The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession. As I have mentioned earlier, one field that Amicus Partners is particularly interested is in legal academia, and what it means in the Indian context.

Amal Sethi on legal academia
Amal Sethi

For this edition, our intern Aayushi Bindal, speaks with Amal Sethi, a graduate of Government Law College Mumbai (Class of ’15) who completed an LLM from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and is currently a doctoral candidate working on his SJD.

In this interview, he talks about a host of things, including how to go about selecting the ideal law school for you, encouraging academic research in Indian law schools, and how to go about writing a good statement of purpose.

What made you pursue LLM right after graduation? 

I started contemplating an LLM very early in my law school life. By the final year of law school, I knew why I wanted to do an LLM, and I felt ready to do one. Also, I felt work experience would not add too much to my skill set and thought process as ‘at that stage’ my interests (and reasons for pursuing an LLM) were quite academic. Therefore, I applied for LLM’s in my final year of law school.

I mention ‘at that stage’ because my interests and goals have significantly evolved over time and keep evolving with every passing day.

How did you go about selecting which law schools to apply to? And why did you narrow down on the University of Pennsylvania?

Which law school’s I applied to was not something I put a lot of thought into. My academic interests at that time were in public law and legal theory which pretty much all top law schools are very good at.

I applied to all the American Law Schools ranked 4 to 14 on the US News Ranking (I omitted the top 3 as I was not very confident of getting in and did not want to spend time tailoring any more applications.) I did not apply to the UK because the structure of their programs and their course offerings did not interest me back then.

On the other hand, selecting law schools was something I put a lot more time and thought into. This was compounded by the desirable dilemma that all law schools I applied to accepted me. I guess I dedicated almost two months to this process. I always knew I wanted to pursue a doctorate, so one important criterion for me was to attend a law school which:

  • Had about four to five young faculty members who I would like to work with and who had a track record of taking doctoral students.
  • Had a history of admitting students with similar background as me into their doctoral programs.

I did also consider, albeit to a lesser degree, the financial aid that I received and the final cost of attendance. Consequently, my process of selecting a law school involved a lot of research about individual faculty members and speaking to current doctoral students at the universities that I got into to (I found current students contact information off law schools’ websites and LinkedIn).

“Consequently, my process of selecting a law school involved a lot of research about individual faculty members and speaking to current doctoral students at the universities that I got into to.”

For example, very early into the deciding process, I eliminated NYU (which by the way is an amazing program and perhaps the best program if you want to study Public International Law or Tax Law) from my list of potential ‘law schools to attend’ because it did not give very positive signals on considering the above criterions. Eventually narrowing down was tough and I did give up seats in arguably a few law schools ranked higher than Penn as I felt that Penn was a better fit for my academic goals.

Any advice on how to go about writing the SoP for LLM applications?

Over the years at Penn, I have served on the LLM admission committee. So, this would prohibit me from directly giving out information on what the folks at Penn look for in applicants. However, the few general suggestions I have for SoP’s are:

  • Ensure that your SoP ties up with the remainder of your application.
  • Keep your SoP very crisp – do not add information that is not necessary.
  • Think of your SoP as the transcript of a hypothetical interview with the admissions committee.
    Only add stuff you think you would have mentioned if someone from the admission committee physically asked you ‘Tell Us Whatever You Want to Tell Us in Support of Your Application.’
  • Do not do redundant emotional storytelling – it is fine if you do not have a touching or fancy story. Most of us do not. If you are thinking of doing a masters abroad, chances are you are a middle to upper-middle-class Indian with a decently privileged upbringing. THAT IS FINE. There is no shame in that.

    “If you are thinking of doing a masters abroad, chances are you are a middle to upper-middle-class Indian with a decently privileged upbringing. THAT IS FINE. There is no shame in that.”

