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, I speak with Dhruv Suri, a Partner at PSA Legal, and an alum of Columbia Law School (LLM, ’14). With an Indian law degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprashta University (’09), Dhruv worked in India for a few years before enrolling for the LLM. Here, he talks about how Indian law firms view a foreign LLM, the need for Continuing Legal Education in India, and a whole lot more.

It has been five years since your LLM at Columbia Law School. Looking back, what were some of the biggest highlights of the course, those that are relevant and meaningful to you even now?

Looking back, I believe the most critical highlight for me has been the network that I have been associated with. Imagine knowing lawyers in almost every part of the world who are working in the same space as you? We often cross-refer work, brain storm on laws and of course, have a great time when we meet socially. I don’t recall the last time I booked a hotel when I visited Europe, South America or the US!

Outside of the network, I believe the LLM gives you the confidence to undertake cross-border work. Having classmates from all over the world only makes you realize how similar people are despite their cultural differences. Today, when I do business with Germany, France or Japan, not only am I comfortable interacting with them, I also understand their culture which gives them comfort working with me. For me, the LLM was worth every cent because of the cultural diversity I was exposed to.

“I believe the LLM gives you the confidence to undertake cross-border work. Having classmates from all over the world only makes you realize how similar people are despite their cultural differences.”

In the Superlawyer interview, you mention that one of the best things about the LLM was getting the chance to live in NYC. So, apart from location, what are some of the other aspects that an LLM aspirant ought to look at which she usually does not?

One key factor for me was to pick a university that had active alumni. I was clear that the real value of a LLM degree cannot be absorbed during the 9 months on campus but over the rest of your legal (and sometimes even non-legal) career. So, when I was short-listing schools, I checked whether they had an active alumni base in India or not. I also reached out to some lawyers and spoke to them about their experience with the curriculum, interacting with specific professors and of course, the value of the international network of friends they created.

For any lawyer looking to do his/her LLM, I would highly recommend that they self-introspect and assess what is the key takeaway they are looking for. I also believe that talking to alumni is one of the best ways to get a real perspective to what is likely to be in store. I am an active member of the Columbia Alumni Association and every year when we host a send-off for new admits, and we encourage prospective students to attend as well.

Additionally, it is also important to get a bird’s eye view of possible opportunities post graduation. For example, if one is interested in technology law and wants to try and get a job in California where most US law firms’ technology practice thrives, it may be wise to pick a non-ivy league school in California as opposed to an ivy league in the east coast. It’ll also help you better prepare for the state bar exam.

The tuition at US law schools remain some of the highest in the world – if one was viewing an LLM purely from a RoI perspective, do you think it makes financial sense? Or is it better not to view education through an RoI lens?

Tuition at US law schools is atrociously high. There are no two questions about this. That said, there is a RoI but it is not immediate. It comes over a period of time. This RoI can be in economic terms where you make more money, build your own client base, get promoted faster, etc. or it can be in terms of your personality evolving by interacting with people from all over the world, getting the confidence to work with international counter-parts, learning how to live independently, etc.

According to me, an LLM makes sense only if (i) you can afford it without causing any extreme financial setback to yourself or your family or (ii) if you have gotten a scholarship, fee waiver or a subsidized student loan that you believe you can re-pay.

“An LLM makes sense only if you can afford it without causing any extreme financial setback to yourself or your family or if you have gotten a scholarship, fee waiver or a subsidized student loan that you believe you can re-pay.”

I had a friend whose parents had mortgaged their house to fund his LLM. The LLM is not worth such an extreme step. If a 9-month degree will put your parents’ life saving at risk, you are better off without it. If you actually mortgage a house to fund your LLM, you would also want a quick RoI which, unfortunately, in the legal profession, is hard to come by.

So, a LLM makes sense if you have the means to pay for it but does not if you have to take loans in India at very high interest rates. The opportunity cost for doing the LLM is then too high.

Given that you now have an inside view, how do you think Indian law firms view potential recruits who possess a LLM? Do firms place a greater value on such a candidate? 

The short answer is- No.

