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.

Nimanniyu Sharma is an LL.M.’20 graduate at Sciences Po, where he enrolled for the LL.M. in Transnational Arbitration and Dispute Settlement (TADS). A 2013 graduate of the University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Nimanniyu spent six years as a legal counsel before enrolling for the course.

In this FPA, he provides detailed advice on how to go about selecting where to apply, selecting the best arbitration and dispute settlement courses, finding housing in Paris, and a whole lot more.

Nimanniyu Sharma is an LL.M.'20 graduate at Sciences Po, where he enrolled for the LL.M. in Transnational Arbitration and Dispute Settlement (TADS).
Nimanniyu Sharma

At what stage of your career did you start considering a post-graduate degree? Or was this something you had in mind even during your time as an undergraduate student of law?

Though I had been interested to pursue a master’s degree (since my third year in law school), I realised neither its true relevance  nor the value that it would add to my professional growth, until I had worked for a couple of years.

In fact, I was not even sure if I wanted to pursue a general LL.M. or a specialised LL.M. until much later.

Having pursued some engaging internships during my law school years, I chose to begin my career as a legal professional in New Delhi. I discovered first-hand how the initial years of the practice of law are critical in shaping one’s personal and professional outlook and evolution.

“I discovered first-hand how the initial years of the practice of law are critical in shaping one’s personal and professional outlook and evolution.”

In hindsight, I am grateful to my mentors and friends for dissuading me for pursuing a master’s degree right out of law school. My decision at the time was premised on the fact that I would need to first develop my skills as an Advocate before sharpening my legal formation with a master’s degree. Till the time I decided on applying for a master’s programme in 2018, my outlook towards a master’s program kept evolving. 

I am very interested in knowing how you went about selecting just where to apply? What got you to narrow down on Sciences Po?

I commenced my journey towards a master’s degree about two years before I set foot in the premises of Sciences Po. If I look back at it now, it seems like my heart was always set on Sciences Po. However, I also realised that I had to dive deep into the cost-benefit analysis, like any other student, before planning to invest my resources (time and money) on a foreign education.

A chance encounter with some counsels working at a Swiss law firm introduced me to a gamut of specialised programs focussing on international dispute resolution and arbitration. This piqued my interest not only as an arbitration enthusiast but also because I was equally intrigued about other forms of international dispute settlement. Having already worked in dispute resolution, mostly domestic, for a couple of years, only strengthened my decision to pursue a focussed LL.M.

From a rather long first list of programs offered by renowned universities, I selected a few based on factors such as subjects, faculty, location, fee structure, scholarships offered, among others.

I ended up identifying four programs where I was keen to send applications, LL.M. – TADS (Sciences Po, Paris), MIDS (Graduate Institute of International Development Studies and the University of Geneva), ICAL (Stockholm University) and IADR (National University of Singapore). My choices also bear testament to my proclivity to be based in cities known to be major hubs of international arbitration. The law schools in the US, although brilliant options, were not a viable option for me given my limited financial resources.

The next step for me was to get in touch with the students and alumni of these institutions and learn about their experiences. Thankfully, I had people in my immediate circle who were then or had earlier been a part of each of these programs and therefore after many discussions, I found myself in a position to start penning the first drafts of my applications, each of which took me few weeks (and countless drafts) to finalise.

Sciences Po had introduced the TADS program in 2017 with its first instalment of about 12 students and a dear friend was part of the program’s second progression in 2018. She was my first and only point of contact for tracking everything about the program and she was really kind to keep me abreast with her academic progress during the year. This was, by far, my most intimate interaction with a University and its curriculum without actually being a part of it and therefore, the main reason why I gravitated towards the institution eventually.

I submitted my applications between November 2018 and February 2019. Thereafter, with each acceptance that I received, the decision to pick ‘the one’ became extremely challenging.

