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, Talha Abdul Rahman (NALSAR ’08, Oxford ’09) talks about his experiences as a BCL candidate at the University of Oxford. Talha has also kindly agreed to share some notes he had made on the LL.M. application process, a copy of which can be downloaded here [pdf].
At what stage of your undergraduate course did you decide that you wanted to study further? And when did you start the preparation process?
I took to law to litigate, and I had decided to do everything that it takes to widen my horizon and firm up my character to sustain the rigours and challenges of litigation. I think I had decided by my second semester that I wanted to study further, and that I wanted to pursue a post-graduate course in litigation-related subjects from one of the best universities in the world.
“I think I had decided by my second semester that I wanted to study further, and that I wanted to pursue a post-graduate course in litigation-related subjects from one of the best universities in the world.”
I started to prepare early. This process included working towards preparing my resume to reflect my passion for litigation and also my interest in academic study, to contribute to the development of the law. I can say that in my fifth year when I sat down to write my statement of purpose, all that I had done in terms of moots, research papers, conferences, and other co-curricular activities came in handy to justify my purpose and what I intended to take away from an LLM course. It also enabled me to project myself as a person who could bring a diverse perspective in the classroom.
I do not think that I would have been spoilt for choice had I not started working early. I must add here that many recruiters pretty much look for the same indicators in a resume as is done by an admissions committee.
What were some of the schools you had shortlisted? And what got you to narrow down on the BCL?
I did not have the resources to fund my Master’s programme. It was clear that either my LLM had to be fully funded or I would have to give it up. Hence, it was necessary for me to also secure a scholarship along with an offer of admission. Otherwise, it was not happening.
Given the foreign policy and economy of the United States in 2008, the year I graduated from NALSAR, I did not think it was a great option to apply to colleges in the US. I, therefore, applied only to colleges in the UK and one additional university in the Netherlands to study development.
Actually, I was divided between studying development and studying law. This was because from a litigation and policy point of view, especially in the current scenario of judicial activism, a better understanding of social policy was, I felt, also necessary.
“Actually, I was divided between studying development and studying law. This was because from a litigation and policy point of view, especially in the current scenario of judicial activism, a better understanding of social policy was, I felt, also necessary.”
For development studies, I applied to Oxford University and the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.
For law, I had applied to the Oxford University, the Cambridge University and London School of Economics. Between these three, I had decided that I would go wherever I would get a scholarship. I had secured admission at all three places. LSE’s offer came first and it was accompanied by Tata Scholarship.
Then Oxford University’s offer came in, followed by Shell Chevening Scholarship to study at Oxford. Then came an offer for admission to Cambridge with an intimation that I was shortlisted for the Gates Foundation award. By this time, I had already made up my mind that I would take up BCL at Oxford as it came with a full scholarship. The fact that I had friends studying there was an additional factor that I had considered while choosing BCL over the others.
Any advice on how to go about applying? More specifically, when should one start the preparatory process, and how to go about the writing requirements?
The application for an LLM or any postgraduate program abroad is a very tedious process. The silver lining is that writing a good application is easier than doing all that goes into making a strong application. You will need to build your CV, and start the same as soon as you can.
Generally, an LLM is not a stepping stone for professional life, and universities also do not view them like that. For almost all universities, the LLM is an academic degree and those who take LLM either have an academic interest in law or would like to take up a teaching career at some point in their lives. Therefore, irrespective of your motivation for LLM, you will need to build a CV that reflects your interest in the academic pursuit of the law. Having an excellent academic record certainly helps, though at times it can be compensated with commensurate work experience and research work.
“For almost all universities, the LLM is an academic degree and those who take LLM either have an academic interest in law or would like to take up a teaching career at some point in their lives.”
Writing requirement for each application is very different. I would suggest every applicant to assess the requirement of every university and write accordingly. Analysis, articulation, information and presentation is something that is being looked at in writing samples.
In terms of timing, most applications will need to be made in the 9th semester of a five year course, i.e. by September of the year prior to in which you want to go. Therefore, it is best to start latest by 8th Semester which would give you enough time to seek help and also to re-start or improve what you have written depending on the feedback you get.
Looking back, what were some of the benefits of the BCL that you only realised much after you were done with the course?
The greatest benefit of the BCL is that I learnt how little I know and that there is so much knowledge to seek. Other benefits of the BCL included getting habituated to long reading lists and preparing for discussions in the class where every student came with different experiences from his or her own country.
The BCL was very intense but very rewarding. The course is structured in a way that allowed me to interact one-on-one with my professors where my essay was commented upon.
Given the structure of BCL examinations, it was very important to hone writing skills – and very different from writing an answer for Indian law school examination. It was not enough to regurgitate case names and citations; one had to show independent structured analysis of an issue. Thus, the more you read, the better you got at presenting analysis.
“It was not enough to regurgitate case names and citations; one had to show independent structured analysis of an issue. Thus, the more you read, the better you got at presenting analysis.”
There are some who believe that an LLM (international or Indian) is of little benefit to the litigating lawyer – thoughts?
It is true that to litigate you only need to know the law as it is. However, in a profession that is driven by knowledge and embellished by the presentation of that knowledge, I feel that those who have a masters degree (especially from colleges abroad that allow diversification of perspectives) have an edge over the others in terms of research, analysis, formulation of the argument, and presentation.
This edge is reflected in terms of where to find the law and how to present it in a way that is acceptable and is couched in a language to known to the law. I believe that modern understanding of Article 14 of the Constitution is a result of a confluence of knowledge – of learning, of assimilation, of inspiration from countries abroad. I don’t see a reason why, as litigators, we should not venture out to seek knowledge from every possible source, and see how we can use that to assist in the development of the law. This is particularly true for those of us practising before courts of record.
“I don’t see a reason why, as litigators, we should not venture out to seek knowledge from every possible source, and see how we can use that to assist in the development of the law. This is particularly true for those of us practising before courts of record.“
I can give you a relevant example. One of my first assignments, when I shifted to Delhi, was to assist Justice Verma Committee (particularly Mr. Gopal Subramanium) which had been setup in the aftermath of Nirbhaya Case. While at Oxford, I had chosen the law of evidence which included studying the recording of evidence of vulnerable witnesses in the UK. This was pretty useful in assisting the Verma Committee.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who may be considering a post-graduate education outside the country?
Litigators must study further it if it does not drain their resources or causes a burden on the family. As a litigator, it can take you several years before you will recoup the money spent on education. Therefore, one has to do a cost-benefit analysis. There is absolutely no doubt that a post graduate course helps in many ways.
To anybody who asks, I always say that in a professional life that stretches to about 60 years, spending a year or two in reading further, in a different country and a different learning environment cannot do any harm. I would go as far as suggesting that where available, lawyers must also pursue PhD if circumstances permit. It is a ‘short’ life and must be well spent in learning.
“To anybody who asks, I always say that in a professional life that stretches to about 60 years, spending a year or two in reading further, in a different country and a different learning environment cannot do any harm. “
I do have one suggestion for Indian law graduates. When considering whether to pursue LLM, please also do consider whether what you want to study is development studies, business administration or social policy.
I say this because every postgraduate course aims to help the students develop a certain skillset along with knowledge of a particular field. It is beneficial in the long run to study a subject that is at the cusp of what you already know (law) and what you would like to know (for example, social policy or technology).