What intrigues Law School’s very own Enigma — Interview with Prof. Rahul Singh – Part I
Prof. Rahul Singh is a Law School alum who is currently an Associate Professor of Law. This interview is the first of a two-part series. In the first part, Quirk spoke to him about his law school experience, memories of his time at Harvard, coming back to teach at NLS, and holding positions of authority at NLS.
This part of the interview was conducted by Radhika Goyal (Batch of 2019), Mallika Sen (Batch of 2022), Riddhi RS (Batch of 2022) and Prannv Dhawan (Batch of 2022). This part of the interview was also taken in 2019 when Prof. Singh was the UGC chairperson.
Part II of the interview can be found here – What intrigues Law School’s very own Enigma — Interview with Prof. Rahul Singh – Part II (nlsquirks.in)
On His Time as a Student in NLS and at Harvard Law School
Quirk: We’d like to start with a little bit about you. Could you tell us what your approach to life in law school was, in terms of your priorities, committees etc.?
RS: The most important thing about my law school days is that if given a chance, I will do it the same way, which is different from what students think generally. It was a great experience. I decided academia was my priority early on as against moot courts, debating etc. In terms of committees, the only committee I was part of was ASP. Hence, the natural convergence of my interest and committee experience was with the Academic Support Programme. I worked with ASP for my entire law school life and was the Convenor in the second year itself.
Quirk: How did you decide so early on about joining academia and not choosing a corporate career, which is what seems to be the general trend amongst students, at least today?
RS: These questions are slightly different. I got interested in academia because early on, there was a critical mass of good teachers. Not that I am saying this was some golden period in the history of NLS. If all courses were great, we would flunk all of them because there is limited time in law school in terms of reading and making decent projects. The library was near where the accounts department is now. Although it was a small library, it was highly accessible. So, even in the short 10 minute breaks, one could go there. It was really important for a person like me who came from a science background, as I could go there and check what stare decisis means from the Osborne Dictionary of Law. This helped me make sense of things and not get lost in the crowd. Every discipline takes a quantum of sunk cost to generate interest. If you spend twenty hours reading the book, you might get interested. It is the same with law.
Quirk: Sir, can you tell us, what in your law school life made you feel proud to be from NLS?
RS: The best thing about my law school life was the interpersonal communication across batches. Our former Director Prof. Mohan Gopal had different thoughts about this. He questioned how students could teach other students. Then he saw his faculty and realized it was inevitable. ASP was important in this regard. My experience in overcoming the challenges of coming from a science background, other identity-based disadvantages notwithstanding, helped me equip juniors to confront these challenges. It seemed like an achievement that one could make a difference in someone else’s life.
Quirk: We now wanted to talk to you about what is popularly considered to be the ‘corporate streamlining’ of students in law school. In this regard, we have two questions. First, do you think that it is a bad thing? Second, do you think that most students blindly go down that path just following a widespread trend?
RS: I won’t say that pursuing a corporate career is bad. I would strongly encourage people to do corporate jobs. I would even recommend Prof. Sarasu to do a corporate job. It gives a sense of professionalism and value of time; which a litigation career does not provide. Corporate law firms provide you with a conducive work culture in addition to basic amenities. Now, if I ask any of you what you did today, you can’t account for how you spent your time. You spend one year in a corporate law firm and it makes you fill timesheets. It is because for every hour you spend there, a client is paying. Regardless of who you represent, they either pay you via money or life actually – as in death penalty, imprisonment, etc. Hence, the onus is on you. I realized the value of the corporate experience quite late.
My interest in academia wasn’t because of any aversion to doing a corporate job. In fact, till my 4th year, I wanted to do it. My focus on academia wasn’t exclusive. While I wanted to earn money, I also wanted to do part-time teaching. Eventually, the balance of proportion shifted towards mostly teaching and doing corporate law part-time. Nevertheless, I believe that if you focus on any discipline, it will help in practice as well as teaching. The key thing here is passion.
