Puneeth Ganapathy
Puneeth Ganapathy

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of law graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

In this edition, Puneeth Ganapathy talks about his LL.M. experience at University College London (Class of ’17). A graduate of NUJS (Class of ’14), Puneeth worked at Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan for nearly three years before embarking on his post-graduate education. An international arbitration practitioner, Puneeth shares the reasons for working before the LL.M., how he went about choosing his ideal law programme, and a lot more.

Did you ever consider doing an LLM right after your undergrad? Or was the plan to always work a few years before the master’s?

Not one bit. For me, after undergrad was the steepest part of the learning curve, it was the time to get out in the real world, apply myself, seek reaffirmation as a budding lawyer and assimilate from legal and courtroom environment.

The idea of studying again (and taking examinations) did not seriously cross my mind for almost two years after starting practice.

How did you go about university selection? Any other schools that you applied to?

At NUJS, academics wasn’t really top priority for me personally (unless of course I had the odd brilliant professor like Saurabh Bhattacharjee who’s subject everyone really wanted to do well in).  I barely just managed a 4 CGPA (which in UK equivalency is at best an upper Second Class).

I didn’t really think overdosing on mooting would be good enough to make up for the non-first class on CV and had made up my mind that the hallowed halls of Harvard or Oxford were way out of my league.

And this really didn’t bother me – my expectations from the LL.M. were simple. I’d been doing fairly well at practice and wanted to take a break. An LL.M, with the prospect of tremendous cultural and educational exposure would provide a fantastic excuse for a break (which did eventually turn out to guide a significant career alteration).

“I’d been doing fairly well at practice and wanted to take a break. An LL.M, with the prospect of tremendous cultural and educational exposure would provide a fantastic excuse for a break (which did eventually turn out to guide a significant career alteration).”

So I largely had three factors in mind picking schools:

  • Costs – Clearly the US Schools would cost way more. And if I was not going to go to the top 2/3 colleges (which I was clearly not going to be applying for with my grades), there was no point. Even a scholarship usually wouldn’t take care of all living expenses, which alone would cost a bomb.
    The US does have the advantage of a year extra after the LLM where you get to work, intern, etc. But at the time I was making this decision, it didn’t matter cause I was always going to come back to my former practice after the LL.M. sabbatical. So the US was out of question.The UK/European law schools have great faculties of equal world stature and have a fascinating style of discourse in beautiful landscapes, and are much cheaper than a course in the US.
  • Intake – I researched and narrowed down universities that (from their websites and expected candidate requirements) appeared to equal weight to all aspects of a CV, and weren’t necessarily fixated with first class academic grades as a prerequisite.
  • The program – The most crucial expectations for me were that the university needed to: (a) have good professors distinguished in fields which interest me, (b) offer a general LLM program which could be tailor-made to my areas of interest (c) have sound credentials in academic rankings and profiles and (d) be in a city with things to do apart from academics.

Did you seek financial aid of any kind?

No.

Any advice on how one should go about writing the Statement of Purpose?

  • Why you?
    Make it as personal as possible. That to my mind is the only way to appear to bring something unique to the table. As a general theme, it’s always a great idea to stress on how law ended up being your profession of choice and how you believe your circumstances before, during and after law school shaped that path.
  • Why that University?
    It doesn’t really have to be a list of achievements which your CV is better tailored to show. It should instead reflect larger goals you have for yourself, something like what you imagine your CV to be in 10-20 years – and justify how the course you’re applying for will help you move in that direction. This is where researching on the subjects and faculty of the universities becomes crucial.

What were some of the biggest learnings during the LLM program at UCL?

Academically – It’s probably the first time I actually did quite well academically. This was mostly because of some excellent faculty and the passion with which they think and lecture. I realized that in India, we have geared our setup in such a way (also given the tremendous competition) that a high % of marks or grade in a subject is the education system’s goal for a great student. Abroad, a high% or grade is only the means to test the level of comprehension and complexity of thought. As a result I felt that my learning at UCL was more development oriented, i.e. learning for the sake of learning, rather than the outcome oriented learning environment back home.

