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, National Law University Delhi graduate (Class of ’15) Balaji Harish Iyer shares his thoughts on the International Dispute Resolution LL.M. at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Currently an advocate in the Chambers of George A Rebello, Balaji worked for a few years in Mumbai before embarking on the LL.M. which he then completed in the year 2018.

Was quite interested in your decision to join the boutique firm of George A Rebello – what got you interested in dispute resolution as a law student? And what got you to this firm? 

I guess I have to answer this backwards, starting with what got me into The Chambers of George A Rebello (“GAR”). I was a part of the Recruitment Coordination Committee of National Law University, Delhi (“NLUD”) and the committee had informed us of an internship opportunity at GAR. I applied, got the internship and attended. The rest, as they say, is history; Ashwin Shanker, one of the chamber partners, tasked me with some research work for a particular case, and it took me a week to go through the entire bundle to understand the dispute.

Then came the research, which involved my finding an obscure and forgotten indemnity clause in the concerned contract, and researching on indemnity contracts. Ashwin was impressed with my research, and ability to think out of the box and asked me to intern again; I ended up interning four times at GAR. I liked the office, the colleagues, the camaraderie and the environment; it was opposite to the experience that I had had at some other law firms. When I spoke to Ashwin after my third internship, and told him I was interested in working with him after graduation, he was more than happy to have me.

Like all national law schools, NLUD too had a compulsory clinic course on Alternate Dispute Resolution. For the uninitiated me, it was fascinating to conceive that there was something other than regular litigation (an impression left by Bollywood and John Grisham). During my first internship at GAR, I had the opportunity of attending one or two arbitrations, and that only heightened my curiosity. During the final two years of law school, I took as many seminar courses on ADR as possible. All this got me interested in dispute resolution as a law student, and I was always of a mind to study more about this.

“During the final two years of law school, I took as many seminar courses on ADR as possible. All this got me interested in dispute resolution as a law student, and I was always of a mind to study more about this.”

When did you decide to embark for a master’s? Was the plan to always work for a few years and then go, or was this decision based on your professional experiences? 

Yes, the plan was always to work for a couple of years and then embark for a Master’s. Dispute Resolution was my law school romance. I would read as much as possible about Indian Dispute Resolution, but the literature was quite narrow. Justice Bachawat’s commentaries can only enlighten you so much.

I wanted to read and study Dispute Resolution from a global perspective, so I knew that that was the subject that I wanted to specialise in. The problem was that my finances were limited. I wanted to self-fund my higher studies, so the plan to work for a couple of years was made.

How did you go about selecting where to study, and how did you go about narrowing down on HU Berlin?

I researched about various specialised, dispute resolution Master’s programs. There were a lot of factors that were accounted for: tuition fees, accommodation expenses, courses offered within the program, admission criteria, study hours, faculty, guest lecturers, amenities, living standards in the concerned country, etc.

The course offered by HU hit all the check-marks, but what it really came down to was the money involved. Education in Germany is cheap (and free, in many cases). Since I was planning on self-funding, money was a genuine constraint. I had saved enough over two years of working to cover the tuition fees of Humboldt University, and with some help from my parents, was able to take care of the living expenses.

“The course offered by HU hit all the check-marks, but what it really came down to was the money involved. Education in Germany is cheap (and free, in many cases). Since I was planning on self-funding, money was a genuine constraint.”

Did you apply for financial aid of any kind?

I did apply for the need-cum-merit based financial aid offered by the International Dispute Resolution program.

Any advice on how to go about the application process?

Bring the best of yourself. Everybody who gets in to the program is academically great, but you need to be able to bring that “oomph” factor to get the admission. It’s not all about great grades in your under graduate program. That’s important, but that’s not the be-all-end-all.

What you can contribute to the program socially and culturally, your experience (or inexperience), your thirst for learning – these “grade un-related” factors are also determinative of your application and admission.

When you’re writing your statement of purpose (or as this particular program calls it, the letter of motivation), see what you can bring to the table, that others may not have; see how you can contribute and give back to the program; tell them how you’re going to use the education to boost yourself, and tell them how you can boost them.

“When you’re writing your statement of purpose (or as this particular program calls it, the letter of motivation), see what you can bring to the table, that others may not have; see how you can contribute and give back to the program.”

The HU Berlin interview was taken a while back; looking back now, what were some of the highlights of the program, and how has it shaped you as a legal professional?

In terms of highlights, there were two: first, was the exposure to the international faculty and the quality of education in general; second, was my class – the “LLM-Fam” as we called ourselves.

The regular courses were taught by some of the best European minds, and gave me a lot of perspective. The class structure in general involved studying at home, and preparing for the next class; we were not “lectured”. Instead there were discussions based on the recommended readings. There was an openness in the faculty, and they were learning from our different perspectives and experiences as much as we were (from theirs).

International Commercial Arbitration was taught by four different professors, with different cultural and work backgrounds. Interacting with Professor Gerhard Wagner (my thesis supervisor) was in itself an experience. Although I had studied international investment arbitration in a seminar course in NLUD, re-learning it as part of the program rekindled my interest in the subject. For me personally, there was a lot of un-learning and re-learning: un-learn whatever NLUD had taught me, and what I had experienced as part of my career over two years, and re-learn everything from a broader, global perspective.

“For me personally, there was a lot of un-learning and re-learning: un-learn whatever NLUD had taught me, and what I had experienced as part of my career over two years, and re-learn everything from a broader, global perspective.”

The LLM-Fam was a great source of learning too. My class was a melting pot of cultures. I remember a “potluck” night that we organised, for instance, with everyone bringing food and drink from their own home countries. From Panamanian banana fritters to Australian fairy bread, there was a spectrum of sweet and savoury food: we learned and appreciated each other’s cultures and that brought us closer together.

Professionally, I was lucky enough to work in a “proper” law firm that was engaged by a South Asian state in a couple of investor-state arbitrations. That was a practical application of something that I had studied theoretically during the LLM. During the course of these arbitrations, cultural differences among members of the team had to be appreciated, and my exposure to the various cultures of my LLM-Fam helped in that too.

Lastly, any advice for Indian law graduates who are considering a master’s abroad, particularly in the field of IDR?

Yes. Research. Know what you want to study and then research about it. It’s okay to not have an Ivy League or Oxbridge tag, if you get what you want out of your program. But you will only know what a program offers and what you can take away from it if you spend time researching. Great law schools don’t necessarily make great programs; great students make great programs.

“Great law schools don’t necessarily make great programs; great students make great programs.”

Secondly, don’t go abroad with the expectation of securing a job wherever you go. Learn from schools abroad and come back and contribute to your own country. Make this place better than what it is right now – educate our people and tell them about the best practices that you’ve seen abroad. That’s your job.

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