Nishant Gokhale is a graduate of WBNUJS, and Harvard Law School. He is currently a Gates Cambridge scholar pursuing a PhD
Nishant Gokhale

The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession at the global level. Along with the LLM application itself, these interviews are meant to bring across a slightly macro perspective on things.

And I can think of few better people than Nishant Gokhale to discuss such a perspective.

Nishant has studied law at WBNUJS (’11), clerked in the Supreme Court of India, worked as a litigation counsel and then with the Death Penalty Clinic at NLU Delhi. He has also completed an LLM from Harvard Law School (’18) and is currently pursuing a PhD at Cambridge University as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

In the first part of the interview, Nishant talks about the LLM application process, the LLM itself, how he developed an interest in tribal rights, the Gates Cambridge application, and a whole lot more.

Just one question on the HLS LLM – With respect to those two-part essay questions, how do you think one should approach them?

The application is a way for you to communicate to assessors about who you are and what sets you apart from others. Each person is unique and I would not recommend following any template in your responses to these questions. Having said this, there are a few things to keep in mind.

For the two-part essay questions, write about a topic you know intimately in the first question. Finding the correct level to pitch it is important. You need to familiarize a reader who may either know little or nothing about it, but could also be an expert in that field. Go too deep and you risk alienating assessors, and failing to do so may make your application seem frivolous.

Use the second question to let the assessors know you. As there are no interviews, the materials you submit to them are the only basis they have to understand who you are and whether you would be a good fit for the program.

It isn’t just for the second question, but use every part of the HLS LLM application to tell assessors something about yourself and your journey so far. I repeat some sage advice I was given: avoid merely re-stating your CV in the application. Use the application questions as a way to emphasize upon the facets of your life and work which may or may not find mention in your CV but ones that you want assessors to remember about you.

“Use the application questions as a way to emphasize upon the facets of your life and work which may or may not find mention in your CV but ones that you want assessors to remember about you.”

Many people write several drafts of these essays. In doing this, ensure that all your major ideas fit within the word limit as that is taken seriously. Ensure that every word counts. For ideas which do not fit neatly, see if you have inadvertently answered other questions in the application while responding to these questions.

As you would likely have spent a lot of time writing responses to these questions, you may rationalize gaps or may not be able to look at it dispassionately. Once you have a working draft (not necessarily anywhere close to your final draft), ensure that you get someone to review your responses.

Keep sufficient time to incorporate feedback.

What do you think the purpose of an LL.M. ought to be? And how did this purpose meet with your own experience as an LLM candidate?

The LL.M. is a broad-ranging experience so the purpose cannot be anything but subjective. Ask yourself why you want to do it and this will likely yield answers to when and where you would like to pursue it.

While I cannot speak from first-hand experience for people going to places other than the U.S. for a masters degree, it is mostly viewed as either a step up or a step side-ways in your professional life. Some people use it to be eligible to take the New York or California bar-exams (currently the only two US jurisdiction where foreign lawyers are permitted to practise). Others see this as a way to go deeper into research in a particular field. Yet others see this as exploring a broader canvass of legal subjects or changing their line of work.

I went in with an open mind but soon decided against taking either US bar exams. To take the bar, I would need to devote nearly half my credits to meet eligibility requirements for the bar. For me, this was a less than optimal choice as I wanted to explore a wide variety of courses at HLS.

The LL.M. for me was an opportunity to transition from doing criminal law work to get into tribal, adivasi and indigenous issues. Building on my previous work in criminal law, I took courses on criminal justice policy, neuroscience and mass incarceration, but also took courses on oil and gas law, federal Indian law and food law which provided me the latitude to transition.

“The LL.M. for me was an opportunity to transition from doing criminal law work to get into issues related to tribal, adivasi and indigenous issues.”

I am presuming that a PhD was in your mind even while applying for the LL.M.? If so, did you use this time to reach out and identify potential supervisors? And, when did you know (if one ever does) that a PhD is what you wanted to pursue?

I was certainly interested in doing a Ph.D. but was not set on it when I applied or even started my LL.M. Talking to students doing doctoral research at HLS and outside was helpful. Overwhelmingly, the advice I got was that doctoral research is serious business which should be attempted only if you can spend a lot of time by yourself working on a specific topic.

