The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession. As I may have mentioned earlier, one of the goals of Amicus Partners is also to explore some of the slightly non-traditional education paths that have been taken by the Indian law graduate.
And fitting this bill is Lakshmi Neelakantan, who is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. A graduate of the National Law University in Jodhpur (Class of ’13) , Lakshmi worked at a law firm for a couple of years before embarking on her post-graduate degree.
But instead of the traditional LL.M, she opted for an MSc in Evidence-Based Social Intervention & Policy Evaluation at Oxford University (Class of ’16)
In the first part of the interview, she discusses how she landed up in the MSc course, advice on post-graduate applications, a career in the development sector for the Indian law graduate, and more.
You worked at LKS after graduating from NLU Jodhpur. A few years into the job, you decided that you wanted to do something different.
LKS was a really nice place to work, and I was especially pleased when I was placed with the trade law team, because I had done trade law when I was in law school. I worked with a lot of great people at LKS and learnt a lot.
But the plan to go for graduate studies was always there.
I was thinking about having an academic or research career but I realized that my core research skills were only in law. I had little to no knowledge of research methods in the wider social sciences whether it was qualitative or quantitative.
“I realized that my core research skills were only in law. I had little to no knowledge of research methods in the wider social sciences whether it was qualitative or quantitative.”
Additionally, I was young with no immediate financial responsibilities and so if I wanted to explore another field, it probably had to be then.
And my third reason was that I was interested in living and working in different parts of the world – this was an ambition I had had for a very long time. I thought expanding my skill set was a good way of going about that.
So, when you look at my profile now, it is important to mention that I really didn’t have a plan at that time. There was a whole world of courses out there once I started to think of options apart from law. I looked up everything – public policy, social welfare work, development studies, economics, anthropology – anything that sounded interesting to me.
And then I just could not stop; there were just so many possibilities.
“I looked up everything – public policy, social welfare work, development studies, economics, anthropology – anything that sounded interesting to me. And then I just could not stop; there were just so many possibilities.”
How did you balance the applications, the scholarships, and the work itself?
I started very early; I started in April or May 2014 for graduate studies in October of 2015. By July or August (of 2014) I had my statements roughly ready, and my recommendations almost done. I don’t think you will ever really have this perfect version [of the statement]; it is just important to have a draft and keep working with that.
I worked on my applications any chance I had – lunch breaks, even if it was just ten minutes that I could spend writing just two sentences – that really went a long way.
“I worked on my applications any chance I had – lunch breaks, even if it was just ten minutes that I could spend writing just two sentences – that really went a long way.”
Another thing I would say is that you have to be organized. I had an Excel sheet of all the deadlines, and then I would create these internal deadlines for myself that were often well before the actual deadline, because things often go wrong.
I also got all the tedious stuff out of the way first. The transcripts for instance, but also the English tests (IELTS); I did it in September, and it was much easier to do this because by March-April everyone wants to take them.
So, the initial plan was to do the MSc and come back to a legal career?
When I started the MSc, there were roughly two paths I could have taken – it could either have led to a new career or I could have just thought of it as this really interesting year long learning experience.
I first needed to know that I was not going to be completely terrible at this new field – there was a good possibility of this happening.
But specifically, in April 2016, I was starting to work on my exams and thesis quite a lot. And I was really starting to enjoy the process of research, and I was keen to think about a research career in this field.
I always liked asking questions and figuring out ways to answer those questions. And then translate that into some meaningful policy. I felt that this was something missing from my practice as a lawyer.
And if I had to break it down, doing research involves all the things I really enjoy. I love writing. I love digging into a topic and really understanding it, to come up with a good answer in a meaningful way.
As nerdy as it sounds, I like applying for stuff. Part of research is about applying for grants, and things like that. It is weird that I enjoy that process, but I do.
“As nerdy as it sounds, I like applying for stuff. Part of research is about applying for grants, and things like that. It is weird that I enjoy that process, but I do.”
Post the MSc, you did worked at JPAL – how does one choose something like this?
I don’t think I can give good advice because personally I found that process to be quite stressful. The only sector that I really knew in detail was law, and so I was actually avoiding applying for jobs.
But one of my friends told me, even before I left for the master’s, about JPAL and I looked it up. They do a lot of randomized evaluations – that is JPAL’s bread and butter. It was a sort of direct application of what I learnt during the MSc.
Once I saw JPAL, I was able to find a lot of other organizations that do similar work. It is actually a massive field, there is a lot of scope for this kind of work. There is a website called DevEx where you can find pretty much any kind of organization out there.
ID Insight in India do some really nice work. The International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) do impact evaluations, so do Evidence Action. I mean, the list is endless.