Kanad Bagchi, is an Indian law graduate (KIIT Law School ’13) who is currently a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. In the first part of the interview, Kanad spoke about his decision to enrol for a master’s course, the application process, and his time at the Europa Institut as well as at Oxford University.

In the second part of the interview, we discuss legal academia, the BA LLB degree and the future of Indian law schools, working in India, and a whole lot more.

[Note from Kanad: Since the conversation with Anuj was rather impromptu, there are couple of things, which in hindsight and upon reflection, I believe could have been more coherently put. Hence, the transcripts are updated so as to make certain points clearer, that might have eluded the audio conversation. Finally, I speak mostly from my own set of experiences and fully understand that there are different ways one could approach the same process. So one has to make that process one’s own.]

When it came to the MLF applications, you must have been a seasoned campaigner.

At every stage I think I was getting better.

For instance, when I started out, a lot of my SoP was not reflective enough. The whole idea of an SoP is that you need to be reflective about your contributions. What is important is what you as a person have gained or learned from what you have done. Say winning a moot – if you can tell someone what you as a person specifically learned out of that whole process of the mooting – that is what they are looking for. It does not matter whether you won the moot or for that matter how prestigious the moot competition was. What matters is whether you came out as a different person from that experience.

The whole idea of an SoP is that you need to be reflective about your contributions. What is important is what you as a person have gained or learned from what you have done.

These are some of the things I picked up along the way.

Another thing is the Letters of Recommendation (LoR) – I think a lot of them don’t take this seriously.

I know. We get clients where the professors say, “You write the LoR, and I will sign it.”

I don’t know if that is a very healthy process. I understand that professors are always hard pressed for time. That is always the problem. But LoRs are important.

When you are applying for a foreign LLM, there is no interview process. The two ways in which a university can know you is through the SoP and through the LoR. Both of them need to be incisive about you as a person. Therefore, it does not matter ‘whom’ or how ‘big’ a professor or practitioner you take your LoR from, but what that person essentially writes in the LoR. How much does it really depict your strengths and your weakness and how minutely does it lay open your potential for research etc. So the suggestion is go after a person who knows you better and who can comment on your personality from close quarters.

Therefore, it does not matter ‘whom’ or how ‘big’ a professor or practitioner you take your LoR from, but what that person essentially writes in the LoR. How much does it really depict your strengths and your weakness and how minutely does it lay open your potential for research etc.

And if you are not able to make a case about you, they will not be willing to take you up.

Solutions?

The SoP – you need to work on it extensively, and here I speak for myself, sometimes even a couple of months. Because everything that you have done up until now has a certain meaning in your life. You have to try and think about what that meaning is and how that has put you in the position that you are in. You have to build a narrative, connecting your past, present and future.

The next step in the SoP is that whatever you have learnt, how might that help the university that you are going to? What will be your contribution to the course? That is something that a lot of people miss out on.

About the LoRs, one thing that I always advise people who come to me is that it does not matter whom you are taking the LoR from however high up s/he may be. You should go to a person who knows you best, who knows about your capacities and most importantly about your failings.

Also, you have to start early and keep pursuing them.

Coming back to your career. You completed the MLF course, and then?

I completed the MLF and then started my PhD at the Max Planck institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg. Here, I am a PhD fellow which means that I have an employment contract with the institute, and alongside that I do my PhD.

So, you are working full-time for the institute on the institute’s projects. And on the other hand, you are also doing your PhD which is fundamental research on a particular set of questions.

What is a day like? Compared to say Europa Institut?

 It is a bit different in the sense that when I was at the Europa Institut I was doing mostly policy level work. I was dealing only with the projects that either the Institut had or the ones my professor had.

Here I am doing both; I am dealing with projects that are there at the institute, but I am also spending a lot of time working on my own PhD thesis – research, writing papers and attending conferences.

From where I stand today, I suppose this is how academia works now. That it is not enough for one to have a PhD thesis at the end, one needs publications, one needs to have attended conferences, gathered some teaching experience and at the end of it all, have a publication contract of one’s PhD thesis with a ‘respected’ publishing house. They really want you to conquer the field of academia by the time you have finished your PhD.

I suppose this is how academia works now. That it is not enough for one to have a PhD thesis at the end, one needs publications, one needs to have attended conferences, gathered some teaching experience and at the end of it all, have a publication contract of one’s PhD thesis with a ‘respected’ publishing house.

That is a bit unfair.

It is a very unfair process. It puts a tremendous burden which is why PhD students all across disciplines are showing increasing signs of depression and anxiety. The amount of pressure and stress on PhD students is immense.

The whole structure of academia is such that you have to constantly push yourself to either publish or show experience in, say, teaching alongside writing a great thesis.

It is a whole gamut of things that are constantly playing around in your head. Also, it is very difficult to break into academic institutions. It is extremely difficult to do it in Europe, almost impossible in Germany because they have their own structures in place. And then your journey just starts. It takes years before you get tenure. And within that time, you are constantly on the watch as to where you are publishing, how much of an impact factor you are having etc. Once you have tenure you are maybe 45-50 years old.

Any advice for a law student interested in academia?

I would definitely tell her/him that it is going to be a difficult process. Not just in terms of building a career for yourself but also when you see your own colleagues around you, that is a big deal. Add to that, the road to a PhD is mostly a lonely walk where you are essentially on your own. Therefore, it helps to be at an institution where you have a set of motivated colleagues to fall back upon.

