Research is important for human life. The idea that one must think and analyse realities instead of merely accepting what is seen or observed is a healthy notion and societies have developed research skills with time. Often what happens is that the connotation towards research thinking shapes with time, and advances with time. Yet, it depends how research trends grow and how people as human beings become the stakeholders of research.
When it comes to India's legal fraternity, the research landscape has been quite bleak and it has become necessary to address the narrative of enabling legal research as a must skill for law students and professionals. In this article, I have critiqued the real-time state of legal research in India, with perspectives on how institutions, governments and individuals contribute to the same, with some real propositions.
Researching vs "Paraphrasing" Indian Legal Literature
Research, in general, due to its roots in the academia, cannot be disjointed from education. Even in the case of corporate research, the element of research skill requires specific educative measures and it is obvious to discern that while education and research are distinguishable, they are not separable from each other. This is where we have to understand the realities and problems associated with India's legal research landscape.
For starters, India's legal education is subject to its socio-economic realities. To be honest, the higher education landscape of law in India can be judged by estimating how worse the education landscape is for any social science subject. Now, people or any person might say that law is a technical field. However, it cannot be denied that people neither teach nor study law as a technical field (at least a majority of them and not everyone). In fact, legal education in many higher education institutions is mediocre as if the educationists hate social science and law. The problem lies with this rote learning mentality but another problem which exists is how the perception is taken forth. The problem is that law and social sciences as fields are not taken seriously and considered as outliers. Many still think that studying an LLB course is merely a formality like a BA course. Let's take a simple example.
Now, what is researching in law? It means you have to analyse questions of law and research their scope, value and extent in order to suggest legal prescriptions. Researching literally means to contribute something distinctive if not innovative. However, Indian law in many areas, including public law, fails to evolve because many legal notions and concepts are merely "paraphrased". This happens because of a fallacious perception shared that all legal knowledge is confined in bare acts, commentaries, academic journals, and text books. So the notion has become that if you are not able to find any source for certain ideas, you cannot even propose the idea. This for sure does not happen in major law schools across India which are flourishing. However, in many (or most) law colleges and law schools, the reality cannot be avoided.
Plus, it is also observed that the model of National Law Schools and Government Law Colleges, upto a limit of capacity can build individuals who can help elite institutions including the Union Government and other State Governments. Beyond that, I do not think NLUs and GLCs can have a mass-level impact to build legal professionals that could be so much helpful. There is nothing unjust about this reality because this happens with the IITs, IIITs, NITs and even the IIMs as well. Mass-level education and skill generation is needed which must be backed by market formalisation and not mere government actions. Perhaps that need a unique approach towards enabling legal education anyways. Nevertheless, legal research is not rote learning and must be dealt as a critical skill.
Research as a Skill is Precious
Now, research as a skill may be considered limited because of a perception that it is useful merely for writing papers, reports and documents. However, legal research in general is multi-purpose and is at the heart of career building. It also reflects an individual's dedication towards learning concepts and ideas to solve problems. As former L Nageswara Rao, former Supreme Court Judge (India) had said:
A lawyer should become a problem solver, a conflict manager. Litigation is only a subset of lawyering skills.
While predatory publications and journals exist in India, and many law students, scholars and professionals in India find it hard to publish genuine work, research must be regarded as an explorative and helpful skill to build career opportunities. This begins with multiple avenues by recognising the problems that exist with Indian higher education and expanding the purpose of lawyering. A market-centric approach has to be a must for someone who enters the legal profession, where they should develop legal research skills not to merely "write papers" and "projects", but to solve complex problems, by doing any of it: solving, understanding or analysing. When research basics are strong, they help in build other sub-skills or additional skills in line with career and legal domain choices.
For example, a good tax law researcher will try to understand certain aspects of tax accounting. Another example could be someone in the field of intellectual property law, where a person well-versed with the application of IP rights, can also understand the economics behind the product/service/invention. There are such soft skills which come in naturally when one considers enhancing research skill an important task. It is very much reasonable to care about developing legal research skills beyond writing and drafting skills (which have their own value and purpose, of course).
Market and Domain Choice
For a law student, who has to opt legal fields for their career purposes, one may suggest to learn some basic fields such as constitutional law, contract law, international law and others and then opt for those 3-5 fields for building an effective legal career. Now, in many law colleges, due to the old nature of the curriculum, law students do not get that opportunity to shape their learning trajectory in that way. It could be suggested that while certain aspects of the Bar Council of India syllabus may remain mandatory to study, it should be a must that for the last 2 years of a 3-year LLB course and the last 3 years of a 5-year (or 7-year) integrated LLB course - colleges may open up options for the counselling of students to let them choose those 3-5 areas of law in which they would like to build up their careers. They can still opt for some mandatory courses to be taught but students must be given the choice to choose those courses which serve their purpose.
