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.
Mohit Khubchandani graduated with an LL.M. from Stanford Law School, and is currently working as a Research Fellow at the United Nations International Law Commission in Geneva. In this FPA, the Guru Gobind law graduate discusses the Stanford Law LL.M. experience, the Fellowship at the International Court of Justice, and building a career in international law.
Do you think it is essential to pursue an LL.M if one wants to have a career in International Law? Is that why you opted for an LL.M too?
If one wishes to enter into academia, then an LL.M. and/or PHD is paramount in any field, regardless of my opinion. It is almost an educational convention in law. If its public-policy in any field, then its highly desirable.
Unlike the fields above, practitioners at law firms or those who are a part of a chamber practice in municipal litigations in their own countries do not require an LL.M. One can develop an expertise by way of their experience on the job.
Contrary to the domestic regimes, International Law, whether it is Public International Law or International Arbitration is a different ball-game all together. Whether it is academia, public-policy or litigation, an LL.M. is essential.
It is also imperative for me to underscore that more often than not, International Lawyers traverse through academia, public-policy at International organisations and litigation either simultaneously or at different point of times in their lives. This is owing to the very nature synthesized of International Law. Thus, it is not seldom that we see practitioners also take up visiting faculty positions at universities and vice-versa professors being counsels at law firms. A lot of professors also argue cases before international courts and tribunals, something that we don’t usually see in domestic regimes.
My motivation to do an LL.M. in International Law was similar. It is not certain, but it gives a foot in the door and a bargaining power at International institutions. I also opted for an LL.M. in order to apply for an ICJ Judicial Fellowship, which people cannot in their individual capacity.
I shall elaborate this further in the foregoing questions.
You decided to work for 2 years and then opted for an LL.M at Stanford. Was there any particular reason for doing that?
I worked at the Office of the Attorney General for India for 2.5 years before pursuing my LL.M. First and foremost, unlike any other school that I am aware of, it is mandatory to have a minimum of two years of working experience before even being eligible to pursue an LL.M. at Stanford Law School.
I had precisely that; usually a lot more is required. I was lucky to be selected and was one of the youngest students in my cohort. This requirement makes Stanford Law a very unique intellectual experience. Not only do we get to learn the academic best practices, but also those related to work in different jurisdictions from our professors as well as peers. I had the great fortune of acquiring a 360 degrees’ learning experience from several brilliant minds from all across the globe.
Secondly, I wanted to take some experience before an LL.M. In hindsight, it was a great decision as our classes and courses were designed such – that discussions surrounding the perspective of someone who has practiced law were inevitable. At these junctures, my experience as a litigator in India practising common law and international law was extremely relevant and helpful.
Finally, it goes without saying that taking work experience can better place you to crack the best universities in the world.
What made you narrow down on Stanford? Did you receive any financial aid?
It might be eternity till I keep counting my reasons to join Stanford. But let me begin by what struck with me at first. My background search about Stanford Law was startling, and it was in a way an intellectual love at first sight that resonated with my soul.
This was because Stanford whilst evaluating an application sees the overall personality and the impactful work that a law student has done in her/his career whilst not laying the primary focus on grades (though they are important).
What was even more pleasant to hear, was that it holds the unique distinction of not awarding any specific grades to students to avoid any toxic competition. It only had a pass and honours category. I had accordingly aimed at Stanford Law since a very nascent stage in my law career.
Since an impressionable age, I have strived to develop an all-rounded personality fuelled with a desire to excel and never ran behind the best grades. This motto wasn’t any dissimilar even while being a law student. This is not to say that I didn’t focus on them at all, but that is how I built my resume and backed myself to crack Stanford with my strengths.
I must also state here that Stanford besides its otherwise repute, also holds the distinction of offering four niche LL.M. sub-specialisations unlike other top schools. I had an avid affinity towards the intersection of International and Environmental Law. Stanford happened to be one of the best programs in the world for that course. So I was again lucky to be able to balance the eternal debate about university vis-à-vis course reputation.
One can apply to one out of these four specialisations, and is eligible for the seats in that specialisation only, which are typically not more than 15-17. This also makes Stanford have one of the smallest class sizes in an LL.M. program (it also has a great campus with the perfect bay area weather as a cherry on top).
The said distinctions above were not favourable insofar as a financial aid application was concerned. It did not offer any such application for applicants till the time I graduated in 2018. I believe that they have come up with one now, which if I’m not wrong is given to only 1 student based on need and merit and is therefore highly competitive.