Quirk: Talking about confronting challenges, how do you think we can make law school more inclusive for people who don’t come from urban, elite-school backgrounds? For instance, do you think we should have mandatory English classes for them so as to help them excel in activities like mooting, debating etc.?
RS: This is a very important question. Herein, there are two things to say. First, with regards to English, that is already done. We are starting full-fledged English classes as against the ad hoc system that exists currently. The English teacher is our alumnus too. Now you see, the student RCC took suo motu cognizance and professional help to equip students for Group Discussions. Incidentally, I am going to conduct a soft skills training for Exam Department staff tomorrow. Right now, they don’t even know how to talk with students. Thus, you see, one initiative is leading to many.
Second, I want to initiate a new program as UGC for helping students from underprivileged backgrounds crack CLAT. As compared to private institutions like IDIA, we have the advantage of tremendous resources, which is you guys: the four hundred UG students. We can help 1000s of kids crack CLAT if all of you devote only ½ hour a week. So the idea is to get low cost programs to help them crack CLAT and then we will continue to help them with scholarships and English classes. As I said in my speech, scholarship should not be a loan that fetters the students and forces them to do corporate jobs. It must be a scholarship in the true sense of the term.
Quirk: You went to Harvard to pursue your LLM after completing your LLB from here. Can you tell us how Harvard is better than NLS? What are the differences that you see between the two and how can we learn from them and improve?
RS: The most striking thing was the quality of faculty. You suddenly go from one to another and you realize that National Law School has not prepared you for anything, which means you have to restart your legal education. Every single faculty there was far better, which has now changed a little but, nevertheless, we don’t have that critical mass yet. Universities like Harvard also invest in their faculty because of marketing. This is because students pay for themselves and so they demand a better quality of teaching. While you [NLS students] make demands here as well, I’m not negating that – the demands will increase the moment you are paying, rather than your parents. Right now, you are the consumer and they are paying so there is a disconnect.
For instance, one of the most striking things for me as a student was that, as I entered in the first term, I saw a notice board where they had put up a poster saying “Do you want to participate in the Jessup moot competition? Pizza will be served.” It was shocking for me because Jessup was such a big deal here. And I realized that there, it isn’t. To get a Jessup Team in Harvard is very difficult because nobody wants to go to Jessup. Their priorities are very different, like publishing a paper or getting more out of classroom education. Why would you waste your time researching a moot problem? While Harvard is an example, this is true for Oxford as well. They struggle to put together a team for Jessup. I can see it is difficult for you guys [NLS Students] to accept this but that’s the sort of cultural shock that I had experienced at the time. So many people (here) waste their time on moots. Actually, I wouldn’t say it is exactly a waste of time, but rather a question of priority which was the difference between NLS and Harvard.
Quirk: What about the peer groups – were those a lot more focused?
RS: That, I think, varies from individual to individual. All the classes there are exactly the same, so you are constantly compared with the other students. But another thing that I noticed was their knack for creative thinking. Perhaps this is because they are encouraged right from their school to think out of the box and creatively. I got this sense in a course on Comparative Competitive Law taught by a judge from the Competition Court. He was talking about Competition policy and legitimacy in the field of capitalism. In terms of class participation, I saw that my responses were based on the books and readings while there was another student who brought in certain experiences from her everyday life. And I realized that this was a very different way to look at things as there is a gap between what you see in books and what you see in practice. It was a good time for me to reflect on the way I participated and how she participated.
Quirk: What role do you think the quality of life and infrastructure play in improving the quality of the educational experience?
RS: Today, you cannot say we lack infrastructure. Almost all the infrastructure that a Harvard student has, we can access at the click of a mouse. The only place where we lack might be the library. The Harvard library takes pride in the fact that they have every single book. It is difficult to point out books which they don’t have. So they don’t have situations where they have to request a book because they buy every single book which is published as a matter of routine. Of course, we have not reached that position yet but many books are available as soft copies, so it is not much of a problem.
