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.

Annapurna Sreehari is a lawyer who has taken a slightly less conventional path when it comes to graduate studies. Graduating with a law degree from GNLU, Gandhinagar in 2010, Annapurna worked as a corporate lawyer for a few years before enrolling for the Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University (Class of ’15). In this FPA, she discusses the “human” factor in dispute resolution, the MALD course itself, and a whole lot more.

You walked a fairly well-trodden path right after your undergraduate – working as a corporate commercial lawyer. Was this something you enjoyed doing? How do you think it contributed to your standing as a legal professional today? 

Yes, I enjoy the practice of law. I like learning its concepts and philosophies; how it is implemented and how it affects people; the gap between the theory and practice. And the more you learn, the less you feel you know. Also, there’s so much nuance to it – which is always fun.

My first job certainly set the base for who I am today. I learnt a lot about how transactions work, what is your role as a lawyer, what are the industry practices. In a lot of ways, it created my foundation as a legal professional and allowed me to see where the gaps were in the system towards helping people achieve what they want/need.

Also, I was lucky to have very helpful colleagues and seniors who took an interest in teaching me. I don’t think everybody has that experience. So, for that, I’m grateful.

At what point in time did you start looking at a master’s course, and was an LL.M. ever in the picture? What attracted you towards the MALD programme?

About two-and-a-half years into my profession, I started to get frustrated with the seeming lack of a system and training for lawyers to handle the “human” factor issues that inevitably cropped up in a transaction. I have seen deals fall through, not just because of lack of economic viability in a project, but over issues involving trust, ego, etc.

My brief exposure to mediation in my final year of law school had me convinced that these issues could actually be sorted through mediation. Much later, when I was pursuing my masters, I came across this niche area of mediation practice, called “Deal Mediation”, wherein a mediator helps the parties in a deal to navigate the deal-based issues, resulting in the successful signing of a joint venture/sale agreement.

At the time when I was looking for LLM programs that offered mediation courses, I didn’t find many credible courses that took a deep-dive into mediation. While there were a few LLM programs that focused on dispute resolution, mediation was a side-offering. The MALD program allowed a deep-dive into mediation in a way that one wouldn’t experience in any LLM, which is valuable. Also, the kind of flexibility that was offered by the MALD program was something that attracted me.

“At the time when I was looking for LLM programs that offered mediation courses, I didn’t find many credible courses that took a deep-dive into mediation. While there were a few LLM programs that focused on dispute resolution, mediation was a side-offering. “

Tell me a bit about the application process itself – how did you go about it, what were some of the bigger struggles, and what advice do you have for prospective applicants? 

The application process was typically laborious and long-winded. I reached out to a few successful students who were studying at Fletcher, via LinkedIn, about what they did while applying. Their inputs were valuable, as I made it to the only program that I’d applied to.

I think a big struggle would be, finding scholarships. It isn’t easy to come across information about scholarships and even applying for that takes quite a bit of planning. Also, the application form itself has several elements to be fulfilled, so long-term planning would be invaluable.

For prospective applicants, I would suggest a few things. First, the Statement of Purpose is crucial. Every institution has a particular ethos that it subscribes to. So, it makes sense to check with current students on what you should focus on while applying and then tailor the Statement of Purpose accordingly.

“Every institution has a particular ethos that it subscribes to. So, it makes sense to check with current students on what you should focus on while applying and then tailor the Statement of Purpose accordingly.”

Also, always remain authentic. The screening committee in any institute is very good at weeding out the authentic from the inauthentic applications. Second, plan way in advance (at least a year). If you’re also applying for scholarships, then your work would start at least 2 years in advance. You’ll also need to produce recommendation letters, write the TOEFL/GRE – all of which takes time. Third, good recommendation letters help. I have noticed that letters from a Supreme Court judge or a senior member from a reputed organisation gives an applicant significant edge. But, these should be from a person who has actually supervised your work.

Fourth, there are some students who have started an organisation or do some practical work in the subject of their masters’ program. While this is not necessary (and should not appear gimmicky), it adds to the quality of your experience and such students have received significant fee discounts and/or scholarships when they have demonstrated that their track record is different and geared consistently towards a particular goal.

