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, Shouryendu Ray (LLM ’18) discusses how he want about his LL.M. applications, narrowing down on the University of Pennsylvania, and writing (and clearing) the NY Bar. A graduate of the WBNUJS (Class of ’13), Shouryendu initially worked as a corporate lawyer before moving to the chambers of senior counsel Ranjit Kumar, the then Solicitor General.
Before we get into the LLM related questions, just wanted to know a bit about your career choices which have been quite interesting. Moving from a law firm (where you were partly handling litigation) to the chambers of the then Solicitor General – why make this move?
In my opinion, fate plays a very large, but often overlooked, role in shaping one’s career – of course, not discounting other key elements like possessing the right skills that match your goals.
I landed an associate position at Amarchand (as it then was) through a PPO in my 4th year of law school (NUJS). That gave me the freedom to explore other avenues through internships at the Centre for WTO Studies and the Election Commission in my final year.
Amarchand had a policy of rotating young associates with six-month stints in different practice groups. In my case those were General Corporate, Project Finance, and Litigation. Having had a taste of litigation, I decided to focus my career around it.
At that stage, I wanted to equip myself with the skills of oral advocacy and court craft and I felt these were best studied under a Senior Counsel. My decision to shift base to Delhi was based on hackneyed factors – a larger arena, in terms of opportunities, and equally important, the fact that chamber practice in Delhi would pay me enough to get by each month. Bombay chambers are notorious for paying junior lawyers next to nothing. This was an easy decision to make in a scenario where I wouldn’t be able to manage rent!
Working with the Solicitor General was an immensely rewarding experience that far exceeded my expectations, but I’ll leave that for another time.
What prompted you to take up an LLM considering you had invested a few years as a junior litigation counsel?
Unlike my previous career decisions which, in comparison, were more prompt, I spent considerable time reflecting on whether to do an LLM, if so, where, how would the absence (from the Delhi Bar) impact me professionally, etc. This resulted in months of SWOT analysis and brainstorming with my partner (also a litigation lawyer), parents and peers.
The key driving factors in favour of doing an LLM were the following (in no particular order):
- The need to brush up more fundamental areas of the law – the nuts and bolts, such as Evidence and Law of Contracts. The US and India both being beneficiaries of the English Common Law system, the underlying principles overlap to a large extent.
- To gain a deeper understanding of subjects that are indispensable for a commercial litigation practitioner. In this bucket, I had placed courses such as Commercial Arbitration, Investment Arbitration, Corporate Law (with a focus on valuation and structuring) and International Tax Law.
- To take more experiential courses such as Trial Advocacy. As junior chamber lawyers, we rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to argue. I recall self-tutoring the art of cross examination through YouTube videos, the night before my first actual cross in Delhi. I am grateful to NUJS for teaching me a lot – but how to effectively conduct a trial wasn’t one of those things.
How did you go about selecting law schools, and what got you to UPenn?
For selecting law schools, my advice would be to adopt a Yes/No mental-flowchart, the first tier of which would be to settle on a jurisdiction – popularly, US or UK. In my case, the scales weighed heavily towards the US. Top UK institutions like Oxford or Cambridge prioritise grades in their analysis.
Being a mid-ranker at NUJS with modest scores wouldn’t make me an ideal Oxbridge candidate. US law schools on the other hand, are more all-rounded in their evaluation, giving equal weightage to other aspects such as the quality of your essay, your recommendations, the kind of work you have done and the diversity in thought you’d be bringing to the classroom, and so forth.
My weak LL.B. scores were my Achilles heel while my strength was the quality of my work as a practicing lawyer and I had the Solicitor General and partners at Amarchand attest to that through compelling LoRs. These count for a lot in the US.
“My weak LL.B. scores were my Achilles heel while my strength was the quality of my work as a practicing lawyer and I had the Solicitor General and partners at Amarchand attest to that through compelling LoRs. These count for a lot in the US.”
Also, another consideration for me was the better flexibility in course selection offered by US law schools.
Barring Stanford and Yale, I applied to most of the other T-14 schools. Stanford offers some great LL.M. programmes but those are focused around subjects outside my interest area. Yale, as you may know, has a tilt towards academicians and pedagogues. I was looking for a general LL.M. which would cater to all my academic requirements listed in question 2 so as to make me a better practicing litigator.
The Penn Law LL.M. programme was the right fit for me for a number of reasons. It allowed me to pick from an endless list of attractive courses, many of which were taught by the leading names in the field. For example, our International Investment Arbitration class was taught by Gary Born, whose treatise on the subject serves as the Bible for all arbitration practitioners. Similarly, Constitution Law was being taught by Prof. Akhil Amar. Needless to say, this resulted in many star-struck students in the initial classes!
On a separate note, Penn Law’s small batch size of about 110 students also appealed greatly to me. A restricted class size, in my opinion, leads to stronger bonds between classmates. We also benefited from a good level of interaction with the J.D. students especially in 1L (year 1 of 3 for the J.D.s) classes. With the benefit of hindsight, I would not be wrong in saying that Penn Law offered an unrivalled level of collegiality.
