As most readers know by now, First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued, or are currently pursuing, a post-graduate course (be it an LLM or otherwise) from different schools across the world.

The FPA (International) is meant to broaden this scope somewhat, getting non-Indian law graduates to discuss their LL.M. experiences in different law schools from across the world.

In the first part of this interview, Velislava Hristova spoke about investing in legal education, and arbitration in general. In the second part, she discusses the ICAL LL.M. in a bit more detail, and also shares some advice for those interested in the field of international arbitration.

Coming specifically to the ICAL programme, why did it catch your attention? What were some of your expectations from the course, and were these met?

After participating in the Frankfurt Investment Arbitration Moot Court (“FIAMC”) in 2014, I had no doubt that what I want to do in the future is International Arbitration.

I attended a couple of short courses, but I felt that I need to do a degree which would help me to consolidate and deepen my knowledge in International Arbitration and prepare myself for the international career I was dreaming of.

The ICAL programme first caught my attention with its global reputation and top ranking for specialised arbitration LL.M. programmes. The Stockholm University has a long tradition in offering education in the field of International Arbitration, and the ICAL programme was established back in 2003 by Prof. Patricia Shaughnessy who I had the great pleasure to be my main tutor during my studies.

Another reason to choose the ICAL programme was that Stockholm is recognised as one of the main arbitration hubs in Europe and the seat of one of the leading arbitral institutions, the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce (“SCC”) which makes it a natural host for numerous arbitration events.

The decisive factor in choosing the ICAL, however, was the intensive study of International Commercial Arbitration and the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars by leading practitioners and academics in the field.

“The decisive factor in choosing the ICAL, however, was the intensive study of International Commercial Arbitration and the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars by leading practitioners and academics in the field.”

During my studies, I had the chance to attend seminars on International Arbitration and Swedish law held at international and local law firms, take part in conferences, and visit some of the Swedish courts and the SCC. I strived to participate in as many events and extracurricular activities as possible because I strongly believe that your studies are as good as you make them and it is up to you to make the best out of your LL.M.

I expected that the ICAL programme would give me the chance to actively put theory into practice, but it exceeded all my expectations in this regard.

One of the major features of the ICAL programme is its mock arbitration trial during which the students take part in arbitration proceedings following the whole procedure from its beginning with filing a request for arbitration, going through collecting evidence, holding hearings, interviewing witnesses to its end by issuing a final arbitral award. The mock arbitration trial was led by the heads of the dispute resolution teams of the two leading local law firms. Even though it was a time consuming and challenging task, it allowed me to apply the theories I have learnt and to experience the arbitration proceedings from the different perspective of an arbitrator.

It was an amazing coincidence that the law firm I had always dreamed of working for offered an internship to an ICAL student. I was selected for the internship and could gain valuable practical experience working with its Dispute Resolution team, which was a dream come true for me.

The writing seminars during the second semester which aimed to prepare the students for drafting a master thesis further sharpened my legal research and writing skills and I plan to use my thesis as a steppingstone to pursue an academic career in the near future.

On a personal level, the thought of spending a year in Sweden seemed to be a big challenge for me in the beginning (because of the long winter), but it gave me the unique chance to get to know a culture and a country very different from my own and to find out that the long winter is not necessarily something bad.

In short, the ICAL program exceeded my expectations in any possible way, providing me with far more opportunities than I could have imagined before undertaking it.

“In short, the ICAL program exceeded my expectations in any possible way, providing me with far more opportunities than I could have imagined before undertaking it.”

Any advice on how one ought to go about the application process for the ICAL LLM?

I recommend that applicants start preparing their application documents well in advance. To be honest, I started preparing my documents very late. At that time I had a full-time job position and also had to pass the exam for admission in a bar association in Bulgaria, which further complicated my application process and made it feel impossible at some point.

Writing a personal statement for admission at a university was an entirely new experience for me because the process of admission at universities in Bulgaria is formal – you need to pass exams in certain subjects and fill out standard documents. I remember reading a lot of articles on the Internet providing guidance on how to write the best personal statement and many examples of personal statements which were claimed to be successful.