There is another aspect connected with research skills and career choices - internships. For any law student who has to undergo internships, I would like to recommend that a soft regulation approach could be very much reasonable. The reason is that internship duration during a summer or winter vacation might not work in the case of many colleges, and when many colleges fail to offer skill-based legal education, they must let students opt for internships, virtual or physical or hybrid. There is no need to create hardcore standards but a soft and flexible approach on letting students intern at offices would be very helpful to keep their research skills being evolved. If obviously students are not interning or diverting from their commitments, colleges can take action and examine the matters accordingly. However, having stringent guidelines do not help much here.
A third aspect to discuss is market preferences. Students have a FOMO problem where they fear by finding out how other students choose certain legal domains, skills or internship opportunities, only to imitate them for some "social circle" or "isolation" reasons. This is not the right approach because people have their own skill sets and interests. They must be passionate about what they wish to work on and cannot have a "one-size-fits-all" approach. They must opt for any opportunity - an internship, a research work, a competition or anything they wish to, which is reasonable to their suited needs. A herd approach towards this is problematic, and if such an approach is taken, a student does not even know if the things they have opted help them to grow. This also downgrades their research skills, which then ruins their career opportunities due to an obvious reason - your research skills get disoriented and you get confused unless in exceptions, you do have versatile skills and experience to understand every legal field, quite simply. Building skill specialisation is necessary and students must avoid having the Fear of Missing Out to orient their legal research skills effectively.
Research as a Service Sector Economy
New research shows that research in many fields including social science is becoming less disruptive. Due to the money and job security factors that involve academic research, since publishing in an indexed journal is necessary in many institutions, a lot of people frankly do not even read the research. Here is an insight from an article written by Daniel Lattier:
About 82 percent of articles published in the humanities are not even cited once for five years after they are published.
Of those articles that are cited, only 20 percent have actually been read.
Half of academic papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, peer reviewers, and journal editors.
In fact, research is not merely driven by outputs. The people who contribute to a research economy, are fundamental to those outputs received. In an article on research as a service sector economy, Paul Nightingale and Rebecca Vine discuss certain important points:
If research isn’t valuable for generating transferable discoveries, why is it so valuable in an information-intensive service economy? One reason research is so important, is that as the economy has changed and demand for experts has increased. As we noted in a Treasury report over 20 years ago, often the most valuable output of research is ‘talent, not technology’. The ‘post-graduate premium’ that having a Masters qualification adds to starting salaries is evidence of this. But why is expertise so valuable? Experts don’t just know more than novices, they understand things differently, drawing on more abstract, ‘deeper’ representations. Research on chess-grandmasters, for example, shows that they understand chess piece configurations by seeing patterns. They can see a Sicilian defence, while novices just see a selection of chess pieces. Their expertise enables them to configure chess positions more effectively and solve problems more rapidly. They draw different conclusions than novices, typically starting closer to more robust solutions, finding solutions faster, and exploring fewer dead-ends.
Another article published by Nature explains about the state of PhDs across the world as of 2022 and 2023:
Universities in a small number of high-income countries have reformed, or are reforming, PhD assessment. But in most places, and especially in low- and middle-income countries, a candidate’s work is still evaluated using a single-authored dissertation. This is ‘defended’ before a scholarly panel in what is still sometimes called a viva voce (‘with living voice’ in Latin), a nod to its nineteenth-century origins. And in many countries, candidates must publish in a journal before they get a PhD, something that critics say could fuel predatory publishing.
Now, consider these excerpts and take India into perspective. Legal research is a valuable economy, which has its own value attached. However, not diversifying the purpose of research skill creates monotonous professions which has 2 opposite sides - one, that you have a herd of people in the most "popular" fields of law doing nothing significant and the other, that you now have so many specialisation groups that the purpose of distinctive research groups gets lost since most of the "specialisation groups" do not offer anything productive or useful. In both the cases, the field of law is downgraded and most suffer. This is why it is important to take legal research as a serious skill. Also, research writing or legal writing is very different from legal research, because the presentation of research can be a subordinate skill, additional skill or a soft skill depending on the nature of tasks. Thus, it is futile to consider that research or legal research itself as a skill would not help you in building your careers.
