Molina Asthana
Molina Asthana

I came across Molina Asthana’s profile while looking for Indian law graduates who had made the shift to Australia. And the more I read about her, the more I thought she would make for a good interview for Amicus Partners.

A lawyer practicing in Delhi, Molina moved to Australia in 2004. A masters from Melbourne Law School was followed by stints at two top-tier law firms, being on the Board of the Law Institute of Victoria, and also becoming the Vice President of the Asian Australia Lawyers Association. Amongst other things.

I spoke to her on legal education, the utility of a LLM from the perspective of an Indian law grad, and law firms in general. Here are some edited excerpts from the interview.

First off, you do devote a lot of time to non-legal forums such as women in sports, the CommonWealth games, Melbourne University etc – how on earth do you get the time for this?

It depends on your passion. When you have a passion for something you will find the time to do it, no matter how hectic your schedule. I am passionate about creating greater diversity and inclusion for everyone in mainstream Australian community and I find that a lot of my work intersects as well so in doing one thing, I am also creating value for another.

I also find that more things that you have to juggle, the more likely you are to do them as you have no option. Whereas when you have much time on your hands you tend to procrastinate and not accomplish much.

I know it has been a while, but what were some of the bigger differences in the learning experience at MLS as compared to your time as a law student in India?

Indian legal studies still follow the rote learning technique. I remember that we had to remember case names, citations etc. There was little practical application. Whereas in Australia it is about application of principles. We had open book exams, take home exams or essays, based on either hypotheticals or analysis of cases.

In Australia it is about application of principles. We had open book exams, take home exams or essays, based on either hypotheticals or analysis of cases.

Also, when I did my law degree from Campus Law Centre, we did not have any regular moots or similar competitions and not much in terms of gaining practical experience whilst studying. Whereas here in Australia, there is much emphasis on taking part in such activities and also study tours, short-term internships and practical learning, organising seminars etc. Student groups are very active here and engage with the profession at all levels. There is emphasis on mentoring, networking and the value of being part of organised groups/bodies.

I know things have changed in India since then and when I go and speak at conferences or law schools in India I find that the students are much more engaged and dynamic.

Any advice for Indian law grads who are looking at the Australian LLM as a means to enter the Australian legal industry?

I would definitely recommend a LLM from an Australian university as we have some of the best  universities in the world. Melbourne University is rated 7 in the world for law, only after Yale, Harvard etc. Monash is also very good, as well as ANU.  I think many Indian students are not aware of opportunities to do a masters in Australia and that it is a viable and cheaper option than some universities in UK and US.

However, I cannot assure anyone that it a means to enter the Australian Legal Industry. To be able to practice in Australia you have to either complete an undergraduate law degree or do almost 11 subjects again (if you have done your law degree from India).

Melbourne Law School
“I think many Indian students are not aware of opportunities to do a masters in Australia and that it is a viable and cheaper option than some universities in UK and US.”

The masters does not help to get a job in itself. It may be useful only if you have done the local qualification or re-qualification. Further there are too many law graduates coming out locally every year and they are struggling to find jobs and it is much harder for overseas qualified lawyers.

The masters does not help to get a job in itself. It may be useful only if you have done the local qualification or re-qualification. Further there are too many law graduates coming out locally every year and they are struggling to find jobs and it is much harder for overseas qualified lawyers.

I think there are far more opportunities in India for Indian law graduates/lawyers who have completed a LLM overseas then there are in Australia as of now. In the future it may be different when we have reciprocity of recognition of legal qualifications between the two countries, something that I am also working towards.

So, my advice, looking at the current circumstances, would be to do a LLM degree here and then go back to India for better opportunities.

One of the interesting points in your interview with Louise Hvala, is how you used your own network to speak informally with potential recruiters. Do you think this aspect of networking is one that Indian law grads should focus on while in Australia for a LLM?

I think my point was to network to get opportunities directly with law firms. Most recruiters are also biased and would probably not put your name forward as they are not familiar with your qualifications, work experience etc.

I found contacts that got me interviews directly with partners and I was able to convince them the value I would bring to their law firm. I worked at the two top 5 law firms in Australia and in both places, it was because I met the partners directly. Though I moved on to the government after that to get more of a work life balance, I still stay in touch with them and with starting my own practice, I am now looking to work with some of the partners I worked for (deliberate emphasis on the words with and for) which means I’ve come full circle!

I always tell this story when I speak about my journey. When I started applying for jobs in Australia, I was told that my Indian degree and experience was not worth much. Recruiters said that it was unlikely that I will get a job at a top-tier or a mid-tier firm, so I should apply with smaller firms. A well-wisher told me that overseas qualified doctors were driving buses, so I shouldn’t get disheartened. Some went to the extent of telling me to give up my profession and start something afresh, even work at a call centre.

