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 get Conrad Noronha to speak about the Juris Doctor (JD) programme at Columbia Law School. After completing his LLB from Government Law College Mumbai, Conrad chose a career in litigation in the Bombay High Court. In 2018, he enrolled for the JD course at Columbia Law School; in this interview he shares the reasons behind this move, the experience thus far and a whole lot more.
Starting with the obvious – why a JD as opposed to the more popular LLM option? Could you share the reasoning behind the move?
This is a question I get asked a lot and I wish there were an easy answer to this. But my decision to do a JD was a result of many factors, both personal and professional.
I think my strongest motivation was the need for a good formal education. As you and many of your readers may know, in Government Law College, students do not really attend classes but, instead, intern throughout the year. Most of the faculty, are temporary with little academic or practical experience. In my first year, I had the opportunity to intern at a then newly established law firm which did quality work. I trained under their Mumbai litigation head and learned tremendously. But I had a sense that practical training, as important as it is, is not a substitute for a good formal legal education. Unfortunately, for the large part, I did not receive that at GLC.
I then decided to get into a Delhi University law school. I took the entrance exam and got a rank that would get me admission into Campus Law College. But I spoke with a few alumni from CLC and I got a sense that the education in CLC wasn’t so much better as to justify doing the first year of law school all over again.
My second motivation, I feel, goes to the very reason I decided to study law. While studying Economics at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, one of the things which interested me the most was the impact of global policies, markets, and trade on the Indian economy and its people. Driven by a passion for economic justice, I wanted to use the law to shape international economic policies. I realized, that the Indian legal sector was almost entirely domestically focused and that if I desired to work in the international legal market, I would have to realign my career path.
These factors were always at the back of my mind. Looking back, I think I started out on the path of least resistance, taking a rather conventional route. But several incidents in my personal life made me revisit and confront my motivation for being in law. That’s when I concluded that the best way for me to get a good formal legal education and enter the international legal market was by doing a JD from a top US law school.
“Looking back, I think I started out on the path of least resistance, taking a rather conventional route. But several incidents in my personal life made me revisit and confront my motivation for being in law.”
An LLM was never a serious consideration for me. I believed that given the fact that I wanted a good primary legal education which could help me work in an international setup, a JD was the only option for me. Now that I have been in law school for an academic year, and having interacted with LLMs on an almost daily basis, I am even more certain that I made the right decision by pursuing a JD.
Once you had narrowed down on the JD course, how did you go about selecting schools? And why pick Columbia in the end?
I knew that to achieve what I wanted out of my legal education, I would need to get admitted into a top law school. But rankings weren’t the only factor. I spent a lot of time researching the top law schools to see which of them would meet my two requirements of intellectual rigour and an international focus. There were also other factors that I considered like location, employment statistics, and the general culture.
I started off by perusing the information available on law school websites. I also read opinions on blogs and websites dedicated to law school admissions, taking them with a pinch of salt. I wrote to the admissions offices of many of these schools and spoke with some law students and alumni. All of this helped me get a general understanding of the culture in these schools and what they tend to focus on.
“I started off by perusing the information available on law school websites. I also read opinions on blogs and websites dedicated to law school admissions, taking them with a pinch of salt. I wrote to the admissions offices of many of these schools and spoke with some law students and alumni.”
I knew I wanted to work on international issues which are at the cutting edge of legal innovation. The two schools that stood out for me were Columbia and Stanford. Stanford, because I am interested in the legal issues that AI and data privacy pose and Stanford felt like the best place for tech law. Columbia, because it is the most internationally focused of all US law schools. After considering many factors, I finally felt that the scales tipped in favour of Columbia for me.
I applied to Columbia through the early decision process whereby I agreed to attend Columbia if Columbia selected me. So, as soon as I was admitted, I fulfilled my obligation by withdrawing all my other law school applications.
How long did you spend on the application process, as well as prepping for the LSATs? Any advice on how much time one should set aside for the applications + LSAT prep?
It took me around 3 years, way longer than the average. This was primarily because I did not have any guidance on how to go about it. For one, there weren’t any LSAT prep courses in India and I didn’t know of anyone who had taken the LSAT or was taking the LSAT. My first score was decent, given my lack of resources, but it wasn’t good enough to get me into a top law school.
