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.

Ishan Zahoor, LLM International Finance at the Institute for Law & Finance, Goethe University
Ishan Zahoor

Ishan Zahoor completed his undergraduate law degree from Jamia Milia Islamia in 2013 and spent five years as a corporate counsel before enrolling for the LLM International Finance at the Institute for Law & Finance.

In this FPA, he discusses his LLM experience, why studying in Germany makes sense, the opportunities that the ILF provides, and much more.

You worked for close to five years before deciding to enrol for a master’s. What prompted you to take it up at this point in your career?

I felt that value addition by pursuing an LLM right after my bachelors is negligible. I sensed I need to get acquainted with practicalities of law before I embark on my LLM degree. I was fortunate to be engaged in few project finance and acquisition transactions early on in my career. This gave me an idea how the transaction functions, how does one structure a transaction and so on. It was only natural that after some time I realized that the time was right for me to pursue my LLM.

And, I think I always felt a little incomplete. I always wanted to learn more. I remember during my early years I spent considerable time reading books on Capital Markets, M&A, looking up things at Investopedia and even enrolling myself in various courses, in order just to fill that gap.

Yes, of course there is no better teacher than work itself, but at the same I realized specialized knowledge is the need of the hour.

How did you go about selecting just where to apply, and what were some of the other schools you applied to? What got you to narrow down on the Institute for Law & Finance?

I remember considering to pursue LLM in UK and US Universities back in 2015. I, in fact applied to NYU, Cambridge, University College London, LSE and Kings College London. I remember spending considerable money on the application fee, only to realize later when the time came to pay in the first instalment that I was not prepared mentally to take this financial leap. No matter how I tried to think about it, it never seemed a financially prudent decision. Even with limited scholarships on offer it still seemed daunting.

“I remember spending considerable money on the application fee, only to realize later when the time came to pay in the first instalment that I was not prepared mentally to take this financial leap. “

Having delved in a bit of finance while working on transactions I realized the importance of return on investment especially when pursuing an LLM. Perhaps the finance side of me never could get my head around the deplorable cost benefit analysis of pursuing a LLM from either UK or US. The ever so unnerving fact, that LLM anywhere does not guarantee a job is nightmarish especially if you come back with massive debt.

Spending the amount that we do for an LLM only to come back after completion (within a month in some cases) to India and start earning in rupees did not make a sense to me at all. An LLM for me, like most of my decisions in life, was an investment, the returns on which should be greater than the cost.

I undertook an extensive research on different LLM’s in India and around the world, their pros and cons etc. This is when I discovered Institute for Law and Finance, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (ILF). Having also met a few of its graduates who are well settled around the globe I decided to narrow it down to ILF. It is not only ranked among the best LLM programs in the world alongside Harvard, Columbia etc. but by far it’s a way more cost effective endeavour.

I realized the LLM degree at the ILF is the only program run by the institute. That is to say, there is no bachelor’s degree offered by them. The ILF was formed especially to provide LLM degree in Banking and Finance, keeping in mind the requirements of today’s corporate legal professional who come from diverse jurisdictions and hence a bespoke program was created. This makes it really special unlike the other LLM programs which are more or less like a stepchild of a University with no body really owning it.

Here, it is run by the able staff of the ILF and sponsored by the worlds top law firms and corporates like Debevoise and Plimpton, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Dentons, Banco Santander, Allianz Global,  Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank etc.

Any advice on how to go about the application process, more specifically the written requirements?

Yes, one has to realize that there are no shortcuts. You have to write your statement of purpose. You may also have to run after your professor or employer to get a letter of recommendation and perhaps in most cases you might as well have to draft it.

The application process at the ILF is fairly straightforward. There is no application fee, so there shouldn’t be any qualms in applying. Like all others, it requires a statement of purpose along with two letters of recommendation like any other University. But the quality checks are stringent.

Please make sure that your statement of purpose is highly personalized. Do not in any circumstances copy it from someone else. Yes, it’s absolutely okay to read and ‘get inspired’ from what some of your peers have already written, but at the end of the day it should be you and your thoughts alone on that piece of paper. Each one of us has a story to tell and make sure that it’s your story that gets translated onto that paper and not someone else’s.

“Each one of us has a story to tell and make sure that it’s your story that gets translated onto that paper and not someone else’s.”

In regard to the letter of recommendation make sure you are not putting them off to fag end of the application deadline. Remember professors normally do not have time to take request at your convenience. Plan ahead and it’s better if you draft a letter of recommendation and have the concerned person amend it. And yes, just don’t go overboard with praising yourself, be realistic.

Did you apply for/receive financial aid?

The best part of any German University is that they are very generous and hence there are plenty of scholarships available either from the University or the state. I applied for different financial aids that helped in reducing the financial burden to a certain extent.

The ILF offers couple of scholarships one is time based i.e. if you apply well in advance and the other is need based. Make sure you take the advantage of both. I suggest visiting the ILF website and also in the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) which might be helpful.