“A restricted class size, in my opinion, leads to stronger bonds between classmates. We also benefited from a good level of interaction with the J.D. students especially in 1L (year 1 of 3 for the J.D.s) classes. With the benefit of hindsight, I would not be wrong in saying that Penn Law offered an unrivalled level of collegiality.”
The smaller-but-diverse class size also allowed for more meaningful discussions. It was a sense of bonhomie that Penn Law offered that I found very endearing. Case in point – during our convocation ceremony, when I – one amongst 600-odd students graduating that day – walked up to receive my degree, the Dean remarked that he had thoroughly enjoyed having me in his Ethics class. It felt good that he had noticed my participation in class discussions which had happened an entire semester ago.
Special mention to the office of student affairs at Penn Law which would go all out in addressing our concerns and making the space as inclusive as possible.
Another reason for picking Penn would be its inter-disciplinary approach that allows students to choose from a plethora of courses offered by other Penn schools, outside Penn Law. Many of our courses were taught at Wharton; students could even choose courses at say Penn Engineering relating to IP or bio-ethics taught in the Med School. Apart from Penn itself being a reputed Ivy League institution, its constituent schools also rank amongst the best.
From a more practical viewpoint, choosing Penn, at least in part, was based on location. Philadelphia is a student-friendly city with affordable housing that would seem a steal in comparison to New York or San Francisco. Also, its convenient location, between New York and DC allows students the opportunity to travel and network in these cities with ease. Cheap rent coupled with the funding I received from Penn, made sound sense financially. More bang for the buck meant I had some spare money to travel!
“From a more practical viewpoint, choosing Penn, at least in part, was based on location. Philadelphia is a student-friendly city with affordable housing that would seem a steal in comparison to New York or San Francisco. More bang for the buck meant I had some spare money to travel!”
Any advice on the application, more specifically on the personal statement and sourcing good recommendations?
Having gone through other interviews on your website, this is where I am going to sound like the metaphoric broken tape recorder.
In my opinion your SoP should address 2 broad questions: i) why you, and ii) why them. Utilize the first part to show who you are as a person. Be insightful but with the level of candour expected – they can easily sniff out self-aggrandization that falls in the domain of lies. Employing anecdotes may help but be wary of the rabbit hole and steer clear of longwinded stories. Absolutely no B.S.!
Sounding disingenuous will automatically place you in the red zone. That said, make your essay as personal as possible – highlight your strengths, state what makes you unique, but be sincere.
In the second part, address what an LL.M. from that particular law school means to you. Reading up on course offerings, looking up professors would help; but don’t feign interest in a topic that you had no idea about prior thereto. Again, the no B.S. approach should serve you well. Mention courses that tie-in with what you do and those that will genuinely up-skill you. If you are looking to switch fields, speak to the how and why. It is a big investment for any student and admission staff would definitely frown upon insincerity. Viewed from their perspective, they want a candidate who will add to thought diversity while in the programme and who stands a good chance of being a successful practitioner in the long run. Crudely put, they want to brag about you as you would them; so, make yourself sound appealing.
“Mention courses that tie-in with what you do and those that will genuinely up-skill you. If you are looking to switch fields, speak to the how and why. It is a big investment for any student and admission staff would definitely frown upon insincerity.”
As a Dean Scholar, what was the range of financial aid that UPenn offered?
The Dean’s Scholarship does not offer a fixed grant but varies and can be up to $40k. The amount of funding depends on a variety of factors and a strictly non-exhaustive list would include – the need demonstrated by a candidate, how appealing the candidate seems, if the candidate has secured grants or tuition waivers from other institutions, diversity, etc. It also depends on disbursements that have already been made. So, it helps to be prompt.
As I had said earlier, cost was an important factor in choosing Penn and I used the grants offered to me by other law schools as leverage. In the end, I conducted a cost analysis, including living expenses, and Penn was undoubtedly the best offer on the table.
At UPenn, you also took up the Business and Law Certificate course – was it difficult to balance this with the LL.M. course load?
The Business and Law Certificate offered by Penn’s business school, Wharton is a unique programme where students undertake intensive training in subjects such as Private Equity in Emerging Markets, Corporate Finance and Structuring Investments. Students are required to choose at least three courses out of a total five. Classes are scheduled bearing the LL.M. programme in mind. But considering the laundry list of options at the law school, timing conflict is inevitable. Of course the LL.M. takes priority in case of a clash.
That said, I found the Wharton programme quite manageable. The take home assignments – usually, case studies – were actually quite fun and classroom discussions were thought provoking. Knowing the audience, the arithmetic in classes such as Corporate Finance were kept simple, allowing us to understand concepts without getting overwhelmed by the math. The end semester exams were in the form of group projects.
You also wrote (and passed) the NY Bar – how early did you start prepping for the Bar? Any advice on how to go about it?