You were recently selected to be a fellow at the ICJ. Can you tell us more about the procedure for applying and what your responsibilities are going to be?
It is a very straight-forward procedure. You need to have at least an LL.M. and desirably a few years of relevant work to be eligible. The application pertains to a detailed account of what you’ve done in your career thus far. So, if you have been true to your goal (i.e. done international moots, publications, RA positions/ worked in international law by and large) then you will make it. I must say that I had to apply for 3 years consecutively before finally being selected.
You have to first apply to your university from which you graduated in an LL.M.; if they shortlist you, then your application is sent to the Court. The Court then has another rigorous selection procedure. Finally, 15 international legal scholars worldwide are selected to assist the 15 judges at the Court as Judicial Fellows.
Typically, your university sponsors your tenure at the Court and awards a scholarship in lieu of that. I am glad, that I will be able to redeem my scholarship now from Stanford in this way. I am yet to know my responsibilities, but it can be construed as being something similar to what law clerks to judges are expected to do.
How was your experience as a Research Assistant to Professor Jonathan Greenberg? How did you get this post? What value do you think RAship has to offer?
As an International disputes resolution attorney, it is highly desirable to have some serious academic work-based simulation for a while, even if you decide to not take it up full-time later. In my case, to be honest it was also need based than want based. [It] turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was not able to find jobs and desperately needed to be working in order to avail my post LL.M. one year work visa in the U.S. When there was no opportunity, I created one.
There was no relevant research position available. But I pitched myself as relevant to professors. I went from one door to the next. That is how I got the position with Professor Greenberg in International Investment Law. I had earlier been elected and served as the President of my LL.M. class. As a result, had organised a few events with him. So, we had also built some rapport.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of research positions enough. In fact, I still continue to be a Research Assistant at the United Nations International Law Commission since nearly a year. When you work as a practitioner, you are mostly exposed to contemporary issues.
However, as an RA, you are also required to research on several foundational issues of International Law as well. Such a strong foundation can help one in the longer run even as a practitioner, and not just an academic. As an incidental advantage, you also end up researching on a lot of issues and your resource bank of work can help you in getting renowned publications under your belt.
You have also worked with the UN extensively. How will you describe your experience, and how can law students in India also get a chance to work with the UN?
I have been working with the UN since only nearly 2 years now. So not sure how extensive [that is], but I have definitely tried to explore it from the different lenses that it has to offer. It has been a holistic experience. I began by working with the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York. With a diplomatic mission, you are involved in the real action that transpires at the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council.
You are involved in International law-making.
Then, I worked as a Consultant at the Central Emergency Response Fund at the UN Secretariat’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. These agencies liaise with countries to on specific subject-matters depending upon their mandate. Therefore, they help in proposing and implementing international law.
Currently, my work at the United Nations International Law Commission, Geneva involves progressive development of International Law. It has been a full-circle and one that has been highly satisfying.
For Indian students, I must emphasize that there are many international organisations that do equally if not more important work as the UN. So one must broaden their horizon. Pursuing a masters can help in a transition to such organisations, especially at consultant levels. Besides, internships at International NGOs, foreign ministries; publications concerning International Law and the UN; participation in Moots and Model United Nations (MUNs) all count towards a compelling UN application.
The reason why I was able to get to the UN was because I never aimed only at the UN. As a result, I have been able to acquire diverse experiences: the pedigree required for UN positions. For details of the several job descriptions with the UN, websites such as inspira.un.org and careers.un.org are great sources.
Lastly, do you have any advice for Indian law graduates interested in Public International Law and International Arbitration?
An interest is not enough. It has be pure unadulterated love and passion for the subject. This is particularly because Public International Law can seem like a bumpy road, especially in the initial years of your practice. You have to zone out yourselves and not look at the steady career progression of your peers working at law firms or as litigators.
You need to be prepared to have a zen state of mind and be prepared to fail, albeit with a big heart.
Besides, you must not premeditate work targets in a particular fields within Public International Law and International Arbitration. Neither should you focus on a few organisations. Grab whatever you get, whether it is in academia, policy or practice. Whether it is Research position in a University or at organisations.
In fact, I would recommend people to experience all of these simulations. It is also noteworthy that these areas of law change more dynamically than we can predict. So to be updated, the trick is to only read, read and read.
I for one have substituted reading novels for leisure to reading International Law for fun.
(This interview was conducted by law student Muskaan Wadhwa)