I finally decided to pursue the TADS program because of its unique offerings such as the close nexus with the ICC as well as workshops across major law firms in the city along with those at ICSID and PCA. The curriculum at Sciences Po also has a strong focus on a wide array dispute resolution mechanisms such as under the ICJ, WTO, regional court systems etc, a significant lure for all, like me, who also want to focus on other areas of private international law.

“Having worked for more than five years, I prioritized being a part of a smaller group of mid-career professionals of varying experience and expertise. “

Lastly and most significantly, having worked for more than five years, I prioritized being a part of a smaller group of mid-career professionals of varying experience (and expertise) which I believed to be the biggest offering of the TADS program.

Any advice on the application process itself? 

I am yet to hear about / see an account of advice where one may choose to begin the application process only a month in advance. As cliched as it may sound, I would reiterate the golden rule – one must invest (at least) a year in researching the program(s) that one wants to be a part of and begin writing the Statement of Purpose (SoP) at least six months before the first deadline.

Each SoP has to be tailor-made to propel one’s candidature to suit (most, if not all) the requirements of the institution. The automatic practical consequence of planning in advance is that all last minute fiascos (which inevitably occur) can be better managed or avoided.

“The automatic practical consequence of planning in advance is that all last minute fiascos (which inevitably occur) can be better managed or avoided.”

In order to streamline the SoP for Sciences Po, one can choose to assess the detailed curriculum available at the Sciences Po website. It is only slightly modified every year therefore one can base their motivation on the current year’s offerings.

Interestingly, Sciences Po has three deadlines during the year for submitting one’s application – the first one being in end of December followed by the second one in mid-March and the last one in April / May. Although Sciences Po does not treat your applications on a ‘first come first serve’ basis, my advice would be to apply in the first round itself given that the seats in the second and third rounds will always be limited. Also, the selection of similarly placed professionals in the first round may render one’s application in subsequent rounds less likely to be selected given the limited number of seats and the program’s drive for being as diverse as possible.

It is also important to note that the diversity in the TADS program is not only a demographic one but also varies in terms of one’s professional experience (number of years and areas of expertise). I had the opportunity to sit in class amidst professionals from varied walks, some of whom had practiced in international arbitration for years as counsels (firms and in-house), mediators and arbitrators, and others who had practiced in areas of law not even remotely related to arbitration and/or dispute resolution.

Coming to the candidate’s references, it is not required to be submitted in the form of a letter. Rather, Sciences Po has a form/questionnaire which requires detailed inputs from one’s referees. Sciences Po mandates at least one professional reference along with a preferred academic reference. Therefore, my advice would be to choose a professor(s) and professional supervisor(s) who have had an opportunity to closely observe one’s academic and professional work.

Sciences Po seeks to ensure that the referees are able to give a detailed account of the candidate’s performance, hopefully with citations of actual incidents where they witnessed his/her strengths, weaknesses and motivations. A high word limit for the referees is indicative of how critical the reference would be in rendering a decision. Keeping this in mind, I would also strongly suggest that one reaches out to the referees a few months in advance of the expected deadlines, in order for them to have enough time to draft a recommendation that best reflects the candidate’s capabilities which would significantly increase one’s chances of securing admission.

Sciences Po also has a separate section listing one’s extra-curricular interests. This is an opportunity to showcase one’s interests without having the pressure to demonstrate this facet of one’s personality in the SoP.

Sciences Po treats the pre-requisites of having a law degree as well as previous professional experience very seriously as the program is designed for candidates with a working background. At the same time, one’s grades (from the undergraduate program) are also an integral component during the selection process. One’s grades and work profile are also significant for the merit-based scholarships offered by Sciences Po. These are scholarships offered to two or more successful LL.M. candidates in the form of partial reduction of tuition fees, on a case by case basis.

“One’s grades and work profile are also significant for the merit-based scholarships offered by Sciences Po. “

Unfortunately, the LL.M. program is not eligible for some other scholarships, but it is always a good idea to write to the administration to know all offers for the year one is applying in. In any case, one should be mindful of the institution’s limitation to offer a full reduction of tuition fees and/or living expenses and accordingly I recommend applying for all other possible external scholarships.

