liberalisation is concerned, it is bound to happen whether one likes it or not," says Menon. "Else exit [the World Trade Organisation] WTO and no sensible government will look for that option."

"Indian law firms have nothing to fear in competitive excellence, they only need to be more organized," he notes and the involvement of foreign players here and the equal treatment of Indian law firms abroad would improve the quality of delivery of justice. And this will ultimately be an advantage to the consumer.

Strong action by the organised bar would reduce the pain, he notes, by preparing a level playing field in the process of transformation.

But ignoring the issue and passing a resolution of "no foreign law firms in India", he says, would only increase the pain when the legal sector does finally open.

Menon feels that legal changes need to be introduced to make the current system more flexible and adaptable.

He recommends a bar entrance examination for law graduates and those interested in practicing in India. He reasons: "Nowhere in the world can Indian lawyers straightaway practice. In foreign jurisdictions, there are tough exams for getting a license to practice, but such is not the case here.

"We need to have bilateral agreements and a system of reciprocity in place."

Better living through technology

Menon is a firm believer that technology is a major key to driving legal education forward.

"There is no escape from technology," he says. "Technology will inform and influence every branch... You cannot practice law in future - either litigation or transactions - without the help, understanding and the capacity to analyse technology related issues."

How legal education imparts those skills will be crucial. He recounts the story of his colleague Dr N.L Mitra who went to Jodphur to introduce the BSc LLB and began teaching mathematics and chemistry to law students, recognising the importance of technology to legal education.

A later example he cites is that of IIT Kharagpur which has started a school of law and a three-year LLB course with admission limited to engineers and BTech. The course is now in its third year.

The second frontier of technology will be in providing access to justice and proactive legal assistance for India's rural poor population, which numbers approximately 500m, he adds.

He puts his weight behind the Government's plans to introduce a new concept of Gram Nyayala soon, under which a judge will be able to dispense justice with the help of the courts' lawyers, rather than the parties'.

"I love to think about the future and see how quickly the Indian legal education can assimilate these changes and be a world leader in the legal education for the future," enthuses Menon. "That potential can be explored by Mr. Kapil Sibal and Mr. Veerappa Moily, hats off to them."

Quiet retirement?
In Menon's recently published memoirs Turning Point, Memoirs of Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon, he reveals that he has technically retired three times in the last 15 years of his 50-year-long legal education career.

It is clear he has a hard time keeping still and resting on his laurels.

He is passionate about his work as a member of the Commission on Centre State relations, for example.

Menon's and the Commission's role is to redesign and reinterpret constitutional provisions so that governance that is split between local bodies, panchayats, states and the Union Government is adapted to the changing times.

"We have had a paradigm shift with multiple political parties ruling the centre and states," he explains. "The emerging socio-political trends have brought in new complex questions like cyber crime and terrorism that complicates governance."

The Commission's report is likely to be published by the middle of next year.

Menon is also actively involved in projects such as running the charitable Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy (MILAT) and he was recently honoured as the Best Law Teacher 2009 by the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF) and the Bar Association of India.

Menon sums it up best in his memoirs. "Health is deteriorating and the body is asking to slow down activities," he wrote. "Mind, on the other hand, seems to say that lot many things need to be done and can be done before one bids good bye to this wonderful, beautiful world.

"I am reminded of what Robert Frost had written many years ago:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep."

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