I finally found a website called 7sage which I found very helpful, both in terms of their LSAT prep and for providing an online community of people taking the LSAT. That really helped me get a score which almost all top law school would consider seriously.
Did you seek financial aid of any kind?
Yes, I sought financial aid and received a very generous offer. I am grateful to Columbia for that. But even with financial aid, I still had to arrange for the remainder of the tuition and living costs, which is still very substantial. I was lucky to have an American relative who agreed to cosign a US loan for me.
Now that you are nearly done with 1L, how has the JD experience been? And if you had to, how would you compare it with your time at GLC Mumbai?
My JD experience has been amazing. I am surrounded by the smartest group of people I have ever met. Columbia has a reputation for being very competitive, which I am learning is not entirely true. The students out here are extremely driven and hardworking, but many go out of their way to help each other. There is a strong sense of camaraderie and belongingness.
“Columbia has a reputation for being very competitive, which I am learning is not entirely true. The students out here are extremely driven and hardworking, but many go out of their way to help each other. “
It would be unfair for me to compare a multimillion-dollar ivy-league law school with a severely underfunded and understaffed institution like GLC. But I’ll try to answer this by focusing on the pedagogy and the intellectual atmosphere.
The first difference is the use of the Socratic method in US law schools. The way it works is that everyone comes to class having read the assigned readings. The professor calls on a student and questions them on the facts, holding, and reasoning of the case. In the process, the class discovers inconsistencies in the reasoning and ways in which that case can be distinguished from other similar hypothetical situations.
In most law schools in India, professors lecture on what the law currently is. I prefer the Socratic method because you learn to question the reasoning behind the law and discuss whether the court would have come out differently if it were confronted with slightly different facts. The lecturing method, I feel, helps one learn how to approach cookie-cutter cases, but not how to deal with difficult and complex issues.
“I prefer the Socratic method because you learn to question the reasoning behind the law and discuss whether the court would have come out differently if it were confronted with slightly different facts. “
Second, I felt that in GLC and in many Indian law schools law is venerated to an extent where there is a very real belief that the law is always just and the decisions of the supreme court are beyond criticism. In US law schools, too, there is a belief in a certain formalism to the law. But in my experience, many of my professors and peers have pushed me to question certain legal doctrines and reasonings we take for granted. For example, my criminal law professor assigned old cases relating to evidentiary issues with the testimonies of slaves. This was done to demonstrate that the same legal reasoning which we learn today was used to create jurisprudence which we now believe to be grotesque and completely ridiculous.
Third, the syllabus in GLC did not prepare me for the practice of law. When I started interning at a law firm while at GLC, I was initially, woefully unprepared to work at a law firm. The first-year syllabus in many US law schools, on the other hand, has a yearlong component called legal practice and writing. This, in a way, prepares you for working in the legal sector. I am currently interning at a Federal Defender’s Office and I feel that Columbia has prepared me to efficiently deliver on tasks that I have been assigned to.
What is your reading of the US legal recruitment market, especially for international law graduates?
I will be interviewing with law firms next month and I will be happy to update you regarding the same. But statistics show, that around 95–100% of the graduating class in most of the top law schools are employed. Many of these schools, including Columbia, have a non-discrimination policy, whereby private employers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of one’s nation of origin. There is almost no way for a firm to know your immigration status while you are interviewing. All the upper-class international students I have spoken with have received employment offers. There are, however, some federal government jobs—like clerkships and working at the US attorney’s office—for which international students are not eligible.
Having said that, the H1B visa allocations can be uncertain. But, I have been told that most law firms with an international presence allow attorneys, including newly recruited ones, to work from an international office and then come back to the US when they get an appropriate visa.
“I have been told that most law firms with an international presence allow attorneys, including newly recruited ones, to work from an international office and then come back to the US when they get an appropriate visa.”
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who may be considering an education outside the country?
Law school, whether for an LLM or a JD, is a serious commitment. I would advise your readers considering studying abroad to be clear about their motivations and be aware of the risks involved.