Online key to widening access to overseas legal education

The Bar Council of India’s decision in March 2023 to allow firms to practise foreign law in India has come at an opportune time, creating the possibility for closer links between the Indian legal sector and its counterparts across the globe.

The economic benefits for firms and lawyers will be substantial, with Indian lawyers gaining increased international exposure and foreign lawyers gaining access to one of the largest legal markets in the world for the first time. But there is another group who will benefit hugely: Indian law students.

Historically, there has been no shortage of Indian students heading overseas for an education. In the United Kingdom in 2022, for example, 139,539 student visas were awarded to Indian citizens, while the total number of Indian students studying overseas is expected to surpass 1.5 million in 2023.

However, although these numbers look significant, when the 1.4 billion-strong population of India is taken into account, it becomes apparent that an overseas education is an option for only a select few in India.

This is unsurprising considering the higher cost of courses for overseas students, with the price typically starting at around £20,000 (US$25,400) a year, a cost that is increased for Indian students by unfavourable exchange rates.

Students are also forced to move abroad and often lose access to their support networks as a result. Others may be forced to give up, or pause, their careers to pursue their studies, further increasing the financial burden.

How can an online education help?

A legal education is hugely desirable. Studying law offers students the chance to set themselves up for a prosperous and respected career, gaining professionally valuable skills in the process. Unfortunately, it is also unaffordable for the majority, particularly in developing economies such as India.

However, an online education opens doors that would otherwise have remained closed. Studying online is invariably far less expensive than following traditional routes. The only equipment needed at both ends is a computer and an internet connection, compared with the various costs of campus study like travel, accommodation and higher course fees.

Remote learning also allows for a more flexible approach. Students are able to learn according to a schedule that suits them rather than having to attend classes at set times. As a result, learners can study without needing to give up full-time work or move across the globe.

Not only does that help students, but it also gives those already in work the chance to earn new qualifications. This is particularly beneficial for the legal sector. In the UK, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has embraced a forward-looking approach to learning online and currently the entirety of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam can be studied and assessed overseas, with the exception of the SQE2 oral assessment.

This makes it possible to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales entirely remotely, save for the few days required to sit the SQE2 oral assessment in the UK. There are plans to host the SQE2 oral assessment at international venues in the future. This will allow Indian lawyers to cross-qualify without having to surrender their practice in India, with potentially huge benefits for both the Indian legal sector and its English counterparts.

There are many similarities between the English and Indian legal systems, with both making extensive use of common law, which should foster closer links between UK and Indian lawyers that are much more straightforward.

Closer links will help both sectors

Closer links will enable lawyers in both jurisdictions to learn from seeing how their counterparts do things. This is a great advantage in a quickly changing world. There will also be considerable wider benefits to both economies. English law is one of the UK’s most valuable exports and increasing the number of lawyers qualified to practise it will help it maintain its pre-eminent position in the global legal pecking order.

It should also underline London’s position as the arbitration centre of choice for global disputes, particularly because the popularity of virtual and hybrid hearings continues to grow in the post-pandemic era. Simultaneously, this will enable Indian lawyers who are cross qualified to accept work arbitrating international disputes in the London courts, increasing the work available to the Indian legal sector.

Representation matters

When discussing how the legal sector can be improved, the focus tends to be on lawyers themselves. However, it is important to focus on the everyday people who actually use the legal system. For these people, their interaction with the legal system is often a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, but also one that can have a massive impact on the rest of their lives.

This is concerning because, in part due to the ongoing war for talent and skills shortages, hiring a lawyer is a hugely expensive proposition – one that is even further out of reach for most – more than a traditional legal education. The result is that many are forced to either represent themselves or to give up their case without ever pursuing it.

Increasing access to a legal education will also increase access to the legal system, helping to ensure that those who need a lawyer are able to afford one.

A new era of education

It is clear then that opening up access to legal education benefits everyone. Sadly, the traditional model of classroom learning has been too restrictive, and for too long locked out too many talented people. As such, the advent of remote learning, made possible by recent technological progress, should be welcomed as a powerful method of breaking down these barriers.

Technology has the potential to provide anyone, anywhere, with the highest class of education. Soon every single learner will be able to access constant, bespoke support in a manner previously thought unimaginable.

Dino Dullabh is co-founder and director of strategy at Law Training Centre, United Kingdom.