Foreign law firms will bring global internships and jobs, but education must keep up

Allowing foreign firms to provide legal counsel in India has expanded job opportunities for law students. But legal education must change too.

Bar Council of India should also ensure that foreign law firm internships doesn't get limited to a few NLUs (Image Credit: TNNLU)Bar Council of India should also ensure that foreign law firm internships doesn't get limited to a few NLUs (Image Credit: TNNLU)

Atul Krishna | January 16, 2024 | 11:29 AM IST

NEW DELHI: The Indian legal system is witnessing an unprecedented change. The Bar Council of India (BCI), through new regulations released in March, has allowed foreign firms to provide legal counsel in Indian in non-litigation areas, such as joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions. Academics believe that this reform will foster global opportunities for Indian students, leading to more legal internships and jobs, both in India and abroad.

“Firms like Allen & Overy have already started setting up offices in India. This is so very relevant in cases of transferred mergers. Now, just like how corporations are going global, the practice of law will not be confined to India alone. It is a great opportunity for students and the profession as well,” said Jayaram ER, dean, Faculty of Law, Manipal University Jaipur.

Shashikala Gurpur, director, Symbiosis Law School Pune, agreed. “There are two things that are happening right now. First, foreign lawyers are coming to India because of huge investments. Law is where prosperity is, and the rule of law is needed more where prosperity flows. Second, our graduates will be eligible to practise law there and will get more opportunities,” the director said.

However, legal academia also wants safeguards to ensure that these opportunities are not limited to a handful of top law schools. They are calling for a more flexible legal education system that allows institutes to utilise these opportunities.

Law internships and jobs

That said, internship and employment opportunities might take a few years to be visible. Since the regulations came only in March, legal firms are still in the process of setting up their offices in India.

“We have not received any placement offers this year. Although foreign law firms are allowed to practise now, they will take time to establish in India.

So, they’re not looking at taking in students from our batch. As of now, for the 2024 batch, there are no placements happening with the foreign firms. Maybe in the future they will start offering placements,” said a member of the recruitment co-ordination committee of a top law school in India, on conditions of anonymity.

Also read Steep bar council registration fees are driving law students away from the profession

Till now, foreign firms have recruited in India through what is known as “vacation schemes”. International firms selected a limited number of students from India for internships and, based on their performance, they were hired to practise in other countries.

“The vacation schemes are open applications to which any student can apply, regardless of the institution. But not more than 10 people from India are selected. They are offered internships at the main office (of the law firm), wherever that might be, and if they perform well, they get recruited. These firms never used to come for placements as such,” said Pranika Goel, member, recruitment co-ordination committee at NLU Delhi.

Experts believe that with these changes, more law firms will start offering internships to students. Moreover, this might also ensure that legal internship opportunities are not limited to the top NLUs.

“One immediate opportunity is that these firms will start hiring interns and they may be absorbed later. They also come to India for transnational legal programmes, particularly related to legal documentation, and our students are selected for this. This was started in the 2010s but had slowed down during Covid-19. Now, with the opening up of this complex legal system with its virtual courts and e-courts, it will pick up again,” said Gurpur.

“I feel very few of our law schools had opportunities to get their students placed in foreign law firms. This is mainly because those firms only had an India desk, but not an office. Only one or two law schools had their students selected by them. Today, they come to the campus to pick students. These opportunities will get better now.”

Law school syllabus

Academics, however, believe that the opening up of the legal system should coincide with more flexibility in the legal education system.

“The BCI imposes a lot of restrictions. The way they are opening up for foreign law firms, they should also bring flexibility to the curriculum. The rigid framework of the curriculum is a challenge for law schools trying to catch up to the changes happening around the world,” said Jayaram, who is also a subject expert at BCI.

Despite a concerted push for reform in legal education, there has been little change, said Jayaram. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 emphasises flexibility but most of legal and medical education have been left out of its ambit. Similarly, the draft policy for Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), which is set to bring all higher education regulators under one umbrella, also excludes legal education.

Academics said institutions should be able to provide more flexible options, including those in fields of greater global relevance, such as merger and acquisitions and contract drafting.

“Curriculum will have to be redefined with technology at its centre,” explained Gurprur. “Teaching should not be limited to just Indian law. For instance, if I’m teaching family law, it should not be limited to Indian families. Two percent of our population sends remittances from all over the world. Now, we’ll have to focus on their laws and requirements, due to the globalised nature of Indian families.”

“It’s a positive initiative but there are challenges,” added Jayaram. “When the market was opened in 1994, there were a lot of challenges pertaining to intellectual property rights, etc. We had to update ourselves in terms of curriculum and approaches when it came to teaching and learning. We will have to do the same now.”

Safeguarding law school interests

Academics said that the BCI should ensure that opportunities arising from this change are not all seized by a few top law schools. “There should be a democratisation of opportunity,” said Gurpur.

Experts also hope that BCI will look into skill development more seriously. Leading law schools can rely on high-achieving alumni to provide training and expertise, but that is not the case for most others.

Also readHow top law colleges are taking a new approach to legal aid

“Global cross border transactions and contract drafting is a very important skill. I wanted to conduct a workshop for this and I couldn’t find a resource person. Now, a lot of our alumni who are in this field come and train the students. All of us who lead law schools have this past capital but others don’t. This kind of skill building needs to be encouraged by the BCI,” said Gurpur.

Plus, there is a need for greater standardisation of infrastructure and resources across law schools. “How many law schools have dedicated computer labs and computer teachers? Legal technology needs to move forward. Otherwise, there would be a digital divide and inequality within the legal profession and only 20 law schools out of the 1,800 will be able to use these opportunities,” said Gurpur.

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