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.

Harisankar Mahapatra is an LL.M. candidate for the White and Case International Arbitration LL.M. at the University of Miami's School of Law.
Harisankar Mahapatra

Harisankar Mahapatra is an LL.M. candidate for the White and Case International Arbitration LL.M. at the University of Miami’s School of Law. A graduate of the National Law University Delhi (’17), Harisankar worked for a few years before embarking on the LL.M.

In this FPA, he discusses why he narrowed down on Miami Law,  and shares some advice on how to go about the LL.M. application process.

Were you considering an LLM right after your undergrad? Or was the plan to work for a few years and then apply? 

Since I always wanted to pursue a career in litigation the idea was to be done with the LLM right after my undergrad so that I did not have to interrupt my career for the LLM after having started my practice. However, immediately after my undergrad I got an opportunity to work at Pathak and Associates (P&A), New Delhi on some Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) matters, a topic that has always fascinated me since law school.

ISDS being such a niche subject and so rare to come by in India I did not want to let go of this opportunity, so I put my LLM plans on hold and gained as much experience as I could by working at P&A, collaborating with foreign law firms and most importantly dealing with clients who were mostly senior bureaucrats in different ministries of the central and state government.

In retrospect I think this was a good idea since I find myself chipping in from my experiences and contributing more to the discussion in my classes.

You have opted for a specialised LL.M. – what were some of the other schools that you applied to, and what got you to narrow down on Miami?

I was accepted at QMUL, London which I have heard has an excellent LLM program on international dispute resolution. I had also applied to MIDS, Geneva and I was keen about their dual LLM program with NUS, Singapore. I was waitlisted but ultimately that did not work out.

Since in my 4th year at law school I had already scratched the surface of the European Arbitration market during my Diploma in International Commercial Arbitration from the University of Vienna and Investment Arbitration during their summer program, that was one reason I thought it might be a good idea to now gain some knowledge about the American Arbitration market as well.

The advantage of being in Miami is the proximity it has with Latin American countries. I found many of the classes being offered by senior practitioners who have their law firms in Miami and years of experience dealing with arbitration matters in Latin American countries whose economies and judicial systems does resemble India.

So, here I got to diversify my understanding of arbitration from different continents i.e. not only studying about the famous international arbitration cases from North American countries but also other Latin countries like Argentina, Ecuador, Peru-countries which have generated a lot of controversial arbitration awards when it comes to investment arbitration, but may not have been in the limelight.

“The advantage of being in Miami is the proximity it has with Latin American countries. I found many of the classes being offered by senior practitioners who have their law firms in Miami and years of experience dealing with arbitration matters in Latin American countries… “

However, the biggest factor for choosing University of Miami would be the list of remarkable professors who are authorities in their respective fields be it as arbitrators, lawyers or academicians staring with Prof. Rudolph Dolzer, Prof. Albert Jan van den Berg, Prof. George Bermann to name a few. The university also offers certain short courses, seminars and lecture series from time to time by other renowned practitioners like Prof. Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler, President of the ICCA, Meg Kinnear, Secretary General of the ICSID and Prof. Carolyn Lamm, partner in the White & Case’s Washington, D.C. office.

Finally, another reason which was personally of utmost importance to me was the flexibility this LLM program provided in choosing the subjects. Though professionally I am a lawyer who deals with commercial disputes and arbitration matters, academically I was always inclined towards constitutional issues like free speech, gender equality, human rights, climate change etc, which I would admit I did not focus on during my undergrad.

“Finally, another reason which was personally of utmost importance to me was the flexibility this LLM program provided in choosing the subjects.”

So, in my spring semester along with my arbitration classes I have also opted for courses relating to First Amendment Fundamentalism, Climate Change & Human Rights, and LGBTQ rights- again these courses being offered by some highly accomplished people who have closely worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in representing these issues in different forums in the US.

Did the Summer School experience at Vienna play a role in your decision to apply for an LLM?

I would say it is the other way around. I went for the summer school in my 4th year by which time I had already made up my mind that I wanted to pursue an LLM in international arbitration.

From there on, any significant decisions I took was always keeping in mind how it could help me in my LLM applications. Just to clarify, a summer school is not a necessity or a deal breaker in LLM applications but some universities do perceive it as a positive.

Any thoughts on how one should approach the application process? More specifically, the personal statement as well as letters of recommendation? 

The first step would obviously be shortlisting the colleges one is interested in and with a clear understanding of why they want to be there. Another generic but important advice that is applicable to both the Statement of Purpose (SoP) and Letter of Recommendation (LoR) is being absolutely honest in making any statements on those documents. Since there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to this I can only mention about what I did for my applications and what I think worked for me.