My first job was a top-tier firm. I then moved to another one, having rejected an offer from two other mid-sized law firms. Ironically, I got a call whilst there from a recruiter who had predicted I would never get a job with a top-tier and he said he had an opening at a boutique firm. When I told him, I was at [the top-tier firm] Minters [Ellison], he nearly collapsed.

I got a call whilst there from a recruiter who had predicted I would never get a job with a top-tier and he said he had an opening at a boutique firm. When I told him, I was at [the top-tier firm] Minters [Ellison], he nearly collapsed.

So, networking is important and finding a direct route works better than going through recruiters. Also, being proud of your heritage and confident in your background always holds you in good stead.

In the same interview, you also spoke about the highly competitive environment of law firms as one of the reasons you moved out of private practice. Do you see either Australian or Indian firms addressing this issue? Say, for instance, the mental health problems faced by lawyers?

I don’t think it is in the interest of law firms to address this issue. They are seeking to maximise revenues by using as little resources as they can and with market sizes reducing, particularly in a place like Australia, it is unlikely that they will do much to address this. In fact, in my time at the big firms I found that competitive behaviours were encouraged. This has led to isolation, depression and high rates of suicides in lawyers.

In my time at the big firms I found that competitive behaviours were encouraged. This has led to isolation, depression and high rates of suicides in lawyers.

I am now on the Board of the Law Institute of Victoria which is the peak body that governs the profession and one of our main concerns is the health and wellbeing in the professions, also for judges who are often under too much pressure. We also encourage law firms to address these issues. A lot of law firms have internal policies to address these issues and also free counselling services available, however practically I do not see them having much effect on general health and wellbeing. I also do not see much support systems that exist and I would like to see more being done in this space by law firms.

You are the Vice President of the Asian Australia Lawyers Association. Given that the legal profession tends to be a high-inertia one, how easy or difficult has it been to increase diversity in the legal profession and the judiciary? And any advice that could be used in the Indian scenario?

I have been a strong advocate for diversity in the profession not only because I want to see more lawyers from diverse backgrounds appointed to the bench or become senior lawyers in law firms but also because having that diversity is important for securing justice for litigants coming from these backgrounds. It is also imperative that judges are across cultural and cross-jurisdictional issues so that, like the old adage, justice is not only done but is seen to be done.

However, it is not an easy task to have achieve diversity in the legal profession, including the judiciary. The unconscious bias that people of diverse backgrounds face often translates into virtually no such people in the senior echelons of the legal profession. From the Australian perspective, diversity is not valued in the legal profession as compared to other professions or in indeed Australian society as a whole. Being different means that you had to try harder to prove yourself.

From the Australian perspective, diversity is not valued in the legal profession as compared to other professions or in indeed Australian society as a whole. Being different means that you had to try harder to prove yourself.

The legal profession in most Commonwealth countries has traditionally been the domain of the privileged. This phenomenon becomes pronounced in counties where the population is diverse and the under-representation of the changing demography leads to the perpetuation of the bamboo ceiling. There is much work for organisations like the Asian Australian Lawyers Association to address these issues and we do it through advocacy, lobbying with the Government, providing support and opportunities to lawyers of diverse backgrounds and constantly pushing our agenda.

In the Indian scenario, it plays out differently. Diversity is still an issue but it is more from the class perspective than people of different cultural backgrounds. Law is still a profession of the privileged and people who are from a ‘legal family’ are still likely to do better than those who are not, though with bright lawyers coming out of National Law Schools, things are changing. However, the profession still has a vast divide in terms of the highest paying lawyers, lawyers who are in the corporate sector and lawyers who practice in the lower courts and struggle to make ends meet.

To address this, there needs to be more homogeneity in the legal profession in India and the quality of legal education needs to improve as well. It should not be considered as a profession of last resort for people who cannot get into any other professional courses. The standards need to increase and there has to be compulsory Professional Development units that lawyers need to do every year to keep their practicing certificates.

To address this, there needs to be more homogeneity in the legal profession in India and the quality of legal education needs to improve as well. It should not be considered as a profession of last resort for people who cannot get into any other professional courses.

You mentioned that you always wanted to do an LLM but never really had the time. Would you recommend a foreign LLM to Indian law graduates?

I always did want to do an LLM when I was practicing In India and from an overseas jurisdiction, but I never could find the time to take a break from work to do it. However, I did an LLM from Melbourne University when I moved here, and I have to say it was the best thing that I have done in my life.

I enjoyed it thoroughly and I would recommend it to everyone. But I think it is useful to do an LLM only from a good university and after a few years of working in the legal sector because then you really get the most out of it. Also do it on a topic that is of interest to you.

I have also noticed that good Indian firms and corporates now prefer lawyers who have an LLM from a good university from overseas.  Of course, I have a bias towards Australia as I think it has some great law schools but doing an LLM degree from any good university overseas will definitely increase your job prospects in good firms both in India and overseas.

Of course, I have a bias towards Australia as I think it has some great law schools but doing an LLM degree from any good university overseas will definitely increase your job prospects in good firms both in India and overseas.

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