So, one of the more common questions I get asked, is when is a good time to apply for a master’s – thoughts? 

I have advised some friends and colleagues on this question and my advice has been always consistent. I strongly suggest that one must acquire at least a few years of work experience before considering applying for a master’s program. The work experience that one acquires allows one to develop as a professional which, in turn, makes the master’s experience much more fruitful.

“The work experience that one acquires allows one to develop as a professional which, in turn, makes the master’s experience much more fruitful.”

For instance, having worked in a law firm on individual matters as well as in teams of varying sizes, I was better equipped to handle the team exercises at Sciences Po. One of the major group exercises in this regard was the ‘Award Writing’, a part of the final assessment for the course on ‘Transnational Commercial Arbitration’ taught by the distinguished Professors – Diego P. Fernández Arroyo and José Ricardo Feris.

Also, having worked in various dispute practices and forums, I found myself better equipped to deal with many of the more complex theoretical and practical challenges that the program put forth. The existence and relevance of these instincts, borne out of practice, I could not have fathomed before last year and therefore, I recommend the initial years of practice that one must persevere through before delving into a master’s degree.

Also, if you would like to disclose this, how did you go about informing your firm about the decision to pursue a master’s? What was the firm’s response? 

As soon as I had made up my mind to prepare and send my applications, I informed the seniors with whom I worked at that time. This made the application process and the consequential transition process a lot easier, as my seniors and colleagues were a part of the process and supported my endeavours. They not only agreed to provide me recommendations but also gave me key inputs and advice on the way forward.

How has the TADS LLM experience been? What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of the course?

The overall TADS experience has been extremely rewarding, both within and outside the classroom setup. I can only cherry pick a few aspects (from quite a plethora) to answer this question.

“Sciences Po offers a few mandatory courses and a large number of electives, seminars and workshops to choose from.”

One of the best parts of the TADS program, from the initial days, was that I could design my own curriculum. Sciences Po offers a few mandatory courses and a large number of electives, seminars and workshops to choose from. This allows curating a wide or area-specific focussed plan of study. I must admit that I chose as many options as possible, given that I was ecstatic to be back on the learning front. However, my colleagues who chose a niche / focussed list of options were also equally happy with their experience during the year.

The Award Writing exercise (mentioned earlier) was exceptionally memorable as well, where I teamed up with a set of four (fantastic) colleagues trained in Australia, United States, Thailand and Peru. Each of my teammates brought a  fresh perspective on the previous year’s Vis moot problem (on which the exercise was based). The tightrope of balancing the civil and common law approaches that we each brought to the table and the actual ‘writing’ of the award in the scenario (given my dominant exposure to a common law system) was particularly challenging. However, it proved to be an extremely gratifying learning experience, which I will cherish for years to come.

Among other activities, I also enjoyed the various workshops during the year. The first session of each workshop (4 hours), focussed on the academic learning about a procedural or substantive issue in the international arbitration domain, while the second session (4 hours) always focussed on a practical exercise providing us with a more hands-on approach on the concerned issue. This method of balancing the theoretical and practical aspects of learning proved to be highly effective and thoroughly enjoyable.

Lastly, I must confess that I really cherished the fact that each day at Sciences Po manifested a new learning opportunity for me, especially on the curricular front. It is really hard to pick favourites but some of the elective courses that I loved pursuing during the year were, inter alia, EU Conflict of Laws (Prof. Olivera Boskovic), Inter-State Dispute Settlement (Prof. Chester Brown), French Arbitration Law and Practice (Prof. Christophe Seraglini), Law and Practice of the WTO (Prof. Makane Mbengue) and International Sales Law and Dispute Resolution (Prof. Franco Ferrari).

Not quite related to the master’s, but any advice on how to go about finding accommodation and planning a budget?

