"This Elitism Must Be Condemned" Justice Chandrachud On Discrimination By Few Law Firms Against Graduates From Ordinary Law Colleges [Read The Full Text Of Speech]

"This elitism and discriminatory practice must be condemned because it is antithetical to the principles of fairness and equality upon which the practice of law is founded. Not only do these practices deprive meritorious students of opportunities, they also deprive the corporate legal sector of the talented legal minds that are found in the majority of Indian law schools and colleges".

It is unfortunate that some law firms are known to discriminate between graduates at the same position or level by offering lower salaries to graduates of what are considered tier-two or tier-three law schools, Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud has said at an event organised by Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession in New Delhi.

The Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession hosted the book launch of The Indian Legal Profession in the Age of Globalization at Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi on Friday. The event was hosted by David B Wilkins, Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession, and was graced by the distinguished presence of Supreme Court’s senior advocate Fali S Nariman. The keynote address was delivered Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud.



"A top firm also discriminates in salaries on the basis of your grades in in law school- If you were in the top 10 ranks of your batch - your salary is roughly 1 lakh more per month- while this may be some way to reward academic excellence- it is time we moved away from recognising merit only through grades and university ranking given that the Indian legal education system is far from perfect. The fact that legal education is now being viewed only as means to secure a job in a high-paying law firms is evident in the manner in which law schools are ranked-  recruitment by the corporate sector is the most important factor in determining law school rankings. This approach of viewing legal education as only a means to an end and not an end in itself is highly problematic and is leading to our young lawyers missing out on the true value of education in our lives, he said.

At the outset, he begun by acknowledging the pecking order that exists in the legal profession and its corresponding job market. He spoke at length about the emergence of the new corporate legal structure and its impact on other parts of Indian legal profession including legal education, development of pro bono, corporate social responsibility, gender and professional hierarchy.

Notable Extracts From the Speech

 Growth of Legal Profession

 The growth of this corporate legal sector has affected the legal profession at large. The most significant impact has been on legal education in India, due to the increasing number of law graduates (particularly from the elite law schools) who choose to work in law firms.

The high pay packages that are offered at law firms even at the entry level have now made law as a whole a more lucrative and alluring profession, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of students pursuing law as a career option.

The corporate legal sector is known to recruit only from the topmost law schools (single-digit number). Unfortunately, few law firms are also known to discriminate between graduates at the same position or level by offering lower salaries to graduates of what are considered tier-two or tier-three law schools. This elitism and discriminatory practice must be condemned because it antithetical to the principles of fairness and equality upon which the practice of law is founded. Not only do these practices deprive meritorious students of opportunities, but they also deprive the corporate legal sector of the talented legal minds that are found in the majority of Indian law schools and colleges. 

The fact that legal education is now being viewed only as means to secure a job in a high-paying law firms is evident in the manner in which law schools are ranked-  recruitment by the corporate sector is the most important factor in determining law school rankings. This approach of viewing legal education as only a means to an end and not an end in itself is highly problematic and is leading to our young lawyers missing out on the true value of education in our lives.

Young juniors entering litigation today are paid little or nothing as compared to their corporate peers. The unfortunate effect of this is that it makes litigation an exclusive domain, and the privilege of only a chosen few who have families with the means to support them through difficult initial years.

The need of the hour is for the entire legal community to collectively work towards reforms that not only make jobs in the litigation sector attractive but also viable and rewarding.

Women in India’s law firms

The Indian legal profession has been predominantly male dominated.

As of 2012, only 5 out of 294 lawyers who have been promoted to the position of Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India have been women-an abysmal 2 per cent. Similarly, in the 63 year- old history of the Supreme Court, out of 204 judges, only 5 have been women-at a poor 2.5 percent.

At a global level, research suggests that there are more women than ever graduating from law schools and entering the legal profession, and while the situation has definitely improved there continues to be some evidence of gender-biases and gender-based discriminatory treatment both in legal education and in the legal work space.