How was the programme itself? Looking back, what were some of the “unlearnings” if any, that were made during the course?

The program was incredible. It opened my mind to a completely different paradigm of dispute resolution and exposed me to very different tools and concepts for understanding and navigating the same. As robust and valuable the legal approach to dispute resolution is, it has its limitation when it comes to international political or even international business conflicts (which, more often than not, do take on a political angle).

This is where the methods of conflict resolution (which terminology is usually used to describe international political dispute resolution) come in very handy. I believe that combining one’s legal acumen with methodologies used in conflict resolution would be very useful for navigating international commercial disputes.

“I believe that combining one’s legal acumen with methodologies used in conflict resolution would be very useful for navigating international commercial disputes.”

One key learning for me about the conflict resolution landscape was that there is a method to that chaotic madness of international political/commercial disputes. Although one can never use a one-size fits all approach to any conflict, being aware of several frameworks of response and using what feels appropriate for the context would go a long way in having some semblance of control over the situation.

I would characterise my experience at Fletcher more as a “horizon-expansion” as opposed to unlearning. During my time there, I purposely chose courses that are not offered in a typical law program. I studied International Finance, Macroeconomics (the way they teach it there is way different from what we’re exposed to in Indian law schools), Corporate Finance etc. I can’t claim to be an expert in any of these subjects, but I can say with confidence that I learnt enough to figure how those areas work on a superficial level, and that I need to learn so much more about those subjects.

“I would characterise my experience at Fletcher more as a “horizon-expansion” as opposed to unlearning. During my time there, I purposely chose courses that are not offered in a typical law program”

Would you recommend the course to other Indian law graduates?

Yes, I would. But there are also disclaimers, which are important to be aware of.

I realise that it may take one off a typical legal career and that’s not for everyone. And if students have ambitions of wanting to be eligible to qualify to write the bar in the US, then this course would not cut it.

If students would like to veer into a different career trajectory (be it working for an international NGO or the World Bank, or even consulting), then this would be a good course to look at. All of the previously mentioned opportunities are also extremely competitive and difficult to get. But for the highly motivated student, it should be possible to achieve those goals.

The beauty of the flexibility of this course can also be experienced as a burden. It’s up to the student to figure what they want to do with their life and in their career. This is not a path that provides cookie-cutter models for students to follow. So, it’s important to introspect and set expectations beforehand before taking on a course like this.

“This is not a path that provides cookie-cutter models for students to follow. So, it’s important to introspect and set expectations beforehand before taking on a course like this.”

Concepts like economics, statistics and quantitative methods which are offered in any typical public policy program are weak areas for the regular Indian law student. One suggestion for anyone considering such courses (and who would categorise themselves as being weak with numbers and graphs) would be to give themselves a head start by learning basics of these subjects in advance, so that they can manage to keep pace with the curriculum once the course commences.

You have also spent a considerable amount of time on dispute resolution in India – do you think Indian lawyers are ready for ADR?

I wouldn’t say considerable amount of time, but I think I have spent enough time in the mediation space to figure what that looks like in India currently.

There is a lot of debate on what constitutes “ADR”. There is currently a move to distinguish “ADR” from “CDR” (Consensual Dispute Resolution). ADR is popularly associated with arbitration and in order to carve a niche for consensual processes like mediation, the acronym CDR has been coined. Indian lawyers have been involved in arbitrations for a long time. The system for arbitration in India still has a long way to go, compared to jurisdictions like Singapore, USA or Europe. Nevertheless, we’re making slow and steady headway.

I think it is in the area of CDR that much work needs to be done in the country. There are hardly a handful institutions and people who are involved in raising awareness and even training people in mediation, besides a clutch of lawyers mediating disputes in small pockets. Now with the recent signing of the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation (popularly known as Singapore Mediation Convention) by 46 countries, including India, the hope is that mediation would find firmer footing in a lot more jurisdictions. But that will also take time.

