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, Shaurya Upadhyay talks about his days as an LL.M. (Class of ’18) student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. A graduate of the Campus Law Centre at Delhi University, Shaurya chose to specialise in arbitration and dispute resolution.

(Edited excerpts)

Not connected to the LLM per se, but what made you look at the LLB after your BA? Did you ever consider applying for the 5-year law course? 

This question runs with the assumption that decisions such as this happen with a singular reason, within a singular circumstance. In fact, it spans such a long duration, at a time when one’s thought process constantly evolves, that the reality is often extremely fuzzy.

I started off with the “science” stream in the 12th grade and realising very early on that the subjects weren’t for me. While this eliminated a future in the sciences, I was not sure if I was cut out for any particular profession, (therefore not considering the 5-year law course at that stage), thus I took up the B.A. with a very flexible outlook towards my future, looking at a possible career in international relations, academia, diplomacy or international law. Basically, the future any confused humanities student would look at for themselves.

Law was never a serious consideration up until my last year of the B.A. where I started working for a few organisations that had a heavy human rights inclination, and the potential of the law solving these issues seemed promising.

So, a year later when I had to choose between an M.A. in History from JNU and the LL.B. from the Faculty of Law at DU, I chose the latter. Three reasons for that choice (which I till date thank myself for taking) – 1) the practicality of the field was a welcome change after an intensely theoretical 3 years studying history; 2) the possibility of pursuing academia, even an interdisciplinary one, if I so decided; 3) a realisation that the skills I possessed (public speaking, argumentative reasoning, a generally extroverted demeanour) matched the ones required for a successful career in law. Again I cannot say this organised thought process existed at the time I made the decision, but in retrospect, I am sure these became the most important considerations for the same.

Coming to the LLM, at what stage of your LLB course did you contemplate a master’s? And why go right after your LLB as opposed to working for some time?

For me the decision to do a master’s degree was made very early on during the LL.B. which was at a time when I was trying to get experience in human rights law.

I had realised, looking at organisations such as the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and Lawyer’s Collective that almost everyone associated with them had completed their LL.M. in a related field of law.

Given I was also, at the time, working with an amazingly dynamic lawyer, Ms. Sunita Thawani and her organisation Full Circle on the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace, I applied to most universities with the aim of working specifically on gender, constitutional and human rights law.

It made sense to pursue this straight after the LL.B. due to the theoretical nature of the subject and a desire to pursue a PhD straight after. I got my acceptance to the LSE in January, which is when my team and I had started preparing for the oral rounds of the Willem C. Vis Moot. B the time I completed the oral rounds in Vienna in April, I had found my love for International Arbitration.

Luckily for me the LSE allowed for such a post-facto switch and given I had received a scholarship for my studies, I decided to take up the offer immediately after the LL.B. as opposed to getting a few years of experience as most international commercial/arbitration lawyers would recommend. Another factor was that I had never received any formal training in International Arbitration, as the LL.B. did not offer a course in the subject. It only made sense to pursue a master’s and acquire the necessary academic rigour in the field.

How did you go about selecting where to apply? And why did you end up choosing LSE?

I had decided that I wished to pursue my master’s from a UK University for multiple reasons. Firstly, the UK offered very highly ranked institutions which were known for their rich legal history and educational excellence. Secondly, it was far more cost effective than the US, and as someone who did not want to unduly burden their parents financially, it played a major role in making this decision for me. The UK offered several scholarships which added to the financial aspect of the decision. I therefore applied to the three top law schools in the U.K. that offered the subject combinations I was aiming for. This again was at a time when I was applying with the aim of pursuing a degree in human rights law.

When I decided to switch courses, and opt for studies in International Arbitration instead, I realised that the one offer I had received (from LSE) was the only school of the three (the other two being Oxford and Cambridge) which had a dedicated International Commercial and Investor State Arbitration Faculty. Dr. Jan Kleinheisterkamp at the LSE had a stellar reputation as one of the finest academic minds in the field of international arbitration and contract law.

The LSE also had a very interesting and highly flexible selection of subjects, which allowed me to specialise in International Business Law, while at the same time explore subjects such as Cyber Law and Comparative Legal Theory.

Both these factors together with LSEs well established reputation within the legal market convinced me to take up the offer.

Did you apply for financial aid of any kind? 

I had applied for a few scholarships at the LSE, and a few offered by Indian organisations. The procedure was very straightforward, and as long as one did not miss the deadlines for the application, the process itself did not require much planning.

The tricky part during these applications is the manner in which one represents themselves in the statements of purpose and the subsequent interviews. I had been warned that the scholarship process can almost always weed out people trying to “fake it till they make it”, as they have been around for a while and the selection committees have seen every trick in the book when it comes to exaggerated applications.

My applications therefore were brutally honest about my work, my aspirations, and my limitations as a first-generation lawyer. The scholarship market tends to be a numbers game, since the competition comprises several hundred exceptionally deserving candidates, and a lot depends on how well one’s representations resonate with the selection committee.

“My applications therefore were brutally honest about my work, my aspirations, and my limitations as a first-generation lawyer. The scholarship market tends to be a numbers game, since the competition comprises several hundred exceptionally deserving candidates, and a lot depends on how well one’s representations resonate with the selection committee. “

I thankfully received the JN Tata Endowment Scholarship, which as an organisation has given constant support, both financially and morally, through my entire year in London.

How was the LLM experience at LSE? Any experiences/memories that really stand out when you look back at that one year?

