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.
Hiresh Choudhary recently graduated with an LL.M. from Columbia Law School. After completing a law degree from NLIU Bhopal in 2016, Hiresh worked in a litigation office for three years before enrolling for the LL.M. In this FPA, Hiresh shares his thoughts on the LL.M., the importance of work experience, and a whole lot more.
Did you ever consider an LLM right after your undergrad? Or was this something you decided to take up after working for a while?
I had decided that I want to go for an LLM while I was still in my second year or so of the five-year course. I spoke to a few seniors from my university who had gone for LLM and the unanimous advice I received was that you should go for it after getting at least some work experience.
Looking back, I can see why and I would also say the same to people considering an LLM. I worked for about 3 years before the LLM and I found the timing to be ideal. Unless you aspire to get into academia and/or are fairly certain of the area of law you wish to build a career in, I would suggest gaining some work experience before the LLM for two reasons.
First, you might be theoretically interested in an area of law that is not as exciting to actually work in. It is best to get an actual taste of your area of interest to make a more informed decision regarding the areas of law you would want to focus on in your LLM year.
Second, and this is linked with the previous point, an LLM is often used as a way to change career paths. Dedicating your LLM year to a new field of law can open up new career options. Even otherwise, your perspective might change after a few years and you might want to explore areas that you ignored in law school.
Some law schools also have a requirement of work experience, so you should be mindful of that.
What were the criteria you used to shortlist schools? What were some of these schools, and why narrow down on Columbia?
There are a number of things to consider. Location is quite important, especially for those who aspire to get a job in a US firm. Choosing Columbia or NYU has locational advantage over law schools based in other US cities, due to proximity to offices of law firms. We had adjunct faculty members from major law firms in the city.
Law firms often host social events that give you a chance to network, which can ultimately be crucial in finding a job. Further, you can always reach out to alumni working in these firms to schedule a quick chat in person. This is probably true for law schools in London, Singapore, and other cities where law firms tend to have offices as well.
Teaching cultures also differ significantly across law school in different countries, so you should look that up and choose what seems most attractive to you.
The tuition costs also vary significantly and that is a major consideration. For example, tuition across US schools is more or less the same, but generally they are much more expensive than schools in the UK. I chose to apply for New York schools because they are in the middle of the city, while most other universities are in university towns away from cities, which is a very different experience.
Another factor is funding. Some law schools are much more generous when it comes to scholarships. Some have scholarships for specific areas of law. For example Columbia has fully funded scholarships for students intending to dedicate their LLM to taking human rights courses. There is another one for one Indian student interesting in studying international trade law. So it is useful to check which law schools have scholarships for your nationality and area of law.
The final consideration is linked with my answer to the previous question.
Your choice of law school will be significantly impacted by the area of law you intend to focus on. For example, Stanford is renowned for its courses in science and technology law. On the other hand, Stanford only offers four kinds of LLM programs with choice of courses restricted to the program you choose. Columbia on the other hand offers great flexibility and places no restrictions on the choice of courses.
The compact size of the university also means that it is easy to take courses with other departments which are just a few steps away. It also has a course exchange with NYU where some courses are offered by both law schools to students of the other one. For me, this flexibility was quite attractive.
When it comes to the LLM application process, how did you balance work and the applications? How early did you start the process itself?
This is the most difficult question to answer. Perhaps one of the most compelling reason in favour of applying for an LLM straight out of law school is just the time the whole process consumes, which you might find dissuading once you start working.
My advice would be for the October-January cycle of applications, start as early as April. The first thing you must do is short list the universities that you are interested in, and make a list of all the documentation that they require. It takes a long time to get everything in order, especially coordinating submission of documents from your university. Further, TOEFL takes a long time to publish results, and then again a few weeks to post the results to the university.
Specifically for the US, for most universities (only notable exception being Harvard if I remember correctly) documents are processed by LSAC, which itself requires a lot of time to process transcripts. It also requires that your university sends the transcripts directly, which can be a painful task. Similarly, it requires that your TOEFL/IELTS results be sent to them directly.
So, work your timeline backwards such that such that these documents are received at least 2-3 months before the application deadline. You can then shift your focus on writing your applications in the months leading up to the application deadline. If you start early and get the procedural stuff out of the way, you can manage to write applications during weekends.
I worked in a litigation office which meant weekends could often get unpredictably busy, so I chose to take a complete break from working for a month or so while I was writing my applications. I would not say this is necessarily required, especially if you have sufficient free time on weekends.
Did you apply for/receive financial aid?
I did apply for university financial aid, but as I mentioned before, Columbia has a few scholarships for students interested in specific areas of law. Unfortunately I did not qualify for any of them.
When it comes to finding accommodation in NYC, any advice on how to go about it?
University accommodation is extremely convenient because you are within 10 minutes’ walking distance from the law school. My apartment was one street over, so it took me about 3 minutes to reach class (an important factor for those 8/9 AM classes).
On the other hand, if you want a more traditional New York experience, and you are willing to hunt for apartments and go through the hassle of dealing with an agent and a landlord and all the paperwork that comes with it, you could find an apartment that is cheaper and more comfortable, and in another part of the city.
Columbia is close to the north-west end of Central Park, so it’s about 20-30 minutes away (by subway) from the heart of the city.
How has the LLM experience been? What have been some of the most challenging aspects of the course?
The LLM experience has been nothing less than life-changing. In my five years of law school in India, the focus was on what the law is, rather than why. The case law method only tells you the views that have been accepted by courts, and form part of what the law is.
Undoubtedly it is important to know what the law is, since that is what is of practical consequence. But it leaves out many important questions – why is it the way it is, what are the alternatives, and if the current paradigm is better than alternatives, if at all.
To my mind, an LLM seems like the logical culmination of your legal education, especially if you’re interested in broader theoretical and policy questions. Again, I would say that work experience offers you a practical perspective that will enhance how much you can take away from the LLM.
At Columbia I took courses which focussed on comparative analyses as well as interdisciplinary influences on legal policy. Aside from the academic opportunities, the chance to spend a year with talented lawyers from across the world is unparalleled, and that alone makes the LLM worth it.
The most challenging aspect would be the academic rigour. You’re required to take at least 24 credits over two semesters to qualify for the degree, up to a maximum of 30. On average, that means 12-15 hours of class per week (each credit means one hour of weekly class). On the face of it, this seems easily manageable. But the out of class work including daily readings, assignments, reflection papers, mid-term exams, final papers, etc. really pile up and you don’t even realise as weeks fly by.
Given the short nature of the course, how can one make the most of the LLM?
It is important to just accept that there are more things at offer than you can manage to squeeze into one year. There are courses, externships, student associations and clubs, University events, law firm events, and then the never ending list of things that the city itself offers. It can get overwhelming. There are always trade-offs to be made so just choose what is most important to you.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law grad who may be considering a master’s abroad?
Decide what your goal for the LLM is before you start applying. I always wanted to return to litigation in Delhi and that guided how I chose to spend my time at Columbia. My experience was entirely different from my Indian colleagues who wanted to take the New York bar and apply for a job with a US firm.