In the end, I just wrote my own story. I told the selection committee how I found my professional calling while being part of the first Bulgarian team which participated in the FIAMC and what were the skills and qualities I developed through this moot. As a trainee in some of the biggest Bulgarian courts for about two years, I managed to study all the weaknesses of the functioning of the state courts and the advantages that alternative dispute resolution methods offer. I believe that making such a comparison and explaining why I do not see myself working in the traditional judicial system strengthened my statement. I made sure that my personal statement underlines my passion and drive to obtain in-depth knowledge in International Arbitration by sharing my participation in various courses and events.

Although there are no set rules on how one should write a personal statement, I would advise the applicants to use it to tell their own story. Nothing will make them stand out better than their unique story told by themselves in an engaging way.

“Although there are no set rules on how one should write a personal statement, I would advise the applicants to use it to tell their own story. Nothing will make them stand out better than their unique story told by themselves in an engaging way.”

Applicants should demonstrate their passion and enthusiasm about the field of study and show what makes them suitable candidates for the course. As each applicant has a different life and professional path, this can happen in many ways – by attending courses and seminars, participating in moot competitions, researching and publishing or working in the field. Applicants should keep in mind that to persuade the selection committee that they are suitable candidates, the information in the personal statement should be relevant to the selected course.

I strongly recommend applicants to share the draft personal statement with friends and colleagues and ask for their opinion. Not only will this help them avoid any mistakes, but it will ensure that they are “selling” themselves effectively and are not underestimating their skills and qualities.

Concerning the letters of recommendation, I turned to one of my university professors who knew me well and to one of the partners of the law firm where I was working at that time. Along with recognising my academic and professional achievements, my referees also discussed my personal character.  The letters of recommendation added value to my application providing information about me as a student, as a professional and as a person and thus made it complete.

I advise the applicants to select referees who know them well, who respect them and who are willing to prepare a personalised letter of recommendation, discussing their academic abilities and/or professional competence as well as their personal qualities.

Lastly, given your transnational experience, what are some of the lesser-known aspects about international arbitration practice that more law graduates ought to know?

The world of International Arbitration is very dynamic and has many aspects which should be considered.

First of all, I believe, that exceptional knowledge only in Arbitration would not be sufficient for a successful career in the field but substantive law expertise is also needed. After obtaining my first law degree, I started working in one of the leading law firms in Bulgaria, where I was exposed to projects in a wide variety of fields, such as Energy Law, Corporate and Commercial Law, Contracts Law, Competition Law. Although at that time I was already dreaming of a career focused on International Arbitration and therefore my job did not seem to be that appealing, gaining experience as a lawyer in my home jurisdiction and working in different fields of law has been invaluable. Understanding how a deal is structured, the main challenges of each of the parties, and how the negotiation process was conducted are all crucial for the successful preparation of an arbitration case.

“Understanding how a deal is structured, the main challenges of each of the parties, and how the negotiation process was conducted are all crucial for the successful preparation of an arbitration case.”

Another important aspect and I cannot stress this enough is to be informed. One should always monitor the developments in the field as much as possible. International Arbitration spreads way beyond a single jurisdiction, and there are always new tendencies or new case law which may turn to be ground-breaking or simply – to be important for your next case. If it seems like a burdensome task, one can subscribe for newsletters and the distribution lists of various international organisations.

Good examples are the Young-OGEMID listserv, the ITA Arbitration Reports, the ArbitralWomen Newsletter, the Kluwer Arbitration Blog, etc.

Finding your place in the field can be tricky, especially if you are trying to secure a position in a foreign jurisdiction and to enter a market which you are not well familiar with. Sometimes doing your own research is not enough but you need inside information, which cannot be found in other way but asking somebody who can give you specific advice for the jurisdiction and the market you are considering. In such case finding a senior practitioner from the field who can serve as your mentor can be truly beneficial. I have experienced this myself with my mentors, which I found through the mentorship programmes of Young ITA and ArbitralWomen.

“Sometimes doing your own research is not enough but you need inside information, which cannot be found in other way but asking somebody who can give you specific advice for the jurisdiction and the market you are considering.”

Most importantly, if you have decided that International Arbitration is what you want to do, keep working hard, put all your efforts into it, do not give up even when things seem hopeless, and eventually you will reach your goals.

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