Lack of pro bono culture in India’s law firms

It is common knowledge that Indian law firms lack an institutionalised pro bono culture unlike Western law firms, which has also been reaffirmed through the findings of this empirical study.

The corporate legal sector must realise that national network of the legal service providers including various NGOs is unable to meet the needs of India’s disadvantaged populations today, and most organizations face significant resource constraints.

The legal profession cannot live in ignorance of the reality of India - a burgeoning population and a society that is characterized by massive inequalities and injustice

Technology and Law

Despite such giant leaps in various sectors of the economy, the legal profession has generally been slow to adapt to technological changes.

Read the Full Text of the Speech here

 Good evening! It is always a pleasure to reconnect with my alma mater. The book that we are here to discuss today “The Indian Legal Profession in the Age of Globalization: The Rise of the Corporate Legal Sector and its Impact on Lawyers and Society” - is an outstanding example of the pioneering research that continues to be carried out at Harvard Law School.

At the outset, I congratulate all who were involved in this impressive collection of essays. Hitherto, there have been very few empirical studies in India on the legal profession. The book provides the first comprehensive analysis of the impact of globalization on the Indian legal profession. Relying on original empirical data which has been painstakingly collected by a multinational and multi-disciplinary team over a long period of 6 years, it explores in great depth the emergence of the new corporate legal sector in India and its impact on other parts of the Indian legal profession, including legal education, the development of pro bono and corporate social responsibility, the regulation of legal services, and gender, communal, and professional hierarchies within the legal profession

 In 1991 the world’s largest democracy embarked on a journey of moving from a closed state controlled economy to an open economy that welcomed foreign investment, commonly known as liberalisation- a journey that had a significant impact on the legal sector in the country. There was a need for new laws, and regulations to operate in this new economic landscape and also a demand for lawyers who could navigate through this new legal and regulatory environment. While the development of this new legal sector known as the corporate legal sector has been influenced by the Anglo-American model to an extent, the Indian corporate legal sector is not a simply the product of adoption of Western practices, but rather a “hybridized corporate legal ecosystem”[1] As the  book demonstrates in spite of the influence of US and UK law firms on the corporate legal sector in India, India’s most influential law firms have developed their own identity characterized by some values that are deeply connected to India’s history and culture. For example, family and communal ties are very important to some of the most influential Indian law firms.

I now move on to how the growth of this corporate legal sector has affected the legal profession at large. The most significant impact has been on legal education in India, due to the increasing number of law graduates (particularly from the elite law schools) who choose to work in law firms.  The prospect of high-paying corporate jobs at the end of the law course has changed who applies to law school, the choice of law schools, the educational experience at law school, and also how much students are willing to pay for legal education.

Prior to the emergence of the corporate legal sector, jobs available to graduating lawyers were mostly assisting as junior advocates that paid little or nothing. Law was thus not always a viable profession for students who did not have families that could support them for a long period of time. The late 1980s and 1990s in India saw the setting up of “national law schools” with the objective of supplying well-trained lawyers to the Bar and Bench so that “access to justice is enlarged and the quality of justice for the common man is improved and strengthened.”[2] At the same time the 1990’s were also a milestone in the Indian economy and the landscape of a liberalised Indian economy created a demand for lawyers who could provide legal advice in a completely new terrain. This led to the growth of a corporate legal sector. The high pay packages that are offered at law firms even at the entry level have now made law as a whole a more lucrative and alluring profession, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of students pursuing law as a career option.

The demand of corporate law firms for law graduates and the exceedingly high supply of law graduates has significantly altered the landscape of legal education. Since the most influential law firms that offer high-paying jobs at the entry level are known to recruit from only a handful of the top law schools, students interested in securing these jobs scramble to gain admission into one of these select law schools. Further, prospective law students and lawyers are willing to pay much more and even take loans to attend law schools that offer highly remunerative jobs. The financial return from working in a law firms comes much sooner than it does in litigation, making the investment in legal education a less risky investment.[3] The quest for a high-paying job at a law firm does not end with gaining admission into law school. Students interested in gaining employment in the corporate legal sector fashion their choice of courses, their extracurricular activities as well as the internships they pursue in a manner that would make them attractive candidates for recruitment - a “corporatisation of education.”

