Tanya Tawakley is currently pursuing the Juris Doctor degree at the University of Ottawa,
Tanya Tawakley

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.

Tanya Tawakley is currently pursuing the Juris Doctor degree at the University of Ottawa, a course she will complete in 2022. A graduate of Amity Law School in Delhi (’17), Tanya clerked in the Delhi High Court before for two years before enrolling for a J.D.

In this FPA, Tanya talks about the reasons for applying for a J.D. as opposed to the more popular LL.M., the LL.M. application process itself, and a whole lot more.

Let’s get right to it – why the Juris Doctor?

I was certain that I wanted to practice in Canada and decided that pursuing a Juris Doctor (JD) would be the logical step forward. The most important point of consideration for me were the employment opportunities after graduation.

Many people in India opt for the traditional LLM route but I realized that a degree that is geared more towards academia did not align with my goal of practicing abroad. The legal job market in Canada is small and the mid to big sized law firms are limited to a few cities. The market is not saturated, however it is not easy to land a job, as it is fairly competitive.

Through my research on the two programs, I gauged that employers prefer JD applicants over LL.M. applicants – not necessarily because the JD applicant is “better”, but because the program is more familiar to them. They have gone through the same foundational program and trust that a JD is trained to do the kind of work that would be expected from a summer student/employee. Further, students enrolled in a JD can participate in the structured recruitment process; I believe the LLM program does not have that option which creates a barrier at the point of entry.

“Through my research on the two programs, I gauged that employers prefer JD applicants over LL.M. applicants – not necessarily because the JD applicant is “better”, but because the program is more familiar to them.”

Most universities, at least in the province of Ontario, have several networking events, mentorship opportunities, career related workshops, etc. throughout the year that help JD students connect with people in the industry. These opportunities are invaluable, and for a student coming from a foreign country, even more so.

The program also offers a lot of flexibility in terms of course selection and allows students to mould their degree based on their own interests. Lastly, the three-year duration gives you enough time to build friendships, interact with people from different backgrounds, and develop professional relationships.

And once you had decided that it was going to be a JD, how did you go about selecting just where to apply? 

There are only about 20 law schools in Canada. I targeted the ones in Ontario because I want to work here. Once I zeroed down on the geographic location, I researched all the law schools in the province by extensively going through their course offerings, rankings, admission requirements, work done by the professors, and recruitment statistics.

Every school’s website gives detailed information about all these aspects.

Another important factor for me was understanding the student experience. I signed up for online forums run by law students in Canada to gather information through the discussions, polls, and comparisons on various topics ranging from the cultures at different law schools to course recommendations. After considering all these factors, I narrowed down on a few law schools in Ontario.

University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law (uOttawa) made it to my list because it offers a wide array of courses and has highly regarded professors in their respective fields of expertise. Another attractive feature was that Ottawa is home to some of the best law firms in the country. For domestic students, it also provides for some fantastic opportunities to work with the government. The campus is a 15-minute walk to the Parliament, the Supreme Court of Canada, and other courts and tribunals. In my first week at uOttawa, I met the Chief Justice of Canada and toured the Supreme Court of Canada! I also observed court proceedings at the Ontario Court of Justice for an assignment.

Studying in one province does not prevent you from pursuing opportunities outside that province, but the proximity of the school to the market you are aiming for makes life a little bit easier. I also have family here in Ontario. Having a support system helped me with the initial transition and now, with COVID-19 and online classes, it is nice to be close to family.

“Having a support system helped me with the initial transition and now, with COVID-19 and online classes, it is nice to be close to family.”

How early did you begin the application process? How much time would you advise for LSAT prep?

The seed was planted in my brain in 2016, when I was in the fourth year of law school in India. At that time, I feared the unknown – a JD is still pretty unheard of in India and I did not know anyone who had travelled down this path.

To add to this were the costs in terms of time and money, the stress of going through with another law degree (still gives me jitters), and the psychological impact of starting afresh, just when I was going to be fully ready to be part of the workforce in India.

I think once you are sure that you want to do this, you should start as early as possible.

The application has several components – the LSAT score, personal statements, optional statements (on diversity, life experiences, work experiences, etc.), grades from undergrad, an autobiographical sketch, and reference letters – all of which takes time to pull together. Some schools present you with a case scenario and ask you to argue for either side. While all schools conduct a holistic assessment of applications, I believe that for an international applicant, the LSAT score is one of the most important components. I say this because the standardized test is the only common denominator which is a part of all the applications.

I do not think I am equipped to advise on exactly how much time one should put in for LSAT prep. The amount of prep time depends on the test taker’s goal score, their strong and weak areas, and other commitments that they might have (university exams, long work hours, childcare, etc.).

