Shekhar Sumit on the MBA at Yale School of Management
Shekhar Sumit

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 FPA is a particularly interesting one for me; not only has Shekhar Sumit opted for an MBA  at the Yale School of Management, but he has chosen to do this after working for nearly a decade at the London office of Herbert Smith Freehills.

In this interview the NUJS (’09) graduate talks about the reasons behind opting for an MBA, prepping for the GMAT, his time at Yale thus far, and a lot more.

(Edited excerpts)

What prompted you to look at post-graduate studies at this point of your career?

Before business school, I worked in the energy team at Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), London. I was always interested in energy and was lucky enough to qualify into the firm’s energy group, working as an M&A / projects lawyer – I had a great time at HSF, learnt a lot from the people around me, and advised on some pretty interesting projects around the world.

Transactional lawyers bring a fair bit to the table. But then so do folks such as financiers, accountants or consultants! And somewhere a few years back, I thought it would be interesting to supplement my legal experience with financial/commercial know-how via some further education.

“I thought it would be interesting to supplement my legal experience with financial/commercial know-how via some further education.”

Of course, there are many ways of skinning that particular cat! You can go for full-time studies, executive courses or even go the MOOCs-way. However, I think I would have found balancing law firm life side-by-side an education course slightly challenging and moreover, I wanted an immersive, learning experience – so, a full-time course was the clear choice.

Why an MBA? And why at Yale?

An MBA from a top school offers a great mixture of business theory and practice, an opportunity to learn from faculty members at the top of their specialisations, and interact with classmates from a variety of backgrounds!

I was fairly sure I wanted to go for an MBA but B-schools come in all shapes and sizes – it took me a fair bit of time to figure out which business schools I wanted to apply to! One of the first things I did was sit down with a blank sheet of paper and make a note of all the things which were important to me.

“It took me a fair bit of time to figure out which business schools I wanted to apply to! One of the first things I did was sit down with a blank sheet of paper and make a note of all the things which were important to me.”

For instance, given my career background/future goals I wanted a school which had a strong base in energy. Another thing I was looking for was a school with a small student intake as I wanted to benefit from a more intimate learning atmosphere. Also, I was just applying to US business schools (given I had been based out of London, I thought I would have a bit more to explore and learn in an American school).

I ended up applying to and getting through a few business schools and ultimately decided to attend the Yale School of Management. The school ticked almost all the boxes I had in mind. Further, I also hoped to make full use of all the offerings across the wider Yale University whilst I was pursuing the degree – at Yale, students can take courses across other professional schools (and even Yale College) and the course credits count towards one’s MBA degree.

How did you go about the application process? Was preparing for the GMAT difficult given you were working full time as well? 

The key to cracking GMAT is probably just good old-fashioned practice. The syllabus isn’t all that tough (you have your standard verbals, quant and logical reasoning sections) – however, what makes the GMAT interesting is that it is an adaptive test (i.e. the level of difficulty changes depending on how many preceding questions you got right). And of course, it is a timed test too so there is only so much time you can spend on one question; if you are stuck probably better to cut your losses and move on! So, practice is quite handy in just increasing your familiarity and ease with the format.

Application essays though are another beast. There is no standardised form and schools vary considerably in terms of both the number and the content of the essays they need. And these essays are much more than just tactical self-promotion – you need to be able to show how well you know the school and how the school’s offerings resonate with your storyline.

“And these essays are much more than just tactical self-promotion – you need to be able to show how well you know the school and how the school’s offerings resonate with your storyline.”

So, you may want to reach out to current students, alums or even faculty members as you firm up your essays. And keep fine-tuning your essays and getting other people to read and comment! Also, you need letters of recommendation as well and you would want to tee up your recommenders with as much buffer time as possible. And after you submit your application, it’s a matter of hopefully receiving interview calls (a one-on-one interview and possibly, a group discussion as well) and then you are done!

All of the above is a bit time-consuming but still fairly doable – just takes a bit of juggling, planning and time management!

I know these are early days, but how has the MBA experience been thus far? 

In one word, great! The Yale SOM core coursework does a great job in equipping students with foundations in key commercial and financial disciplines. And the courses are sited at a level so that it works for people coming from different backgrounds, bankers, engineers or even lawyers such as myself!

Also, I had mentioned the flexibility which Yale students have in taking on courses outside of Yale SOM – so, for instance, I took a course in energy modelling at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a friend took a course in psychology whilst another took one in ancient philosophy. There are an incredible number of course offerings across Yale and you can tailor your degree whichever way you want.

“I had mentioned the flexibility which Yale students have in taking on courses outside of Yale SOM – so, for instance, I took a course in energy modelling at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a friend took a course in psychology whilst another took one in ancient philosophy. “

Academic coursework is just one of the components of life at Yale. You have roundtables, symposiums, speaker series on a variety of topics through the year. And we also do get a fairly eclectic cast of speakers! For instance, I remember attending talks in quick succession by Ram Guha, Ravish Kumar and then Rupert Murdoch! Another highlight was attending a panel discussion with four former US Secretaries of State: John Kerry, Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton!

So, between finishing up your academic coursework, participating in a conference on some really interesting topic, attending a few talks, the social side of grad school where you get to know your classmates and peers better, to figuring out what you are doing post-B-school, the school year tends to go by fairly fast!

Going back to your time at HSF – what is your reading of recruitment prospects for Indian law graduates? Do you think a degree like a UK LLM would help one’s chances of finding employment in the UK legal market?

Although, I never studied in the UK a number of my friends did pursue UK LLM degrees and from what I have heard, it is an amazing experience, both inside and outside the classroom. And I cannot imagine how a UK LLM degree will end up hurting a candidate’s chances in the UK legal market.

Of course, the UK legal market is quite competitive and as you know, a number of top UK firms (including HSF) have fairly well-structured recruitment programs from Indian law schools. That being said, recruitment is essentially a function of the strength of one’s candidacy, the level at which one is seeking a position and business needs/market direction at the time.

“Recruitment is essentially a function of the strength of one’s candidacy, the level at which one is seeking a position and business needs/market direction at the time.”

If someone from India has relevant experience, backs that up with an LLM degree from a top university, networks and increases his / her profile during that year, I would think a law firm looking for a position to fill would want to meet that person.

In that light, I would think that a UK LLM degree ought to help a candidate’s chances in finding employment in the UK legal market – however, employment is probably not a certainty and a candidate may want to factor in the possibility of not being recruited in the UK post-LLM when taking a decision to pursue the degree.

Lastly, any advice you would have for law graduates who are looking to pursue an MBA and make a similar switch from the legal to the business side of things?

If you are planning on applying to business school, you would probably want to have a consistent storyline across your application – i.e. a clear thread running between what you want to do, where you are at the moment and where you want the MBA degree to take you.

Secondly, you may wish to invest a fair bit of time in figuring out which business schools you wish to apply to – the applications take a fair bit of time so an applicant may be better off turning in, say three great applications as opposed to six middling ones.

Thirdly, you will not find that many lawyers applying to business school – so, there is a bit of work involved in explaining to admission committees what exactly you brought to the table as a lawyer and how those skills will help you thrive in the world of business, both in business school and beyond.

“There is a bit of work involved in explaining to admission committees what exactly you brought to the table as a lawyer and how those skills will help you thrive in the world of business, both in business school and beyond.”

And lastly, reach out and speak with as many people as possible – the more points of reference and sounding boards you have, not only will it be easier for you to take a decision but also you may end up making a few friends on the way!

All the best!!

(Lead image taken from the Yale School of Management website)

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