At this point it is important to mention that these elite law schools- roughly a dozen in number represent only a small fraction of the 1,390 law colleges recognized by the Bar Council of India as of 2013. The corporate legal sector is known to recruit only from the topmost law schools (single-digit number). Unfortunately, few law firms are also known to discriminate between graduates at the same position or level by offering lower salaries to graduates of what are considered tier-two or tier-three law schools. This elitism and discriminatory practice must be condemned because it antithetical to the principles of fairness and equality upon which the practice of law is founded. Not only do these practices deprive meritorious students of opportunities, but they also deprive the corporate legal sector of the talented legal minds that are found in the majority of Indian law schools and colleges.

A top firm also discriminates in salaries on the basis of your grades in in law school- If you were in the top 10 ranks of your batch - your salary is roughly 1 lakh more per month- while this may be some way to reward academic excellence- it is time we moved away from recognising merit only through grades and university ranking given that the Indian legal education system is far from perfect. The fact that legal education is now being viewed only as means to secure a job in a high-paying law firms is evident in the manner in which law schools are ranked-  recruitment by the corporate sector is the most important factor in determining law school rankings. This approach of viewing legal education as only a means to an end and not an end in itself is highly problematic and is leading to our young lawyers missing out on the true value of education in our lives.

At this point I would like to reiterate that the national law schools were set up largely to encourage talented Indian students to enter government service or to provide access to justice for India’s millions of poor citizens. In a developing country like India, the Constitution enjoins the legal system is to facilitate eradication of poverty, inequalities in status and of opportunities and ensure justice to all in social, economic and political spheres. However, an overwhelming majority of the top students in India’s best legal institutions now work in the corporate sector. Members of the Bar and Bench frequently lament the corporatisation of legal education due to which the objectives with which national law schools were created are not being met.

It is definitely heartening that the recruitment of law graduates in the corporate legal sector has empowered law students by increasing social and economic mobility and in overcoming some of the barriers that exist in litigation.  But there is a flip side to this trend- the impact on the growth of the bar and the bench and therefore on the quality of justice delivered.  Since National Law Schools were set up from 1986, there has been only one National Law School graduate that has made it to the higher judiciary- a development that has only taken place this year, when a 1996 alumnus of the National Law School-Bangalore, Mr. Shekhar Saraf, was elevated as a judge of the Calcutta HC. At the same time, in 2014, 26 % of the partnerships of the top 6 corporate law firms in India were occupied by graduates of the same National Law School. Therefore, the disparity between the corporate sector and the litigation is evident for all to see.

The Indian legal market is set to continue to grow in a big way in the coming decade given the rate of growth achieved consistently over the last two decades. This is bound to impact the way the profession is organized and the way legal services are delivered. When you consider the number of talented graduates that the National Law School system has churned out over the last two and a half decades, there is much to reflect about the system and the factors that motivate the choices of our young lawyers. This is definitely a matter of concern for those in charge of ensuring the delivery of equal justice to all under a democratic constitution. Instead of lamenting the growth of this corporate legal sector and the potential loss of legal talent in litigation, we must look at how we can address the factors that impede young lawyers from joining litigation.

