First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued (or are pursuing) a post-graduate course from different schools across the world.

Akhil Chowdary Unnam
Akhil Chowdary Unnam

In this edition of the FPA, I do an e-mail interview with Akhil Chowdary Unnam who recently graduated with an LLM in Transnational Arbitration & Dispute Settlement (Class of ’18) from Sciences Po Law School.

Akhil, who completed an undergraduate degree in law from Osmania University (Class of ’17), is currently a Deputy Counsel at the International Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.  Here, he talks about starting early with LLM applications, the TADS course, and a whole lot more.

 

Given that you went for an LLM immediately after your undergrad, when did you start thinking about an LLM, and how long did you spend on the application process?

From my fourth year in law, that’s when I started to consider the possibility of pursuing an LLM. But to be completely honest, I had no idea which area to specialise in, all I knew was that I wanted to do a master’s degree abroad. That is where my work experience helped me. Since my undergrad college barely took five hours a day, I utilized the remaining time to intern in law firms. This helped me quickly discover where my interests lie and what my strengths are.

My time at my family law firm – Unnam Law Firm & Associates is where I realised that my interests lie in Arbitration. I quickly began my research into the LLMs in Arbitration and started to familiarise myself with the application process. For someone who never left my home before, it was all overwhelming. I must say that I spent a good part of the year trying to understand the admission process, preparing my personal statement, my resume and getting the recommendation letters together etc. It took close to 3 months for me just to perfect my personal statement.

For someone who never left my home before, it was all overwhelming. I must say that I spent a good part of the year trying to understand the admission process, preparing my personal statement, my resume and getting the recommendation letters together etc.

I used various websites which compared different LLMs as my starting point and then started digging into their websites. One other thing that helped me greatly was talking to the alumni of the LLMs. This gave me an insider perspective into the university and also helped me gauge job opportunities. I scoured the internet for articles on how to make a perfect application. I also took advice from family and friends who already did a master’s degree.

One of the most time consuming and tricky part was collecting the supporting documents from my University at home. Since each LLM has its own special requirements, I had some trouble collecting all the necessary certificates from my home University. The fact that I was making my application during my end of my fourth-year undergrad made it very difficult to get all the necessary certificates. This emphasises the importance of starting early so that you are not caught off guard in case you miss something or the LLM admissions committee requests additional documentation.

What were the other law schools that you looked at, and what made you narrow down on SciencesPo?

I looked into the MIDS program in Geneva, Queen Mary University in London, and Stockholm University. My decision to narrow down to the LLM in Transnational Arbitration and Dispute Settlement (TADS as we call it) at Sciences Po was primarily influenced by the structure of the program, the faculty, its proximity to ICC and its presence in Paris. I looked at TADS program and realised that it struck the perfect balance between academic learning, practical training and a university of excellence, that was exactly what I wanted.

The aspect of the program that really attracted me was that there was an option to skip writing a master’s thesis and do an internship. Yes! This is what made the decision for me. Moreover, Paris is, arguably the capital of international arbitration and a chance to be trained in Paris by the best scholars and practitioners was simply too good an opportunity to miss.

Studying the TADS in Paris

The aspect of the program that really attracted me was that there was an option to skip writing a master’s thesis and do an internship. Yes! This is what made the decision for me. Moreover, Paris is, arguably the capital of international arbitration and a chance to be trained in Paris by the best scholars and practitioners was simply too good an opportunity to miss.

Did you apply for any sort of financial aid?

Yes, there are two scholarships that I applied to. The first one was the scholarship that Campus France offers for the living expenses and the second one was the financial aid that the LLM envisages. Unfortunately, I couldn’t secure either of the two scholarships. Thankfully, I had my family to support me financially.

One of the more challenging aspects of the application is the Personal Statement – any advice on how one ought to go about writing it?

The trick is to start early and have as many eyes as possible on it. The Personal Statement is not just an important part of the application, but it is the most important part of your application.

It took me close to three months to perfect my Personal Statement, and I was still afraid that it wasn’t enough. I have to share an incident here. Initially, I got some rejections from some universities. Naturally, this put me down for a while. But I picked myself up and went back to the drawing board. I reviewed all my documentation – my resume, personal statement etc., and realised that I made some minor but important errors that affected my candidature. This proves my earlier point on how important it is to have the opinion of your peers, your supervisors, your family on your personal statement and resume.