“The advice I got was that doctoral research is serious business which should be attempted only if you can spend a lot of time by yourself working on a specific topic.”

Where there wasn’t one “AHA! moment”, the HLS winter writing workshop played an important role in firming up my decision to do a Ph.D. This workshop primarily involves spending three weeks in January doing self-directed research for your LL.M. paper. Watching the snow pile up against the windows of different libraries at Harvard and thinking about my research area was amongst the most rewarding periods of the LL.M. After that, I was sure of wanting to do further a Ph.D. in my interest area.

“Watching the snow pile up against the windows of different libraries at Harvard and thinking about my research area was amongst the most rewarding periods of the LL.M. “

Life, however, had other plans. While my Ph.D. application was successful, it did not convince funders and thus I had to decline the offer. I spent a year doing something entirely unconnected with the law.

In retrospect, I realized that this was probably more valuable than jumping from one degree to the next and has shaped my outlook to the Ph.D. differently. More on this a little later.

On reaching out to potential supervisors- different universities, departments and countries have different protocols. I did not reach out to any supervisor beforehand but had come across work by my present supervisor which I found interesting. Cambridge asks if you have someone specific in mind while applying and I marked his name. If that person is unavailable but if the admissions assessors like your proposal, they will try to organize supervision for your Ph.D.

Given your field of interest (tribal rights and the law), did you consider a PhD in a non-law discipline, say anthropology for instance? 

I seriously considered anthropology and spoke to a few people who made the shift from law. I also considered history and read a little bit in both these fields. On a theoretical level, while my research is interdisciplinary, I decided to come back to the law as the questions that I was asking were closely related to it. On a practical level, a non-law qualification could also be a problem if you considered teaching in Indian law schools. Hopefully that will change in some years, but is a relevant consideration for the moment.

Following the LLM, I took a step away from law by working as a fellow in a rural library in a district with a large adivasi population in Gujarat. This enabled me to look at the law from outside. I figured that while many other disciplines like sociology, history and anthropology look at the law and its interface with tribal, adivasi and indigenous issues, the law itself has not been particularly self-reflective.

“While many other disciplines like sociology, history and anthropology look at the law and its interface with tribal, adivasi and indigenous issues, the law itself has not been particularly self-reflective.”

This year away from the law was very helpful in thinking about it more closely and it has helped me be more clear and articulate about what my Ph.D. should be focusing on.

Again, just one question on the Gates Cambridge scholarship, – any advice on how to go about the application process? What do you think worked in your favour, and what (may) not have?

The Gates Cambridge requires a separate statement at the time of applying. Their website provides useful information about what they are looking for in potential Gates Cambridge Scholars. You have the option of submitting a separate letter of recommendation if you feel that your other recommenders may not speak to the requirements for the Gates Cambridge scholarship.

Like most funding, it is an extremely competitive process. After you submit your application, your Faculty/Department shortlists you and sends it to the Gates Cambridge Trust. This is an indication that you have been rated as one of the top candidates in that department/faculty for your year. The Gates Cambridge Trust further shortlists people for an interview (in person or online).

Usually the number of people shortlisted is at least twice the number of scholarships available, so getting an interview does not guarantee that you will get the scholarship.

Candidates are interviewed by a panel of three Cambridge academics based on a broad subject area (Eg. medical sciences, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences etc). The interview lasts just around 20 minutes and is quite intense. It would centre around your academic experience, research proposal and where you see yourself as a Cambridge student and a Gates Cambridge scholar.

“The interview lasts just around 20 minutes and is quite intense. It would centre around your academic experience, research proposal and where you see yourself as a Cambridge student and a Gates Cambridge scholar.”

Additionally, know about the Gates Cambridge scholarship program, your personal journey till the time of making your proposal thoroughly, your plans following your degree and issues surrounding your application. I was fortunate to have had a chance to speak to a former and a current Gates Cambridge scholar about their interview experiences which was immensely helpful.

Factors which are important to other interviews apply just as much to this one. Be clear, honest and confident, engage with the panel and your best to let them know you and your work within the twenty minutes you have. For remote interviews be sure to have a stable internet connection, headphone/microphone and a backup number on which they can call you in case more advanced technology fails you that day.

It is really hard to say what worked and what did not. I was pleasantly surprised to be shortlisted for the interview and feel quite fortunate to have been eventually selected. Try your best, and something will give.

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