Ah…the Bar! My David-v-Goliath experience grappling with the Bar Exam colossus could easily make me ramble endlessly. But I’ll be brief with just key takeaways.
I started my prep quite late, around the end of May. That would give me a window of about two months. But be warned, studying for the Bar is an exhausting process. The sheer breadth of topics covered can be spirit-crushing – they test you on about 13 subjects, many outside my zone of familiarity. It doesn’t help that the test is not at all superficial but goes into nuanced, complex areas of the law. So, in order to take the Bar Exam down, one has to come up with a clever game plan.
Most Bar prep courses already offer a readymade path and if you complete at least 80% of the syllabus, statistics seem more encouraging. As a footnote: there are 3 popular Bar prep courses – Themis, Barbri, and Kaplan. I chose Themis as they had the highest published pass rates and their content, broken into 20-25 minute long video lectures, seemed more digestible.
But, I didn’t get anywhere close to the finish line – having completed less than 60% of the course before the exam. I had taken another week long break – a vacation to Cuba where the internet is practically non-existent and the programme is offered online! But in hindsight, this break served me well, allowing me to relax and unwind. In the days prior to my trip, I used my vacation as carrot and stick and that kept up my motivation.
I also benefitted from having a small study group. Taking small breaks and talking about more interesting things helps mitigate the pressure.
As a study strategy, one must definitely cover all the topics. As a part of your Bar course packet, you receive a set of short outlines and another more detailed one. I primarily (and exhaustively) used the former along with the video lectures, using the detailed outline only for more confusing areas. On an average, I would study for about 8-9 hours a day and then take tests for another 2 hours.
I cannot stress enough the importance of doing those mock tests, especially the MCQs. In terms of scoring, one half of the Bar Exam comprises 200 MCQs administered on Day 2. The questions are more often than not, tricky. In such a time crunch, practice really helps.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of doing those mock tests, especially the MCQs. In terms of scoring, one half of the Bar Exam comprises 200 MCQs administered on Day 2. The questions are more often than not, tricky. In such a time crunch, practice really helps.”
The Bar Exam is unlike any other test I have ever taken. It is administered over 2 days – 4 sessions of 3 hours each. It is a gruelling marathon that is both mentally and physically demanding. My advice would be take the exam well rested with hopefully a decent dinner the night before. Stay away from last minute cramming as that’ll do way more harm than good. At the conclusion of Day 1, you would have been writing for 6 long hours! Destress, chill and retire to bed early. Ditch your notes for Netflix and a beer. You will thank me later.
“At the conclusion of Day 1, you would have been writing for 6 long hours! Destress, chill and retire to bed early. Ditch your notes for Netflix and a beer. You will thank me later.”
What is your reading of the US legal recruitment market for international LLM graduates? How did you go about approaching the Foreign Associate post at Pepper Hamilton?
Calling a spade a spade, the market for LL.M. graduates, especially in non-transactional fields such as litigation, is practically non-existent. The few Indian practitioners I spoke to share the same opinion. If, by chance, an opportunity comes up, they will offer you an internship for a limited period and the conversion rates from those schemes are abysmally low.
If you still want to try and strike it in the US, I would encourage students to network with the unabashed zeal of a political sycophant. Send targeted emails to the right contacts, reach out to people for a quick chat, meet up over coffee.
“If you still want to try and strike it in the US, I would encourage students to network with the unabashed zeal of a political sycophant. Send targeted emails to the right contacts, reach out to people for a quick chat, meet up over coffee.”
My engagement with Pepper Hamilton stemmed from one such conversation I had with two litigation partners at the firm at the sidelines of an arbitration conference. I told them about the interesting work I had done under the Solicitor General. They spoke about their experience involving arbitration enforcement in India. Months passed until I got a call for an interview at the firm and that led me to my current position.
If getting a job in the US is the primary reason for your application, you are better off pursuing the J.D. Some law schools offer accelerated 2 year J.D. programmes for foreign qualified lawyers as compared to the traditional 3 year course.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering an LL.M. abroad?
Unlike students from other jurisdictions, Indian lawyers do not have tangible, immediate gains from the LL.M. like say a promotion or a salary hike at an Indian law firm. This further conflates the decision making process. But one should not get sidetracked and have a clear agenda on what they want out of the programme.
The LL.M. course is an immersive, rigorous programme with a steep learning curve. It doesn’t help that the setting is also unfamiliar. But it is truly an other-worldly experience – a chance for you to make friends with people from all around the world, get exposed to their culture and way of thinking and see things from a very different perspective.
In a world that is only getting flatter (this is not a plug for the Flat Earth Society) your LL.M. will reap rich dividends in future. Make the most of this short, enriching time!
“The LL.M. course is an immersive, rigorous programme with a steep learning curve. It doesn’t help that the setting is also unfamiliar. But it is truly an other-worldly experience – a chance for you to make friends with people from all around the world, get exposed to their culture and way of thinking and see things from a very different perspective.”