Dr. Nachiketa Mittal is the Founder & Director of India’s first Virtual Law School. He has being serving as Dean In-charge of the Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University, Gandhinagar. He was also formerly a faculty of law in the National Law University, Odisha from 2011-2019. During his service at NLUO, he was invited by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India to the Supreme Court of India as Assistant Registrar (Research) on deputation to assist the Chief Justice of India in research and planning in the Supreme Court. He served on this position from February 2016 till October 2018. Prior thereto, he completed his PhD from NLUO and his LLM from the NLSIU. Dr Mittal is regularly invited to speak at conferences in Indian and foreign universities. It is his rich exposure that he is putting to use in advancing the cause of the legal education through the online mode. EBC SCC Online Student Ambassador Prakhar Srivastava speaks to him about his journey as a law teacher and about his Virtual Law School.
- Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am Nachiketa Mittal, a law teacher. I started my teaching from the National Law University, Odisha. I have also worked with some of the leading civil societies like Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), Dehradun before joining academics. I have worked and taught mainly in NLU family institutions and have also served as a Dean of Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University Gandhinagar, which is a private law school. I am an LL.M alumnus of NLSIU, Bengaluru. Recently, I have started a Virtual Law School (India’s 1st) which is a first of its kind in the country. I started this during then national lockdown due to pandemic COVID-19 to teach hundreds of law students online who are untouched by quality legal education due to financial and geographical barriers. With the help of retired Supreme Court Judges, a sitting judge of a High Court, Senior Advocates of Supreme Court and Law Professors of NLUs and other universities, I have so far taught around 600 law students absolutely free (Pro Bono), for 6 weeks, 6 days a week and 5 hours a day. This was done following a syllabus and teaching pedagogy at par with any standard law school of the country. My goal is to facilitate quality legal education at very affordable cost for many such students and take quality legal education from the elite and the classes to the masses. My call for all law students is, “You might not have gone to your Dream Law School but you surely deserve the Best Quality Legal Education”. And Virtual Law School is committed to fulfill this gap in legal education through online means.
- That is very encouraging to hear. But why did you choose law over other disciplines?
I grew up in a family of teachers and journalists. So, humanities and social sciences were given a lot of importance at my home. That is how I was exposed to a lot of social issues, and taking up law came in as part of my natural interest based on my background. I was a first generation lawyer in my family. I first witnessed the gap between the law and its application during my very first internship at HRLN, Mumbai. During this time, I visited so many areas of Mumbai either to visit a court, prisons or for legal aid work. This experience made me understand how there are hundreds of people and several sections of the society untouched by the benefits of law and how law can be used in reducing their pain and suffering and can create a positive impact in society. That is when I realized law would remain to be my calling for the rest of my life.
- But when it comes to teaching, did you always know you wanted to be a teacher?
I grew up in a family full of teachers, not of law but other social science disciplines. So in a way, an instinct of a teaching was somewhere genetically engrained in me. But I joined active teaching after working in the social sector for a few years after completing my LL.M. in Human Rights from NLSIU. After, my Masters in Law, I started working with various civil societies in India. During one of my crucial assignments with a Dehradun-based well known NGO- RLEK, I worked as the Project Coordinator (National) and Principal Investigator for research and implementation projects on legal empowerment of women and marginalized communities in more than 150 villages of Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Punjab & Haryana and Rajasthan. At RLEK, I also used to supervise law interns from almost every law school of the country. This involved guiding them for empirical socio-legal research, witnessing their presentations, etc. This developed my interest in active law teaching. I also learnt that an experience of working at the grassroots will help in teaching law students and I can bridge the gap.
- Now, since you brought up the family element in one of your answers, I am curious to know your take on the long-standing belief that those who have people in their families from the legal background have it easy in the legal profession. What do you think about it?