Young lawyers who were interviewed during the research being carried out as a part of this book have reported that at the outset of their careers, they had considered litigation but thought the field would be too difficult to break into given the social position and connections that were perceived to be a prerequisite for success in litigation. They believe that law firms provide a more professional and meritocratic environment. Family connections and religious and ethnic social networks are considered important for a successful litigation practice since these provide the infrastructure and resource support required in the early years of litigation and also help in acquiring more clients. These barriers do not operate at the point of entry, but rather determine the survival of litigators once they have entered the profession.  We cannot blame our talented graduates from taking up attractive, well-paying jobs in the corporate sector, as the inequalities and initial hardships that young juniors have to bear that accompany the practice of litigation cannot be denied. Young juniors entering litigation today are paid little or nothing as compared to their corporate peers. The unfortunate effect of this is that it makes litigation an exclusive domain, and the privilege of only a chosen few who have families with the means to support them through difficult initial years. What is most disheartening is that litigation as an option is closed to those who might have been truly passionate about it, and would have made great future counsels or judges in our country, simply because it is not possible for them to continue on meagre salaries when they have spent significant sums for their education and have families to support.  I can understand why young lawyers would not want to deal with the inequalities perpetuated by the system, the pendency of cases and trials that stretch over decades, when they have a more lucrative option available. Therefore, the need of the hour is for the entire legal community to collectively work towards reforms that not only make jobs in the litigation sector attractive but also viable and rewarding.

Women in India’s law firms

This discussion on the litigation sector brings me to an unfortunate realisation that one half of Indians faces much greater obstacles to entering the litigation sector than the other half. The Indian legal profession has been predominantly male dominated. A brief look at statistics shows that there are much fewer woman in positions of power as well are there being fewer women in general that are practising in the litigation sector. As of 2012, only 5 out of 294 lawyers who have been promoted to the position of Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India have been women-an abysmal 2 per cent. Similarly, in the 63 year- old history of the Supreme Court, out of 204 judges, only 5 have been women-at a poor 2.5 percent. Recent comparative research on the demographics of the international legal profession shows that Indian women have the lowest representation in the legal profession as compared to other countries. While women in most countries represent 50 percent (Finland), 30 percent (United States), of total lawyers, the representation in Asian countries is generally lower at 10-20 percent, while the percentage of women in the Indian legal profession has remained only around 5 percent. These shocking statistics have got me thinking on how we can reduce the gender gap in the profession.

In a stark contrast to this depressing picture, the gender dynamics in elite corporate law firms seem to offer some hope. Women in corporate law firms seem to be entering and succeeding at par with male peers at all levels of advancement including partnership. These seemingly gender-neutral trajectories in elite law firms are very encouraging given the general inequalities in the workplace. In particular we must question to what extent the corporate legal sector has been able to challenge entrenched power structures and hierarchies – How many women are in positions of power in the corporate legal sector as managing partners and equity partners?

At a global level, research suggests that there are more women than ever graduating from law schools and entering the legal profession, and while the situation has definitely improved there continues to be some evidence of gender-biases and gender-based discriminatory treatment both in legal education and in the legal work space.

Lack of pro bono culture in India’s law firms

One of the most thought-provoking chapters for me as a judge was the chapter titled “Pro Bono and the Corporate Legal Sector in India” which is the first qualitative empirical study of pro bono practices of elite corporate law firms in India. It is common knowledge that Indian law firms lack an institutionalised pro bono culture unlike Western law firms, which has also been reaffirmed through the findings of this empirical study.

It appears that litigation-based pro bono work forms the smallest constituent of the overall pro bono work done by law firms and corporate law firms have participated in only a handful of court cases on a pro bono basis. When asked about their preferred mode(s) of performing pro bono work, it appears that almost all law firms chose “providing their regular transactional services to not-for profit/social entrepreneurial clients for free/at reduced rates” over “participating in litigation matters involving those in need”. Given the lack of pro bono culture in India, there is little empirical research at present to explain this choice. One of the reasons given by the President of the Society for Indian Law Firms is that the mandate to provide pro bono legal services is entrusted to the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA).

