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.

This edition of the FPA has Shrutanjaya Bhardwaj discussing his LL.M. experience at University of Michigan Law School (’19). A graduate of the National Law University of Delhi (’17), Shrutanjaya worked as a litigation associate for just over a year before embarking on the LL.M.

(Edited excerpts)

Was an LL.M. always on the cards as an undergraduate student? Or was this something you decided to take up during your time as a litigation counsel?

I’d say the idea first came to mind when I was in my third year at NLU Delhi. That’s when I engaged with constitutional doctrine seriously for the first time. I was fortunate to be taught by extremely accomplished professors who made and kept the subject exciting. In that year and the next one, I participated in two moots and some interesting research projects on constitutional law, most of them on free speech, and liked them enough to keep going after the subject.

It was at some point in these two years that I decided to pursue a masters degree with a focus on constitutional law. The only thing I had to decide was when.

In fact, I landed up at the litigation office I worked at precisely because I wanted to work with an advocate practising constitutional law. One of my professors, who knew this, advised me to apply for an internship with Mr. Gopal Sankaranarayanan. I was ultimately hired based on that internship. In a big way, therefore, I worked where I did because of my affinity for constitutional law.

I am guessing that your time as a TA for Constitutional Law played a role in your LLM choice? What were the other schools that you looked at, and what got you to narrow down on the University of Michigan? 

The TAship definitely strengthened my inclination towards the LLM. A big chunk of my work as a TA was related to the freedom of religion, and in comparison to speech law (on which I had worked extensively), the law on religious freedom was less known to me. The TAship made me explore the nuances of that area as well. Ultimately, a desire to study the issues around religious freedom found its way into my statement of purpose.

Apart from UMich, I looked at Oxbridge, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago and Berkeley. Of these, I received acceptances from Berkeley and Michigan, while UChicago placed me on their waitlist. What led me to pick Michigan was the generous financial aid they offered to me and some professors there whom I really wanted to meet and interact with.

“What led me to pick Michigan was the generous financial aid they offered to me and some professors there whom I really wanted to meet and interact with.”

Did you apply for/receive any kind of financial aid? 

The Michigan Law School awarded me the Grotius Fellowship which covered a substantial chunk of my total expenses. I didn’t apply for other aid programs.

How would you recommend one approach the application process in terms of timelines, written requirements and getting referees?

Deciding who to ask for a reference can be a tough choice. Many people try to get famous people to write them letters of recommendation, but it doesn’t work unless your referee knows you really well.

That is actually the key factor: look for someone who can write a detailed and personalized reference for you. A good reference letter is one that describes the specific traits that set you apart from other applicants, and points to real-life instances to support these descriptions. In contrast, a generic “he is a brilliant student and I wish him all the best” letter carries little weight.

“A good reference letter is one that describes the specific traits that set you apart from other applicants, and points to real-life instances to support these descriptions. In contrast, a generic “he is a brilliant student and I wish him all the best” letter carries little weight.”

I’d say it is crucial to speak to your referees way in advance of the application process. This is not just because it secures your letters of recommendation, but also because your referees can be a constant guiding force through the application process. Often, that guidance is strongly needed. Your referees can help clear your head regarding several things, starting from why you really want to do the LLM, what you plan to gain out of it, and whether it is an intelligent stepping stone in your career.

The only other thing is that you must expect to spend at least a couple of months on your personal statement/ SoP. The first draft is almost always amended out of existence by the time the final (maybe tenth) draft is ready. You must leave time for the development of those ten drafts.

How has the LLM experience been thus far? Any particular highlights along the way?

It has been absolutely amazing! Broadly, my courses were all either constitutional law & human rights courses or philosophy courses studied through the lens of the law. I loved all of it.

One memorable experience was being picked as the Outstanding Student in the Comparative Human Rights Law course. I was hardly expecting it, given that I would disagree with the professor on some point in every other class! It was really encouraging to receive the certificate, particularly because this professor was one of the main reasons I had decided to go to Michigan.

Given that the undergrad experience is relatively recent, what were some of the bigger changes you noticed in the learning and teaching process between NLU Delhi and Michigan Law School? 

The biggest difference was the widespread use of the Socratic method of teaching at UMich. Students were always expected to read complex legal texts and come prepared to class, and the Professor would call on any student during class and grill him/her on the topic.

Though some of my teachers at NLU Delhi did adopt this method, many did not prescribe readings in advance, while most stuck to the conventional “lecture” method and almost never called on students during class. I believe the choice of teaching method makes a difference to what students take away from the class. I find the Socratic method to be more challenging, and hence also more rewarding for the student.

I am presuming that a doctorate degree is not too far away? Else, what do you plan on doing after the LL.M? 

I do have some inclination towards a Ph.D., but I want to develop my research ideas a bit more fully before making the final decision. I will be resuming litigation in July, and, schedule permitting, I’d perhaps also consider teaching at a law school next year.

Lastly, what advice would you have for the Indian law graduate who is considering an LLM abroad?

Work for sometime before diving into the masters. Work life gives you the sincerity you need in order to gain the most out of the LLM.

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