In two words, “life changing”. I have been in a fair number of institutions (4 to be precise), but what stood out here was how the entire system was designed towards enhancing the student experience. The course choice, the quality of teaching, the focus on producing high quality work, and most importantly the level of interaction with the professors, all of whom were remarkably approachable and always helpful. Quite a few memories come to mind when I look back at the year, and it feels unfair to select one over the other.

My experience working with Dr Jan Kleinheisterkamp would perhaps be the most enriching and humbling experience of all. My classes with Dr Jacco Bomhoff and Dr Andrew Murray also stand out as amazing and intellectually stimulating.

My work with the LSE teams for the Willem C. Vis Moot (both as a speaker in 2018 and as a coach in 2019) stands out as memorable. I got to interact with some inspiring coaches and work with some extremely diligent colleagues with a work ethic one can only aspire towards.

As the President of the International Arbitration society too (a position I was gratefully to be elected to), I worked with an amazing committee and while the work we did was intense, we had our fair share of fun, amazing post-conference banquets, and a lot of photos to remember this time by.

What are the advantages of a specialised LLM as opposed to a general LLM?

The LSE does not offer a specialised LL.M. similar to other Universities which would admit students into the specialisation at the time of admissions. Their system notes that if a student has opted for 4 courses in a particular field of law, they can opt for their LL.M. degree to read as a specialised one. However, the student has the freedom to opt out of this ‘specialisation’ and/or take up other courses not under their specialisation, if they would so choose.

For me, I started the year with a balance of 4 business law and 3 legal theory courses. My inspirations however changed over the first few months, and I ended up opting for Cyber Law and Investment Treaty law instead, thereby tailoring my degree to suit my evolve needs. I believe LSE is unique in offering such high levels of flexibility in course choice.

The advantages of having one’s LL.M. degree read a specialisation are very subjective, and there is no one right answer. I believe it shows a sense of commitment to a field of law, which might be important to certain employees/organisations.

But in reality, one always has the opportunity to represent this commitment in other ways, so I wouldn’t say there exists a unique benefit to this specialisation (especially not at a university like the LSE). I do however know that other universities treat specialisation in a wholly different manner, where the specialised degree would entail more exposure to a specialised faculty, and certain tailor-made opportunities. LSE allows its students to lay their own path.

Post the LLM, you have managed to secure a number of internships, and RA’s – was this an easy process? 

No. It also wouldn’t qualify as a necessarily difficult process. It only becomes hard to access as it requires specific knowledge of one’s own field of practice within the law. The field of law tends to be extremely broad and diverse, and the biggest mistake one can make is to take advice from someone in one field of law and transpose it onto another.

“The field of law tends to be extremely broad and diverse, and the biggest mistake one can make is to take advice from someone in one field of law and transpose it onto another.”

When I reached London, there was ample information available on a general practice of the law, but as someone who had decided on international arbitration as their chosen field, advice to apply for vacation schemes and training contracts ended up wasting a considerable amount of time which could have been utilised to gain experience at, let’s say, a barristers chamber with a specialised arbitration practice.

I currently hold two offers of internship, one from WilmerHale from their International Arbitration group and another from Debevoise and Plimpton from their International Disputes group.

The process to secure these (given my unique circumstances) was time consuming and required immense patience. It was only after spending months working with the International Arbitration society and on the Vis moot that I met a certain partner heading the arbitration practice at a city law firm who agreed to give me an opportunity to intern at his firm.

I believe that this initial professional break, combined with the constant academic mentorship from my professor, made subsequent work experiences possible. What probably also helped was my unwavering interest in this one field of law which helped me streamline my own efforts. What followed was a 9-month research assistantship with my Professor which then led to the current offers.

What is your reading of the UK market when it comes to recruiting international LLM graduates?

This question is problematic as it risks reducing an extremely complicated process (i.e. gaining employment) to a single economic indicator (i.e. the job market).

If I were to base my opinion on my observations, there a plenty of jobs in the UK and law firms are constantly in the process of hiring new associates at all levels. However, that doesn’t even vaguely mean that it is easy to get a job in the UK. One has to consider not only the market in the UK for international LLM graduates as a general term but specify within this exploration which ‘international LL.M. graduate’ this would be.

Factors such as one’s home jurisdiction, post qualification experience, institutional reputation, grades, skill sets, languages, international experience etc [play an important role]. A very small number of Indian LL.M. students do get hired every year at junior associate positions at law firms, or as consultants to international organisations but I have noticed that almost all of them have something unique to offer on one of these fronts. I would recommend studying the profiles of these individuals and trying to assess what worked for them (with the realisation that not all that they have to offer is available on public profiles).

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?

Two things.

First, Get yourself a mentor! I cannot stress the importance of this enough, but it is really important that you find someone who is on a similar path as you are, or someone that is uniquely placed to answer your innumerable questions about your career, personal life, finances, opportunities, and convince them of your vision. If you can convince one such person of your commitment and zeal, chances are that others will be able to see this vision too. And always give back to this process by mentoring your juniors at whatever stage you’re in.

“It is really important that you find someone who is on a similar path as you are, or someone that is uniquely placed to answer your innumerable questions about your career, personal life, finances, opportunities, and convince them of your vision.”

Second, only you know your entire story.

The reasons for you to do the LL.M will always be unique to you, so you must always look at this bigger picture, and use external advice (including this interview) only to fill informational voids. Make sure you question everything, and don’t rush into the process. The LL.M. is an investment, and you should have hedged this investment with a plan B, C and D.

Lastly, everyone faces failures. Don’t let the pristine CVs and LinkedIn profiles of individuals make you believe that this is their entire story. Keep trying your best to make it, and a time will come when you will. Just make sure you know what you want from life, and work towards that.