By: Dr Surat Singh, Harvard & Oxford Educated Supreme Court Lawyer

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How to Develop Competence as an Effective Lawyer  – What do they teach you at Top Universities like Harvard & Oxford ?


When I started this course, I emphasized upon 7 qualities of a Top Lawyer and how to cultivate them. Many students have approached me after the class to speak a little about what do they teach at Harvard & oxford. So in this lecture, I am going to explain what are the 5 most important qualities / skills they teach to develop you as an effective individual and as an effective lawyer.

For the sake of convenience, they all start with the alphabet ‘E’ so I call them 5 Es.

1. Empowerment

Top Universities of the world are interested in empowering you. They emphasize on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. They are more interested in knowing what is right with you rather than what is wrong with you. They inspire you to find your signature strengths and provide encouragement, equipments, empathy and environment so that that you can become your best self.

For this purpose they bring top players of your field. For example, at Harvard Law School, we were thought by Top Supreme Court Lawyer like Professor Larry Tribe;  or at Oxford by Top Thinkers like Ronald Dworkin or at Harvard, Supreme Court Judges were invited to interact with you. Being with a winner, makes you a winner. Can you imagine that Pierre Trudeau, former Prime Minister and father of present Prime Minister of Canada teaching a Course at Harvard on the future of Liberalism. Seeing these great people in-person you realize how humble they are despite their greatness. Such exposure gives you both humility and humanness and high example to follow. In one word, they empower you by their empowering presence. The idea of this Advanced Course is the same. By bringing Top Lawyers and Top Judges to interact with you so that you can have first hand experiences of the thought processes of these Top Players of your field.

2. Encouragement for Independent Thinking

Top universities encourage you. As I mentioned above, they are more interested in discovering your strengths rather than highlighting weakness as we do in India. They want you to focus on your strengths and make you aware of your weaknesses and then they give constructive feedback as to how your strengths can be strengthened further and weaknesses can be minimized.

Let me give one example, I took a Course of American Legal History by Top Historian Professor Morton Horowitz at the end of the semester, it was a take home examination. The question paper was given 09:00 AM and you were to give your answers by 05:00 PM. During these 8 hours you can take the question paper at home or library or wherever you choose. You can consult any book or article or notes but the idea is that you have to answer these questions by yourself. It is not a test of your memory but your understanding and discriminating intelligence to identify the core issues and addressing them.

I took the paper, wrote answers. After evaluating answer books they were given back to us to see for ourselves. I got B+ which is very good by Harvard Standards but some students got A or A+. I wanted to know how they have done differently. I fixed an appointment with Professor Horowitz. On appointment time he was ready with A+ answer books and he asked me to see those answer books and figure out the difference by myself. I noticed that these A+ students have not written anything new that I didn’t know. They have pointed out both the strengths and weaknesses of professor’s, on theory of history. I also knew that. But I wrote only those qualities which were in favour of the professor. By contrast, these A+ students pointed out limitations of professor’s thinking and pointed out the areas of future development of the field. I knew about limitations of professor theory but out of fear of failure, I did not point them out. I learnt an important lesson how to respect an authority figure like Professor and yet question him intelligently. He taught me independent thinking. An extract from my Harvard Doctors of Laws thesis is attached to explain what did I learn from my Harvard Law School studies.

3.Eagerness to Enquire

Whether it is Harvard or Oxford, they encourage eagerness to inquire about your subject of inquiry. For example, at Oxford there is a world famous tutorial system of education. Imagine a person like Professor Dwarkin assigns you an essay weakly on a topic like do we have natural rights?  How do we come to have them? Whether Right to privacy is a Natural Right or State created Right?

You are asked to write this essay and consult any book or books, articles. After as much reading or as little as you like, you write 10 pages essay. Your Professor will go through this essay with you word by word, asking questions like why do you say so? What is the evidence for your thinking? What are the other ways of looking at this question? How your way is the best way to tackle the issue?

The tutorial system is based on the hypothesis that to develop individual mind, you need to pay individual attention.

4. Equipping you with Practical Skills:

Top Universities provide you active education rather than passive education. You are given lot of projects so that your thinking skills, your writing skills, your speaking skills, your connecting with people skills, your celebration of life skills are exercised on regular basis. Aristotle used to say that we are what we habitually do; so excellence is not an isolated act but it is a habit. So by providing weekly, bi monthly, quarterly projects of writing papers speaking moot courts, thinking through your research projects, connecting with your classmates from more than 70 countries of the world and celebration of life through organizing weekly parties and picnics, they equip you with necessary skills needed to become an effective individual and an affable team player.

5. Education as a Life Long Process:

Top Universities do not fill up your mind with useless contents because life is dynamic and yesterday’s information may not be very relevant for today or for future. So memorizing old facts and archaic terms or undigested precedents do not prepare for your future. Future does not belong to second hand learned people but to first hand learners. So they teach you that best University of life is neither Harvard nor Oxford but the life itself. They encourage learning by doing. They encourage education  by interaction with the challenges and opportunities of life. The first Prime Minister of India, educated at one of the Top Universities of the world said something about life which is equally applicable to legal profession as well. Pandit Nehru said “ Life is a glorious adventure offering new possibilities and new challenges at every step.”

An extract from Dr. Surat Singh’s S.J.D. Thesis for Harvard Law School


Let me start with my personal experience in studying the discipline of law. I came to study law at Delhi Law School in India in 1978 with a brief that my legal education would provide me with insights as to how laws are made, what factors and forces bring about changes in them, and how we can lay down fair and just laws which would secure the guarantees of freedom and justice to everyone. But to my utter dismay, under guise of “thinking like a lawyer” my law school emphasized the “black letters of law” devoid of any understanding of political, economic, social context which gave birth and shape to the letters of law. Whenever I demanded my teachers to show me the relevance of “black letters of law” to the Indian context – their typical response was that under “separation of powers” – policy decisions are made by legislative and executive wings of the government whereas the judiciary is supposed to “interpret the laws”. More often than not, this interpretation was the literal interpretation of the text. Not very infrequently I noticed that the text was interpreted inconsistently and the “official” explanation did not tell me the whole story and it was difficult to make sense out of inconsistent decisions of the court. Such was my deference for the authority figure, that instead of questioning the wisdom of the decision of the court, I tried very hard to rationalize them and to make sense out of incoherent, conflicting, paradoxical decisions of the court. There were few honorable exceptions like Professor P.K. Tripathi, who made us question the decisions of the court, yet they were rare exceptions. The majority of the law teachers were satisfied to analyze the black letter of the law without examining the background assumptions of these judgments and without inquiring into whether these judgments made any sense in the Indian context.

Then I came to Harvard Law School in 1984. Like any other human institution, Harvard is far from perfect and much remains to be desired. Yet it did help me in raising certain fundamental questions about the law. I do not know what impact Harvard Law School had on others but for me; (coming from a traditional society) it was a journey from credulity to skepticism, from easy faith to rigorous analysis, from servile conformity to respectful questioning.