However, I strongly recommend doing two things before starting LSAT prep – first, check the competitive scores for the law schools you want to apply for; and second, take a timed diagnostic/sample test without any preparation. Doing this will reveal where you are as compared to where you want to be, in order to be a competitive applicant and determine your time for adequate preparation. Getting some prep material, taking timed sample tests, and putting in some extra hours for the sections that you struggle with are some things that you can do to improve your score.

In India, the LSAT takes place around 3 times in a year and I suggest taking the test 4-6 months prior to the application deadline; this gives you a chance to improve if you wish to take the exam again. However, unlike some other entrance exams, you do not have the option to submit only your best score. All your scores will be part of your file, even though most schools consider only the best score.

Did you apply for/receive financial aid? 

Yes, I did receive a small bursary. Universities offer bursaries which are need-based financial assistance. Some bursaries are granted automatically if you meet a certain criterion. For example, there are universities that grant a bursary to all first-year international students.

Some universities provide the option to apply for financial aid by submitting supporting documents at the beginning of an academic year. The university then assesses the applicant and grants financial aid accordingly. Unfortunately, scholarship options are limited for international students.

The details of financial aid available are given in detail on each university’s website, and one can always reach out to the universities to enquire further.

What was life as an L1 at Ottawa Law? What have been some of the more challenging aspects of the course? 

It has been a roller-coaster ride. The first few months were tough; I was not only adjusting to a different pedagogy but also to a new environment (and -30 degree Celsius, but that shock came a few months later). The JD program is very demanding and requires you to work towards your grades from day one. Assignments are designed to prepare you for the real-world and exams are analysis heavy. They push you to think creatively instead of merely regurgitating what is taught in class.

I had to completely recalibrate the way I approached my classes, readings, assignments, and exams. All my exams were open-book, typed, and application based – things I did not experience through my education in India. It took some time to adapt to this format but eventually, I started valuing the process.

The university did a good job of keeping schedules fully packed. When I was not attending classes, I was attending workshops, doing readings, preparing for a moot or a negotiation, and so on. Apart from academics, there was a lot going on within and outside the campus in terms of cultural activities, societies, and events. The students at uOttawa’s Faculty of Law were very helpful, the professors were approachable, and overall, the law school had a collegial vibe.

Looking back, I think despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), the past year has been the most enriching year of my life. I learned a lot and have grown as a person, both personally and professionally.

What is your reading of the employment opportunities available to the international law graduate? 

The process of finding employment for internationally qualified lawyers is comparatively tougher, though definitely not impossible. A lot also depends on the area you wish to practice in – if you are aiming for a niche area and have the credentials to match it, you will have better chances of securing a job.

Moreover, lawyers with a few years of work experience in their home country in a specific field have a slight advantage in finding employment over lawyers who are fresh out of college.

However, to be eligible to apply for positions, internationally qualified lawyers are required to go through the licensing process. This involves taking equivalency exams, the barrister and solicitor exams, and completing the articling/law practice program requirement. If you decide to pursue a master’s degree, you will still need to go through this process to be able to work as a lawyer.

Due to COVID-19, the last few months have gone by differently than anyone had anticipated; it is difficult to predict what is going to happen in the next few months. The employment opportunities this summer did take a hit but on the bright side, I feel like things are slowly getting back on track with people and workplaces adapting to the changes.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law grad who is considering studying abroad, the Canadian JD in particular? 

It is an experience that I would recommend.

Living in a new country, absorbing a new culture, meeting people from diverse backgrounds, and being away from your family and friends will make you step outside your comfort zone and contribute to your overall development. At the same time, you should know that the learning curve is steep, and things take time to work out – so be patient and be prepared to hustle!

A JD is the first degree in law in Canada. However, do not view a JD as a “repeat” or a “waste” of the Indian law degree. As I have already mentioned, it is a completely different experience and will make you a better fit for the Canadian job market. A JD requires you to have a bachelor’s degree, so your Indian law education also counts for that.

You will benefit from the common law education that you receive in India – the distinct comparative perspectives that you could bring would quite possibly stand peerless. The law related experience will only enhance your resume and not take anything away from it. In my first year, my background in law helped me immensely while I was adjusting to an entirely new modus operandi of teaching and learning.

However, if you want to get into academia, specialize in a specific area of law, or generally get some experience abroad, then a JD might not be the degree you want to pursue. It is important to have a clear vision of what you want out of your degree abroad. Once you know that, spend time considering your options and the associated investment in terms of money and time.

Do your own research, talk to people, and do not let yourself get bogged down by the process. I think having some work experience before applying to foreign universities enables you to approach your studies with a different lens and can add value to your experience abroad.