I am yet to come across an Indian firm that would value a LLM at a higher pedestal than experience. That said, if one does their LLM after 4-5 years of working, clears the US bar and decides to come back, a law firm may see value in the degree and the additional bar enrolment.

A lot of young lawyers believe that just because they went for their LLM to great universities right after graduating, they deserve the best jobs. The reality is far from that. At an associate level, most partners would want someone with actual work experience rather than an additional degree. Of course, this is not the general rule because some lawyers really shine during their LLM. They participate in international moots, publish papers and build a network that Indian firms doing cross border work may value in the long-run.

“A lot of young lawyers believe that just because they went for their LLM to great universities right after graduating, they deserve the best jobs. The reality is far from that.”

Do you see Indian law firms or chambers encouraging their employees to pursue further studies, if not a full-blown LLMs then perhaps an executive/continuing legal education (CLE) programs? 

I do not think this culture is very prevalent but, in my view, it is likely to change. With new legislations being enacted, even the older lawyers need to educate themselves to be able to leverage their seniority in the profession.

For example, when the Competition Act, 2002 was notified, a lawyer with 10-15 years experience probably knew as much as someone with 2-3 years experience.

These new laws bring forth a level playing field and encourage younger lawyers to develop specialization and compete against their seniors. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code 2016 had the same effect.

Going forward, our Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 will also require lawyers to stay abreast with legal developments in this space. CLEs and short-term executive courses will become popular for lawyers who cannot afford to take a year off for a LLM.

What are your own thoughts on CLE – do you think it should be made mandatory for Indian lawyers?

Absolutely. In fact, at PSA, we highly encourage Continuing Legal Education. All our lawyers, regardless of experience, have to do internal and external presentations, attend conferences and share updates thereafter, etc.

In today’s age where technology is playing a big role in how business is being done, it is easy to become irrelevant if you do not take the pains to stay abreast with legal developments. Even on subjects such as ethics, diversity, professional responsibility, etc., the Bar Council should have mandatory sessions conducted by specialists in this space. I would be very happy to see if India adopts a CLE program similar to the US where it is mandatory to earn certain CLE credits to keep your bar license active.

I know you try and interact with Indian law schools and students – what are some of the global practices that you think Indian law schools ought to adopt?

I believe lawyers who are passionate about teaching should engage with law schools to conduct 1-2 credit courses each semester. The general quality of our legal education is abysmal with a few exceptions.

If lawyers come to the forefront, the quality of students that would be graduating from law schools would be far superior to what we have seen thus far. Of course, this requires law firms as well as law schools to coordinate and work out an arrangement that is a win for both.

Additionally, I’d also like to see lawyers “mentor” teams that are participating in global competitions and train them based on their subject matter expertise of the “real world”.

The key for me is constant engagement. As long as that happens, our new breed of lawyers will always stay relevant.

Additionally, I would also like to see the administrative bodies of law schools be run by educationalists/lawyers as opposed to bureaucrats. Every time I engage with interns who come to our firm, they always complain about how the university does not encourage them to work or participate in national and international competitions, etc. In fact, practical assessment ought to become an integral part of training right from year 1.

And this leads me to my third point where I’d like to see Indian law schools shift from the mundane examination model to more open book exams, just like how any lawyer would work on a case. The questions ought to be practical and consistent with the latest regulations. Our legal education system really needs to do a lot of catching up!

“I’d like to see Indian law schools shift from the mundane examination model to more open book exams, just like how any lawyer would work on a case. The questions ought to be practical and consistent with the latest regulations.”

Lastly, how do you think Indian law schools can be made more inclusive? Curious to know this given your work with United Students and educational reservation policies.

Being inclusive has a totally different meaning in India than what it has in the US. Personally, I believe Indian law schools are fairly inclusive. While I don’t wish to get into the debate of reservation, my own law school class in 2004 had students from all quarters of life due to the policies of the state government back then.

One key skill that all lawyers ought to possess is to be able to think about the underlying policy behind a law, i.e. the ground reality and the constitutional basis for why legislation was enacted.

If lawyers train in a privileged cocoon, away from the realities of the world they live in, they will never be able to do justice to their profession. Organizations like IDIA Law started by Shamnad Basheer are doing a great job in increasing diversity and making law schools more inclusive.

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