For the SoP, I would primarily try to answer the following three questions:

1. Why do you want to pursue that particular course? The more specific the answer to that question, I believe the more impact it creates in showcasing your genuine interest for the subject.

    • For ex: – one could point out a problem that is prevalent in that area of law in their own country/region and how this particular course might help them to understand or resolve that problem.
    • At the time of my applications, no Indian university offered an LLM in investment arbitration, so I made sure to emphasize that on the SoP.

2. Why do you want to pursue that course in that particular university? There could be several motivations for anyone, it is important to identify the most relevant ones. My go-to motivation would be some professor’s work I admired.

o   For ex: – If there is a particular professor who takes a course in that university, be sure to mention that and any work of theirs that you admire/agree/disagree with or wish to work further on it.

Next, I am unsure if this is good advice, but these quirks have definitely worked for me on some occasions. I have candidly devoted some words for motivations not directly linked to the course like wanting to experience the culture of a particular city, where the university is situated in.

“I have candidly devoted some words for motivations not directly linked to the course like wanting to experience the culture of a particular city, where the university is situated in.”

Ex: I love EDM music and dabbled in professional deejaying during my undergrad. So, for my Miami applications I subtly put that into my SoP as to how I was keen on attending the Ultra Miami Music festival. I love travelling and in my summer school applications, I did mention how I wished to do a backpacking Euro trip after the program.

3. Any experience you have related to the field of law you are applying for and if admitted, how would you contribute to the class?

This would mostly cover your academic and co-curricular activities related to the field of law one applies for like any work experience or internships, publications, moot court participations, certification courses, research and volunteering work, etc.

The answer to the second part of the question is obviously contingent on your answer in the first part and how your experiences can provide a value addition for other participants of the course.

Moving on to the aspect of LoR one important advice I can perhaps give is to avoid template write-ups and making the LOR as personalized as possible. Obviously not writing the LoR for yourself because not only is it unethical but also if caught it can be an embarrassment for both the recommender as well as the recommendee and can jeopardize future applicants from the same university or same recommender.

My LoRs (the ones I had access to because I had to personally mail them) were filled with anecdotes from the professors especially with regard to the discussions we had during classes or during the times they coached me for my moot courts. It is important for them to not only list out your positives but also point out skills that were lacking when they first met you and if you’ve improved upon them since or if the course you are applying for will help you in improving those skills. If it’s a recommendation from an employer again I feel the more anecdotal they are the more genuine it looks.

“It is important for them to not only list out your positives but also point out skills that were lacking when they first met you and if you’ve improved upon them since or if the course you are applying for will help you in improving those skills.”

What is important is to not only maintain a rapport with your potential recommender during your undergrad but also to be in touch with them after you graduate. Wishing on special occasions, being connected on LinkedIn, asking feedback or suggestions for your professional work to your college professors, these are just some ways that one can adopt so that it does not become awkward to approach your recommender when the time comes.

Did you apply for/receive financial aid? 

I did not apply for financial aid. I was under a wrong impression that seeking financial aid decreases the chance for getting accepted. It’s a good practice to ensure if the application decisions of the colleges are ‘need-blind’ or not.

Other than the full tuition scholarship there are several of my batchmates who have received partial scholarship amounts, something I was not aware of when applying and in retrospect I regret that.

Like the cliché goes, if you try you may fail, if you don’t try you definitely fail.

I think it is important to explore these scholarship opportunities and alternate avenues from third party trusts and grants both within and outside India, with a nothing-to-lose attitude. Another area to be explored is applying for the position of research assistant or teaching assistant whose stipend may cover a significant amount of monthly expenses.

How has the LL.M. experience been thus far? What have been some of the highlights along the way? 

Overall, it has been an overwhelming and enriching experience. So far, the program has offered almost everything I had expected and much more. What I love the most about the classes is that the emphasis is more on the practical aspects of arbitral proceedings for ex: – when the professors break into an anecdote regarding the manner in which they strategized an issue in real life.

I genuinely believe at this point in my career that this practical knowledge I am acquiring here is going to be a tremendous asset to me in the future. I have had many great moments here but if I had to pick, the better ones would be:

  • Getting my copy of the book on Investment Arbitration signed by Prof. Rudolph Dolzer. That is a book I picked in the 3rd year of my law school for a moot court competition and that is the moment I would say which kind of set me on the course for my future.
  • I was informed recently that I have been awarded the CALI Excellence for the Future Award for securing the highest grades in a subject titled “Drafting Complex Arbitration Clauses” taught by the course director of my program. For someone who has been fairly above average for the better part of law school, this I would say instills a sense of accomplishment and confidence to keep working hard in the future.
  • Finally, the friends/colleagues I made here despite the fights and difference of opinions that we have amongst ourselves during the mock arbitrations but still managing to settle it out by evening over potlucks and house parties and learning to swear in 10 foreign languages is as diverse and international as it gets.

