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.
Pavani Nagaraja Bhat is a graduate of NLU Odisha (’17) who enrolled for an LL.M. at Harvard Law School in 2019. In this FPA, she talks about her work experience right after her undergrad, the schools she applied to in addition to HLS, the LL.M. experience itself, and a whole lot more.
After you graduated from NLUO, you joined the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an organisation you had previously interned with as well. What was the kind of work you did at CHRI?
During my final year at NLUO, I interned with the Access to Justice team on Prison Reforms. I assisted the team conduct a study on the status of prison under-trial review committees.
On graduating from NLUO, I worked as a Project Officer with the Access to Justice team on Police Reforms. I primarily conducted research and advocacy on police accountability. I assisted CHRI pursue litigation in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court to ensure that every state and union territory sets up Police Complaints Authorities as mandated by the Supreme Court. I also conducted research on arrests, custodial torture and mainstreaming women police in India.
As part of this research, I created a training module on the role of judicial magistrates during the first production of arrested persons and organized training sessions at judicial training academies. My work involved a mixture of research, advocacy and writing.
Did you contemplate an LLM as an undergrad as well? Or was this a decision you made only after working for a bit?
I have been interested in a postgraduate degree since I was at NLUO but applying to the LLM was a long process. Since my undergraduate degree gave me a general foundation of law, I thought of an LLM as an avenue to build my expertise in public interest law, my broader interest area. While I was attracted to the public interest field since my initial years at NLUO, I tried my hand at private law by interning at litigation offices and corporate firms.
These experiences helped me understand why I was interested in public law and not private. But I did not want to hurry into the LLM as soon as graduating from law school. The LLM program is a substantial investment and I wanted to take my time in making the investment. I wanted to ensure that I choose a program and specialization that would not only build my knowledge but also help me secure employment.
“The LLM program is a substantial investment and I wanted to take my time in making the investment. I wanted to ensure that I choose a program and specialization that would not only build my knowledge but also help me secure employment.”
I realized that relevant work experience would help me better identify whether my interests were practical. Apart from my academic training at NLUO, my work experience (at CHRI and at offices I had interned at previously) substantially contributed in deciding that I wanted to specialize in access to justice and human rights.
The relevant work experience enabled me to justify why I wanted to specialize in this field and how I was equipped to specialize in it. Also, the public interest career is not as financially rewarding. In the absence of work experience, I may have had to study on a higher loan amount and the repayment is extremely difficult.
Considering that I have wanted a public interest career, I realized that relevant experience would help me secure more financial aid and better work opportunities after the LLM.
Apart from Harvard, were there any other schools that you applied to?
I applied to the LLM programs at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Cambridge and SOAS. I also applied for the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice Policy at Oxford and the MSc in Criminal Justice Policy at LSE.
In total, I applied to graduate programs at eight law schools. I applied to schools that I believed to be (1) out of my reach, (2) where I could possibly get in and (3) where I was confident of getting in.
Eight is understandably a large number and applications require a lot of work. But I wanted to ensure that I would ultimately have a choice between at least a few of them. More importantly, I wanted to secure as much financial aid as possible. For me, it made sense to apply to as many law schools as I could and gauge which option made most sense professionally and financially.
When it comes to the HLS LLM application in particular, any advice on how to approach the Part A and Part B writing requirements?
In Part A of the personal statement, the applicant is required to describe a current legal problem in their area of interest and propose a framework to resolve the issue. Since I wanted to specialize in access to justice and human rights, I drew from my work experience and described a legal problem in India’s criminal justice system.
I chose this issue because I wanted to justify my area of interest by displaying my knowledge of the current challenges to improving access to justice in India.
In Part B, the applicant must give reasons for pursuing the Harvard LLM, how it relates to their past experiences and future aspirations. I made a natural connection between the legal problem I had described in Part A, my work experience and what I expected from my LLM at Harvard. To write this part, it is important for applicants to thoroughly research courses, faculty specialization, potential research opportunities (through clinical work or academic research) and employment.
I was particularly interested in combining academic work with practical experience during the LLM (at the International Human Rights Clinic). Applicants need to extensively research these issues and display clarity of thought in their interests, binding it with their future aspirations at HLS and later.
Writing the personal statement, both part A and B can be extremely daunting and time consuming. Law schools want to see applicants make a compelling story for pursuing an LLM. An applicant’s story can arise from their past experiences, personally and/or professionally. I started working on the statements in July, if not earlier, and had several drafts before submitting the final application at the end of November.
A lot of applicants look at other personal statements before writing their own. This can be a huge mistake because your personal statement should be your own. Looking at other personal statements can influence your language and writing style. A more useful way of ensuring that your personal statement is actually compelling is to ask opinions from trusted friends, colleagues and previous LLM candidates on how to improve your statement.
“A lot of applicants look at other personal statements before writing their own. This can be a huge mistake because your personal statement should be your own. Looking at other personal statements can influence your language and writing style.”
Apart from the subject matter, personal statements should be simple, clear and concise. Law students are often conditioned to be extremely verbose and use unnecessary legal jargon. Instead of using excessive jargon, applicants should utilize the word limit to bridge the gaps in the CV.
