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The Argument Against Law School Personality Cults


This article has been written by Megha Mehta (Batch of 2019). The cartoon in the cover image is by Dave Carptenter.


In the modern era, many amongst the so-called secular educated elite are choosing to disassociate themselves from the concept of organised religion. Most people I know are fairly ambivalent about their relationship with the Almighty. However I’ve happened to notice that our Lawschoolites (encompassing both current students and alumni) seem to have replaced spiritual God(s) with personality cults revolving around select mortals. 

The features of the law school personality cult (hereinafter ‘LSPC’) are as follows: The person at the center of the cult (the ‘LSPC leader’) will usually be an upper-caste, upper-class, cisgender male. You can mock me for using ‘Social Justice Warrior’ terminology if you want, but if you ask any 20-something Lawschoolite who their aspirational figure is, you are likely to get the name of a person satisfying these characteristics. Our LSPC leader will also have one or more of these qualities: They should preferably be a graduate of one of the National Law Universities if they were born after 1970. They must also have had a high CGPA, secured a scholarship to a prestigious foreign university (Oxbridge/ Ivy League), participated in the holy trifecta of law school extra-curriculars – ADR, debating, and mooting (listed in alphabetical order to avoid any controversy as to which is more important), and served as the Convenor of some committee. Their politics are usually centrist or left of centre, but nothing too radical. 

Post-graduation, this person did one or more of the following: became a respected academic, championed (or allegedly appeared to champion) high-profile litigations, or attached themselves to a trending cause, which ultimately led to their name being recorded in posterity. In cases of LSPC leaders who belong to an older generation of lawyers, the requirements of an NLU tag and the associated extra-curricular profile may be waived but other characteristics remain roughly the same.

Since cis-men are generally more likely to be rewarded for doing the bare minimum, male legal luminaries who champion WokeTM causes are more likely to acquire LSPC leader status. Equally successful and progressive women with the same career graph tend to maintain a low profile and their achievements are rarely publicised or celebrated on social media. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Just like there is one female senior advocate for every 100 male ones, there will always be one LSPC dedicated to cisgender women as well (including yours truly) for every 100 LSPC’s to the contrary. Similarly, there are also examples of LSPC leaders who may not have had the most spectacular academic profile during law school, but who acquired cult status due to excelling in other areas such as debating, politics, sports etc. However the caste and class profile roughly remains the same.

As is in the case of religious leaders, LSPC followers extol their leaders even for their most basic achievements. This kind of fan-worship usually involves mistaking erudition (in English) with intelligence and progressiveness. Consequently, they are skeptical of any criticism about their cult leaders, which leads to disastrous consequences, as will be explained later in this article.

I know what readers must be thinking: what locus does she have to critique LSPCs? After all, as I have already admitted earlier in this article, I was and continue to be the beneficiary of one myself. The perpetuation of a ‘goddess’ myth around my scholarly abilities has enabled me to secure many professional advantages, and has kept people from discovering the finer nuances of my personality, such as the fact that I spend most of my time watching cat videos and Indian soap opera memes on Instagram. I am admittedly the member of a few LSPCs myself. Perhaps it is human nature to want to idolize those whom we see as more evolved creatures, though that is probably best explored in a separate thesis by someone with a Philosophy degree. 

However, I do find it tragic that we take pride in ridiculing our family Whatsapp groups for deifying political and spiritual leaders when we are unwilling to focus the same kind of scrutiny towards our own role models. The aim of this article is to bring light to the ways in which LSPCs are symptoms of broader structural issues plaguing law school networks and to offer some constructive advice on how LSPCs can be maintained in healthier ways. 

First, as mentioned earlier, LSPCs aren’t exactly known for their diversity. For example, we rarely hear stories about successful alumni from SC/ST backgrounds – yes, they do exist. Our guest lectures, seminars, symposiums and recruitment talks are attended by the same kind of people, though one sees efforts to change this in the recent past. 

Further, the qualities prized by LSPCs reinforce elitist ideas of what constitutes ‘merit’ in law school. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a number of hapless law students force themselves into participating in University rounds or try to convert a project into a publication simply for the sake of ‘CV value’ and not because they derive any intrinsic joy out of it. They do so not only to impress corporate firms and foreign universities but also because their favourite LSPC leaders had followed the same trajectory and they believe that imitating it is the only way to succeed. Ask yourself – how many times did you dream of doing Jessup or getting published in an international journal not because you wanted it, but because you wanted to see yourself in the shoes of XYZ Prodigal AlumTM?