What is your reading of the employment opportunities for international LLM graduates when it comes to the field of arbitration? 

Since I am not actively looking for job opportunities in the US I may not be as well informed. However, the impression I get from interacting with my batchmates who are looking for jobs is there is definitely a lot of competition especially given that foreign trained lawyers in the LLM are directly competing with the US J.D students who have an advantage in terms of better understanding and experience of the US laws.

However, what plays to the advantage of LLM students is when significant amount of the international arbitration work is outsourced to US law firms. So, if one happens to belong to that nationality from where the case has generated, you stand a very good chance of securing that job because you are more familiar with the local laws of that nation.

Another important thing that one has to keep in mind during course selections is not to miss out on the mandatory subjects if they are interested to appear the New York Bar or any other Bar exams. Having passed the bar exam is certainly advantageous if one is looking for employment opportunities here.

I cannot stress enough on the importance of networking which I would go on to say is a significant part of the LLM experience. I distinctly remember during our orientation week, many skills of networking that were taught to us by the Career Development Office (CDO), like having a 30 second elevator introduction ready, getting to know about sporting interests of law firm partners, checking the privacy settings of our social media profiles, etc.

“I cannot stress enough on the importance of networking which I would go on to say is a significant part of the LLM experience.”

Back home I would like to believe there is definitely a demand for foreign-trained LLMs since it certainly provides a value addition when pitching to potential clients by mentioning that the associates who would be working on their case have a specialized understanding of international arbitration. I say this because I have been part of business development meetings where the partners might have oversold my skills at the time.

Secondly, getting on first name basis with the top arbitrators during the classes definitely provides for good networking opportunities in case the Indian firm is looking to appoint these arbitrators in any of their matters, or collaborating with them as attorneys, it certainly gives the firm a strategic advantage.

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

My first and foremost (albeit philosophical) advice would be to question yourself do you absolutely need an LLM since it is a significant investment of resources and time, so it is only logical that you question if you really need to do an LLM. As long as you can justify the reason to yourself and it makes sense to you, proceed with the applications.

The motivation could vary from better job opportunities to intellectual stimulation or simply wanting to take a break from your job to unwind and ending up with an LLM degree in the process. Let nobody else dictate your reasons. Certainly not the ones who criticize the LLM as an exercise in the pursuance of a year long vacation.

“Let nobody else dictate your reasons. Certainly not the ones who criticize the LLM as an exercise in the pursuance of a year long vacation.”

I have always believed in leading a holistic and balanced life, so I fail to see the problem if along with academics one manages to fulfil their other goals like travelling, photography, etc.

Be sure in your head about what the university has to offer so that you are not disappointed later as to not getting the most out of your LLM program. I lay so much emphasis on this because I have spoken to numerous people who have had unsatisfactory experiences with their LLM programs. In simple words, just know what you are getting into and what you seek from it.

In India, foreign LLMs are romanticized- things like living in a new country, making new friends, basically things that the pop culture makes look cool “for the gram”. But they fail to show the struggle of having to live alone, cooking your meals thrice a day, doing your own chores that Indian kids may not be used to till now. It is a life changing and often once-in-a-life-time experience, so one has to be physically, mentally and socio-economically prepared for it to make the most of it.

“In India foreign LLMs are romanticized, things like living in a new country, making new friends, basically things that the pop culture makes look cool “for the gram”. “

The next piece advice would be to consult with people who have already done that program. You can chase them on LinkdIn and ask them respectfully for their opinion. More often than not people are more than willing to help. If one has the clarity during their undergrad about the subject area of the LLM they want to pursue, it is only logical that they direct their efforts towards that in terms of the papers they publish, the internships they do and the seminars they attend. That will reflect their commitment towards the subject on their SoPs thereby improving their chances for a successful application.

In terms of applying to the number of universities and applying for financial aid, do your research thoroughly regarding the different opportunities and do not refrain from applying to a place because you underestimate yourself, unless of course you are constrained financially from applying. Check if the application fee can be waived, English language proficiency tests can be waived. Doing an LLM is an expensive affair and there are several places where some expenses can be avoided.

“Doing an LLM is an expensive affair and there are several places where some expenses can be avoided.”

All the best to prospective applicants, and if anyone has any specific queries regarding the White and Case International Arbitration LLM at the University of Miami or regarding International Arbitration in general they can reach me via Linkedin or my email: hsm67@miami.edu.

 

 


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