  • Do not make up stuff – it is very easy to ascertain if you are doing so. Admission officers read thousands of applications a year and have been doing it for decades. They know exactly when someone is lying.
  • Be clear in your reasons for pursuing a particular program.
  • Show that you are focused in your thinking and not all over the place.
  • Show colleges that you are genuinely interested in attending them and that you have spent time researching about them and their tenured/tenure track faculty.
  • Understand what the program you are applying to is, what it entails and what are the realistic outcomes from that program. Show that you understand all of this in your SoP. The respective program websites are an excellent resource for these questions.
  • Address the reasons for any apparent weakness in your application – low marks, low TOEFL, lack of work experience, a gap in studies, etc. For example, for every college’s application that signalled on their website that they prefer applicants with work experience I had mentioned in my SoP (1) why I am applying straight out of law school (2) why I am ready for the LLM (3) why any work experience would not add much to my application.
  • Do not use overtly convoluted grammar. Keep it simple.
  • Start working on your SoP as early as possible (often a year before applying).

Did you apply for any sort of financial aid? 

I did. Both when it came to law schools’ own financial aid/scholarships and external Indian scholarships. I like to believe I had some decent luck with both. In hindsight, I credit my success in this department to the fact that my application had quite an academic and public law bent, something which is uncommon in most Indian applications.

One small piece of advice I would give to students reading this is that if they have the time they should pursue Indian scholarships/interest-free awards. Not only are these not extremely competitive, collectively they can help you out with a few lakhs. Most Indian scholarships/interest-free awards, in my opinion, are far less competitive than law schools’ own financial grants and/or scholarships.

“Most Indian scholarships/interest-free awards, in my opinion, are far less competitive than law schools’ own financial grants and/or scholarships.”

Nevertheless, I must admit the process for Indian scholarships is a bit tedious especially when we look at the amounts awarded (most scholarships have awards which are in the range of 1 to 5 lakhs). You would need a good number of awards to make a significant difference.  Also, just a word of caution – while there is no hard and fast rule, yet both external and internal scholarships are often biased towards people with interests and work in the public or non-profit sector.

Looking back, what was the biggest positive of the LLM experience? 

For me, the masters and doctorate were in some ways a collective experience. The LLM was all about getting into the doctoral program. The biggest positive of almost half a decade in an extremely academic setting is that it substantially improved my understanding of the law and my ability to research efficiently.

For example, I genuinely have confidence in my ability to develop a decent level of theoretical proficiency in any area of law within a week. Back when I was in law school in India, the idea of finishing one commentary on a subject in a week seemed terrifying (especially if the subject was out of my comfort zone), let alone developing fluency in that subject. This example also leads to another positive aspect of my experience – It helped me build a lot of confidence.

What many people do not realize about doctoral degrees is that their purpose is not to make you an expert in a small sub area of the field but rather to make you an expert in researching and writing.

“What many people do not realize about doctoral degrees is that their purpose is not to make you an expert in a small sub area of the field but rather to make you an expert in researching and writing.”

During your LLM, you were also the International Editor on the Penn Journal of International Law – how was this experience? And how do you think Indian law students can be encouraged to research and write?

Fascinating that you ask that – I’ll be honest, that is literally one of the least exciting things I have done at Penn or as a matter of fact during my time in the states.

I joined the Journal of International Law mainly to meet people who share similar interests with me. That purpose it served very well. On the work front, American Law Reviews are only about blue-booking and proofreading. I had done a LOT of that while in India as I was extensively involved with legal publications and legal writing during my undergraduate law school years. So, as an experience, it was as okayish as it gets, but as a social activity it was incredibly brilliant. I made a lot of friends with whom I till date discuss the law, legal developments, and doubts.

“As an experience, it was as okayish as it gets, but as a social activity it was incredibly brilliant. I made a lot of friends with whom I till date discuss the law, legal developments, and doubts.”

As for your second question, I am often asked about it and find myself really short of words.

I feel to encourage law students to research and write you need to get them:

  • Interested in the debates that are hot in legal academia, and
  • To think academically.

This boils down to the fact that the purpose of writing is to contribute meaningfully to the debates taking place in legal academia. I teach legal writing to LLM students at Penn and often find that a lot of students do not get this part. The current system in place at most law schools in India rarely makes students interested in anything let alone research and writing.

Further, the current system does quite a bad job of acquainting students with the debates in legal academia or getting them to think academically. Often law students in India get interested in things because of internships and moots (and/or similar competitions) or they stumble upon things randomly. In my own case, I randomly decided to give writing a try in my first year of law school and happened to enjoy it. Then over the course of my undergraduate law school years, law blogs and online courses on Coursera and EdX did a terrific job of introducing me to things that I wanted to write about.