How has the LLM experience been thus far? What would you say were some of the highlights of the course? 

This LLM has been an eye opener. I never thought there could be so much to learn. There are times when you hear that LLMs are just a year of holiday abroad, but couldn’t they be more wrong especially when we talk about the LLM at the ILF. The highlights of the course are the modules on offer and of-course the teachers and the ever so helpful ILF staff.

We had teachers like Prof. Andreas Cahn a well known jurist teaching us Corporate Finance followed by Dr. Klaus-Albert Bauer who is the retired senior partner from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer teaching us the second part of the same course. Prof. Reinhardt Schmidt, who is an absolute authority in his subject taught us the intricacies of Finance.

Dr. Til Kosche, partner at Noer LLP taught us Mergers and Acquisitions. Prof. Dr. Andreas Hackethal taught us Financial Instruments and Markets. Dr. Manuel Lorenz partner at Baker and Mckenzie taught us Investment Banking. Prof. Michael Haliassos taught us Macroeconomics. Dr. Micheal Huertas and Dr. Arne Klüer, both Partners from Dentons taught us Capital Markets. We had senior partners from Hengeller Mueller like Dr. Hendrik Haag, Dr. Johannes Tieves and Dr. Nikolaus Vieten – teaching us Project and Acquisition Finance. We had Dr. Thomas Schurrle, the managing partner from Debevoise and Plimpton teaching us drafting of contracts.

Tell me, where else can you find a mix of people so apt that no matter what you do, you are destined to learn and learn a lot. The sheer quality of teaching staff was insurmountable coupled with fact that the University is located in the financial hub of Europe – Frankfurt, there is no way of getting it wrong.

“Tell me, where else can you find a mix of people so apt that no matter what you do, you are destined to learn and learn a lot.”

Just to make it clear that there are two programs run simultaneously by the ILF- LLM in International Finance (Banking, Finance and Securities law) and other one LLM in Finance.

The LLM International Finance, being relatively new, has much more to offer. I had the option the chose either one of these and I chose the former. The reasons were simple- The academic fee is lesser than the other course. There are many more opportunities to network especially during the winter break when the LLM Finance class typically does their mandatory internship.

The LLM International Finance does not require mandatory internship during the winter break however one has to attend mandatory courses like German language (a must do) and Advanced Business and Legal English along with intensive intercultural and communications courses.

In addition, during this winter break, there are meticulously planned academic visits to various law firms and companies, which is just another wonderful opportunity to network. We had visits to Thyssenkrupp (a German multinational conglomerate, remember the elevators in India), Hengeller Mueller (perhaps one of the few remaining premium German law firms) in Dusseldorf, Allianz Global Investors, Banco Santander, Noer LLP and Deutchsche Borse (German Stock Exchange), just to name a few.

I had the opportunity to personally meet and indulge for a luncheon with the executive director of ThyssenKrupp and the timing could not be any better. It was right during the time when merger talks between TATA Steel India and Thyssenkrupp Europe were ongoing (unfortunately the plan was shelved due to ECs competition concerns). Believe me, we had plenty to talk about especially about our cherished Ratan Naval Tata. It was great to see that we both were equally in awe of him.

I also met the partners and associates of Hengeller Mueller, a stalwart of German law firms along with the general counsel of Allianz Global Investments and Banco Santander. These are some of the amazing opportunities that I found myself amidst during this remarkable winter break.

These are great occasions to network with folks who may perhaps be your prospective employers. Nevertheless, even a recommendation from any of them goes a long way.

Having said that, just because the LLM International Finance does not offer a mandatory internship, it does not mean that you don’t get one. In fact, not only you do get an internship through the vast network of the ILF, it is more likely to be better paid. Since it’s not the mandatory part of the course the firms do have to pay a certain minimum wage which goes a long way for students like us.

I had the opportunity to intern with Debevoise and Plimpton as a trainee in different departments involved in M&A, financing, merger control and funds/investment management.

Looking back, were there any aspects of the course that you were not as well prepared for as you may have liked?

I wish I could be critical here. Even if I try, I don’t think I can come with anything that was even remotely not well prepared at the ILF. It could hardly go wrong when you have such an able staff that is highly experienced and educated.

Just to give you an idea, the Managing Director is a former lawyer and a manager of top German companies – Dr. Rolf Fridewald, followed by Ms. Shen Dee Kobbelt- Head of programs and marketing who herself was a lawyer and former judge in Singapore.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who may be considering a master’s abroad? 

Do not expect job offers to be served to you on a platter after pursuing an LLM. Rather, remember to be patient and work on yourself to stand out, network at every given opportunity, hustle your way through and if all sits well you may get yourself a job.

And yes, please by all means go ahead and do it. Research your bit. Do not follow the crowd. Make sure that it is well worth spending the money. Figure out what you want to specialize in and once it feels right, just take the leap!