How Language Models Change Legal Research Trends
We might think that ChatGPT could be useful (I have discussed the same in this article). However, AI itself would not change things for you. Nor it would be the case that AI would replace lawyers. In certain cases - AI may help because you may automate your writing and template development work to these language models. Otherwise, it sometimes becomes a challenge if crisp writing and analysis is needed, or too much descriptive analysis is a need in presenting research. Sometimes, presenting things in the form of analogies and not a story-like or description-based narrative in research works could be really helpful. The reason I am pointing this dichotomy out is because - there is a grown and overblown misperception (some even consider it a soft skill) that just because you write long enough, you are filling up the pages for a "research". While description is required, how you write a research paper or howsoever and wherever you present your research, is actually limited by your perception of the audience. For example - you as a PhD scholar would write a paper that journal peer reviewers and the "scholarly" audience even understands. Does it work for industry professionals? Not necessarily. If you are drafting a compliance analysis report on M&A (for example), do you need to be poetic or too much descriptive, theoretical and flamboyant when it comes to your writing? Not at all. You have to be specific. In fact, that is exactly what Indians expect from court orders and judgments that like it is the case in the UK and US (even the EU and Singapore), Indian courts must avoid authoring judgments which are - for no reason - 600 pages long (although there are strategic and governance "purposes" why certain judgements and their interpretive and descriptive portions are so long). It is also about the peer group associated with you. That is not something which an AI can tell. Hence, while disruptive tech solutions are being used, I propose that people should focus on crisp and succinctly descriptive writing approaches, as the soft skills complementary to their legal research skills. If they approach it that way, it works and they can attain skill mobility, on a positive note.
To conclude, research is a broad term that encompasses various forms of inquiry and investigation. While publishing papers is one way to disseminate research findings, it is not the only way. Research can also involve developing new products or technologies, improving existing processes or systems, or contributing to the growth and development of industries and markets. The goal of research is to generate new knowledge, insights, and understanding that can be used to improve the world around us.
Research is like planting a seed, it takes time and effort to grow, but the end results can be bountiful. Just like planting a seed in the ground, research involves identifying a problem or area of interest, gathering information and data, and then using that information to generate new ideas and solutions. These solutions can take many forms, from new products and technologies to improved processes and systems.
For example, imagine a legal researcher who wants to study the impact of a new trade agreement on foreign investment. They would have to start by researching the agreement's text, understanding its provisions, and analyzing how it would affect the rights of investors and the host country. They would have to research the relevant legal principles and doctrines such as the fair and equitable treatment, and the most favored nation clause. Then, they would have to look for case law or arbitration awards to see how similar provisions have been interpreted in the past and how they are applied in practice. After gathering all the relevant information, the researcher would then be able to provide recommendations on how to improve the legal framework to better protect the rights of all stakeholders.
In fact, a legal researcher with expertise in investment law could have a variety of career opportunities in both the legal and non-legal fields. Some examples include (in descending order):
Academia: Teaching and conducting research in investment law at universities and research institutions typically requires a high level of expertise and knowledge in the field, as well as a graduate degree such as a PhD.
Law firm: Providing legal advice and representation to clients on investment-related issues typically requires a law degree and a strong understanding of investment law.
In-house legal counsel: Advising a company on legal matters related to foreign investment and trade typically requires a law degree and experience in investment law.
International organizations: Providing legal and policy analysis on investment-related issues at organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or the United Nations typically requires a graduate degree and expertise in investment law.
Government: Providing legal and policy analysis on trade and investment issues in government agencies typically requires a graduate degree and expertise in investment law.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): Providing legal and policy analysis on investment-related issues and advocating for human rights, environmental, and social responsibility standards in investment at NGOs typically requires a graduate degree and knowledge in investment law.
It's worth noting that some opportunities may require a law degree, while others may not. Some positions may require more experience or expertise than others, and some may be more suitable for someone who is just starting out or still growing in their knowledge and skill in any legal field.
What do you think?
My team at the Vidhitsa Law Institute of Global and Technology Affairs (VLiGTA) believes that people deserve to understand how to chart their career paths and shape their research skills as the integral element of their career.
So, here is a request. We are taking a feedback survey to understand the aspirations of Young Indian law students, scholars and professionals where you can express which legal skills would you like to opt and how do you understand shaping your career trajectory. We'd be indebted to your insights and feedback.