International -- The Stars of Asia -- Opinion Shapers
N.R. Madhava Menon (int'l edition)
Founder -- National Law School -- India
It started 12 years ago in Bangalore. With a $150,000 government grant, N.R. Madhava Menon launched India's National Law School with 40 students and nine teachers who taught Harvard Law School's case-study method. Now the school is flooded with 3,000 applications a year but has space for 80. Its graduates are eagerly snapped up by law firms from Bombay to Wall Street.
Menon, 65, is almost single-handedly introducing pride and confidence to India's disreputable legal profession. It's a slow process, but he's hoping graduates will start to change India's atrophied legal system, much of which is based on laws dating back to the British colonial period. India has more than 30 million cases clogged in its courts, many for more than 20 years. "Half of India does not have access to justice for social and economic reasons," he laments.
Menon earned a reputation as one of India's most respected legal minds while teaching law at the University of Delhi in the 1960s. A chance encounter with a poor woman trying to get her husband released from prison left Menon frustrated with India's text-book education that made lawyers ill-equipped to deal with police and courts. So he set up India's first university-sponsored legal aid program. When India's Bar Council, worried about the deterioration of the country's legal competency, wanted to set up a law school outside the bureaucratic educational system, it turned to Menon. People thought he was crazy to risk his academic reputation for a startup. But students began bringing home national awards for excellence. Then Menon scored a key victory. In 1989, he lobbied politicians and won university status for his school--just days before his first class graduated.
Menon has been trying to retire to his hometown of Trivandrum for the last three years, but the government keeps asking him to launch more schools. He does so--and even became principal of one of them without taking a salary. That's a sign of a lawyer with a higher purpose.