It may be argued that there is no harm in using examples of successful alumni as a motivating factor, particularly given that the effort of going through Law School often seems disproportionate to the rewards. This is certainly true, but it needs to be acknowledged that this idea of ‘success’ is one which is contingent on privilege. Someone may not have had the financial wherewithal to have done a criminal law LLM from abroad or the linguistic fluency to publish an academic paper on the same, but could still have a more thorough understanding of the CrPC than you do. The funny thing is that after you graduate from law school, you come to know of enough lawyers who have become successful in spite of not having satisfied any of the conventional ‘checkboxes’. Yet we continue to use LSPC leaders as inspiration porn. 

Second, the perpetuation of LSPCs inevitably results in the monopolisation of discussion forums, both within and outside of law school. This monopolisation creates an infinite loop in which those who do not conform to the LSPC checkbox refrain from voicing their opinions because of the anxiety that ‘ABC is such a stud, how can I, an ordinary mortal differ with them, that too publicly, I don’t even have the same qualifications’ which in turn means that the domination of LSPC leaders remains unchallenged and sic mundus creatus est.[1]

There have been a few articles published recently which urge the law school liberal elite, in particular, to ‘pass the mic’ to their less privileged peers. However, the culpability does not solely lie with these elite LSPC leaders. The reason why LSPC leaders continue to ‘grab the mic’ is the same reason nepotism exists in Bollywood (yes, I have slipped in cinema analogies, sue me) – because at the end of the day, no matter how much it is critiqued, the audience continues to enable it. I don’t see the point of commenting ‘Yasss girl’ and ‘Will do better’ on ‘passing the mic’ articles when we as consumers keep displaying a marked preference for promoting content by people who subscribe to our ideas of ‘merit’ instead of amplifying voices on the margins. 

It can be argued that ‘It’s not our fault some people happen to be more erudite and take more initiative than others’. That may be the case, but it is worth noting that many a times when people on the margins do speak out, they instantly attract tone policing from many of our favourite LSPC leaders and their followers, which makes them regret ever opening their mouth in the first place. 

I will give a broad example of this with regard to gender – though I would encourage people to share experiences based on other forms of structural discrimination in comments. As mentioned earlier, though Law School women often tend to have higher CGPAs and better CVs than men; they promote themselves relatively less aggressively. From my conversations with other women, I get the sense that this arises out of imposter syndrome as well as the popularly held sentiment that outspoken women are arrogant or ‘extra’. The problem of imposter syndrome due to societal stereotypes is amplified for Dalit-Bahujan women, as Manisha Arya (Batch of 2019) has explained in an earlier Quirk article.

While one could say this is a general consequence of caste and patriarchy, the concentration of male LSPC leaders and their tendency to tone-check ensures that Law School women are ‘kept in their place’. Even as a woman with caste-privilege who has subscribed to conventional parameters of law school ‘success’, I’ve often received unsolicited feedback from presumably well-meaning law school men about how my opinions are uninformed or could have been better expressed. This has often made me feel self-conscious that perhaps I’m being too outspoken. Unsurprisingly, other women have managed to give me constructive feedback without being condescending about it. 

Finally, as is the problem with any religious/celebrity cult, LSPC leaders are rarely held accountable for their mistakes. Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of actually interacting with prominent LSPC leaders would know that, much like Bollywood celebrities, their carefully cultivated social media image is often in marked contrast to their actual personality and actions. LSPC leaders can be as prone to throwing bizarre ego tantrums and making tone deaf statements, just as the Kangy Runouts and SoYum Kapoors of the film industry. The ‘Golden Boys’ i.e. the upper-caste, upper-class men who sit at the top of the LSPC hierarchy and their followers are especially averse to any critical engagement unless it comes from somebody who is of the same perceived intellectual standing or social status. It’s no wonder then that today’s LSPCs end up being the origins of tomorrow’s Old Boys’ Clubs. 

It is also not surprising that LSPC leaders are more likely to indulge in harassment, abuse, or general toxic relationship behaviour, but less likely to be exposed or to receive any stringent punishment even after being called out. Many LSPC leaders (usually the aforementioned Golden Boys) are famous for grooming impressionable juniors/batchmates through Kabir Singh style manoeuvres such as offering unsolicited academic or professional help, inviting them to be a part of their friend circles, before proceeding to eventually control their interactions with others, etc. It is naïve to assume that LSPC leaders do not know that it is easier to discredit allegations of abuse against a popular personality which are made in the context of a romantic relationship or close friendship. They are prone to single out non-LSPC people as romantic partners for this very reason – you can always say any allegations made later are motivated by envy or pure pettiness. 

So what is the solution? Ideally, I would recommend as a general piece of life advice that it is unwise to blindly idolise or stan over anybody, no matter how perfect they seem on paper. In fact my thumb rule is that the more popular and beyond reproach a person appears in the public eye, the more chances are that they will be disappointing in private (for example, a certain Mataji who spends more time on Komolika throwbacks than Consti summaries nowadays). 