Quirk: What about the friendships and relationships you formed in both Harvard and NLS?
RS: In my view, you make friends all your life exactly in the same way, which is, you generally look for people who are interested in the activity that you are doing. If you want to make friends with a kid playing, the best way is to start playing. This was essentially my experience both in law school and Harvard. Friendships which are based on common interests are also very enduring. You don’t make friends only with your peer group. In law school you make friends with your teachers as well. One of my best friends from Harvard was my teacher, actually. In that sense, you shouldn’t confine your idea of making friends only within your peer group. Another teacher of mine from NLS who I am friends with is Anil Kumar Rai, who now teaches at NLUD. So, in both places, I’ve found similar mechanisms to forge long lasting friendships.
On Being a Professor at NLS and Holding Positions of Authority
Quirk: Could you tell us a little bit about your time as a professor of Legal Methods at NLS?
RS: Legal Methods was not a course that was new to me as a teacher since all through law school I taught legal methods as an ASP member. The teacher who taught LM would seldom make sense to the students, but it was always a very interesting course for two sets of reasons. One, you meet unadulterated minds. In the first trimester, students are very different. And second, since grades have not yet come in they see themselves as capable of doing anything. That sense of optimism along with enthusiasm and passion for law is very contagious. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that one of the reasons I survived law school is because of Legal Methods. And this is a sense I get even today from the legal methods course. By the way, just like Corinne Cooper wrote in “Letter to a Young Law Student”, both Kunal and I cannot sleep the night before the first day of class.
Quirk: Could you also tell us a little bit about your experience as Chief Warden?
RS: Well, it was a very short-lived experience. It was also very unexpected. And the reason I think I had a short-lived experience is because I started implementing what I was teaching in class, which (my teachings) surprisingly was not the culture of Law School. So students didn’t have this sense that if there are some rules, they have to be implemented. They just thought these were some normative benchmarks that may in some utopian world have some sense of implementation. (laughs)
But there were also good things, I suppose. One thing that has stayed with me was getting to speak to students and trying to understand their views from an administrative context. DISCO and SDGM were actually functioning on the ground on a day-to-day basis and therefore listening to them was a very new experience. I got to know what it was that they thought was wrong. As a student, I had a very different experience with SDGM. So, even simply becoming Chief Warden was a leap in logic because I didn’t know how these committees functioned and suddenly I was overseeing all of them.
For example, when I spoke to them they told me that a big problem was that no one was taking them seriously. Earlier we actually took them very seriously. If SDGM would tell us something we would listen to them since we considered them to be serious students. But from my experience as Chief Warden, I realized that this was no longer true. The relationship between SDGM and students has changed significantly since the students now have different expectations – and I understood this change in expectations quite quickly. But still, by the time I understood, fortunately, I suppose (laughs) I was replaced. I didn’t even make an iota of effort to retain this office. The moment I got a phone call saying that I had been replaced, I got a sense that this was because I had followed the rules.
Quirk: On that note what do you think is the right balance between the personal liberty of a student and public discipline in a place like Law School?
RS: This is a no brainer. The personal liberty of the student has to be respected. But to what extent, is the issue. The problem is, lots of students look at themselves as adults when they just come into NLS, which is of course the rational and the right thing to do. But we, on the other hand, are also equally accountable to your parents. Because parents do ask all sorts of questions. And we cannot waive our accountability towards them either.
Quirk: You are an alumnus who came back to teach at his alma mater. Given that some of the professors who once taught you were still teaching at NLS, how was the experience of the shift in dynamic from a superior-subordinate relationship to being peers?