Paris can be tricky in terms of accommodation as one can be ‘too early’ if starting to look for options six months in advance and ‘too late’ when only two months remain until one’s travel date. This was one of the most relevant concerns for me because despite having started looking for accommodation in March 2019, when I was set to arrive in Paris in August 2019, I could not manage to find a residence in Paris until the very end of July.

The main issue that students (especially those who require visas) face is that they have to arrange for a minimum of three months accommodation before even submitting their visa application. Eventually, with a little help from the Sciences Po administration and a stroke of luck, I was able to find a studio apartment for my academic year. Therefore, I advise contacting the Sciences Po administration and using their verified accommodation listings.

Another avenue that one can explore is applying to Cité Universitaire de Paris (CiUP). Although an early application does not ensure priority, it can help as some houses at CiUP decide a few weeks before others. I suggest one may apply as soon as one receives the offer and keep following up with them. An array of other student / student-friendly accommodations (not requiring a French guarantor) are also available at Lodgis, Uniplaces, Paris Stay. A friend of mine found a beautiful fully furnished apartment on Sabbatical Homes, a platform for professors and exchange students to find homes for when they are travelling abroad for a semester or year. Chez Nestor is another avenue to find rooms in large shared apartments and it is convenient because one can have an individual lease / rent agreement executed independent of the other housemates.

Lastly, I would want to caveat these recommendations with the warning that the cost of living in Paris is generally high and it is best advised to budget about 800 – 900 euros per month (on the higher side) for the year. For other living expenses, one can budget about 300 – 400 euros per month. France also has schemes for students such as Ameli (health insurance) and CAF (rent reduction) which one can sign up for upon arrival.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who may be considering a master’s degree abroad? Also, what is your reading of the employment opportunities in the field of international arbitration? More specifically, from the point of an India trained lawyer?

My advice for all prospective candidates would be to carefully consider and evaluate all the variables involved in this once-in-a-lifetime (for many) process – one’s resources, short term goals, long term career plans, academic inclinations most suited to the desired career progression etc. A master’s degree can be a very enriching experience, unlocking many doors previously thought difficult, provided one is willing to fully commit to it.

Having said that, opportunities abroad are numbered, but not completely non-existent. Most colleagues, with whom I have interacted, are focussed only on roles in top law firms and therefore, they fail to seize opportunities in the other digressions that international dispute resolution and public international law offer. Since there are limited opportunities in select avenues (counsel roles in international arbitration), one may want to choose to diversify and pursue such other opportunities as well.

“Further, one can enhance the pool of opportunities by remaining open to working in different jurisdictions, especially post the ‘new normal’ which has been effectuated by the pandemic.”

Further, one can enhance the pool of opportunities by remaining open to working in different jurisdictions, especially post the ‘new normal’ which has been effectuated by the pandemic. The world we live in has never been smaller and more connected than now and therefore, if an India trained lawyer is to look for opportunities to work in this field, horizons must be broadened across jurisdictions including one’s home jurisdiction where opportunities are growing by the day.

Besides the above, one must strive to complement previously gained work experience by way of internships, foreign jurisdiction qualifications, publications in leading peer-reviewed journals and research positions. In my (limited) experience, the European market does recognise well-rounded seasoned professionals but mostly the bar to gaining long term employment is rather administrative. I therefore reiterate that the number of available opportunities are gravely outnumbered when compared to the (strikingly high) number of eligible candidates.

Here, I have to nod in my alma mater’s direction for Sciences Po provides its students with all the tools to foray in this field. In addition to the fantastic networking opportunities, Sciences Po also helps with the preparation of one’s CV and cover letter as per requirements of the French / EU market. However, despite the track record of the institution and the inclination of firms and institutions to give due consideration, not everyone finds fit opportunities.

At the end of the day, the market is tough. One’s hard work coupled with some luck (without the aid of any arbitration-specific Felix Felicis) may bear fruit only if and when the ‘right opportunity manifests at the right time’.

(For those interested to apply for the LL.M. (TADS) program at Sciences Po, applications can be submitted here until 6th September 2020 for the next intake which commences in January 2021)

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