While we can keep talking about reforming the system, I think one short-term fix that law schools can make to encourage students to at least start thinking in an academic manner is to make conscious efforts of getting top academics to come to campus and talk about academic topics or their own work (law schools are already doing it in plenty with senior counsels, judges, law firm partners and politicians). This could in some ways sow the seeds and encourage students to take up researching and writing.

“I think one short-term fix that law schools can make to encourage students to at least start thinking in an academic manner is to make conscious efforts of getting top academics to come to campus and talk about academic topics or their own work”

With respect to the doctorate, how does the Dissertation Committee work? And any advice for Indian law graduates who are looking to pursue a doctorate degree in the US?

A dissertation committee is a group of law professors who guide you through your doctorate and eventually are responsible for asserting whether you have completed the requirements of a doctorate. Moreover, a dissertation committee frequently would have a chair who is your direct point of contact and who is your principal guide/advisor.

My advice would be this – you have at best 6 months during your LLM to convince prospective faculty members to take you under their wings (Note – very rarely will you get into a doctoral program in an American Law School without having done an LLM in the same law school. At least, not a law school of the same rank).

This can only be achieved if you start the process of ‘thinking about applying for a doctorate’ months (in some cases years) before joining the LLM program. You cannot (and should not) start the process of ‘thinking about applying for a doctorate’ after starting the LLM or worse in the second semester of the LLM program (you are very likely to not succeed in such a case).

Ideally, you should  start thinking of prospective topics for your doctoral dissertation in the summer before matriculating and then spend the LLM year developing the topic along with potential committee members. Also, be careful that this should not be a topic in a random area of law but an area of law that you have experience with (be it through work or other forms of research) and which professors in an AMERICAN university would be interested in supervising.

“Ideally, you should  start thinking of prospective topics for your doctoral dissertation in the summer before matriculating and then spend the LLM year developing the topic along with potential committee members.”

For example, it is unlikely (not impossible though) that a top American Law Professor would be ready to supervise a doctoral dissertation dealing with Pre-Indepdence Labor Laws in Bihar and Bengal. Further, even if he/she does agree, they would barely be able to give you constructive feedback on it. Most successful doctoral applicants in law schools are often pursuing comparative, theoretical or abstract topics.

To give you my example, I mailed some faculty members about the possibility of pursuing a doctorate and potential topics even before reaching Penn (though you must be extra cautious in doing that and must not get on the wrong side of faculty members.)

In my case, I was guided by an existing Indian doctoral candidate at Penn who acquainted me with all the do’s and don’ts at Penn as well as vis-à-vis individual professors. Consequently, not only did I take classes in the first semester with most of my potential committee members, but I also started setting up meetings with potential committee members regarding a doctorate within weeks of arriving at Penn. I also did two independent studies with potential committee members with the sole purpose of developing my dissertation topic.

“Not only did I take classes in the first semester with most of my potential committee members, but I also started setting up meetings with potential committee members regarding a doctorate within weeks of arriving at Penn.”

What is your reading of recruitments in US legal academia, especially for international students?

Most of the times it is quite bad – but that boils down to a lot of factors foremost among which is that most international students do not have what American law schools are looking for in prospective hires. Think of this as applying for a senior associate position in the capital market team of AZB or Trilegal after five years of researching about LGBT rights and Health Policy at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. It is not that applicants are not qualified, it is just that they do not fit the bill.

This is in crude terms why most international students are unsuccessful. I could spend five pages writing about what my reading is but most of that would be entirely alien to someone not pursuing a doctorate or not familiar with the intricacies of research. Hence, I shall leave it at – it is not easy, but it is not impossible, and you can quite easily work towards a good job in the US (or another developed country) if you truly want to. It, nonetheless, might take a few years and a lot of hard work and patience.

Lastly, any advice for Indian law grads who are thinking of an LLM outside the country?

Do an LLM as a means to an end and not because you are going through a quarter-life crisis and/or do not know what you want to do with your life. An LLM will not magically solve all your problems/confusions.

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