First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued, or are currently pursuing, a post-graduate course (be it an LLM or otherwise) from different schools across the world.

In this edition, Arushi Bajpai discusses her time as an LL.M student at the University of Kent at Canterbury. A graduate of the National University of Study & Research in Law, Ranchi (’17), Arushi chose to specialise in International Criminal Justice at Kent.

(Edited excerpts)

Did you consider working for a few years before embarking on the LLM? Or was the idea to always go right after you completed the undergraduate course?

During my initial years of law school, I had this idea of finishing studies and then working for a few years before leaving for my Masters. Reason behind, I have seen many people, including my seniors, quitting their thought of studying any further after working for 2-3 years in industry. Traditionally, it sounds prudent to first gain some valuable work experience, explore your interest area while being in work and then pursue Masters.

However, of late, I realised that if you have worked for 2-3 years, it becomes extremely tough to take a call on leaving your professional career. One starts weighing the pros and cons of making such a decision at a crucial juncture of one’s life. I have seen people, most of whom were much more academic oriented than me, deciding not to quit their jobs.

Therefore, after putting in a lot of thought into this, I decided to earn my Masters degree right after completing my law school in India.

What got you interested in International Criminal Law?

Since the very beginning of my law school days, I had a keen interest in criminal law and justice mechanism. Hence, I remember investing most of my spare time in reading criminal cases and their analysis from all over the world. By the end of second year of law school, I had made up my mind to do my honours in Criminal Law.

The other thing that I was regular at was keeping myself abreast of contemporary developments taking place in different parts of the world, primarily related to global politics, strategic studies, counter-terrorism and international security.

I think somewhere in the middle of law school the two interests fused into one and I got interested in International Criminal Law (ICL). International Criminal Law is an advanced course and should be read only after one has a basic grounding in International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

I realised this fact later while earning my LLM, but during my undergraduate days I had made up my mind to explore this subject at the advanced level as I had realised that there is immense potential in international criminal justice.

How did you go about selecting where to study? And why narrow down on the University of Kent at Canterbury?

I looked for particular expertise at reputed universities in international criminal justice. After narrowing down the list as per the criteria, I came up with four universities which possessed the best expertise in this subject area.

I also took help from the QS Rankings. It is the most reputed and acclaimed ranking of universities internationally. However, one must not blindly follow the QS World Rankings. Conduct your own independent research to see if the university has professors of global repute in your chosen area of specialisation and modules of your interest on offer in that particular academic year.

“Conduct your own independent research to see if the university has professors of global repute in your chosen area of specialisation and modules of your interest on offer in that particular academic year.”

Because I had already made my mind to specialise in international criminal justice, I finally decided to join the University of Kent at Canterbury because it provided me with an extended list of module options to choose from and all those modules were taught by world renowned experts.

Another reason that tempted me to join Kent was its unique assessment process, where the university assesses you only through the essays and research papers that postgraduate students write during their tenure with the university. The University does not have the provision to assess students through written exams, as is the usual practice at Indian universities. Since I wanted to join academia after completing my postgraduate studies, I finally chose to join Kent.

Did you apply for financial aid of any kind?

I had applied for some fellowships, both in India and the UK, but unfortunately, I couldn’t receive any. However, I knew that it is very difficult for a fresher to receive any form of financial aid for postgraduate studies in the UK and I hadn’t kept my hopes high.

There are very limited fellowships on offer by international universities for postgraduate taught programmes and one must be prepared to fund their studies out of their own pockets if one wishes to earn their Masters right after graduating with the undergraduate degree.

I am lucky enough to have supportive parents who had assured me that they will back me completely and will not let finances come in the way of my studies.

Any advice on the application process, namely the personal statement, and the letters of recommendation?

The first and foremost advice that I would offer is to apply as early as possible because the application process is complicated at some universities and can be extraordinarily lengthy. The whole process is extremely time consuming and won’t leave you with much time to focus on other areas of your life. Therefore, if you don’t want to rush in the end and commit mistakes in hurry, apply 3-4 months before the deadline so that you may have enough time to rectify the errors and fetch any other document the universities may require.

The personal statement is an important aspect of the application process. It is very important to be honest while writing your statement. The ideal way to approach the personal statement is to start with how you have developed interest in the subject area to which you have applied and end the statement with what future opportunities you look forward to in the field and how studying at an advanced level at that university will help you in attaining your goals.

“The ideal way to approach the personal statement is to start with how you have developed interest in the subject area to which you have applied and end the statement with what future opportunities you look forward to in the field”

It is extremely important that you don’t use fancy words just for the sake of using them in your statement. I have observed applicants from India, making all efforts to use the choicest of words from their vocabulary in their quest to convince the reader of their academic superiority. It is highly applaudable if you have read Ayn Rand and Emily Brontë during your law school, but you don’t need to endeavour to reflect the same in your personal statement.

The letter of recommendation is another important part of application process. Admission’s committees read these letters with special interest and attach high priority to them. Generally, the universities will ask a prospective candidate to submit two letters of recommendation. Both the letters may be obtained from an academic who may have taught you in one or more courses. However, some universities allow you to obtain one of the letters from someone in the industry who may have supervised you during your internships and is in a position to write a letter in support of your candidature.

I had obtained both the letters from my Professors who had taught me and supervised me during my law school. It is important that your referees do a realistic analysis of your personality and write an honest account of your potential as a postgraduate student. The admission’s committee of the universities in the West receive thousands of recommendations letters every year and they can distinguish between an honest and exaggerated assessment of your personality.

How was the LLM experience, and what were some of the highlights of the programme?