Personally, I think few people who come from a lineage of family of lawyers may get some initial grooming and ready-made professional contacts to help. But it does not help all the time. It does not make it everything easy for such candidates. And on the other hand, many of them who are first generation lawyers have their own strengths. Firstly, they have a lot of hunger to prove themselves, to compete, to deliver the best, to find a place of recognition by their hard work and be known as individuals of merit. These are very strong points of first generation lawyers. For example, during my law, despite not having anyone lawyer in the family, I planned my internships by lots of trial and error methods and happily secured them in some of the leading law firms and law offices of the country. I could even secure a scholarship-based internship in International Bar Association, London, during my LL.M. I remember I had my first laptop and mobile phone when I went for LL.M. I never had a computer at home when I was growing up. But this did not deter me. I had very basic pocket money during LL.B. days and for most of my internships I used to send handwritten or typed letters. Access to internet cafe was quite expensive and that was used mostly for project making and sending applications abroad.
So we need to assess our strengths as well as limitations. Belonging to a lineage of law practicing family may give a head start to few but it never blocks the channels of opportunities for many others. This is essentially because we the first generation lawyers are in majority hitting on the doors of opportunities, luck and chances than some who might have inherited sometimes a legacy of a kind. So I see it as a unique natural balance. My advice to all first generation lawyers is your sheer perseverance, undiluted hard work, and mostly importantly, true diligence and integrity for work will always keep you ahead of everyone else. So, be ready to explore and trust yourselves.
- Let’s now talk a little more about teaching as a profession. There is still a common perception that teaching is the profession one must enter into when they have nothing else as an option especially in colleges that are not in the tier-1. What’s your take on this and how does it affect budding lawyers?
This may be true for few but legal academia is changing and we now see many young teachers joining for passion of teaching. Teaching may not anytime be at par with the corporate salary, hence, this remains a slight drawback in attracting many talented young minds because they opt for corporate or law firm job which helps them repay their education loans timely. But I have seen many examples where such candidates have returned to full time teaching after few years. However, there is another severe problem which I see inherently in the law schools including best of the NLUs taken together. That is, young law teachers are recruited but not provided adequate training and initial handholding to establish themselves as teachers acceptable as per the teaching standards. Instead, in majority of the NLUs and also private law schools, law teachers are recruited, subsequently subjects are allotted to them not necessarily according to assessment of their potential to teach. And they are sent to classrooms to teach. No doubt their fate is then decided by the student feedback. Some Faculty Development Programmes are conduced periodically but initial training of law teachers is completely absent in majority of the law schools in India.
What needs to be done is that experienced faculty members should be made to mentor the younger law teachers and to train them in teaching pedagogy and content development. Sadly, we do not see that happen at all.
- That is in fact a very different take; training teachers can be a big step forward. But do you not think that a lot of people in India are not joining the profession because the profession is not as financially rewarding, as, say, a corporate career?
As I said, financial consideration is surely one of the factors. This is essentially true with the escalated cost of legal education today. But there can be better ways to overcome these. Financial support can be provided by allowing law teachers to indulge in industry based consultancy and taking up research projects. These things are present in some law schools but mostly worked out in an ad-hoc manner. There is a lack of transparency in allotting research projects to one faculty as opposed to the other. In fact, majority of the NLUs supervised by the Chief Justices of the High Courts, who I call as “Chancellor Judges”, do not even have proper service rules in place. These all are governed in an ad-hoc manner by the Vice-Chancellors. So besides, financial barrier, law schools should act more professionally, transparently and be accountable in their operations to attract and retain effective law teachers.
- Let’s now talk a little about the Virtual Law School that you’ve started. Please tell our readers more about it.
Well as the name suggests, Virtual Law School is India’s first totally online law school that I started after the COVID-19 pandemic hit our country and the world at large. I had been working as the Dean of a private law school in Ahmedabad when the national lockdown happened due to rising crisis of pandemic. As the head of the institution, when we instituted online classes, I got to realize that there are several law students who do not have access to online legal education; either because they could not land up in a law school which can offer such facilities or their law schools just do not have adequate planning. But they are badly affected and would not be able to complete the semester based education with adequate learning. Having understood that, I left my job as a Dean and started this Virtual Law School for all the law students of the country.
