First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued, or are currently pursuing, a post-graduate course (be it an LLM or otherwise) from different schools across the world.
In this edition of the FPA, we speak with Balu Gopalakrishnan Nair who is currently pursuing an LLM at Melbourne Law School. A graduate of the WBNUJS (Class of ’14), Balu worked at AK Law Chambers, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, and then at IDIA before enrolling at Melbourne Law School. In this interview, he discusses the Alex Chernov scholarship, studying public law, and a whole lot more.
What prompted you to look at a master’s course? Did you ever consider enrolling for one right after graduation?
The reasons for wanting to pursue a master’s course were varied- from the frivolous to the academic. As a small-towner, it was always a dream to go and study in a university abroad and interact with people from around the world. As a famous Malayalam song goes, what better way to learn about the world than through the stories of people. But, the more immediate trigger was the realization that my passion lay in academia.
“As a small-towner, it was always a dream to go and study in a university abroad and interact with people from around the world.”
Although I had an inkling about this even during my undergrad days, I wanted to have a taste of non-academic settings before I took that plunge. Hence, although I did not want to enrol for a master’s course right after graduation, it was always on the back of my mind.
How did you go about course/university selection? Why narrow down on Melbourne Law School?
I narrowed down on the courses/universities based on whether they catered to my area of interest – public law, and the chances of getting a scholarship.
Melbourne Law School (MLS) was a particularly enticing option as it has an excellent array of public law based courses and some of the best academics who work in this area. Although I was lucky to get through to a few other universities, including Cambridge and UCL, the choice of courses as well as the award of a scholarship tipped the scale in favour of MLS.
The MLS application form is fairly light – a 100-word note on how the LLM ties with your career goals.
Honestly, after writing a few long personal statements, even I was surprised (and glad!) when I saw it the first time. Although I personally feel the word limit for the statement can be slightly higher, pitching your candidature in 100 words comes with its own challenges.
Moreover, a smaller word limit enables the candidates to really narrow in on what they want to say in the application. That said, asking candidates to tie up their learning goals solely to career paths is a rather myopic way of looking at the degree. So, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make the application process more holistic in the coming years.
You have had an interesting career trajectory thus far, with stints at CAM and then IDIA. How did you tie this in to your application? Any advice for future applicants?
At the time of applying to MLS, I was working as a Public Interest Fellow at IDIA’s P-PIL vertical. At IDIA, I was working on some interesting public law based litigation and research.
Even at CAM and prior to that at AK Law Chambers (where I started off my career), I had the opportunity to work on some public law based matters. In my application, I mentioned how, if admitted to the programme, I hoped to build on this experience and acquire a more nuanced understanding of public law.
Although I wish I could speak at length about how to ace these applications, I am not sure I know the formula for it. While I was successful in my application to Cambridge, UCL and MLS, I could not get through to Oxford’s BCL programme. But, if I had to narrow down on one thing which would yield success in these applications, it would be to honestly identify your primary area of interest and explain in your application how the course fits with this interest.
“If I had to narrow down on one thing which would yield success in these applications, it would be to honestly identify your primary area of interest and explain in your application how the course fits with this interest.”
How has the LLM experience been thus far? What subjects have you opted for, and any highlights in particular?
The experience so far has been nothing short of excellent! In the first semester, I did intensive courses on Freedom of Speech, Government Liability, Law of Democracy, and Constitution Making. All four courses were thoroughly engaging and taught by some of the leading academics from the respective areas.
Although it is tough to pick a highlight, the chance to learn about constitution making from Prof. Cheryl Saunders and Prof. Christina Murray – both of who have been directly involved in the designing of constitutions for a number of countries-was certainly one.
Outside of course work, I have been extremely fortunate to work with Dr. Farrah Ahmed as a research assistant on a number of administrative law and personal law issues.
You are also a recipient of the Alex Chernov scholarship – apart from the financial aid aspect, are there any other benefits of the scholarship?
Apart from the financial aid, the biggest highlight of the scholarship is the chance to receive mentorship from Mr. Chernov himself, who has served in the Supreme Court of Victoria and was also the Governor of Victoria.
I have had the fortune of meeting him during the last semester and he is kind enough to have a word with you on your interests and connect you to more mentors in your field.
What have been some of the bigger differences between your undergrad and postgrad education?
I think the striking difference between the two is the quality of teaching and classroom discussions. Although I had the chance of being taught by some exceptional professors at NUJS, that was more the exception than the norm. It has been the other way around at MLS.
“Although I had the chance of being taught by some exceptional professors at NUJS, that was more the exception than the norm. It has been the other way around at MLS.”
Nevertheless, it would be unfair on my part to pin this difference solely to the difference in quality of teaching. I think, as a postgrad student, I am much more prepared for classes and take more interest in the discussions, which make the postgrad experience more enriching.
Would you recommend a foreign LLM to Indian law grads?
Absolutely! It is a great learning experience, both in terms of your areas of interest as well as your general development. Moreover, for those who can efficiently manage time, and are interested in travelling, it can also be a great time to go explore the world a bit more.
Having said that, I don’t think anyone should pursue a foreign LLM just because one thinks it is prestigious to do so. Also, I think it is a bad idea to incur heavy loans to pursue a foreign LLM.
The ideal time to pursue a foreign master’s would be when you have a rough idea of what area you want to explore and have some sort of financial safety net – be it in the form of a scholarship or savings. It should be a time when you can embark upon an unhindered intellectual pursuit without having to worry too much about the finances.
“The ideal time to pursue a foreign master’s would be when you have a rough idea of what area you want to explore and have some sort of financial safety net – be it in the form of a scholarship or savings.”
As an aside, I must note that foreign LLMs at the moment are limited to the most privileged. Hopefully, we would have a movement through which they become accessible to a more diverse and deserving group of people.