It was exceptionally good and very different from what I would have experienced here, in India. The teaching methodology practised by the academics in the West is very different from Indian academics and the variety of courses on offer in those universities is something that Indian universities just cannot offer for a variety of reasons, most important of which is resource crunch and lethargic, uninspired and visionless administration in Indian universities.

The opportunity to meet people from all over the world and learn from their experiences is something that cannot be experienced in this country. Holistic learning takes place at the universities in the West and there is no rat race to score more marks and grab gold medals as is the case in Indian universities. Exposure of another legal and political system also intrigues a candidate to learn more about different legal and political systems across the world and provides an opportunity to experience it first-hand.

“Holistic learning takes place at the universities in the West and there is no rat race to score more marks and grab gold medals as is the case in Indian universities.”

Everything over there is quite different and it will be unjust to compare the postgraduate law programmes that are offered in the West to the ones that are offered in India. However, I think, the liberty to choose courses and design your own programme is something that has fascinated me the most. In Western universities, it is possible to fuse courses of your interest and design your own programme that suits your needs. If a candidate is interested in International Taxation, Environmental Law and Outer Space Law, s/he will be provided with the opportunity to select courses in these three specialisations and design their own programme. It is something that is unimaginable for a postgraduate student in India at present.

What was your reading of the recruitment prospects of international LLM graduates in the UK? 

Personally, I feel there are immense prospects for students graduating with LLM from the universities in the UK, but the situation is tricky for students who have completed their previous studies abroad. International students have to comply with immigration norms, which are increasingly becoming stringent all over the world. Also, I agree that the kind of opportunities that were on offer 10-12 years back in the UK aren’t there after the 2008 financial crisis hit the markets.

“International students have to comply with immigration norms, which are increasingly becoming stringent all over the world. Also, I agree that the kind of opportunities that were on offer 10-12 years back in the UK aren’t there after the 2008 financial crisis hit the markets.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult for international LLM graduates to find work in the legal industry in the last decade. However, various new opportunities can be explored by international students over there. One option is to score Distinction in your LLM and try applying for a research position to work with an academic for some time, before eventually applying for a higher degree by research (HDR).

The other new options that have emerged are work opportunities with international organizations, non-governmental organizations and other advocacy and rights groups that are very active in the West. The experience gained through these internships is extremely valuable when applying for full-fledged positions with such organisations few years down the line. If interested, one may also apply to become a journalist with a media group. A background in law comes as an added advantage for people who are looking to join this sector after completing their studies.

Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently?

I never look back to my past, it’s a wasteful exercise, looking back and regretting decisions doesn’t help in advancing a case.

I think I enjoyed my course to the fullest and worked to the best of my abilities during my tenure with the University of Kent. Maybe exploring the UK a little more would have been fun, but I believe it is a work in progress and I have all my life to explore the world.

You have also attended a summer course at the Hague Academy – could you tell us a bit about the course, and how was the experience?

The summer course at the Hague Academy is a unique opportunity for any postgraduate student in Law. It covers both – Public International Law and Private International Law. The three week-long course attempts to clear all basic concepts in International Law. The faculties are the best that can possibly be drawn to conduct the customized sessions in International Law, some of them are being the Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

During the course, candidates also get the opportunity to visit the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Peace Palace which houses the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library.

I was fortunate to be there at the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute, and to celebrate the same we visited the Supreme Court of Netherlands where we had one mock trial by the Advocates of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Judges in the mock trial were also drawn from the ICC. It was one of a kind experiences to watch the mock trial of the ICC after watching the live proceedings of the ICJ at the Peace Palace.

The Hague Academy organises many events in addition to this summer course. I attended one seminar at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Also, the organisers throw a party to candidates in the summer course every week, which is one big reason why one should attend the course.

Lastly, any advice for Indian law graduates who are considering an LLM abroad?

There are many advices that I can offer to prospective LLM graduates, however, I will restrict myself to three.

Firstly, discuss your thoughts of doing an LLM and the reasons for the same with a person who has gone through the process and is in a position to guide you. After you are convinced of your decision to pursue the LLM, start planning for the same, ideally in collaboration with your mentor, at least six months before the deadline. The first phase which requires preliminary preparation is the most important phase as one would go on to shortlist specific courses of their interest and make the final list of universities where one would eventually apply for their LLM.

“The first phase which requires preliminary preparation is the most important phase as one would go on to shortlist specific courses of their interest and make the final list of universities where one would eventually apply for their LLM.”

Once you have made the application and have received admission offers from universities, make a conscious decision of going to the university that best suits your interest. Don’t choose a university because it is ranked higher in the QS World University rankings. After you have made the decision on going to a university, contact them and ask them if they can connect you with an alumnus or an active student of the university. Most universities do would connect you with student representatives at their campuses and they would offer you some important advices that you can take note of before leaving to join the programme.

“Don’t choose a university because it is ranked higher in the QS World University rankings. After you have made the decision on going to a university, contact them and ask them if they can connect you with an alumnus or an active student of the university.”

Secondly, I would advise prospective candidates to be patient and composed while making applications. Your LLM programme will demand this trait from you right from the beginning of the application process till the time you graduate with the degree. The journey will show you many ups and downs, as a lot of things that you would have previously planned for yourself will not work as per your whims and fancies but remain confident and focused.

Thirdly, I will advise all prospective LLM graduates to work hard as much as you can. Stretch your limits and put in as much labour as you possibly can. Being industrious during your LLM will reap rich dividends after your graduate. Do remember that even before you’ll realise, your LLM will be over, so you won’t have enough time to read everything and grasp all of what is being thrown at you.

Do make new friends, participate in co-curricular activities, attend lectures and seminars where eminent people come to speak, explore all the food joints in the town, but, most importantly, do make enough time for yourself to study.

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