First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.
Bikram Chaudhuri is a dispute resolution lawyer who opted for an LL.M. at Queen Mary University of London a decade after he graduated from Symbiosis Law School (’07). In this FPA, he talks about his experiences of the QMUL LL.M. programme in Comparative and International Dispute Resolution, Indian law firms and a foreign law degree, and a whole lot more.
At what stage of your career did you start looking at an LLM? Any specific, real-world examples where you saw the benefits of an LLM as a legal professional?
From an Indian perspective, I started seriously thinking of an LLM at an unusual (or somewhat delayed) stage. I had already been a Partner at my last law firm for some years, was heading the dispute resolution practice there and was on track to possibly become Managing Partner when I thought of doing an LLM in international arbitration.
Truth be told, I had not met any ‘real-world examples’ of people who had become more impressive because of their LLM degrees. I had also not noticed any actual benefits to having an LLM degree, besides a bump up on the pay scale.
If anything, the general thinking of some of my earlier role models was that an LLM is a waste of time and money for a litigating lawyer or an excuse to have a good time. I could not challenge such presumptions then and have chalked that down to their ignorance as well as my own at the time.
To be clear, the LLM experience is what you make of it (perhaps with a bit of luck). For some, it can be more rewarding than others.
So, one of the common questions we get is with respect to the timing of the LLM. Given that you were practicing for a decade before the LLM, how did you assuage questions over possible loss of returns because of time spent on the LLM?
I banked on that decade’s worth of experience as my USP. To answer the broader question, timing is important and so is the backstory. Going for an LLM degree right out of law school is, in my mind, a lot less impressive than going for one with relevant experience under your belt.
Several of my classmates at the LLM programme had enrolled for it right out of law school, and their lack of experience showed, often painfully. These were students from several countries including India. The few of us with work experience often stood out, whether in classes, conferences or other events where it pays to be seen and heard.
“Several of my classmates at the LLM programme had enrolled for it right out of law school, and their lack of experience showed, often painfully.”
I know you have a fairly strong opinion on the International Arbitration LLM at QMUL, but were there any other schools that you looked at?
I also looked at NUS, Singapore and MIDS, Geneva, because these had specialised arbitration LLMs.
As for the course itself, why do you think the LLM programme is one of the best?
You refer, of course, to the QMUL LLM programme in Comparative and International Dispute Resolution (the specialised international arbitration and ADR programme). I will admit to an element of subjectivity here. I loved my time at QMUL and in London, and am very fond of some of my professors, especially Professor Stavros Brekoulakis.
Objectively, QMUL is very highly respected globally as a research-oriented university.
The School of International Arbitration at QMUL is responsible for an annual international arbitration survey that is cited and referenced extensively by practitioners, academics and governments across the world.
“The School of International Arbitration at QMUL is responsible for an annual international arbitration survey that is cited and referenced extensively by practitioners, academics and governments across the world.”
Closer to home, the Srikrishna Committee report, on which the latest amendments in India’s law of arbitration are based, references the findings of no less than 4 of these QMUL surveys. Professor Brekoulakis and Professor Loukas Mistelis are featured as Thought Leaders in the Arbitration 2019 section of Who’s Who Legal, and I studied under, and worked with, both of them.
No other university in the world seems to come close! (did I mention I’d be a tad subjective about this?)
You have really managed to pack in quite a few externships during the LLM – how did you plan these out, and was it difficult to balance the externships with the course requirements?
Going for the LLM was my first important move towards a specialised career in international arbitration. I was also effectively taking a sabbatical year off from work and felt that doing a bunch of relevant things would add to my knowledge base and pad up my CV at the same time. I had to turn a domestic Indian resume into a credible international one, after all.
“I was also effectively taking a sabbatical year off from work and felt that doing a bunch of relevant things would add to my knowledge base and pad up my CV at the same time.”
I never took up anything that would (seriously) endanger my exam preparations, nor assignments that bore no relevance to either my experience or my plans. Overall, I managed just fine.
Was there anything about the course that you wish you had known before signing up?
Not that I can think of. The course is well-designed, constantly updated and quite cutting edge. It was an incredible experience!
Given your experience as a corporate lawyer, how do you think Indian law firms perceive candidates with a foreign LLM? In other words, does it play a role in their hiring decisions?
I’m actually a dispute resolution lawyer. Also, I do believe Indian law firms do not ignore foreign LLM degrees while making hiring decisions. That said, a ‘foreign LLM’ is not enough. The programme should have some global standing to be taken seriously. The candidate should have done a programme that is relevant to the job s/he is applying for.
I remember interviewing someone for my former law firm (in Pune) for a role in the disputes team, the requirement being for general civil and criminal litigation and labour law. He tried to impress me by saying he had intensively studied European Constitutional Law. So what?
For me, the fact that a candidate has an LLM degree is not automatically impressive. What matters is whether the degree and the experience have added any real value to him/her.
“For me, the fact that a candidate has an LLM degree is not automatically impressive. What matters is whether the degree and the experience have added any real value to him/her. “
Some candidates may have developed an excellent network through the LLM programme which could be useful to an employer. Some may have mastered a complex subject for which there is a demand-supply gap in expertise. Some may have developed a knack for academic writing which can be useful in written advocacy as well as business development activities.
The candidate’s knowledge and perspective should have tangibly grown, and s/he should be able to market this effectively.
Lastly, what do you think has been the value (in terms of your career progression) of the LLM?
The LLM was a gateway to many fantastic opportunities. In terms of the programme itself, I learned many things that I had known nothing of, or knew very imprecisely (or even wrongly), before the programme. This in-depth knowledge of arbitration is now invaluable in my work, especially given that it is not common even in Mumbai.
My contacts made in London, many of who are now spread in different parts of the world, can be and have been of ready help on issues that are unique to other jurisdictions and unknown to ours.
“My contacts made in London, many of who are now spread in different parts of the world, can be and have been of ready help on issues that are unique to other jurisdictions and unknown to ours.”
I am now working in an excellent international arbitration team in a top Indian law firm known to recruit mainly through PPOs and big-name lateral hires. Not bad for a Pune boy who came out of relative obscurity into the Mumbai arbitration scene.