As things stand currently, I find that a few individual lawyers, smaller law firms, and some innovative companies are open to the idea of mediation. Most of the bigger law firms or risk averse organisations don’t consider mediation as even a serious option. The reasons for that are various and innumerable – they range from perceptions of economic viability for firms’ or individual legal practices, lack of an adequate system (legal, regulatory/credibility-wise, knowledge/awareness) for promoting mediation, and lack of a larger political will to create that system. Also an unfortunate and uncharitable impression that only “failed” lawyers get into mediation isn’t doing much for its PR. A whole article can be written on what needs to change in the Indian mediation landscape, but more on that later.

“As things stand currently, I find that a few individual lawyers, smaller law firms, and some innovative companies are open to the idea of mediation. Most of the bigger law firms or risk averse organisations don’t consider mediation as even a serious option”

What is your reading of Indian legal education, more specifically, the “national” law schools – do you think they are good at building lawyers? 

You ask very difficult questions. I personally find it a little problematic that there is an informal “caste-system” of sorts that is practiced, where the “national” law schools are supposedly considered to be better.

I think the quality of students and teachers in most of the top law schools – be it those with the “national” tag or otherwise are similar. The teachers and members of the administration keep hopping between these institutions. Many students hop after a year or two as well. And almost all the big law schools in the country attract students from all over India, and sometimes from neighbouring countries as well.

A few things that could make a difference in terms of building better lawyers could be:

(i) location of the law school within city limits, that help students pursue “all year” internships;

(ii) connections between the law school and experts/practitioners who can take special/extra classes on subjects that aren’t commonly covered, or who can give a practical perspective on the working of the law on-the-ground;

(iii) institutional linkages between law schools and law firms/companies (in India or abroad), that provide internship/training opportunities to students;

(iv) allowing the teachers in the law schools the flexibility to practice law in whatever limited capacity (maybe as consultants or part time litigators) could also go a long way in changing the way subjects are taught in law schools.
Incidentally, the late Shamnad Basheer and the Consortium of NLUs’ Executive Committee have been lobbying for quite a while to allow law professors to practice in Courts. I believe that lesser the gap between teaching and practice, better would be the overall education. Similar model is followed in other countries, so I don’t see why it can’t be implemented in India.

(v) Encourage and fund research in Indian legal institutions for exploring concepts that may not be immediately relevant in the extant legal industry. Currently, Indian law schools seem to be catering to the legal industry as it stands, as opposed to influencing and changing how the legal industry can function. This includes equipping themselves to educate even practicing lawyers, members of the government and judiciary on cutting-edge concepts and legal issues by collaborating with credible institutions within the country and from other jurisdictions with better established systems. There is so much to be gained when legal education institutions in India aspire to be ethical and progressive influencers in the Indian legal landscape.

A lot of this is already happening. But, as is usually the case, there is always scope for more improvement.

Lastly, what advice would you have for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad? 

First, work experience helps. It allows you to put in context what you’re learning in your masters.

Second, choose what you’d like to study and figure what kind of opportunities that you might realistically get once you graduate. This would help you determine if this might be a financially sound option for you. This would include speaking to people who’ve done the course and asking them what they’re doing and how they got the job they did.

Third, be prepared to research the job landscape and build connections for future internships, even before your course starts so that you can hit the ground running once your course commences. You won’t have too much time once classes start.

“Be prepared to research the job landscape and build connections for future internships, even before your course starts so that you can hit the ground running once your course commences. You won’t have too much time once classes start.”

Fourth, figure your finances and/or scholarships way in advance (at least 2 years) so that you can time your scholarship and masters’ applications appropriately. Also if you don’t get a job in your jurisdiction of choice, determine if you’ll be able to absorb the cost of your education by working in India.

Fifth, cultivate perspective. There can be moments of despair when you’re job-hunting and things may not always pan out as you expect. That is OK. Focus on the learning and experiences and how it evolves you into a better person. Your experience may or may not yield into that “dream job”, but your learnings are yours to use appropriately and wisely.

“Your experience may or may not yield into that “dream job”, but your learnings are yours to use appropriately and wisely.”

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