RS: That was slightly complicated. Interpersonal relationships are complex. Just like how you have some close friends and some people who aren’t your close friends, even with your former professors, it’s the same. What I think about reflecting back on my experience as faculty was that it was incumbent on us to find a niche for ourselves. It was not an easy job. Even today, most people would be happy to just quit and go. The fact that we dig in our heels and survive is an achievement in itself. Only some people treat you like a professional colleague. Anil Kumar Rai is a great example of that. He treated me as a faculty member – as if I had never been his student. Equally, you have other examples too. This is true in all places – e.g. in a firm too. In India, roadblocks are always there. There’s a running joke, “No good deed, ever goes unpunished in India”. It will be incumbent on you to understand that despite all of this, you have to work here.
Quirk: What are the biggest changes you see from your time in Law School?
RS: I’ll focus on the students, instead of infrastructure. I think the students are far more intelligent than we were. This will keep changing; the future generation will be more intelligent than you. What balances that out is the EQ. The IQ is higher, but the EQ is way lower. I think we had a higher power of endurance than you all. Another thing is that we still continue to attract the top 80 students in one single examination. I sometimes wonder that, with the kind of problems we have, we shouldn’t be attracting them, but we still do. It feels like some kind of divine intervention.
Quirk: What do you think about the ‘falling standards’ rhetoric that we often hear? If student quality goes down, who is to blame?
RS: In my opinion, it is the faculty that is to blame. I can see this in Jurisprudence, so I’m speaking from experience. In Legal Methods, everyone is enthusiastic, but by the time they reach Jurisprudence, I have to put in so much effort to win them back. They start thinking that Law School is so arbitrary, so much like a dice-based game that nothing can be done. By the time I win everyone back, the term is over. So, something is definitely happening between these two courses. As an institution, we are not making the students cherish their experiences.
Of course, I’m not talking about courses being enjoyable. No hard work is enjoyable. But students should feel that the system is fair and not that it is based on a game of dice. They shouldn’t feel that all they can do is take a back seat in class and get passive. If you have a smart set of people, won’t they figure out what this system is, and game it? Hence, it becomes incumbent on us to ensure that the system is fair. On the other hand, we should be able to deal with it. I saw this in my role as UGC Chairperson. The SBA President is under a lot of pressure, but if I am able to respond to them rationally, students will understand and won’t be unreasonable. Even in terms of balance, there might be some blame on the students; but it should be fixed from the side of the faculty. I can’t just say all blame lies on students, hence I won’t do anything. That’ll just be complacent on my part.
On his experience as the UGC Chairperson
Quirk: Sir, going back to your time as the UGC Chairperson. What was the experience like?
RS: One job that the UGC Council chairperson has is to implement the AER. My overall experience and impression was that it’s an invidious exercise. Essentially every part of the document has context, and there isn’t really enough precedent to go by. Therefore, it demands you to devote time and energy to interpret it.
What that means in practice is that the office demands a certain time commitment. So it’s not an easy office to be in and shouldn’t be seen as a win. To my mind, the UG Council chair is sometimes seen as a CV building exercise. I speak from the faculty colleagues’ perspective, not from the students’ perspective.
There seems to be a lot of jostling for this office – and that was my other experience while I was holding office. I didn’t realize this because I was happy to actually be let go within a very short time period because it was taking a lot of time away from reading, writing and other stuff. I suppose people underestimate the idea of what kind of demands that this office has. It requires a lot of time, commitment and energy in order to discharge the responsibilities in a manner which one would be happy about at one level. This means that it’s an office, which would possibly demand at least half of your day in order to do the administrative interpretation that it requires, or even to interact with the examination department or what’s now called the AAD. I lose track of these changes, unfortunately – apologies for that (laughs) – but now it’s just called the Academic Administration Department. Even coordinating with them might require a bit of time commitment. So my overall sense is that it’s twofold. One is that it’s an invidious exercise and two is that it demands a lot of time and energy and commitment. Unfortunately, people see it as a CV building exercise and I think it’s as far away from any kind of CV building that the office might probably offer.
Part II of the interview can be found here – What intrigues Law School’s very own Enigma — Interview with Prof. Rahul Singh – Part II (nlsquirks.in)