The corporate legal sector must realise that national network of the legal service providers including various NGOs is unable to meet the needs of India’s disadvantaged populations today, and most organizations face significant resource constraints. Unfortunately, in practice, only a few of these organizations are able to deliver these services effectively, often relying on the PIL mechanism to provide legal aid. Private lawyers in India are not mandated to do or report pro bono work, and despite progress being made by a few leading law firms, most law firms do not have mandatory pro bono programs or pro bono requirements for their associates. Though individual lawyers may contribute time to pro bono activities, the work tends to be ad hoc. Moreover, in what is an extension on the bar on foreign law firms, foreign -qualified lawyers cannot directly engage in pro bono work in India, even if they are interested in doing so- however they can partner with local organizations in different supporting and advisory functions

The legal profession cannot live in ignorance of the reality of India - a burgeoning population and a society that is characterized by massive inequalities and injustice. The problem of access to justice is deep and pervasive in India and has affected the ability of the legal system and judicial process to respond to injustices.  Compounded with the grave problem of pendency of litigation in India, that has engulfed the Indian legal process, there is an urgent need for reforms at various levels including the involvement of all stakeholders.

I personally believe that lawyers for whom the legal profession has been extraordinarily profitable have a special responsibility and commitment to address the problem of access to justice and to justice in India. Those who have benefited financially from our legal culture need to invest in its roots and more could – and should – be done by the most successful in the legal profession to help protect access to justice for all. While speaking about the access to justice issue in the USA, American jurist and United States Circuit Judge Tatel had remarked “If the nation’s richest and most powerful law firms donated a mere one-quarter of one percent of their revenues — these lawyers would still be quite rich. This increased giving would more than double the amount of money that they donate to legal aid groups, and make a world of difference to the poor who need lawyers.”

Pro bono is essential not only because of the enormous need for legal aid in our country but is also beneficial for the corporate legal sector. Studies conducted on pro bono practices at leading law firms in the USA have shown that what makes good moral and ethical sense, often makes good business sense too. Pro bono work gives young lawyers an opportunity for hands-on training and puts them in real life situations that firms often cannot provide. It becomes an efficient and inexpensive method for firms to professionally develop the skills of lawyers. Moreover, pro bono work plays a huge role in impacting the firm’s brand value and reputation itself, both within the legal community and in the public eye. This in turn helps make the law firm more attractive to clients. In the USA, which has a structured pro bono model, there are a number of firms who enjoy an established national reputation for pro bono work. On the other hand, there are many firms who have also found out how a lack of attention to pro bono has disadvantaged them in the legal market, both in terms of serving commercial clients, and also in terms of recruitment of young lawyers, who prefer to join law firms that have established their commitment of serving the community. Pro bono work also benefits lawyers on a personal level, as it gives them the chance to work with clients on one-on-one basis, which fosters a sense of connectedness and satisfaction, which lawyers do not always gain from corporate jobs.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court has also remarked “a lawyer will gain large satisfaction when he or she is not simply a fee-charging artisan, but a contributor to the public good”, emphasizing how pro bono work may provide a partial answer to the career fatigue of law firm associates. One of impediments faced in effective pro bono work being carried out by law firms is the information asymmetry between those seeking legal advice and representation and those carrying it out. Undoubtedly some firms do engage in several pro bono activities. The need of the hour is to move from an ad-hoc basis to an institutionalised culture of pro bono work. I am glad to say that small but assured steps are being taken in this regard. A few months ago, the Union Law Ministry in India announced a very novel initiative on behalf of the government, in an effort to channel free legal aid to the poor and marginalised sections of society. Called the ‘pro bono legal services’ program, it involved the creation of a web- based platform on the Department of Justice website, where interested lawyers could register themselves to volunteer pro bono services to underprivileged litigants and which provided registered lawyers with various professional incentives to engage in pro bono work.

 Technology & Law

 Speaking about this web-based platform brings me to the remarkable and perhaps even unfathomable ways in which technology is going to influence the practice of law including the corporate legal sector. In today’s expanding Information Technology Landscape, the pervasive role of the internet and technology cannot be ignored. In such an information- centric world, where cloud computing, information processing, machine learning, knowledge processing and speech synthesis are the mainstay, organizational boundaries are being realigned and are continuously shifting to new directions to meet these emerging realities. Artificial Intelligence systems find increasing relevance and usage in fields and industries, including finance, healthcare, education, transportation, and more.