“Abroad, a high% or grade is only the means to test the level of comprehension and complexity of thought. As a result I felt that my learning at UCL was more development oriented, i.e. learning for the sake of learning, rather than the outcome oriented learning environment back home.”

Personally – Tremendous learning also stems from cross cultural exposure and interaction, making friends from distant parts of the world. UCL has a very diverse and decently large intake for you to definitely find people cut of the same cloth/ having similar aspirations as you.

I got involved in mooting for a bit again, coaching a team of friends from the classroom. The team had German, French, South Korean, Jamaican, Mexican and Indian nationalities and we had some good times prepping for and travelling to Frankfurt for the moot. Realising that people across the globe usually have a similar way of thinking and expressing a thought/mood gives you great confidence in your ability to present yourself and really, opens your horizons to appreciate all sorts of unique cultural settings others come from.

Professionally – This was also where I realised that litigation and international arbitration were the two paths forward for me. I was doing tax litigation at Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan before the LL.M., and while that certainly meant going to court (which I enjoyed), I went through the initial-career itch that made me question whether sweating and sleeping in a black gown waiting for matters to take their turn – was something I’d be happy with for the rest of a career.

At UCL – and I am sure this is true of many universities, apart from the specific subjects, the level of discourse in the ‘right’ professor’s classroom is so high – that if you’re genuinely nerdy/romantic about the law, it is definitely going to giving you a clearer perspective of where you see yourself in the profession. It helped me make peace with the idea that initial years of servitude in the litigation space are well worth the scope to develop and create legal propositions and defences for a living.

“The level of discourse in the ‘right’ professor’s classroom is so high – that if you’re genuinely nerdy/romantic about the law, it is definitely going to giving you a clearer perspective of where you see yourself in the profession.” 

When you graduated, what was your reading of the UK legal market when it came to hiring international LLM graduates?

I frankly have no basis to opine one way or the other. I personally focus on disputes and international arbitration, and in that sphere of things, the UK legal market has few great apprenticeship/internship/consulting opportunities. These are meant to (a) give you the exposure of working with firms/practices that have some of the most cutting edge work and renowned individuals in the international sphere and (b) provide a cost effective resource base for the firms.

An LL.M. in itself is not going to get you hired as an international arbitration lawyer, unless you’re in the right place at the right time and it is a distinction level degree/from one of the top 5 universities and/or is accompanied by an excellent prior profession professional record in India/a home jurisdiction. The opportunities, compared to the number of graduates across the world seeking international arbitration exposure, are too few and one must be prepared for that scenario.

“The opportunities, compared to the number of graduates across the world seeking international arbitration exposure, are too few and one must be prepared for that scenario.”

Given that you have a cross-national practice, any advice for Indian law grads who are looking to move jurisdictions?

I’m officially licensed to practice only in India (for now). But yes, my international arbitration work has typically involved Malaysian, Indian and Hong Kong seated arbitrations.

In that vein, most international arbitrations by definition will be cross-national.

For the Indian law grad looking to move jurisdictions, who has a definite interest in disputes and advocacy, exploring international arbitration as an area is possibly the most obvious route to cross-national exposure and work. For transactional lawyers, I do know people who have worked initially in Top Tier firms in India, obtained an LL.M. in that area and secured a job in the same/similar practice area such as funds, banking and investments – with firms abroad. This is cross-national in the sense that your jurisdictional playground is much larger.

Lastly, any advice for Indian law graduates looking to study abroad?

None. Except that adding a degree to your CV shouldn’t be the principal motivation behind the LL.M. at all. It can do a whole lot to your career or it may do nothing for you – and either is fine, as long as you think it through and set broad expectations before you go, however fluid they might be.

“The LL.M. can do a whole lot to your career or it may do nothing for you – and either is fine, as long as you think it through and set broad expectations before you go, however fluid they might be.”

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