I will probably finish my thesis when I am 31 or 32, and my colleagues at a law firm will probably be a partner and earning 10 times more than I will ever earn in my life as an academic!

I will probably finish my thesis when I am 31 or 32, and my colleagues at a law firm will probably be a partner and earning 10 times more than I will ever earn in my life as an academic!

These are real concerns.

Having said that however, there are certain things which perhaps remain particular to academia. The freedom to read, to be rigorous in your approach and the acquired ability to not only analyze issues quicker but deeper, mindful of context and history. Academia allows you to place things into perspective and along that process hopefully never make you lose sight of the bigger picture.

Would you recommend this path to others?

Depends. I think academia requires you to, at least at some point, have an underlying passion for learning and studying. And constantly searching for things, trying to read and trying to write. If you don’t have that, then I think it might be difficult.

This is something that a lot of people don’t realise towards until the end of their PhD which is why you have a huge attrition rate. A lot of people don’t even finish their PhD thesis.

Would you come back to India? Will someone like you fit into the hierarchies of Indian academia?  

Yes, I do have intentions of coming back.

An ordained sense of hierarchy is characteristic of institutions in the country. This is something that I have always had an issue with. It is not like hierarchy does not exist in the West, it certainly does. But there are ways to always get around it.

But I do think there is a lot that has changed in the last 5-6 years in terms of the people who are coming back and the new set of institutions are coming up in the country. Indian universities are some ways re-defining their own ways of doing research and academia.

Some that immediately come to mind are Jindal, NLU Delhi, and NALSAR. Here you will find these extremely dynamic professors who know the worth and importance of research. They really want to give you that space to freely think and interact.

It is not that things are entirely great there, but it is a lot better than what it was before. Another thing that is exciting is that many universities, apart from doing academic work, are also getting into policy work and taking up assignments from various government bodies and other institutions.

Teaching over research?

It is always a mix. I think this is something that the West is realizing now – they have put way too much emphasis on research and publication. And it is happening in the reverse in India where teaching was the forefront of everything but now they are realizing that there probably needs to be a balance somewhere.

I think both of them need to go hand in hand, and academia is really about both.

The problem is that not all universities give you that space to do it.  And many of these universities have so many students. So, obviously your teaching load becomes a lot more than your research load.

What do you think is the purpose of legal education, and the BA LLB degree?

To be really frank, I am not a big fan of the BA LLB course. I am not. Simply because of the fact that I think it serves certain interests, alone. Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the students here.

The course itself is geared towards producing a certain kind of lawyer who is essentially conditioned through the five years to carry a certain agenda in terms of what they want to do with their lives, the kind of work they want to do, they kind of return on ‘investment’ they ought to have and the kind of people they want to work for. Therefore, it nurtures a social setting that puts value on only a few selected courses and a few selected career paths, while measurably sidelining all other possibilities.

The course itself is geared towards producing a certain kind of lawyer who is essentially conditioned through the five years to carry a certain agenda in terms of what they want to do with their lives, the kind of work they want to do, they kind of return on ‘investment’ they ought to have and the kind of people they want to work for.

Surely, there are reasons for this. Law school fees are exorbitant in most places. Add to that the pressure of traveling for moots, interning at least twice a year and participating in at least a couple of conference, at home, but preferably abroad.

All this put immense pressure both financially and emotionally on parents and students alike. Hence, the need to see viable returns on these investments push quite a few students towards perceiving value of their education in only certain kinds of jobs. Therefore professionalization of education is not always a great idea.

It is a system that you have benefitted from.

No doubt. But if you ask me what would ideally be one of the purposes of legal education, I believe, is that it need not and should not be entirely about a professional career advancement program.

You need lawyers who are able to reflect upon the very structures of society that they are a product of. And see who have essentially contributed towards creating these structures and who really benefits from these structures. That critical thinking has to be present and I think it does not always come from the BA LLB course.

You come out of school, you don’t have a sense of anything in the world. You don’t have a grasp of a single subject. You have not learnt history, economics, political science and then you start with the law. And law has no meaning on its own.

Law rests on the institutions of other disciplines.

Well, you do have a BA component.

But then how much of it is taught?

I think I would definitely favor the situation where you have a grounding in a particular subject whether it is history, economics etc. And then you get into the law and see where the legal structure fits into that framework.

Which is why you will see that the best kind of legal research that is done is inevitably interdisciplinary. I think you need to have a certain discipline that you can call your own before you get into law. Otherwise it is very difficult to have a reflective process.

For example, I really don’t think anybody can study constitutional law or international law for that matter, without studying history. It is impossible to do it. You would be blindsided and myopic in your approach.

Would you recommend higher studies abroad even if you are not interested in academia?

I would. It is a great opportunity for you to see what lies around you. And of course, I am speaking from a place of privilege because I have been able to go there. But as I said, if you get a chance through scholarship or external funding, I think it makes sense to take those nine months or a year, keep that aside, and just see what exists around the world.

If you get a chance through scholarship or external funding, I think it makes sense to take those nine months or a year, keep that aside, and just see what exists around the world.

You will meet so many different people, see so many interesting things that when you come back and practice it will really shape what you want to do. I think it has a huge impact on your future career whatever that may be.

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