It is a platform where retired judges of the Supreme Court, accomplished lawyers and law teachers from around the country have joined in to teach law students various subjects of law. And everyone has been teaching on a Pro Bono basis. During the lockdown, as I have mentioned earlier, I did not charge single paisa from any law student. To name a few, we were blessed to have been joined by Hon’ble Justice (Retd) A.K. Sikri and Hon’ble Justice (Retd.) Kurian Joseph, former judges of the Supreme Court who joined us in the inauguration and also delivered a lectures on different topics and subjects of law. One judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court has been teaching CrPC to our students. Likewise, various other renowned lawyers have given guest-lectures too, such as Senior Advocates- Mr. Kapil Sibal, Mr. Salman Khurshid, Dr. Abhishek Singhvi and also Mr. Prashant Bhushan.
Besides, we also help students enrolled with us secure internships with lawyers and professors, as a regular law school does.
So all in all, we are running a full-fledged law school, only the mode is online and we are not offering any degrees and diplomas at the moment. But we are offering certifications for all our courses and subjects studied with us.
- How can students enroll in the Virtual Law School?
We are coming up with various programmes for which students can register. We first started out with Pro-Bono classes, wherein students were taught totally free of cost. We ran three batches of the Pro Bono programme in which around 600 students enrolled and benefitted. Now, most recently, we have started, what we call, “Low Bono” Law Classes. As part of the same, students will be taught subjects of their choice from experts in the field at very affordable fee. One can register for these by visiting our website.
- How is the virtual law school going to be different from a regular law school other than only in terms of the means of communication?
Well, mode of communication is the basic point of distinction. However, there is another major point of difference and that is in terms of fee. At VLS, we are charging much less fee as compared to any regular law school but the standard of teaching is at par with any standard law school or even any standard NLU. So, at very low costs, students are getting the best of legal education.
- What happens in the post-COVID world. Right now, we are all at our homes, but once regular colleges begin functioning again, how does VLS stay relevant?
Being on the online mode allows us to be very flexible with time. Once things begin to get back to normal, one of the first things we will do is managing the timings of our lectures in such a way that they do not overlap with the regular timings of colleges. I understand that students are caught up with a large number of things in their law schools, such as moot courts, research papers, etc. We will try and manage our time in a way that we don’t clash with any of these. I am sure students who would enroll would want to continue even as their regular classes would begin.
- I also want to talk a little about the digital divide that exists in our country. There are a large number of students who would not have access to the internet or the infrastructure to study online. Do you have any plans for them?
I do understand that a digital divide exists in our country and thousands of students who would be willing to learn may not be able to do so due to this disconnect. However, for the moment, we are targeting those students who have access to the internet and are yet not able to learn either because their colleges aren’t offering online education or due to other reasons. For the moment, my goal is to ensure that quality education reaches at least such students. Of course, as time passes, I would love to do something to include more and more students, let’s see how. I am working on other projects for increasing internet based inclusiveness in teaching and learning.
- Now, running a law school also involves a proper evaluation system. How do you plan to conduct evaluations and assessments in the online space?
For the pro bono lectures that we started, we did not conduct any evaluations majorly because the pandemic was already very burdensome; we wanted it to be easy going and comfortable learning. However, I do acknowledge that evaluations are very important in a course like law. In fact, my understanding is that if you want to find out how good is a teacher, you must look at the question paper they prepare; it speaks volumes about the teacher’s qualities.
Accordingly, as time passes, we will devise a system for evaluation too. You see, online evaluation may be a new thing in India but is not so in the west and other parts of the world. It’s actually pretty common there. Likewise, we will also have some system that works best for our students.
- My last question to you would be, where do you see the Virtual Law School, say, a year from now?
Well, we are still in a nascent stage and it’s difficult to predict right now. However, my goal is to ensure that VLS gets recognized by the Bar Council of India as a full-fledged law school, established and run by law teachers. It’s a long journey but we are committed to serve the law students’ community.