In the process of making the application, you work on your personal statement and resume for months together and after a while, naturally your eye stops detecting mistakes and everything looks rosy and picture perfect. If you start experiencing this at any stage of your application process, immediately take a step back and get a second opinion of a fresh set of eyes on your work. You would want your mistakes to be pointed out at home rather than at the admissions committees.

On the TADS, you have written about the “practical training workshops” – could you describe what these workshops are like?

The workshops are a carefully curated set of practical training sessions with the best practitioners in the top-tier law firms and arbitral institutions. TADS program was designed in such a way that it put us directly in contact with the Partners, Heads of International Arbitration and Associates of the top tier law firms like Linklaters, Clifford Chance, White and Case, Shearman and Sterling, Quinn Emanuel, Hogan Lovells, Dechert, Bredin Prat, Gide etc.

The workshops enabled us to have the hands-on experience of all the aspects of international arbitration. We had workshops on Drafting Arbitration Provisions, Selecting Arbitrators, Advocacy in Transnational Arbitration, Pre & Post Arbitral Litigation, Interim Measures, Evidentiary Issues in International Arbitration, Cross-Examination of Witnesses & Experts, Gathering Evidence in Transnational Litigation, Working with (economical, technical and legal) Experts, Evidence, Energy Arbitration. We also had a workshop on the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the ICC Arbitration Week- a week-long practical training session in the ICC.

For me, the ICC week was the highlight of all the workshops, we not only got trained on ICC arbitration by the members of the Secretariat, but we also got a chance to observe a plenary session of the ICC Court of Arbitration. By the end of the year, we were not only well rounded but completely prepared to deal with all the challenges that our work throw at us. It is safe to call these 100+ hours of workshops as a mini-internship.

By the end of the year, we were not only well rounded but completely prepared to deal with all the challenges that our work throw at us. It is safe to call these 100+ hours of workshops as a mini-internship.

How did you go about securing a position in the International Chamber of Commerce, and could you tell me a bit about what a typical workday involves?

It was my dream to work for ICC when I left for Paris. In fact, as I said previously, ICC’s presence was one of the key reasons that influenced my decision to apply for TADS. I began my attempts to secure an internship in ICC right after I began my LLM. I was always on ICC’s website waiting for an opportunity to show up.

Finally, in December 2018 the applications for an internship began and I made my application right away. I was called for an interview a few weeks later. I was very nervous but gave my best shot and I got the good news a few weeks later. During my internship, I was assigned to the Middle East case management team and the management (Secretary General, Deputy Secretary General and Managing Counsel). Halfway through my internship, I was called to interview for the present position as a Deputy Counsel in the Singapore case management team. Thankfully, all went well and here I am.

On a typical workday, my role as a Deputy Counsel involves both legal and administrative tasks such as: reviewing and processing requests for arbitration and other documents filed by parties, arbitrators and others during arbitration proceedings; preparing agendas (memoranda) briefing the International Court of Arbitration on decisions it is required to take; correspondence and telephone conversations with parties and arbitral tribunals concerning all aspects of case management, answering general queries about the ICC arbitral process, monitoring the financial aspects of the arbitrations handled by the team etc.

Last question – any advice for Indian law grads who are looking to do an LLM abroad? 

Hard work, perseverance and integrity, with these three, one can achieve anything. Pick a field that you are very interested in, an LLM is a big commitment, it is not to be taken lightly. If you pursue something that you are interested in, the hard work will not be too daunting.

You will come across naysayers who say that the field you choose is not viable or does not have a future, pay no heed. Every field has its own speciality and potential, it is also important to pick an LLM that suits your plans. For example, someone who wishes to become an academician needs to take a different path than someone who wants to become a practising lawyer.

You will come across naysayers who say that the field you choose is not viable or does not have a future, pay no heed. Every field has its own speciality and potential, it is also important to pick an LLM that suits your plans.

Please also keep in mind that, while an LLM multiplies your career opportunities, it does not guarantee you a job. The reason is that, when you pursue a career in an international arena, you are competing with not just the students in that country but everyone else in the world in the same field.

Weigh in your finances, your academic interests and career opportunities while taking a decision to pursue an LLM. Parting advice, do not give up easy, rejections are part of the game, find a way to pick yourself up and get back into the game!

 

End Notes

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.