Also, being extremely verbose is off-putting to the reader since the statement seems less natural. To avoid these mistakes, applicants should start working on their statements as early as possible so that they have enough time to refine the contents of the statement.
Did you apply for/receive financial aid?
Yes. HLS has a need-based financial aid policy and I received significant financial aid. The committee assesses the need for financial aid by evaluating the candidate’s resources.
I also received a loan scholarship from the J.N. Tata Endowment for the Higher Education of Indians. There are several organizations funding masters programs and applicants should look up these organizations as early as possible.
What were some of the expectations from the LLM? Were they met?
I expected the LLM to add to my subject-matter specialization and also expose me to a culturally diverse environment. Although I have travelled extensively during my schooling in India, the LLM offered me the opportunity to interact with people from different nationalities and learn in a radically different academic environment.
I had learnt from my colleagues about the extremely challenging nature of the program due to its short duration. I also looked forward to engaging with human rights practitioners from different cultural contexts and learning from them about their work.
On the subject matter specialization, I had the opportunity to only choose courses and seminars I was actually interested in. This enabled me to study courses that were solely related to access to justice and human rights. One of my primary expectations from the LLM was – to be in an academic environment – and it was met.
Is there anything about the LLM experience that you were unprepared for? Any pleasant (or not so pleasant) surprises along the way?
I think there is only so much you can prepare for when you are moving continents and to a different academic setting. The one-year LLM program is extremely rigorous from the absolute start – the orientation. It is very important to be able to multitask in the extremely demanding environment at HLS.
Although I never planned to sit for the NY bar exam, my courses, clinical work, job search, the LLM paper and exams were extremely stressful. It was always difficult to take a break from work because there was always more to do, whether coursework or lunch/dinner/coffee chats or extra-curricular activities.
One of the great things about HLS is the infinite amount of lunch/coffee talks on so many interesting contemporary and historical legal issues. Not only that, you can also cross-register for courses at other Harvard schools. It is very easy to be enticed by the amount of opportunities to learn something new. At the same time, there is always something you cannot attend.
“One of the great things about HLS is the infinite amount of lunch/coffee talks on so many interesting contemporary and historical legal issues. Not only that, you can also cross-register for courses at other Harvard schools.”
We need to make peace with the fact that we cannot do everything we would love to commit to. I was pleasantly surprised at developing the ability to set boundaries for myself, whether to stop myself from having the fear of missing out or in forcing myself to take a break even if it meant that I gave up on study time. Or sometimes, giving up on socializing to meet deadlines or to just prepare for the next day’s class.
Coming from an environment of pure lectures, I also had to adjust to the Socratic style of teaching. All of us had to participate extensively in class discussions not just because we were cold called or because our grades depended on it, but also because the discussions were purely engaging. LLMs and JDs took classes together.
This meant that the JDs generally had a better understanding of where the US laws came from. But the LLMs always brought out the comparative aspect, especially those who had work experience in our home countries.
We not only learnt from our faculty, but also from our peers who were litigating lawyers, firm associates, human rights practitioners, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, academics and so on. In this intimidating environment, I have worked harder and seen friends also working extremely hard to be prepared for class.
Most importantly, I was pleasantly surprised at the amazing bonds I formed with my peers. I am constantly inspired by my peers’ passion and commitment for their work and causes. Despite this passion, a lot of us suffered from “imposter syndrome” and we constantly had each other’s backs.
This became even more crucial when the law school practically emptied after the pandemic outbreak. We certainly did not prepare for the added uncertainty of not knowing when we’ll be with our families again, of hiring freezes or of having to uproot our lives in a moment’s notice. Throughout this time of social distancing, we supported each other, formed an even stronger community and helped each other grow professionally and personally.
“Throughout this time of social distancing, we supported each other, formed an even stronger community and helped each other grow professionally and personally.”
Looking back on my LLM, I am thrilled to have gone through this experience. This year was much more than a degree.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law grad who is considering a master’s abroad?
A masters can be a great value addition to your profile because it offers you the opportunity to engage in a different environment, dedicate your time to specific fields and goals. Although a master’s can be as short as a year, the year is packed with many experiences. The environment helps you push yourself harder and probably change your career goals, at least for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, an LLM is also a huge investment. Any law student considering a masters should think through it extensively to understand what they want from a master’s degree, especially if you need to take up loans. The career prospects will not be as great as you expect, and you need to have alternatives.
“Any law student considering a masters should think through it extensively to understand what they want from a master’s degree, especially if you need to take up loans.”
Also, a master’s degree requires you to be in a rigorous academic environment for a large part. You may be able to work on clinical projects or short term internships, but academic work consumes most part of your time. Harvard, for example, has a writing requirement to complete the LLM irrespective of which field of law you are interested in.
To get the most value from this experience, anyone looking to pursue a master’s abroad needs to know what they’re setting themselves up for. Having said that, I would put myself through this process all over again.
If you would like Amicus Partners to provide some personalised advice on your LLM applications, please fill in this form and we shall get back to you as soon as possible.