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.
Sandeep Somisetty has, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting profiles I have come across in the last few years. An engineering graduate (Delhi University ’09), Sandeep went on to complete an MBA from XLRI (Class of ’11).
Since then, he has worked in different capacities over the years, including a founder role at Catch42, a higher education consultancy. In 2019, Sandeep enrolled for the JD at UC Irvine, transferring to Columbia Law School a year later.
In this FPA, he discusses his reasons for opting for the US JD, the application process itself, why he transferred to Columbia Law School, and a whole lot more.
Alright, let’s get to the most obvious one – why a US law degree? Did you also consider non-law degrees such as an MBA? And if so, why opt for law?
After completing my undergraduate and graduate studies in India, I was involved in closing a project finance agreement where I worked closely with American lawyers. And starting the year after that, I regularly worked with Indian lawyers in a series of regulatory lawsuits. The work required attention to detail and critical reasoning.
I loved it!
I am grateful to my bosses who allowed me to immerse myself in legal matters without an educational background in the law. At around the same time, my wife and I were considering moving abroad for a few years. I had heard good things about American legal education. Moreover, we have family in the US. Therefore, the decision to study law in the US appeared an easy one.
I didn’t consider an MBA seriously as I already have one from XLRI. I did apply to a few business schools half-heartedly, though. But, I was pretty much set on studying the law.
And once you had decided that it was to be the JD, how did you go about selecting where to apply, both in terms of countries as well as law schools themselves?
I considered Canada and the US because they offer the JD program, i.e., law as a graduate (or post-graduate as we say in India) program. I also worked with American lawyers and talked to US-educated Indian lawyers.
I was convinced that the engaging style of the Socratic pedagogy, and the focus on practical clinical education in the US was what I wanted.
In terms of the schools, I figured soon that most Tier-1 schools have comparable faculty and student body. Choosing law schools is, for the most part, a trade-off between costs and career opportunities (particularly for an international student like me to whom geography didn’t matter). Generally (but with several notable exceptions), the higher the school is ranked, the smaller your scholarship award is likely to be and the higher would be your career options.
With a particular LSAT score—that’s what matters most for international JD applicants in the admissions process—you could receive admissions offers from many schools if you cast a wide net.
I applied to about thirty-five schools because I received merit or need-based application fee waivers from most of them. And sure enough, I was admitted to about two dozen schools.
Eventually, I had to decide between a top-ranked school that offered me a one-third tuition scholarship and a relatively lower-ranked (but tier 1 school) that offered me close to a full-ride.
When it came to the application process, did you opt for the LSAT or the GRE? And how long do you think one should devote to prepping for these exams? Any suggestions on courses/programmes that prospective applicants can use?
I took both tests. The time you need to set aside for preparation depends on a variety of factors, most important being your score on the diagnostic practice LSAT that you take cold, and your learning trajectory that is reflected by the rate of increase of your LSAT practice test scores.
I spent an average of 15-20 hours a week for about 16 weeks with a cold diagnostic score of close to a 160.
LSAT was by far the hardest standardized test I have ever taken. But, I liked the challenge and enjoyed preparing for it. I took all the Practice Tests (previously administered LSAT exams) available at that time. I would strongly recommend doing all the Practice Tests and spending time identifying and working to improve on your weak areas as you review your answers.
I used both the Power Score Bibles and the Manhattan Guides to lend me direction and help me understand a complex concept. The biggest piece of advice I would give is that the LSAT is most certainly a learnable exam and if you don’t get your target score, practice even harder the next time and retake.
A couple of points on your LSAT can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars and/or help you get an admission offer from a much higher ranked school.
In one of the cycles, Harvard Law School announced that going forward, they would accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. I was on their waitlist at that time. So, I prepared for the GRE for about a week and took it, just so the score could give me a potential bump while I waited.
While I didn’t get in, I can say that GRE is much more straightforward than the LSAT. I suspect you would need either a perfect GRE score or very close to it to get into the top American law schools.
Right or wrong, LSAT is still the gold standard for law school admissions.
Apart from the qualifying exams, how did you go about preparing the other aspects of the application such as the personal statement? Also, how did you end up using your engineering background to explain the move to law?
For an international student, the Personal Statement (PS) is the second most important part of the application. I spent a ton of time perfecting it. I did many cycles of—introspect, come up with a storyline, write multiple drafts, abandon, repeat.
More than anything else, drafting the PS helped me reflect upon my past, present, and my plans for the future. I tried to meaningfully tie them all together and weave a coherent narrative that was both true and made sense to the admission committee member who was reading it.
Since I went for an MBA immediately after my undergrad, my PS explained how law school would be a seamless transition for me given my pre-law experience at the convergence of engineering, business, and the law.
Law school personal statements generally don’t have a specific prompt. You are given a blank slate to write your story. And that’s amazing. Because once you sit down to reflect on your goals, you stop pigeonholing yourself as a restrictive label—an engineer, an MBA, a husband, a person of color, etc.—and this liberation enables you to determine and articulate the real reason behind your decision to pursue a legal education.
Did you apply for/receive financial aid?
In almost all law schools, you are automatically considered for financial aid. I received a cumulative financial aid (spread over three years of law school) of more than $1 million. And that figure is solely a function of the number of schools I applied to.
The wider the net you cast, the more schools you will get into and the more scholarship you will be awarded.
You had initially enrolled at the UC Irvine before switching to Columbia – why the switch? And how did you go about making this move?
I completed my first year of law school at UCI Law. They were generous enough to award me a close to full-tuition scholarship. Studying at UCI was a fabulous experience. I loved everyone at UCI Law—my classmates, my professors, and the administration. And I thoroughly enjoyed the one year in Irvine.
I transferred to Columbia because of the greater opportunities (especially in challenging times like these), and the name brand.
It was one of the hardest decisions of my life.
I had to give up on my scholarship and pay full tuition for two years at Columbia. I wrote down the pros and cons of the options based on discussions with practicing attorneys and assigned them weights by consulting my loved ones.
But at the end of the day, I went with my gut. It was a personal call my family and I took.
Lastly, given your work experience with Catch42 and otherwise, do you foresee JD courses increasing in popularity as post-graduate courses for Indians?
I sincerely hope so. There’s no reason why we have a ton of Indians pursuing an MBA, but not the JD, in the US. If you are looking for an intellectual challenge, nothing beats a JD. My colleagues at UCI Law and Columbia are some of the smartest people I know. I am grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by them.
I know India is flooded with smart, curious, and ambitious young people. They are simply not aware of the JD program. They would know the Clintons went to Yale Law, the Obamas went to Harvard Law, and the Roosevelts went to Columbia Law.
But a vast majority of them would not know what degree these luminaries planned to earn when they enrolled. There is no denying that the JD program has its drawbacks for international students. And prospective students need to make a choice mindful of all the pros and cons.
But they can do that only if the JD program is marketed well enough internationally.
Leveraging my experience in the world of admissions consulting, I tried to make the UCI Law administration aware of the benefits of going international, whenever I got a chance. I plan to continue doing that at Columbia Law.
We, at Catch42, are trying to ensure prospective graduate students understand their options and make the right career choices. A critical part of our mission is to spread awareness about the JD program in India.
I recently spoke with a senior partner at India’s largest law firm. He said there are only two Columbia Law JDs in India, including him. I am hopeful there will be many more in the next decade or so.