Despite such giant leaps in various sectors of the economy, the legal profession has generally been slow to adapt to technological changes. Disruption averse, our law firms and corporate legal sector continue to be driven by inefficient practices and dependency on manual systems, a far cry from the increasingly automation and innovation driven world. However, this practice will inevitably change in the future. There is increasing competition and focus on efficiency in the global markets. As markets open to the world, specialization is necessary for firms to gain an advantage over their competitors. The clients seek better and cheaper services and this drives firms to innovate and reduce costs, so that they remain competitive and continue to derive profits. Thus, technology and internet play a major role in innovation and in transforming the legal landscape by shaking off entrenched conventional habits of lawyers and firms. Some of these potentially ground-breaking changes include adoption of practices and technology platforms such as automated document assembly, connectivity, electronic legal marketplace, e-learning, online legal guidance, legal open-sourcing, workflow and project management, online dispute resolution, intelligent legal research, big data and AI based problem solving, to name a few. On one hand, these systems increase output by streamlining the information systems and reducing duplication of work, on the other hand they improve quality due to specialization and focussing.

Mental Health

In the last segment of my speech I would like to discuss an issue that is neglected and rarely discussed in the legal profession, which is mental health. Lawyers’ jobs can often be very stressful and thus lawyers are prone to addiction and struggle with mental-health issues like depression, both at higher rates than the general population. This is supported by findings of various research studies in the United States and Australia which conclude that lawyers suffer from significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health wellbeing than other professionals.  Various law firms abroad have now started taking mental health issues very seriously. They are offering on-site psychologists and incorporating mental-health support alongside other wellness initiatives.

There are no empirical studies in India regarding the mental health of legal professionals due to the general stigma in Indian society regarding mental health issues. However, the steep increase in the number of suicides in India’s premier legal institutions is indicative of the systemic flaws. Off-late, efforts have been made by made by law colleges and their students, such as the Gujarat National Law University (GNLU) or at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) in Hyderabad, to recognise the need for addressing these concerns and provide avenues for students to reach out within the institution. In comparison to these recent initiatives by law schools, the legal profession including the corporate legal sector is doing woefully little. Law firms in India definitely need to be more sensitive to their employees concerns about unsatisfactory work culture and a complete lack of work-life balance. Since many issues specific to the legal profession are responsible for the heightened level of stress that most of us have felt, general empathy and sensitivity to understand mental issues must be accompanied with the knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of this profession. As lawyers we must collectively work to create a healthier work environment. Change on an institutional level requires the creation of support structures, a massive change in our attitude, and de-stigmatisation of mental-health issues amongst members of the profession.

Conclusion: On a concluding note, I am confident that the book will be of immense interest to academics, lawyers, and policymakers who are invested in the critical role that a rapidly globalizing legal profession is playing in the legal, political, and economic development of important emerging economies like India, and how these countries are integrating into the institutions of global governance and the overall global market for legal services. The book provides some important insights at a time when crucial decisions are being made regarding the future of the legal services sector particularly regarding further liberalization of the legal services market to allow the entry of foreign law firms in India.

It must be remembered that the corporate legal sector still forms a miniscule fraction of the legal profession in India, in terms of the number of legal professionals. While the size of this sector is going to increase in the coming years, traditional lawyers in the litigation sector will far outnumber corporate lawyers for years to come in the near future. I sincerely hope that similar extensive research will be carried out by the Harvard Centre for the Legal Profession on this part which forms the majority of the legal profession in India in order to catalyze reform initiatives.

[1] Page 22

[2] Words of Madhava Menon, founder of National Law school of Bangalore (the first and top law school in the country).

[3] Page 526


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