IMG_4729.jpgFirst 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 (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

In this FPA, we hear from Ekakshra Mahajan who recently completed her LL.M. from Penn State Law  (Class of ’18) on a $50,000 fellowship.

In this interview, the Symbiosis Law School graduate (Class of ’17) shares the process behind the fellowship, writing the New York Bar exam, and a whole lot more.

(Also read Ekakshra’s interview on Lawctopus )

(Edited excerpts)

At what stage of your undergraduate program did you decide to enrol for an LLM?

Before I answer this, I’d like to give a quick background of how I ended up pursuing an LL.M. right after Law School. I participated in the Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon SAARC Mooting Competition in my final year.

The competition is organized in two stages and members of the top five Indian teams which qualify for the SAARC Rounds of the Competition, are eligible to sit for an interview with leading legal luminaries.

Two students are conferred with the title of Best Law Students (Male & Female) and receive a Fellowship to pursue an LL.M. from Penn State Law, Pennsylvania State University.

So effectively, until March 2017, till the award was announced, I hadn’t conceived the idea of pursuing my LL.M. right after graduating Law School.

Answering your question, I always knew that I would be pursuing post-graduation, but perhaps the clichéd way: acquire work experience and subsequently apply to Law Schools. But, given how opportunities opened up, I was fortunate to alter my career trajectory and pursue an LL.M. right after graduation. Looking back, I think it was a better call especially for someone wishing to litigate.

Any advice on how one should go about writing the SoP?

The Statement of Purpose is an integral component of one’s application and as rightly emphasized, needs investment of a substantial amount of time. I’d suggest perceiving it as a reflection of one’s identity.

Begin the process by writing your experiences, personal accomplishments and defining moments that you’d like a potential Admissions Committee to know. Steer clear from perusing sample SoP’s before you’ve had a chance at personal reflection as that might compel you to modify your writing skills to suit a particular way. Once you have a rough draft ready, then perhaps refine it by studying ‘successful’ SoPs.

“Steer clear from perusing sample SoP’s before you’ve had a chance at personal reflection as that might compel you to modify your writing skills to suit a particular way. Once you have a rough draft ready, then perhaps refine it by studying ‘successful’ SoPs.”

This will help retain the originality and authenticity of your SoP and allow it to be distinctive. Given the bulk of applications every University receives on an average, write your SoP in a way that it doesn’t sound generic. Connect your experiences with what the University has to offer and how it suits your career choice. Leadership experiences, community services, demonstrable passion in the field are some of the factors one could consider incorporating. Have a Professor or a senior proof-read your SoP and suggest changes, if any.

How was the LLM experience? What were some of the bigger differences in the learning experiences between your time at SLS Pune and Penn State?

The US learning experience is definitely more nuanced. Our classes were conducted with the J.D. students which extended a more diverse experience to the classroom. Penn State Law follows a credits system. There is a minimum requirement of 12 credits and a maximum of 17 credits per semester which allows the student to choose courses flexibly.

Indian law schools follow a stringent curriculum and the performance of most subjects is examination-based. Most US universities allow you to choose subjects which don’t have a term-end examination, and students can rather opt for research-oriented subjects which are evaluated on the basis of say, a term-end research paper or classroom activities.

Some courses had open-book examinations which facilitated practical application of the course material without having to memorize every word of a voluminous book.

Additionally, the Professors ensured that every student came well-prepared to class. The entire schedule of the classes is displayed in advance of the course commencement and students are expected to know the content of the readings which have been assigned, before the class begins. This approach helped advance my interest in the subjects I had opted for. The contents of every leading judgment, including concurrences and dissents are discussed and opinions are invited on subjective issues which significantly contributed to the holistic understanding of a given subject.

However, I would want to mention that Indian Law Schools provide more extra-curricular opportunities to the students such as Moot Court Competitions or Paper Presentations which help hone an individual’s existing skill-set. Indian education also allows the students to enter the professional realm at a relatively younger age vis a vis US Law Schools which in my opinion, is advantageous.

“I would want to mention that Indian Law Schools provide more extra-curricular opportunities to the students such as Moot Court Competitions or Paper Presentations which help hone an individual’s existing skill-set.”

You also successfully wrote the NY Bar something you have spoken about quite extensively.  Was writing the Bar always the plan, or something you decided to do after you began the LLM program?

I decided that I’ll be taking the New York State Bar Examination before I left for the United States. The entire process works on a very stringent timeline. The New York Bar Appellate Division first ascertains the applicant’s eligibility to take the exam. Documents have to be procured from various Indian institutions including the Law School one has attended and it is recommended that the entire process be completed by the end of September.

Eligibility to sit for the examination is ascertained by April and once the determination has been made, the application process starts. So, the choice to take the Bar Exam ideally should be made before starting the LL.M. Programme. To be able to practice in the United States, taking the Bar Exam is a pre-requisite. I took the attempt in July, two months after graduating so it was relatively more strenuous.

“The choice to take the Bar Exam ideally should be made before starting the LL.M. Programme. To be able to practice in the United States, taking the Bar Exam is a pre-requisite. I took the attempt in July, two months after graduating so it was relatively more strenuous.”

Having said that, one could apply for their OPT and take an attempt in the month of February if they wish to stay back and weigh their career prospects simultaneously. OPT i.e. Optional Practical Training allows International students to legally stay in the United States for one year on a student visa and obtain practical training in their respective field.

What is your reading of the US recruitment market for international LLMs?

From my understanding, the US recruitment market in general is very competitive and passing the Bar exam in no way guarantees a job. There are numerous professional networking opportunities and exploiting those during one’s LL.M. year might help in obtaining job interviews or just understanding the US work environment.

Most law schools participate in the International Students’ Interview Program i.e. ISIP which is hosted by the New York University School of law annually. It facilitates the hiring of highly qualified foreign-trained lawyers enrolled in LL.M. programs and is a great platform for international students to explore opportunities in the United States and abroad.

Lastly, some say that an LLM does not really help the Indian litigating lawyer. Thoughts?

We live in an integrated world, managing a whirling vortex of international integrations and diverse jurisdictions. Political uncertainties across the world affect us domestically and gaining global exposure definitely provides an individual an effective niche. So, it might be wrong to suggest that an LL.M. does not help an individual wishing to litigate.

“Political uncertainties across the world affect us domestically and gaining global exposure definitely provides an individual an effective niche. So, it might be wrong to suggest that an LL.M. does not help an individual wishing to litigate.”

The courses I pursued have allowed me to have an edge in understanding and deciphering the genesis of various laws while developing an in-depth understanding of the subject.  For example, I pursued Antitrust as a subject in my Fall Semester and given that the Indian Competition Law has largely evolved from the EU and US jurisprudence, it simplified the learning process.

For someone wishing to litigate, it might be advisable to pursue their LL.M. right after graduation. A litigating lawyer has to weigh a lot of factors before taking the decision of pursuing higher education. Absence from the Bar where they’ve been practicing for a considerable time period might not be the most feasible option especially if they’ve already been able to establish a reasonable client base.

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