However since not everybody may agree with this cynical approach to life, and I have violated this principle many times myself, my next suggestion would be to always remember that a person’s professional and/or intellectual standing is not a testament to their actual personality. You can appreciate their work without going ‘Love me Senpai!’ every time you interact with them (Note: My point is that good art does not equal to the artist being good, which is different from the converse debate about whether you should boycott the art if the artist is found questionable – that probably merits a separate article).  

Further, even if the concerned LSPC leader happens to be a great human being, it does not automatically mean that they are more competent and qualified than you are. Even if they do happen to be smarter, you are allowed to disagree with them or point out scope for improvement in their ideas, though LSPC followers will grumble that your standards are too high. I’ve observed that even people on the ‘left-liberal’ spectrum tend to judge the merits of an opinion based on the person who’s saying it instead of forming their own independent assessment, which is a criticism usually levelled at ‘bhakts’. In the case of public personalities, it saves a lot of unnecessary heartbreak if you don’t think of them as Mr. Perfect in every situation. 

More importantly, someone’s LSPC leader status does not excuse their horrible or condescending behaviour towards you. Even if other people don’t believe you or tell you that you’re being ‘oversensitive’ or a ‘party pooper’, you are entitled to call out red flags when you see them and stand by your assessment. The world owes much to rebels who would dare to argue in the face of the pontiff and insist that he is not infallible.[2]

Another suggestion would be to widen your reach. Make an active effort to interact with or read up on people who are outside the conventional Prodigal LawschoolitesTM network. It will also serve as an opportunity for looking into alternate career paths and re-conceptualisations of what your law school CV should look like. On this note, I would suggest that Law School committees and discussion groups should put it on their agenda to invite guest speakers from diverse backgrounds for any community interactions, particularly those who are not widely known within the Law School community. I would also encourage that Law School alumni, particularly those in corporate firms and university admission/scholarship committees, evaluate their policies for biases that favour LSPC characteristics – which would also mean inquiring into structural hiring biases and the ethics of unpaid internships generally (don’t expect kids from ‘underprivileged’ backgrounds to magically collect ‘experience’ if what you pay them barely covers the cost of living in a metropolis). It is also important that institutions collect data on the privileging of certain kinds of ‘activities’ over others in admissions/hiring practices. 

If you, like me, are the beneficiary of an LSPC status then actively evaluate your interactions with others. Do you tend to engage only with people who are of the same academic or professional standing, and more importantly, from the same caste, class, gender, etc.? Are your law school ‘mentees’ people with the same profile which you had in college? Have you adopted a condescending or snooty tone while talking to someone lower in the social/academic/professional hierarchy? (Law school men especially, please carry out some introspection in this regard). If yes, then please keep the ego inflation in check and try and use your social capital to prop up those who need it instead of using it as a ‘gatekeeping’ method. 

I don’t think there is any overarching instant solution to the LSPC problem so long as the psychological impulse to glorify our ‘betters’ continues to exist and given that our conception of who is ‘better’ is itself moulded by larger forces beyond our control. However I do believe that in the short-term, pending structural overhauls, small-scale behavioural changes might pave the way for gradual reform. This includes staying silent during class discussions if someone who has rarely spoken up wishes to contribute, urging your ‘quiet’ friends to share their thoughts, promoting voices from the margins on your social media feed, resisting the urge to tone-police/be condescending if you disagree with someone with less ‘clout’ than you, etc. 

I know that chances are that the vast majority of people reading this will only carry out some momentary introspection before returning back to the LSPC Matrix. I get it. It’s 2020, there’s a raging pandemic going on, and the last thing you want to do is arrive at the realization that your law school heroes are probably just as twisted, confused, and perennially dehydrated as you are. However I hope that this can serve as some sort of solace and guide to those of you who are becoming disinclined towards your Legal Gods and Goddesses. Trust me, the Constitution and your Bare Acts are more deserving of your love. 

 

[1] ‘Thus the world was created’. For the benefit of non-viewers, the creation of the loop is a reference to the TV series Dark.

[2] Annihilation of Caste, Preface to the 2nd Edition (1937). The AoC and more particularly, Dr. Ambedkar’s response to Mahatma Gandhi’s indictment of the same were the original scathing anti-LSPC critiques.

Caveat: I am aware that because Law School is a Terrible Place, my advice might be construed as encouraging a counter-culture where certain people think that expressing unpopular opinions or playing the Devil’s Advocate constitutes some kind of unique personality trait which makes them Better PeopleTM. I would hence like to expressly clarify that this article is not meant for you peeps, sorry.

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